Sunday, May 13, 2007

Does Singapore gain from America’s pain?

Scholarboy and Astroboy have at The Intelligent Singaporean discussed what went wrong with the US-led war in Iraq, prefacing with a recent statement from PM Lee espousing Singapore's support for US efforts in Iraq.

Many a book (and blog) has been written on the US' decision to invade Iraq and continued engagement.  One can blame CIA's intelligence failures, Bush's personal or political motives, but ultimately, it appears that any rational reasons for going to war (if they exist) probably remain hidden deep within the archives of an intelligence agency somewhere.  Supporting the continuation of the US campaign in Iraq has done is also challenging and hugely unpopular.   

Yet PM Lee did.  Why?  

Less charitable commentators attribute this to simple diplomatic bootlicking.  

Scholarboy and Astroboy claimed their piece would "explore what long and disturbing shadows the Iraqi campaign will cast against countries in South East Asia" (although I see no such discussion).  

Perhaps they are concerned that Singapore's support for US foreign policy could one day hurt Singapore.  We may be ostracised by our Muslim neighbours, or attacked by Islamic militants.  

One could also argue that the democrats, who have taken over Congress, would also soon take over the White House, and such posturing would then count for naught.

Perhaps.  But does US' continued engagement in Iraq hold any benefits for Singapore?

One. Security.  As PM Lee mentioned, Southeast Asia's security will be affected if if US were to leave Iraq.  The reason is simple.  One extra jihadist in Iraq or the Middle East means one less in Southeast Asia.  Some would argue that the Iraqi campaign *breeds* extremists but we should remember that it was *success* in driving the Russians from Afghanistan that gave rise to Osama bin Laden and his cohort of terrorists.   The Iranian revolution in the late 1970s also won new converts the Shii cause.  Basically, if the extremists *fail* in Iraq, no one would join their cause; if they succeed, we are doomed.   

Two. Oil.  US interest in the Middle East provides a geo-political check-and-balance in the region and beyond.  Peace does not come easily to the Middle East and some stability is needed to ensure that the rest of the world is able to get the black gold that is fuelling development everywhere else.  As a net importer, the Singapore economy gets screwed every time the price of oil increases.  Until feasible alternative energy sources are available, we have a vested interest in the US' continued presence in Iraq & the ME.

Three. ASEAN.  US foreign policy is currently low on the popularity stakes even amongst it traditional allies.  But this provides a window of opportunity where new friends will find easier acceptance.  I'm not just talking about Singapore, but more of ASEAN as a whole.  PM Lee's efforts in engaging US interest in the region and Southeast Asia betrays a diplomatic marketing strategy that Singapore Inc. planners know only too well.  US' continued interest – politically and economically – in this region is a prerequisite for ASEAN countries' development, and for Singapore's survival within and outside this region.

The lesson to be learnt is that everyone says (and does) what is in their own best interests, not just because something sounds morally right or clever.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

Right to be Gay

Yvonne Lee has posited that “Decriminalising homosexual acts would be an error”. She argues that laws criminalizing homosexual acts are not unconstitutional because the right to equality does not apply if it impairs community interests and violates the rights of others. Lee also explains that the Singapore Constitution does not prohibit all forms of discrimination.

On the latter point, I have no disagreement. There is (and always will be) discrimination in our society. Men, but not women, have to do national service. Chinese restaurants hire more (or all) Chinese waiters. Lingerie chains prefer to hire as sales personnel attractive 20-somethings as opposed on my 68-year-old uncle. Our Constitution and laws can only do so much.

But does this mean that we cannot decriminalize homosexual acts?

Under Penal Code Section 377A, oral and anal sex (aka unnatural sex) acts between heterosexuals and lesbians will be allowed while the same acts between two males would remain an offence.

Lee gives several reasons for supporting this stand, which I understand as follows: One, homosexual acts are inherently unhealthy and threaten public health. Two, it would clash with “fundamental liberties” such as free speech and religious liberty. Three, homosexuality would become an “alternative lifestyle.” Homosexual activists would campaign to alter the public mindset and to gain legal and social endorsement of a gay lifestyle. Four, homosexuality is offensive to the majority of citizens.

Homosexual acts are inherently unhealthy and threatens public health – There might be truth in this although I think that a medical doctor (preferably one who is dealing with sexual diseases) would be better qualified to make this claim. One would also need to control for the number of partners (unless another assumption is that homosexuals are by nature more promiscuous). If it is indeed true, we should also consider if these same acts amongst heterosexuals and lesbians are any less unhealthy. Otherwise, this is no basis for opposing the decriminalization of homosexual acts.

Homosexuality clashes with “fundamental liberties” such as free speech and religious liberty – This argument simply does not make sense. Religions clash with one another, almost by definition. Each purports to have its own way to heaven. But that does not mean that different religions cannot co-exist, or that we cannot allow new religions. The proviso, of course, is that the practice of religion must not cross certain boundaries. For example, a Christian is free to proselytize – provided he does not do so in a manner which offends other religions. I don’t foresee homosexuals going around asking others to be gay, just because homosexuality is decriminalized. Unless you are telling me that I can no longer go around making gay jokes, how does homosexuality curtail my fundamental liberties?

Homosexuality as an “alternative lifestyle” and homosexual activists campaigning to gain legal and social endorsement of a gay lifestyle – This is exactly what is happening now. But how does it impair community interests or violate the rights of others? Perhaps seeing gay couples give some the “ee-urh” feeling, but others might feel the same way seeing a young-old couple or a mixed couple, but that is not a sufficient excuse for something to be made criminal. There are already obscenity laws that are in place to guard against displays of affection that are too public, and these (I believe) apply to all regardless of sexual orientation.

Homosexuality is offensive to the majority of citizens – This is Lee’s strongest argument. Yet, she does not provide any figures or survey data. Can we say with certainty that more than 50% of our population find homosexuality offensive? If this is to be the only basis on which we want to continue the criminalization of homosexual acts, there should be at least a statistically rigorous poll done to ensure that we are not unnecessarily curtailing the freedoms of a minority.

To paraphrase Voltaire, I am not gay, but I would fight for your right to gay (but only if you really want it).