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21 Dec 2006

sexual equality is a human right

Singapore is a non-signatory of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights although 152 countries other have signed it. Tan Chong Kee explains why the denial of the right of homosexuals to love is linked to the denial of many other rights for everyone and how Tasmania - the last Australian state to decriminalise homosexual sexual acts - finally repealed its laws.

On 1 Dec 2006, Norway, together with 54 other countries, delivered a statement in the United Nations expressing deep concern on human rights violations based on sexual orientation and gender identity. Soon afterwards, the United Nations granted consultative status to three LGBT non-government organisations, giving them standing to speak in the assembly on sexuality issues. These developments are greeted by international LGBT organisations as significant victories against state homophobia.

At about the same time in Singapore, the government is considering amendments to its penal code which originally criminalises anal intercourse for all, to one that will criminalise anal intercourse only if it is between men. In other words, it is, in effect, considering singling out gay men for discriminatory treatment under the justice system. If passed, it will create a precedent where the law need not treat every citizen equally but can discriminate against a particular group.

Just how out of sync is Singapore with the international community? As early as in 1976, article 26 of the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights states: "All persons are equal before the law and are entitled without any discrimination to the equal protection of the law. In this respect, the law shall prohibit any discrimination and guarantee to all persons equal and effective protection against discrimination on any ground such as race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status."

152 countries have signed this covenant. Asian signatories include Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, North Korea, India, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Mongolia, Nepal, Philippines, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam. This demonstrates very clearly that respect for human rights is a universal value. By remaining the last few countries that refuse to sign, Singapore is keeping the company of countries such as Malaysia, Myanmar, Indonesia, Oman, Pakistan, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia.

The power of this UN covenant was put to the test in 1991, when an Australian by the name of Nicholas Toonen, complained to the UN human rights committee that Tasmania's law criminalising homosexual sexual acts has violated its provisions. He submitted that the laws violated his rights under article 2 (discrimination based on his status as a homosexual man), article 17 (privacy) and article 26 (equality before the law) of the covenant. He argued that the wording 'other status' in the covenant includes homosexuality, that the state has no business interfering with what he does sexually in the privacy of his own home, and that the Tasmanian laws also violated the covenant on account of equality before the law since it singled out gay men. The Australian Federal government agreed, saying of the criminalisation of anal sex between men: "While they specifically target acts, their impact is to distinguish an identifiable class of individual and prohibits certain of their acts. Such laws are thus clearly understood by the community as being directed at male homosexuals as a group." In its findings, the UN human rights committee notes that prohibition against discrimination based on sex includes sexual orientation, and concluded that the Tasmania law does violate Toonen's privacy rights.

Another parallel with Singapore is that Tasmanian authorities tried to use the moral argument to justify the law. Toonen rebutted this view in his submission: "Australia is a multi-cultural society whose citizens have different and at times conflicting moral codes. In these circumstance it must be the proper role of criminal law to entrench these different codes as little as possible; in so far as some values must be entrenched in criminal codes, these values should relate to human dignity and diversity."

As a result of Toonen's submission to the UN, Tasmania eventually repealed its anti-gay laws in 1997.

One key reason why Singapore is able to continue practicing state homophobia is because it is not bound by the UN covenant on civil and political rights. This covenant recognises wide ranging rights of the individual. Some of these are: the right to life (i.e., limits the use of death penalty), protection from torture and degrading treatment, protection from arbitrary arrest and detention, freedom of expression, religious freedom, and right to peaceful assembly and association. Unfortunately, due to long-standing distain from local politicians, "human rights" has for a long time been a dirty word in Singapore.

Let's put aside the fear for a moment and ask ourselves: Is Singapore so unique that it, together with a handful of Muslim and/or totalitarian states, is somehow rightfully exempt from respect of human rights? If you think more about it, you will also realise that oppressions are inter-linked. The denial of the right of homosexuals to love is linked to the denial of many other rights for everyone. Gay equality is not a narrow gay issue, but part and parcel of universal human rights. To pretend otherwise is to short-change ourselves.

The result of this short-changing is there for all to see. More than 20 years of experience has shown that eschewing this international dimension by limiting civil society action within the geographic borders of Singapore had been largely futile. This is why so few gay men and lesbians spoke up against the proposed amendments to the penal code. It is not because people don't care, but because they don't believe it will make any difference. A fundamental re-think is imperative or the project to de-stigmatise homosexuality will further dichotomise into a small group of vocal minority activists feeling unsupported, and a large gay silent majority feeling disempowered.

