Friday, July 20, 2007

Post No. 114: And The Debate Goes On …

Just when I thought the debate over whether homosexual acts should be decriminalised (with the repealing of Section 377A of the local Penal Code) has quieted down, it would seems that it has again been reignited, following the recent appearance in the Straits Times (ST) of a news report (“MP Baey all for repealing anti-gay law”, ST, 16/7/2007) about a panel forum (which I was unfortunately unable to go attend as I knew about it too late) to discuss the issue and the flurry of critical responses, in the form of an article written by Mr. Andy Ho (a senior writer with the Straits Times) and several letters to both the print & online edition of the ST Forum, to this news report.

Well, to make a long story short, I have looked at both the news report and the critical responses to it and it would seems to me that, within the critical responses, there exist several points which are possibly fallacious.

Thus, for this post, I would attempt to highlight these points and make a general & quick reply to them.

Ok, enough with the preamble and on with the substantive…

Exclusion of the religious from the homosexual debate?

I don’t know about you all but it seems to me that the arguments put forth in Mr. Ho’s article and this letter to the ST Online Forum are suggesting that people who are religious (and perhaps who are also against the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore) are somehow “excluded” from the abovementioned panel forum, if not the entire debate over whether homosexual acts should be decriminalised locally.

Yet, though I, with regards to the panel forum, am not certain of the details but I suppose that this forum was a public forum and I doubt that the organisers of it would screen people for their stance on the issue that the forum sought to discuss & prohibit those who are religious and/or against the decriminalisation of homosexual acts locally to participate in the forum. Thus, it, in my opinion, is more likely that the absence of alternative views, as bemoaned by Mr. Baey Yam Keng (MP for Tajong Pagar GRC) and Mr. Siew Kum Hong (NMP) who were both panelists for the forum, was due to the fact that those in possession of these alternative views did not choose to attend the forum, rather than an intentional exclusion of them.

Anyway, the forum did invite Reverend Dr. Yap Kim Hao, who is formerly a church leader of the Methodist Church of Singapore (MCS), to be one of their panelists. Hence, the idea that the religious was excluded from the forum is clearly wrong.

In fact, if we are to talk about “exclusion”, it would seem to me that it is the religious who are doing the excluding. I say this with reference to the letter, written by Bishop Dr. Robert Solomon of the MCS to the ST Forum, in which the bishop stated that, according to the Book of Discipline of the MCS, “since the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practising homosexuals are not to be accepted as candidates, ordained as itinerant ministers or approved to serve in the MCS”.

Moving on, in his article, Mr. Ho argued that if a religious person spoke up at the forum against the decriminalisation of homosexual acts, he/she will find his/her audience a hostile one. Well, with regards to this point of his, I can only say that if an outspoken atheist spoke out against the veracity of Christianity at a Sunday church service, he/she will also most likely be alone in a most hostile crowd.

In addition, Mr. Ho, in his article, described the forum as one “attended mainly by gays and their straight supporters”. I do not know about you all but I find this a most derisive and sweeping statement. This is considering that by describing the forum as one “attended mainly by gays and their straight supporters”, Mr. Ho appears to be suggesting that those in support of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore are either homosexual or pro-homosexual. Such a notion is evidently fallacious. There is no clear & easy equation between the support for the repealing of Section 377A of the local Penal Code and being homosexual and/or pro-homosexual.

I, for one, am in support of the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore not because I am a homosexual and/or because I am pro-homosexual. Instead, I support the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore because I am against discrimination and this includes the discrimination of homosexuals.

Secularism versus Religion?

Next, from my viewpoint, it would seems that Mr. Ho, and others, may have mistakenly framed this debate over whether homosexual acts should be decriminalised in Singapore as one between people who are non-religious/secularists and those who are religious. In my opinion, this debate should not be one between the secularists and religious but one between those oppose the discriminating of homosexuals and those who do not oppose it; it is just that those in the latter group tend to be religious and/or cite religious justification for why they oppose the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore and vice versa.

However, that said, I think it should be noted that it would be incorrect to assume that all who are religious would oppose the decriminalisation of homosexual acts and that those who are non-religious would support such a move.

I say this because I am aware of examples of religious people and/or those in the clergy who do not support the discrimination of homosexuals. These examples would, of course, include Reverend Dr. Yap and ex-Bishop John Shelby Spong.

Likewise, though I do not have the details, I suppose there are people out there who oppose the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore not because of religious reasons but because they are viscerally opposed to the idea.

Thus, as much we may be tempted to, we should not describe and/or see the divide between those who support the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore and those who oppose it as a divide between the non-religious/secularists and the religious respectively.

Homosexuality is wrong/abnormal/immoral because God said so?

Before I carry on, allow me to first clarify that the reason why my examples later on in this section are mainly from Christian teachings is not because I have something against Christianity in particular but that it seems to me that Christianity has, so far, been the most vocal and public in its opposition to the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore, when compared to the other religious faiths found here in Singapore, and that, though I must confess that I only have a very limited understanding of it, I am more familiar with the arguments used by Christianity against homosexuality. Also, later on, I would be citing the MCS’s statement of belief about homosexuality. Again, I am not doing this because I have anything against the MCS in particular but the MCS’s statement of belief about homosexuality is the most convenient to get hold of since Bishop Dr. Solomon has kindly provided a link to it in his letter to the ST Forum.

