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MHA Women’s Focus Group Discussion on Penal Code Amendments (Singapore)

on . Posted in Commentary.

Last Thursday, gathering my Sayoni mates and a whole lot of courage, I went to the MHA Focus Discussion Group for women. Coincidentally, or maybe not, it was held at Ang Mo Kio Grassroots Club, right in the bastion of the PM.

Upon registeration at the welcome-desk, one of our members refused to give our IC as identification, which caused some amount of confusion for the desk-helpers. Apparently, no one had ever tried to hold on their privacy before]. She was eventually allowed to pass. We went inside, and waited for quite a long time for the event to start, even though we had arrived after seven. During this time, we went through the amendments like we were mugging last-minute for an examination.

Finally, people started coming in. AWARE members took up at least half the audience, and the rest was made up of Sayoni women and private citizens. Two girls, one of whom we recognised to be a PSC/President's scholar, started the event by welcoming everyone, and reading out the entire amendment in, all 8 pages of it, in flat tones. Before I zoned out, I noticed one comment on the powerpoint presentation: they explicitly stated that lesbian sex would not be criminalised. And the speaker added a comment that this was 'so as not to give the impression that we are regressive in the area'. We could only look at each in confused incredulity, aware of the glaring contradiction as 377A was still in place.


After that, the three chairpersons, Ms Ellen Lee, Ms Indranee, and Ms Rahayu, the three chairpersons of the event, took their seats in front. AWARE started the ball rolling with their own appeal about section 375. Each of them took turns in speaking about why marital immunity should be abolished entirely. Their arguments were familiar, mostly based on the premises that the conditions given were too narrow, and the fact that marital rape was no less damaging than any other type of rape. The speakers explained that the government wants 'balance' things out, and was taking things slowly when it came to these amendments. Someone also brought up a strong point, which was that the first two cases where exemption was granted was inapplicable to Muslim marriages. The audience, when asked whether they agreed with the points made, naturally, was unanimous.

A brief lull set in, and I finally decided to stand up and start talking about section 377A, introducing myself as a private citizen, and made the point about it being discriminatory. After which, Bernise came up and reinforced the point with her own substantiation. Ms Indranee made the remark that it was surprising, coming from the women, as we were essentially standing up for the men. When the audience was asked, once again, whether everyone agreed that it should be abolished, to my pleasant surprise, everyone did. Even the senior citizens, presumably straight, sitting behind us.

Then followed a long line of people going up to the mike and making their own points to reinforce the abolishment of 377A [you know the arguments], and rebut the points made by the chairpersons. I had to go up several times to the mic. I cannot recall the entire dialogue, but some of the notable exchanges went thus[take note these are not consecutive dialogues, but fragments of the entire exchange]: 1

Indranee: The government has to consider the conservative majority, and not upset the status quo.
Me: You talk about conservative majority, but I have not seen any evidence as to this conservative majority. No stats, no surveys of this supposed “conservative” majority- even if they did disapprove of homosexuality, I doubt they would want it to be criminalised.

Me: What two people do in their bedrooms, what happens between two mututally consenting adults, is really no one else's business.
Ellen Lee: That's where you are wrong

Indranee: Logic has little to do with whether the law stands or not… It is more about maintaining the status quo. [follows up with point about religious groups being upset]
Me: But we are supposed to be a secular country. What if I am a Hindu or Buddhist, and I want to be gay? It is not right for the Muslims and Christians to force their values on me.

Me: So what if two people have gay sex? Your typical Christian or Muslim family is not going to be affected if this happens. Their homes, their mortgages, their families, their careers, their salaries, none of this is affected just because two people have gay sex. So I do not see the logic of them trying to keep this law, when it does not affect them.
Indranee: You are right, it does not have a physical impact on them. But it is more of an emotional impact, and what kind of message we are sending by removing the law. We have to look at parents. They might be afraid that their children will turn gay, if they see other people being gay, and they think it is okay to be gay
Me: But there is ample scientific evidence that homosexuality is inherent, or due to womb conditions. So no one really chooses to be gay.

Anj[responding to point about parents]: There are supportive, affirmative parents out there. And maybe the reason why they are not accepting of their children may be because they are afraid they will be prosecuted.

Irene[responding to the comment about parents]: There are so many things parents disapprove of. You cannot make everything they disapprove of illegal.

Ms Indranne remarked that they had two pieces of unanimous feedback to take back to the MHA, about 375 and 377. Throughout the entire session, the chairpersons were mostly polite and obliging, and listened to our feedback like it did matter. The only problem was when we got into a Millian debate about gay sex and public morality.