Perhaps it is now time for gay rights to break out of the ghetto. We must disabuse ourselves of the myth that gay rights is merely a minority issue about sex, and embrace the realisation that it is a majority issue about respect for all fundamental human rights. It is not just about gay men's right to anal sex, but about every individual's right, regardless of sexuality, to love, self-expression and equality before the law.

Dr Tan Chong Kee holds a Ph.D. in Chinese Literature from Stanford University in the United States and is one of Singapore's best-known figures in civil society activism.


Reader's Comments

1. 2006-12-22 00:44  
chong kee.
thanks for the article. please send yr contact info. to me. russell
Comment #2 was deleted by its author
3. 2006-12-22 02:31  
So in the end.. Indonesia signed it and didn't sign it ---> ???
4. 2006-12-22 05:19  
I think homosexuals too should have the same rights as any other people because homosexuals are also human and it is not that we chose to be homosexuals it. We are borned like this. Being a gay is not fun and if possible no one would wann be a homosexual and I am really surprise on how fickle other people's thinking can be. Although these people are representing our country in the UN but these people are no more than any other people that are as uneducated as a new borned baby as they do not accept what is different from them. I fully regret that we have such type of people as our leaders and examples for the future generation
5. 2006-12-22 06:17  
I don't agree with Lonemind on one point: I love to be gay. The problem is the vision of others (homophobic) upon me but it is my work to make it less my problem and give the problem back to them. Another remark: in the article, it would have been good to give explicit examples that oppressions are inter-linked. I can think of women's rights.
6. 2006-12-22 08:21  
Seems to me that an old friend 'Apathy' is allive and well in Singapore. I first heard this 'song' in the coffee shop at Tangs in 1980-something.
If gay men and women in Singapore really want to create change on human rights, there are a couple of things that can be done:
1. Get some funds together, work with the gay observer groups at the UN, and get this issue debated publicly in the UN and get it into the world media - cause embarrassment for the Gummen.
2. Get people laughing at the Gummen, make it a figure of fun, derision and contempt. Nothing motivates a group of fuddy-duddies more than being held up to the electorate as a laughing-stock.
3. Do not break the Law. Use the Law to do lawful things. The only way to change a system is to work from within. There are plenty of gay lawyers in Sing - use them.
Good luck.
Comment #7 was deleted by its author
8. 2006-12-22 10:49  
I'm in total empathy with Tan Chong Kee's views although I have to add that we need not get too carried away with the fear of being consumed by the homophobic powers that be here in Singapore.

I tried wearing a t-shirt with the caption, "Sorry girls, I'm gay", just to see how people would treat me. At a bus stop, the men (those who could read, of course) stood a noticeably "safe" distance from me :-) Having said that, while having a drink at a straight pub off Orchard Road that same evening, I noticed that most people (staff included) didn't bat an eye-lid.

What that seems to indicate to me is that, while homophobia may be the order of the day in supposedly progressive Singapore, the saving grace seems to be that at least we gays here do not need to put up with the sometimes violent gay-bashing that we hear or read about in North America where the governments are supposedly in favour of protecting human rights and where their respective national constitutions have enshrined basic civil liberties.
Comment #9 was deleted by its author
Comment #10 was deleted by its author
11. 2006-12-22 15:55  
Stop deceiving yourselves gay Singaporeans - no violent gay bashing does not mean we are living happy life with rights to love, respect, self expression and equality before the law.

What worse than a homophobic government?

Citizens who beat and censor themselves to say that homophobic here is better than open-elsewhere because things could be worse... so for example:
a) Japanese occupation forces during WW2 were ok because things could be worse...
b) Nazi forces were ok because things could be worse
c) XXX tyranny were ok because things could be worse

There is no progress if you all think like this. The fight for freedom is not without sacrifices.
12. 2006-12-22 22:45  
Well writting and informative. Thank you for this type of commentary.
13. 2006-12-23 09:51  
It is well over due for singapour to dump the old victorian laws and admit they have 15% gays lesbians bi and trans in the island state
14. 2006-12-23 10:39  
My concern is that the reference in article 26 may not be perceived to apply to us. It uses the word "sex," which I imagine many people will take to mean "gender." It would be better if it specifically stated "sexual orientation." We need to be prepared for disappointment based on this.
15. 2006-12-23 11:29  
According to the United Nations Office of High Commissioner for Human Rights http://www.unhchr.ch/html/menu3/b/a_ccpr.htm Indonesia has not ratified the covenant. Interestingly, however, Indonesia has ratified far more principal international human rights treaties than Singapore. See: http://www.unhchr.ch/pdf/report.pdf
16. 2006-12-23 21:41  
Singapore has to repeal itself or be embarrassed internationally by being forced to recognise how inhumane its laws are to some groups.

