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  • Writer's pictureThe Convergence

Reactions to the repeal of 377A and what it may say about the upsides to a one-party state

By Ryan (Editor)


A light-up at the Pink Dot gathering in Hong Lim Park in 2019. Photo: Today

The bombshell announcement dropped by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the 2022 National Day Rally of his government’s intention to repeal Section 377A of the penal code led to strong reactions both from the for and against camp.


However, amidst such outpouring of emotions by civil society not seen in a long time, there was one sphere in Singapore that was conspicuously absent from the debate. That is opposition parties in Singapore. There are not many countries in the world where a political party does not have a clear position on an issue as contentious as gay rights.


For instance, Singapore’s largest opposition party, the Workers’ Party (WP) said that they "recognise the fundamental right of people to live free from fear and discrimination." Non-constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai from the Progress Singapore Party said that his party will have to look at the details of the legislation. Chairman of another well-established opposition party, the Singapore Democratic Party, Dr Paul Tambayah, told Mothership: “The SDP values human rights, and therefore respects the fundamental rights of the individual, as enshrined in our Constitution." [1] A common thread across these reactions, as can be seen, is the absence of any explicit position for or against. Some parties, such as the National Solidarity Party, were totally silent.


There was only one party - the Reform Party - which expressed their unequivocal support for the decision. Its position on the issue has been made clear since 2011 [2].


What makes these parties’ reactions or lack thereof even more noteworthy is their tendency in normal times to be the advocate of greater civil liberties in Singapore [3] [4].


Many, including me, believe that such ambiguous positions are undertaken in consideration of their political interests.


Singaporeans are still largely undecided on their views of S377A. According to a study conducted after the Rally by Blackbox Research, 43 per cent of respondents expressed support for repeal. Even though this is more than double the 21 per cent who oppose it, 34 per cent said they neither support nor oppose the repeal [5]. Therefore, political parties are unable to accurately gauge the political cost of staking out a clear position on the issue, and would rather stay silent. Political analyst Loke Hoe Yeong has gone as far as describing the consequence of opposition parties taking a stand as “political suicide” [6].


On the part of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) however, it is able to undertake such politically risky decisions, many believe, due to the relatively comfortable margins of victories it enjoys during every election, and its general popularity amongst Singaporean voters. This means that any hits it might potentially have to take from such a decision will not significantly affect its ability to retain its supermajority in Parliament.


Leaders of the party have indeed expressed that it is uncertain of the political costs of repealing the law, but nonetheless believe that it is the right thing to do.


Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told The Straits Times that it would be politically expedient to have "just kept quiet, put on the helmet, go into the bunker, and pretend that nothing is happening, leave it to the courts." The reason why they did not do so was because it would have been wrong to criminalise gay men for their sexuality [7].


"Nobody deserves to be stigmatised because of their sexual orientation. So repealing Section 377A, removing their pain, is the right thing to do," he added [7].


The ruling party moving forward in spite of the unknown political cost and the fact that their most serious opponents do not have a dissimilar stance anyways can be argued to reflect the benefits of a single dominant party in Parliament. Parties are able to move forth on potentially politically unpopular decisions for the greater good of the country.

According to American political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, this reflects a successful political system. He believes that if the outcome of the political game is not the periodic awarding of effective authority to one group, a party, or stable coalition, then unstable and irresponsible government rather than democracy will result [8].

To see the relative lack of such a privilege, one can look to the United States. Due to a fierce political environment where control of the legislature and the Presidency is often close to a tossup, politicians are unable to vote according to their conscience and have to consider the political cost.

This can be seen, for instance, in the issue of free trade. As revealed by Minister for Foreign Affairs Vivian Balakrishan during an engagement with the Asia Society in Sep 2022, he has been “speaking to a multitude of administration officials, (U.S) Congressmen, and Senators.” Even though none of them makes an argument against the Trans-Pacific Partnership, everybody tells him “somewhat ruefully” that it cannot be signed for “domestic political reasons.” [9] Therefore, American politicians can be argued to be not acting for the greater good of the country.


Coming back to the issue of S377A, to accommodate the views of the socially conservative, the government has said it will amend the Constitution to make it clear that only Parliament, not the Courts, have the right to define marriage. Again, such manoeuvring is only possible because the PAP easily controls more than two-thirds of the seats in Parliament. In fact, this may have contributed to their confidence in repealing 377A in the first place.


However, others, like Singaporean author Sudhir Thomas Vadaketh, are more sceptical about the reason behind the repeal. In an article posted on his website before the repeal was announced, he said that doing so acts as a “swansong of Lee Hsien Loong…before he hands over the party’s reins,” with the hopes of it being “a sort of sop to Singapore’s long-disaffected liberal segment,” that the party hopes to win back [10]. Therefore, he believes it is not true that the political costs are uncertain, and that such a move would benefit the PAP.


