In PM Lee’s interview with BBC HARDtalk, he touched on the topic of 377A, which is a law in Singapore that criminalises private, consensual LGBT relations. He said the following:
“It is a matter of society values. We inherited this from British Victorian attitudes…We are not British. We are not Victorian. But this is a society which is not that liberal on these matters. Attitudes have changed, but I believe if you have a referendum on the issue today, 377A would stand.”
PM Lee is right about one thing. If people at large don’t embrace the value of equal rights, simply changing the formal law itself won’t be able to change people’s attitudes. It’s possible for the law to formally codify equality, but in reality people may act in all sorts of bigoted and discriminatory ways. But what does that imply? If anything, it means that more must be done to educate people and change minds. Its one thing to say “oh, society is not ready so lets just wait and see”, and “lets spread ideas and engage in education, so people will be more ready”.
It is understandable why the PAP government is saying what it’s saying. Politicians expectedly, toe the sentiments of the median voter, and so won’t rock the boat. But it puzzles me that ordinary individuals echo this position. What’s even more surprisingly, sadly so, is that LGBT individuals themselves are so fatalistically resigned to the status quo.
No such thing as “society”
Another problem here is that the term “society”, is a misleading one. There is no such thing as “society”. Society doesn’t have values, individuals do. Society is nothing but a collection of individuals. If its true that “society” is generally still conservative – and I agree it is – then it only means that a majority of individuals are against abolishing 377A. So when people say that “society is not ready” to abolish 377A, what they’re really saying is that “we should go along with what the majority wants”. It’s an argument on behalf of majority-rules, not “society”.
So for those who think that “society is not ready” to abolish 377A, they need to explain: why should the majority continue have its way, when the law itself clearly harms the minority. One should not hide behind the nebulous word “society”.
The idea that “society is not ready to abolish 377A” then, may actually be nothing more than a red herring (an irrelevant point). If a majority of individuals are conservative, there’s no reason why the law shouldn’t be abolished anyway.
These conservative individuals are not forced into anything: if 377A was abolished tomorrow, a straight man won’t be forced into anything with another man. But the individuals who fall in the minority will now enjoy a freedom of association they have been deprived of. Those who want to abolish 377A are not forcing anything on anyone.
Someone might come back to me and say “but the law currently doesn’t really punish LGBT people, because its not really enforced”. Well if that’s true (and it is), then there should be nothing to worry about if we abolish it! After all, if the law isn’t enforced, and LGBT people are already associating with each other, then how can abolishing it “force” anyone? Let’s move out of this muddled reasoning and embrace the obvious need for free association.
So what then? How do we move forward? Well, for starters, lets engage in a minds-changing exercise and get people to embrace the importance of equal rights. I’m part of the Libertarian Society of Singapore, which does precisely that. We advocate the rights of individuals, not just LGBT, and the importance of freedom and equality for all.