October 27th, 2007
As someone who straddles the worlds of Singaporean journalism and academia but has never felt totally at ease in either, I have to say that, today, I am prouder to call myself a journalist than an academic. Singapore is not known for its investigative journalism; one international ranking places our press in the same league as Third World dictatorships. On the other hand, our universities do Singapore proud: while some of the international rankings are suspect, there are certainly pockets of excellence on Singapore’s campuses.
This week, both vocations were tested. Singapore society needed the best from them, to guide it through the extraordinarily difficult and contentious 377A debate. Although the bean counters in both journalism and academia tend increasingly to apply irrelevant key performance indicators, pressmen and professors in the end share the same social purpose: to contribute to the world of ideas and help society to deal with its problems wisely and rationally.
For this reason – and despite having signed the repeal petition that reached Parliament – I was mainly interested in this week’s debate as a test case for Singapore’s level of public debate. That 377A would stay in the books was a foregone conclusion. The real issue to me was whether such deeply held convictions could be deliberated openly in a civilized manner, and how journalists and academics would perform.
Therefore, more distressing than the final result of the debate was the retrogressive speech by the high-flying legal scholar Thio Li-Ann. Her convoluted, caricatured rendering of political philosophy and comparative politics needed to be corrected by good political science, but she got away with it in Parliament. Her theories about what constitutes a minority could have been debunked by any graduate student of sociology or anthropology, but this did not stop her.
Then there was Thio’s tasteless digs at homosexual sex, which some of her comrades considered witty, but really deserved no place in the highest forum in the land. Thio has been celebrated for supposedly speaking up for the silent majority. This is an insult to the majority, most of whom have the basic decency to know the difference between what should be uttered in public and what should be confined to close friends or private blogs.
Thio also did a disservice to the majority of God-fearing Singaporeans – we who would like to believe that our faiths are ultimately about compassion, not the hateful, hurtful cheap shots that Thio felt compelled to deliver on our behalf. How I wished a theology professor or other religious scholar would have stepped into the debate at that point, to show how it might be possible to express a faith-based objection to homosexuality – minus the hate speech.
But, no, for a whole week, Thio has remained – by default – the standard bearer of what Singapore intellectuals and our world-class universities have to offer to public discourse.*
Thank goodness for Straits Times journalist Janadas Devan. His column in Saturday’s Insight pages is worth the paper’s 80 cents cover price (which is good, since it’s not available free online). Its contribution to the 377A debate: priceless. Singapore doesn’t have a tradition of investigative journalism, but Janadas’ dogged, disciplined dissection of Thio’s speech has exposed it for the diatribe that it really was. There is hope yet for rationality and reason.
The blogosphere, of course, had numerous articles challenging Thio, including one by a first year law student.