Indeed, many attributed the PAP’s relatively poor result in the 2020 general election to their inability to win over the progressives in society, which happen to be the young. In an interview with Today after the 2020 elections, PAP activists said that they could sense from the ground that the young in particular care more about issues beyond bread-and-butter ones, and believes that the party needs to be more open to talking about traditionally touchy topics including gay rights [11].


While there is no data on how young people voted in the election, a survey of more than 1,500 voters by Blackbox Research before the election found that 24 per cent of respondents aged 21 to 24 intended to vote for the WP, forming the highest share among the different age groups that intended to vote for the party [12].


Winning back this segment may be especially pressing for the PAP given that many tout their low vote share in the 2020 elections to be a “new normal”, if the trend continues and younger generations are more liberal [13]. This may be something they are not willing to accept, and hence are willing to try something controversial to reverse that trend.


Furthermore, Mr Vadaketh believes that the reason opposition parties are not able to articulate a position is precisely because of the one-party state.


According to him, “Working off a low base, opposition parties generally feel compelled to erect a big tent to draw support from across the ideological spectrum. Their liberals dare not stake out progressive positions on social issues lest they unwittingly tar the entire party with the same brush.” [10]


Seen in this light, the presence of a dominant party in Parliament diminishes the standing of opposition parties due to their perceived inability to be decisive in coming up with policies. This is not a good thing for the country as far as upholding democracy is concerned. In the same vein, it may also be that opposition parties are not as well-equipped as the ruling party to be able to accurately gauge ground sentiment before coming to a stance on a contentious topic.


Ultimately, whether one believes this saga reflects a benefit of a one-party state is dependent on their belief of the intention behind the repeal. If the PAP had repealed the law in spite of them potentially losing support, then it can indeed be argued that Singapore’s one party state has its upsides. On the other hand, if they made that decision with the objective of winning votes, then it may in fact be a bad thing. Not only does it give rise to irresponsible governance, it also stifles opposition parties.


This is something we would never know, but one can carry out surveys to see how Singaporeans’ views of the PAP have changed with the decision. If it has indeed worsened, then it is true that these are not vote-winning moves, as the PAP claims [7].


Nonetheless, one must consider why the PAP has been able to maintain its dominance in Parliament in the first place. It is because it has delivered for the people in material terms. As put by Singh, Abdullah, and Tan, “Singapore has been created in the image of the PAP and what more, a highly successful one from the political, economic, socio-cultural, military and ultimately image perspective.” [14] Therefore, this decision will not significantly change Singaporeans’ perception of it. The trust garnered through the Party’s successful governance would convince conservative Singaporeans that such a move is for the greater good of the country, and hence a compromise is worthwhile. However, in countries where the one-party state is maintained based on the use of force and unfree elections, the government may not be willing or able to make such a move.





Bibliography


[1] https://mothership.sg/2022/08/opposition-party-react-377a/


[2] https://www.facebook.com/thereformparty/posts/596121131892624


[3] https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/1735kX0p-UVMysOdKWXh-LyUhesaGHYzM


[4] https://d3bnzwrhehvhbjiwmja.s3-ap-southeast-1.amazonaws.com/The+Workers+Party

+Manifesto+2020.pdf


[5] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/section-377a-religious-groups-call-for-unity

-poll-finds-43-per-cent-support-repeal-double-those-against


[6] https://www.reuters.com/article/us-singapore-election-lgbt-idUSKBN2490GS


[7] https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/politics/section-377a-court-of-appeal-said-law-on

-sex-between-men-could-be-unconstitutional-says-shanmugam


[8] Seymour Martin Lipset. Some Social Requisites of Democracy: Economic Development and Political Legitimacy. The American Political Science Review , Mar., 1959, Vol. 53, No. 1 (Mar., 1959), pp. 69-105


[9] https://www.mfa.gov.sg/Newsroom/Press-Statements-Transcripts-and-Photos/2022/

09/20220924-Asia-Society-2022


[10] https://sudhirtv.com/2022/06/23/the-politics-of-repeal/


[11] https://lkyspp.nus.edu.sg/docs/default-source/ips/today_the-big-read--what-went-wrong

-for-the-peoples-action-party_in-the-eyes-of-party-insiders_190720.pdf


[12] https://blackbox.com.sg/everyone/the-big-read-what-went-wrong-for-the-peoples-action

-party-in-the-eyes-of-party-insiders


[13] https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/a-watershed-election-and-new-normal


[14] Singh, Bilveer, Abdullah, Walid Jumaat, Tan, Felix. 2021. Unmasking Singapore’s 2020 General Elections. World Scientific.





 

Ryan is a Year 1 Philosophy, Politics, and Economics major who is an Editor at The Convergence. Having maintained a keen interest in politics ever since following his parents to rallies during Singapore’s 2011 general elections, he hopes, through his writings, to be able to get youth to more critically examine the role of Singapore’s government as well as Singapore’s place in the world. When free, he is probably either taking a nap or jogging. He really likes bubble tea too, but strictly with no sugar or pearls.




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