Tuesday, May 08, 2007

A thoughtful article on the homosexual debate

Three cheers for Associate Professor Victor V. Ramraj for writing this thoughtful article in the Straits Times today (9 May 2007). I guess someone had to step in to show that the law faculty in NUS isn't entirely staffed by intellectual pygmies. In this article in the review section of tehe ST, Prof. Ramraj takes neither a pro-gay or anti-gay point of view but instead gives a brief and balanced discussion of the issues needed to be considered with regards to the criminalisation to homosexual behaviour in Singapore.

May 9, 2007
The freedom to disagree, respectfully
By Victor V. Ramraj, For The Straits Times

IT HAS been argued that the decriminalisation of sodomy is the first step on a slippery slope towards a 'homosexual agenda' that includes civil unions and same-sex marriages.

I disagree with this view and the arguments advanced in support of it. Still, the debate on this subject has provided us with a key lesson on the importance of public discussion on matters of deep moral significance - and the importance of respectful disagreement.

First, a few comments on some of the claims in the debate.

Even in societies abroad where legal structures such as same-sex civil unions have been introduced, this did not happen overnight, but only after significant shifts in social and political attitudes.

If the majority of Singaporeans find homosexuality offensive, then there is little reason for them to worry that the entire legal landscape will change in an instant.

If change eventually does come, it will follow only after open and respectful debate and a conscious choice on the part of Singaporeans to become a more tolerant and hospitable society.

Others, particularly in cyberspace this past week, have challenged the accuracy of empirical claims behind the argument to retain sodomy as a crime - and the debate will no doubt continue. I will not repeat these arguments here. As for constitutional law, formal constitutional doctrine on such matters is hardly conclusive. In 1930, Lord Sankey likened a Constitution to 'a living tree capable of growth and expansion within its natural limits'. Particularly in Singapore, where the methodology of constitutional law is still evolving, there is much to be said for this vision.

Intolerant vs criminal

I WANT to turn, however, to a rather different point that arises from this controversy. Does branding opponents of decriminalisation 'intolerant' undermine or effectively censor free speech?

Surely, the answer to this question is no. Indeed, the reverse may be more likely; opponents of decriminalisation effectively silence others by continuing to regard the behaviour they oppose as criminal. To be branded intolerant is one thing; to be branded a criminal is quite another.

The publication of letters and commentary in this newspaper shows that those who disagree with decriminalisation are perfectly free to express their views. Perhaps, then, the deeper concern is not that these views will be censored (plainly, they haven't been), but that others will not find them convincing. If that is the true concern, then rigorous and respectful persuasion would be the answer.

If the discussion on Singapore blogs is any indication, recent exchanges about the decriminalisation of sodomy have provoked an important debate, one that demonstrates that Singaporeans, including many tertiary students, are far from apathetic when it comes to issues of great social significance. An issue of profound social importance is receiving the serious public attention, reflection and debate it deserves.

The sources of identity

FOR those who choose to engage in this debate, let us remind ourselves that our words have profound personal impact on those around us, on both sides of this controversy.

Those whose religious views are tolerant of homosexuality, and especially those of us with secular-humanist inclinations, must remain sensitive to the deeply personal and communal role that religious doctrine plays in the lives of many.

At the same time, we must have faith that those who oppose the decriminalisation of sodomy on religious grounds will acknowledge that personal identity need not be a matter of religion at all. It is possible, even common, to define one's identity outside of religion - in terms of one's intimate relationships, career goals, community service, life-long projects and deep personal convictions. A person's sense of identity is no less worthy of respect in the public square on account of its secular sources.

I can only imagine the deep personal anguish experienced by gays and lesbians in Singapore when confronted by the criminal law. Their voices should be heard in the spirit of an open, respectful and meaningful discussion.

Whatever is said in the course of this debate, it is clear that someone, somewhere, will take offence. But the ability for all to speak out should not be taken for granted. There are reasonable limits to be placed on hateful speech - a view that I have defended elsewhere. But in the present context, in a society that is increasingly more open, I find myself drawn to the pithy comment sometimes attributed to Voltaire: 'I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.'

The writer is an associate professor in the Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore. This essay reflects his personal views only.

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