Looking ahead on Lesbian-Gay-Transsexual-Bisexual-Queer issues: so what?

Sep 22, 2014 at 1:56 pm | Hits: 2188

By Ronald JJ Wong

LGTBQ-related issues will continue to be debated in Singapore’s public space. Other issues involving conflicting moral values will inevitably surface in due course. The lessons we may derive from the above discussion are these.

First, conflicting moral viewpoints are inevitable. We must learn to accept this and to engage respectfully and civilly on these issues. It would do no one any good to debate on these inescapable problems with vitriol.

Second, we can expect that the state would generally continue to adopt the mediator rather than arbiter approach to conflicting moral values which concern LGBTQ issues and other more ‘personal’ and ‘private’ matters (as opposed to economic and security matters). This means that we cannot expect it to move ahead of the moral viewpoints that it thinks the majority of the public holds to. Nevertheless, we can expect that it would also attempt, for the most part, to accommodate differing viewpoints. Yes, there may be wrinkles and decisions that are below expectations; but there will always be disappointment and a sense of ‘never enough’.

Third, the preceding point is, however, qualified by what the state deems to be important economic and security interests. Although it has not articulated its underlying premises and assumptions with respect to some of these policy decisions, these premises and assumptions mostly relate to consequentialist (and seldom purely moral) arguments, e.g. if non-traditional family units are promoted and given substantive rights, burdens on the state’s social welfare support system will increase, which is deemed to be a negative outcome. Unless these premises and assumptions are proven to be false, it is likely that the Government will maintain its position on these issues. This is not a novel approach to governance and certainly not for the Singapore Government. It has often looked to the case studies of other countries and at times waited for firm evidence before taking a step forward. This has been the case even for LGBTQ issues, e.g. the section 377a debate. Again, this means that it is a matter of time, evidence and suasion.

Fourth, we can learn to conduct public deliberations better, i.e. more accessible platforms and clearer comprehensible substantive content of our discussions. We should consider moving beyond the online petition and find creative platforms to hold dialogues and express comprehensive and nuanced viewpoints, instead of reduced assertions of each other’s views. Relational and interpersonal platforms are, I think, to be favoured over distant, impersonal ones; communication is as much about non-verbal as well as verbal or textual ones. Tone, posture and emotions are difficult to convey through impersonal virtual platforms. Further, interpersonal platforms allow for the deliberations to be situated in social relational contexts, which are important because the issues are directly personal issues (i.e. sexuality and relationships).

Fifth, it is possible to imagine creative multi-variance solutions that embody competing moral viewpoints that can break impasse and achieve acceptable or tolerable compromises. It is important in this regard to note that it has always been taken for granted that LGBTQ issues necessarily require treatment via legal rights and social policy. There exists a plethora of alternative political structures that allow for compromise and which do not involve legal rights and social policy. Certain models of libertarianism for instance would posit that the state should have no role in regulating private affairs such as marriage. This may sound extreme but the point is that plausible options should be explored.

Sixth, we should be constantly and critically reflecting on the substantive arguments and proposals (including what has been proffered in this note) tossed around by different participants. Many of these substantive arguments and proposals themselves rely on moral premises which cannot be taken for granted. During the NLB saga, some people have suggested that access to information is a paramount principle. That, however, is a moral assertion – one so absolute and far-reaching, which is in conflict with other moral views. Intuitively when one thinks in terms of hypotheticals, one would acknowledge that the said principle cannot possibly be absolute. For instance, would everyone agree that books portraying rape as a positive act or women as commodities for sexual pleasure should not be made freely available to children? From this hypothetical example, assuming it is true, it could be gleaned that there are other moral values that are more important than freedom of information per se. There are always limitations and qualifications, and the balancing of values and principles.

Another theme that has surfaced strongly over the recent incidents is the notion of ‘thick’ secularism or the idea that the state should not be a moral police if at all, and should not choose or favour the moral views of one group over another. But this is in itself a moral-philosophical principle that must be justified. In some countries, ‘thick’ secularism has arguably resulted in the infringement and curtailment of citizens’ fundamental freedom of speech, conscience and belief. Again, it is not that this is necessarily wrong because the latter result in itself is to be assessed according to a moral viewpoint, i.e. that such curtailment of fundamental freedoms is wrong. The issue is justifying that balance between the competing moral values and whether we are ready to accept that. Therefore, our public deliberations must be honest and comprehensive. We should take every issue for what it is, raise all the conflicting moral viewpoints involved and address them holistically instead of making narrow-minded assertions or suggestions without considering the consequences, implications and all the relevant competing viewpoints. To adopt latter assertions or suggestions would lead us to outcomes where people would suffer real harm, and we would have to bear responsibility for it.

The above discussion and suggestions are, I think, critical to us as a society for us to learn to co-exist reasonably peaceably in this season. We are in a sense like a family who is forced to live under the same roof. We can choose to shout and fight our way around one another, or we can choose to work things out with respect and compassion. I would like to try the latter.

Ronald JJ Wong is a litigation lawyer in Rajah & Tann Asia and has been published in various legal and literary journals. This is an excerpt from Ronald’s piece, published here.

Photo credit: Flickr

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