Wake up or be woken up!
17. 2006-12-23 21:57  
I think the real question is why are Singaporean gays so weak? Can u everrrrrrrrr envision a Stonewall type riot occurring in Singapore? Singaporean gays are happy to be pushed about by families and State alike. In fact that's just the attitude of Singaporeans gay or straight - just take what the State gives. Why do so many Singaporean gays come to KL to party? Free of family stares, free of Singaporean Police.

Even Fridae gave up on Singaporean gays really by moving the Nation party, and now abandoning it altogether. What does that leave Singapore gays with? Happy? (the club).

I'm rather tired of reading about the rights that Singapores gays have; we know, they have none. They have none and they are happy to grumble about it as though its an increase in the cost of milk. But actually the distress can cause far more. The strong ones have to stand up and unite their voices. When is that going to happen?

Stop grumbling and DO SOMETHING!
18. 2006-12-24 05:16  
What does a piece of paper mean?

The problem with Sg is that it is a run by a bunch of homophobic single ethnicity people trying to pass the country off as a lot of things which it is not.
This hypocritical administration is constantly trying to brainwash it's citizen.

While that being the case, Singaporean citizens are generally ok..... those that hadn't been brainwashed that is.

There's also the irritating and annoying low classed few who watched too much TV and (shamelessly) proclaim that they are Australian/American/UK/Japan bred just because they live there for a few years, and demand the same right that their twisted government is depriving them off. (Such as being fcuked in the asshole) .

These dreamers, who call themselves global citizens, are a pest to the heterosexual majority that brought them up.

It's hilarous that this group of pretenders are causing a major pain in the behind with their equally fake govt. Singapore will never be a high class society, .... well ... (whatever you call Hollywood anyway), like the one they saw on tv.
It will forever be just a city state in the south of an equally low classed but less hypocritical JB state.

So, for all Sgporeans reading this, there is this thing called an aeroplane, which can fly you from your broomstick-up-ur-sss-is-ok-but-not-a-penis-up-your-male-sss city state to the anything-up-your-sss Taipei.

Don't rock the boat or you'll sink before the next tsunami.
19. 2006-12-25 11:58  
Another masterpiece by Dr Tan Chong Kee.

Gay Singaporeans. Make a stance. Write if you can. And if yiou are pissed off. Leave Singapore. We have talents. We do not want to live in a land that only make use of our talents but not recognising our rights.

However, we must also recognise that we must clean up our own backyard along the way.
20. 2006-12-27 15:41  
I couldn't agree more with the good Dr's views on this matter as I have, for years, felt that far too many people get sidetracked from the REAL issue being Fundamental Human Rights when there's a "Special Interest Group"(aka GLBT COMMUNITY) yelling "Foul!" over some violation.

Apathy is our biggest threat amongst ourselves and only hope that our community, at large, will not give in to it's Siren call. There's too much at stake and so much yet to be achieved.
Comment #21 was deleted by its author
22. 2006-12-30 11:54  
I had the pleasure to meet Nic Toonen and his Filipino partner some years ago. He told me of his ten year legal struggle with the Tasmanian State Government and the assistance he got from gay Australian High Court judge Michael Kirby putting the case to the UN. What is telling about the whole legal saga is that after the victory in Tasmania for gay rights Nic left Australia for more gay friendly New Zealand where he and his foreign partner could live under NZ's same-sex immigration provisions. Apparently his notoriety in Australia pursuing the cause had made him a black sheep in official and bureaucratic circles causing him neverending hassle in any dealings with the state. There is a lesson to be learned here that changing laws may guarantee legal rights but doesn't automatically change people's attitudes or make you life any easier.
23. 2006-12-30 18:35  
Congratulations from the UK on another courageous piece that tells it how it is. May the state-approved (or fomented) bigotry that denies a very basic human right in Singapore be defeated, and soon. Let us always remember that our argument is the moral one, and never, ever accept that our sexuality (which is not, after all, of our choosing) equates to our being second class citizens.

Stephen Pettitt
London, UK
24. 2006-12-31 11:39  
Singapore should sign the UN covenant. otherwise let's just migrate elsewhere where there is equal human rights; where all people are equal. it's not our loss anyway.
25. 2007-01-08 05:41  
well, different head different character...human right is always be an issue....even United state,still cannot maintenance their believe in human right
26. 2010-06-10 21:58  
human right?in china? that's joke,and not funny.

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