Last edited: March 06, 2005

Diversity Needs Greater Tolerance

Today, December 13, 2004

By Lee Tuck-Leong

LAST week, permission for a Christmas party organised by the gay community was rejected on the grounds that Singapore is largely a conservative and traditional society.

In the public debates that have taken place in the past two years on the place of lesbian and gay persons in our society, this conservative position has been voiced loudly by well-meaning people with deep religious views—though they do not necessarily make up a large segment of our society.

I appreciate the authorities’ position that, while subscribing to the ideology of the secular state, they have chosen not to ignore the concerns of faith-based communities.

Our Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong envisioned for us an “open society which is welcoming of talent, which welcomes diverse views, is yet cohesive and has a sense of common purpose”.

I applaud the police department’s signal to these religious groups that their concerns matter.

Coercing people with deep-seated beliefs into accepting as fact that we are moving towards a more open society with elements that run counter to their values, will invariably lead to the backlash that we fear.

This would make fundamentalists and potential fundamentalists even more extreme—as we have witnessed in the ascendancy of the Religious Right movements in the United States, since their public humiliation over the teaching of Darwinism in schools in 1925.

We must have also learned our lesson over the heavy-handed treatment of the tudung/headscarves controversy in 2002.

Further, when then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong revealed a policy of nondiscrimination towards lesbian and gay men in public employment, this same backlash was organised — with coordinated prayer meetings held on National Day that sought to move Singapore towards embracing Christian values in our policies and decisions.

The social contract that enables an open society is based on tolerance of other points of view. This is possible only when we share the same vision of a pluralistic Singapore. Only this can ensure that we have the social cohesion that stabilises our society.

I do not think our lesbian and gay constituents destabilise this cohesion. In fact, they may have been made the scapegoat towards maintaining this cohesion—a move that is both unfair to them, as they are also participants in our nation building, as well as impoverishing our diversity.

Those among us who threaten to fuel this backlash will have to examine ourselves, to ask if we have taken too lightly our commitment to build a pluralistic society that “welcomes diverse views”.

Let us dream and work towards a more compassionate Singapore with space and hearts large enough to accommodate our fellow citizens and fellow neighbours.

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