We went on to talk about section 298, where in addition to “religious feelings”, the government was attempting to add “racial”. We brought up the point that once again, society was made up of more than religious and racial groups. Prof Khoo also asked about the feelings of atheists and freethinkers, and how they’re consistently being told that they are going to hell by Evangelists. The rest of us also supported the argument by saying that people of all kinds need to be protected, whether due to gender, sexual orientation, age etc. Bernise came up with a radical idea which was floating in my mind, which was to draft an anti-hate speech cum anti-discrimination bill covering people of all social strata. Ms Indranee responded to these comments, typically, that other groups weren’t likely to revolt or cause riots. She said, “If someone says something against women, likely, all the women will be outraged. But they are not going to cause riots.” She explained that the hate speech law was drafted in light of Singapore’s past and multi-ethnic society. Ms Rahayu remarked in addition that the government did not want to be policing too much, and freedom of speech had to be protected. 2

At the end, when we got to talking about other parts of the amendments, Ms Indranee asked whether we would approve of the law acknowledging women as sexual predators. To my surprise [and pride in the women of Singapore], everyone once again agreed to this.

The session was adjourned amicably shortly after.

This was one giant step for us, and one small step for the gay rights movement in Singapore. Until 9th December, keep those letters going to REACH.


1. I’ve tried my best to reproduce the exact statements, but not possessing a recorder at the time, I’ve had to reconstruct it from my less-than-perfect memory. I apologise in advance for the rephrasing I’ve had to do, and any misrepresentations it might lead to. If you were there, and can accurately recall your words, I’ll be happy to rewrite it. For an accurate transcript, please approach MHA.
2. While I will not comment on the validity of their arguments, I will direct the reader to an excellent article written by Yawning Bread which explores this issue in detail.

Related links:

If you can’t rape your wife, who can you rape?
Singapore reviews Penal Code, placing more curbs on free expression
Proposed amendments to the penal code

Tags: singapore activism Section 377A feminism


# xav 2010-02-02 19:58

xav said,

December 4, 2006 at 11:13 pm

you ladies did great. =D
# rezipping 2010-02-02 19:58

rezipping said,

December 5, 2006 at 9:59 am

Thank you for speaking up for us (gay men).

Gratitude from the bottom of my heart…
# lq 2010-02-02 19:58

lq said,

December 5, 2006 at 10:33 am

sounds bloody good. you ladies were awesome, wish i was there.
# nicholas deroose 2010-02-02 19:58

nicholas deroose said,

December 5, 2006 at 11:29 am

bravo! bravo!
# Jasper Chen 2010-02-02 19:58

Jasper Chen said,

December 5, 2006 at 11:35 pm

Gay men in Singapore must love the girls in Sayoni!
Thanks for speaking up for us! =D
# Dominic Chua 2010-02-02 19:58

Dominic Chua said,

December 6, 2006 at 10:06 am

My metaphorical hat off to you girls! Thank you so much!
# loupgarou 2010-02-02 19:59

loupgarou said,

December 6, 2006 at 5:46 pm

thank you for attending..

I’ve given up on singapore..
# The Legal Janitor 2010-02-02 19:59

Where got conservative majority? « The Legal Janitor said,

December 7, 2006 at 2:57 am

[...] A common reason given by the powers that be for keeping a law that criminalises sex between gay men is that there is a conservative majority in Singapore that cannot accept the legalisation of gay sex. If the opinions of a sample size of 800 men in this survey do accurately reflect the opinions of Singaporean men as a general whole however, then this supposed conservative majority does not exist! [...]
# 2010-02-02 19:59
# » Blog Archive » Penal Codes And What Not said,

December 15, 2006 at 1:39 pm

[...] Here are a couple of excerpts from the Sayoni post about the Feedback Session at AMK somewhere or other: [...]
# Sayoni Speak 2010-02-02 19:59

Sayoni Speak » The Old Man and the City-state (Singapore) said,

May 28, 2007 at 4:32 pm

[...] Those who remember the furore over the penal code some months ago will understand the relevance of his comments. The bill has not gone through a parliamentary reading yet, and at this point, public debate is important if we are to change any minds. MM Lee�s comments have indeed sparked a public debate. The Straits Times Forum page is evidence enough of this. [...]
# Sayoni Speak 2010-02-02 19:59

Sayoni Speak » An Honest Opinion (Singapore) said,

September 23, 2007 at 1:08 am

[...] Or was it? We’ve had one year from the time the penal code amendment draft was released. At that time, we tried very enthusiastically within the one month we had to put forward our views. I myself went for the focus group discussion, wrote letters to everywhere I could and all. And much has happened between then and now, from MM Lee’s remarks to Indignation to Otto Fong’s coming out. We’ve had every opportunity to raise and sustain this debate in the public arena, to change people’s minds, to tell our MPs how we really feel. [...]
# Sayoni Speak 2010-02-02 19:59

Sayoni Speak » Petition: Repeal 377A(Singapore) said,

October 7, 2007 at 1:35 pm

[...] Focus Group Discussion at MHA in 2006 [...]
# An Honest Opinion 2010-02-02 20:00

An Honest Opinion « Used Brains For Sale said,

October 9, 2007 at 2:42 pm

[...] Or was it? We’ve had one year from the time the penal code amendment draft was released. At that time, we tried very enthusiastically within the one month we had to put forward our views. I myself went for the focus group discussion, wrote letters to everywhere I could and all. And much has happened between then and now, from MM Lee’s remarks to Indignation to Otto Fong’s coming out. We’ve had every opportunity to raise and sustain this debate in the public arena, to change people’s minds, to tell our MPs how we really feel. [...]

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