My verbosity in the preceding paragraph is to make you all understand that I do not mean any offence of any sorts towards Christianity and/or the MCS and any perceived offence is purely unintentional. However, if I do unintentionally offend anyone with what I am going to say later, I hereby pre-emptively apologise.

Okay, allow me to move on…

Well, if I am not wrong, those Christians who oppose the decriminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore tend to justify their opposition with verses from the Bible in which God supposedly explicitly disapproved, if not condemned, of homosexuality. And, of these verses, the most well-known and quoted verse would most likely be Leviticus 18:22 (which is remarkably similar to Leviticus 20:13) in which God supposedly said: “Do not lie with a man as one lies with a woman; that is detestable” (NIV). Other such verses would include Romans 1:20-27 and 1 Corinthians 6:9-10. And, of course, it is widely claimed that God destroyed the cities of Sodom & Gomorrah because the inhabitants of these cities practised homosexuality.

Yet, from my viewpoint, there are problems with citing Biblical verses to justify one’s opposition to homosexual acts and the decriminalisation of them.

One, if I am not wrong, there exist those, within and outside of the Christian faith, who question the veracity of the Bible and the verses in them which supposedly disapprove of homosexuality. One example of this would be the group behind this website which, according to their interpretation of Biblical verses, argues that Christianity/Jesus did not discriminate against homosexuals. Another example would be ex-Bishop Spong (see above) who have written a book entitled “The Sins of Scriptures” in which he deconstructed and questioned the Biblical verses that have been used as justification for various “sins” e.g. discrimination against women and homosexuals and environmental degradation. Thus, my point is that while it may be possible for people to cite Biblical verses to justify the discrimination of homosexuals, it is also possible to cite Biblical verses to oppose such discrimination.

Another problem with using the Bible to justify the continued the criminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore and/or as a handbook for morality is that, in the Bible, God said many things, some of which we, as decent human beings, no longer see as being “moral”. For example, if we look at the verses Leviticus 25:44-55 and Exodus 21:20-21, it would appear that God approves, or at least is not in opposition, of slavery. In fact, the latter set of verses seem to suggest that it is okay to beat one’s slaves as long as the beaten slaves do not die (what is even more disturbing is the rationale for why slave beating is okay: “since the slave is his property”) while the other set of verses appear to imply that it is okay for people to obtain slaves from neighbouring countries but not from amongst their own people and that slaves can be passed on to one’s children as their inheritance. Thus, if we are to really to adhere, word for word, to the Bible as a handbook for morality, perhaps we should start legalising maid abuse and the importing of slaves from other countries.

Also, it should be noted that there are also verses in the Bible which talks about how people should not cut the hair at the sides of their heads or clip off the edges of their beards and not wear clothing woven of two kinds of material. Yet, strangely, we do not see Christians campaigning for laws to make it illegal for people to cut the hair at the sides of their heads, clip off the edges of their beards or wear clothing woven of two kinds of materials, do we?

Of course, it may be disputed that the verses I have cited in the two paragraphs preceding this are verses from the Old Testament and are meant for a different time & context and that they have no bearing on modern life. Yet, it is recorded in the Gospel of Matthew that Jesus supposedly said: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Anyone who breaks one of the least of these commandments and teaches others to do the same will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practices and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:17-19, NIV). Well, I don’t know about you all but it seems to me that these verses appear to imply that, instead of refuting the commands of God as stated in the Old Testament, Jesus is reaffirming them and saying that these commands are in effect forever.

Furthermore, if we accept that the argument that the verses regarding slavery, the cutting of hair, clipping of beard and the wearing of clothing are no longer in effect as they were meant for a different time and context, why then are people insistent that the verses regarding homosexuality (which are mainly from the same sources as the verses mentioned earlier on in this sentence) should continue to be in effect? What then are we using as the criterion to judge which Biblical verses are still relevant in this age & time and which are not?

Moving on, in my opinion, while religious justification for the continued criminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore may be good enough for the religious, it is perhaps not enough to convince others who are non-religious that a law which is applicable across the board (regardless of whether one is religious or not) should continue to be in effect. In other words, if the religious wish to convince others of the need to continue the criminalisation of homosexual acts in Singapore, they will need to have a stronger basis for their arguments than just “because God said so” (with no intention of offence, it is a secular democracy we live in, not a theocracy).

On that note, while the MCS may, as stated in their statement of belief about homosexuality, find it enough to base their morality on the Christian scriptures, they cannot expect that others follow suit.

Finally, in my humble opinion, morality should be a decision to do what one think/feel/know is the right thing to do and not just adherence to what a supposed figure of moral authority and/or handbook of morality have said. In other words, as I have said to my Christian friend, morality is about “What would I do?” and not “What would X (insert the name of any figure of moral authority) do?”


In the end, though I would not claim to speak for anyone but myself, I would say that the religious are most welcome to participate in the debate over whether homosexuality should continued to be criminalised in Singapore. However, that said, it is my hope that the religious would be able to contribute more to the debate than just their religious convictions/beliefs and not expect that the other participants in the debate to accept their arguments without questioning the religious basis upon which these arguments are most likely to be based on.

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