I did not intend to write about Section 377A. It appears to be such an obvious case of discrimination that there is nothing else to add; some people are gay, some people are religious, and the right of the former to live as they please has no bearing on the right of the latter to live out their faith.
Then Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh penned an opinion-editorial in the Straits Times. His argument: The fact that something is a religious sin has no bearing on whether it should be considered a crime in a secular state.
This is correct. “My God says I cannot do this” is a perfectly reasonable statement of faith. “My God says you cannot do this” is religious overreach. But many seem to disagree. And the purpose of this article is to respond to that precise sentiment.
Religion in the public space, not public law
Religious individuals are correct to point out that there is a moral component to all laws. Murder is illegal because, clearly, someone is killed against their will. But why is this bad? The secular justification points to the harm and subsequent loss of utility or the violation of someone’s right to live. The religious justification points to the simple fact that God has willed this to be wrong.
Someone who is religious might say, “Hey, hold on. Why is your ‘false religion’ of secular philosophy any more correct than my one true God? Can’t we come to a compromise here?”
Yes, we can. But the compromise cannot be some messy pastiche of non-religious and religious morality. It makes no sense for the Government to then say, “Sure thing. Why not we criminalise the act of gay sex so the Abrahamic faiths are represented, but then we allow abortion and adultery so that the secular community doesn’t get too angry.”
That is a self-evidently stupid principle upon which to build a system of laws because there is no guiding principle to favour one ‘compromise’ over another. Why not, then, criminalise abortion but allow gay sex and adultery? Or outlaw pornography and adultery but allow abortion and gay sex? In fact, the only justification for the ‘compromise’ of keeping 377A is status quo bias: there is no good positive reason for why this status quo is better than any other compromise.
A better principle to build a system of laws is that of majority rule, minority rights. The majority gets to express preferences over policy trade-offs (e.g. socialized medicine balanced against the individual’s right to choose) but not over the tyranny of specific groups (e.g. I cannot vote to deny medical treatment to transgender or HIV-positive people on the basis of my faith).
This is also a compromise. But, unlike 377A, there is a strong positive reason for this compromise, because all groups are either minorities or could potentially become a minority. In the same way that our gay friends should be free to live as they please, our Christian and Muslim friends should also be free to worship as they please: We would never “criminalise Islam but not prosecute people for being Muslim” because that is also self-evidently stupid.
The ‘slippery slope’ slopes in both directions
The religious individual might then say in response, “But your ‘false religion’ of majority rule, minority rights does not define minorities! Paedophiles and people who are into bestiality are minorities too.”
This is a bad argument because, very simply, children and animals are also vulnerable groups who deserve to be protected. And given that neither children nor animals can consent to be violated, the principle of majority rule, minority rights does not extend to paedophilia or bestiality.
But I have a bigger problem with this ‘slippery slope’ argument. Those who say that repealing 377A leads us down a slippery slope of immorality perhaps conceive of the ‘slope’ like this:
Ignoring that many of the outcomes on this ‘slippery slope’ are not in themselves a problem (e.g. it’s fine to legalise gay marriage so long as we do not force priests and imams to sanctify those weddings), this is what I call a symmetric argument: it applies equally to the other side of the slope as well. So actually what we have is not a slippery slope; it is a ‘slippery cliff’:
“That’s ridiculous!” a reasonable religious person might sputter. “We would never stand for that.” And – to be clear – I agree. I am not saying that the majority of moderate religious individuals in Singapore want MOE teachers to teach creationism instead of evolution, or transform us into ultra-conservative Russia.
What I am saying, though, is that this exercise in symmetry reveals our cognitive biases about the other side. If you believe, genuinely in your heart of hearts, that keeping 377A does not then lead to a religious theocracy, then why would repealing 377A necessarily lead to Sodom and Gomorrah and the anti-Christ’s return?
So, to borrow from the popular meme, what is the future that liberals want? Most liberals want the protection of minority and vulnerable groups, no matter their political identity. This includes, but is not limited to:
Constitutional protections when it comes to freedom of religion
The freedom to proselytize and spread one’s faith
The right of gay individuals to live and love as they please, without being branded criminals
The ability for the LGBT community to engage in civil unions or marriage, without forcing religious leaders to sanctify these marriages – the most important thing here is to have the legal benefits that come from marriage; not a subversion of the “sanctity” of marriage.
But at the same time, any discussion about the future is nonsensical when right now; we’re looking at whether or not to repeal a Victorian-era law which criminalises gay sex. To talk about issues of gay marriage or polygamy – which are just, factually, not on the legislative agenda right now – when we’re evaluating 377A is like looking at the Merdeka Generation healthcare package and going, “Yeah, but what if this leads to socialized medicine, and then all of a sudden we become like Cuba and then Venezuela and then die liao lor”. It just does not make sense.
Remember, liberals do not want to “turn the world topsy-turvy”. The world has always been topsy-turvy – men and women dressed in suits trade fancy things named ‘collateralised debt obligations’ and then get paid millions; we fly in giant winged metal birds called ‘aeroplanes’ and sometimes travel far enough to travel back (or forwards) in time; Singapore poured tonnes of concrete into the sea to create land where there once was none, and then built artificial trees made of twisted steel and dubbed them ‘Supertrees’.
Look, very little of the world we live in makes sense. And honestly, given the crazy world we live in, affording peace of mind to men whose only crime is to love other men; assuring them that you are not criminals; that you deserve to be treated as equal citizens just like anyone else – that’s not crazy at all.