Social Activism in Singapore: The Death Penalty and LGBTQ Rights

Social Activism in Singapore
The LGBTQ community in Singapore is very active in organising events like the annual Pink Dot event to promote their cause.
By Jonathan Ang
Epoch Times Staff


The efforts of social activists are always seen in different lights by their supporters and opponents. While they are universally lauded for improving humanity by challenging social ills like slavery and racism, there exists legitimate dissent against activism as their zealotry directly clashes with traditional values and beliefs.

The uphill battle to abolish the death penalty in Singapore is one good example. A 31-year-old Malaysian, Prabu N Pathmanathan, was recently executed for drug trafficking offences despite intense lobbying efforts by social activists and an appeal from the Malaysian Law Minister, who had earlier pledged to abolish the death penalty in Malaysia.

Many non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Amnesty International have actively campaigned to end the death penalty in Singapore as they are not viewed favourably by modern liberal values. They argue that the state-sanctioned death penalty is barbaric and there is little evidence that the death penalty is successful in deterring serious crimes.

Such efforts did not gain traction in Singapore. The Singapore government is of the view that the death penalty has been an effective deterrent and an appropriate punishment for serious offences. The death penalty has contributed to Singapore’s security by keeping crime under control.

Moreover, there is strong public support for the death penalty. According to a survey conducted by the National University of Singapore (NUS), it was revealed that a high 70 percent of Singaporeans are supportive of the death penalty. In fact, only 3 percent of the survey participants were strongly against the death penalty.

It  also appears that Singaporeans deeply subscribe to the age-old belief of “an eye for an eye” as 92 percent of the survey participants agreed that murderers deserve the death penalty. After all, this would only be fair to the victims and their families.

Given the strong public support, there is little incentive for the government to change a policy that has worked so well. However, the efforts of social activists are not in vain. It was recently announced that the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) is conducting a national survey to understand public sentiment and attitudes towards the death penalty in Singapore.

Nevertheless, opponents of the death penalty should not rejoice too soon. Singapore has just recently completed its review of the mandatory death penalty in Singapore in 2017. Hence, it is unlikely that the Singapore government will do a policy U-turn anytime soon.

Swimming Against the Tide

Why is social activism such a difficult and, at times, thankless endeavour? The reason is that these activists, some under the influence of postmodern liberalism, are fighting against traditional values and systems that are embraced by the mainstream society.

As in the case of the death penalty, social activists consider such state-sponsored sanctions as barbaric. But there are always two sides to a coin: should a violent murderer be spared pain and suffering when such an option was not provided to the victim and their families? Shouldn’t the victims and their families deserve more restitution instead? Unfortunately, such questions are difficult to answer.

Pink Dot 2013.
Pink Dot 2013.

Despite the good intentions of social activists, there is no need to be too hasty in changing our society. Our traditions and values, which stood the test of time, exist for a reason. A sudden and abrupt change is disruptive to society and there could be unintended consequences. It would be for the best if we allow society to evolve naturally with time.

Painting the World Pink

Other than fighting the death penalty, social activists are increasingly motivated to promote Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender and Queer (LGBTQ) rights in Singapore and their eventual acceptance into mainstream society.

The LGBTQ community in Singapore is very active in organising events like the annual Pink Dot event to promote their cause. Such events, which can easily attract thousands of supporters in conservative Singapore, is a testament of the movement’s strength.

However, Singapore’s mainstream society remain suspicious of LGBTQ activism as the values they promote run against traditional values of family and religion. For example, detractors like the National Council of Churches (NCCS) and the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas) have repeatedly issued public statements advising against the LGBTQ agenda as incompatible with local culture: Singapore should not go down the path of postmodern liberalism as it is linked to many of the social ills in Western societies.

Strong opposition from mainstream society has not dampened the spirits of LGBTQ activists. Recently, the LGBTQ community were galvanised when anti-LGBTQ legislations were struck down in India. They were further motivated when public figures like diplomat Tommy Koh suggested that the LGBTQ community could push for changes in Singapore by repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore which criminalises sex between mutually consenting adult men.

The LGBTQ community took the cue and a Singaporean, disc jockey Johnson Ong, mounted a legal challenge to repeal 377A. Of course, this attracted swift reaction and mobilisation from conservative sections of the society which lobbied the government to retain the law. Understandably, they were fearful that this repeal would subsequently lead to an erosion of traditional and family values.

Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Faced with intense lobbying pressure from different segments of society, the government ultimately decided that maintaining the status quo is the best course of action to take.

It is not difficult to understand the rationale behind the government’s decision. According to a survey conducted by independent market research company Ipsos Public Affairs in mid-2018, it was revealed that 55 percent of Singaporeans and permanent residents supported retaining section 377A. Only 12 percent of Singaporeans and permanent residents were supportive of efforts to repeal this piece of legislation.

The survey results revealed that the majority of Singaporeans prefer to keep section 377A and hence, it bolstered the government’s narrative that conservative Singapore is currently not ready to take the liberal plunge. As the elected government of the day, the government has to take into account the aspirations of its citizens in its policy decisions. A repeal of 377A would prioritise the vocal minority at the expense of antagonising the majority in Singapore who prefer traditional values to stay. It would be unwise for any government to prioritise the interest of the minority over the majority unless there are compelling reasons to do so.

Moreover, the conservatives are not spurred by baseless homophobic tendencies; their actions are motivated by the need to defend traditional values against the assault of  modern liberal values.

Organisations like NCCS and Pergas have argued that the LGBTQ agendas could result in an erosion of the traditional family unit as a sacred institution. Healthy family units are important building blocks of any healthy society and they are essential to impart wholesome values to the next generation to become responsible members of society.

If the building blocks of society are not functioning, dysfunctional families will ultimately lead to a dysfunctional society where everybody loses. This explains why the conservatives are so strongly against any movement promoting an alternative lifestyle to replace the traditional family unit.

Regardless of the outcome of Johnson Ong’s legal challenge, the government was quick to ensure that there will be no discrimination of the LGBTQ community. Judging from the government’s response, legislations would only be amended if there is general consensus from the public.

The Journey Forward

It is undeniable that social activists are important to the advancement of our society. Without them, we may not enjoy many of the rights which we have taken for granted.

Although social activists may have noble intentions, their efforts may sometime be counter-productive if they drive their agenda too hard. In their quest for quick changes, they may fail to seek consensus from the general public by insisting on their liberal standpoint. Without addressing the concerns of the opposing majority, the majority will eventually be alienated enough to push back against liberal agendas that are forced down their throat. There is no point rushing to move one step forward, only to move back two steps after hitting resistance.

Rome was not built in a day. As with many social changes before, it would take time before the public is comfortable with change. Given the notable support for the death penalty and resistance to LGBTQ agendas, we can envision that these social activists have more hills to climb before they see any changes.

No matter what, we should never be too hasty to throw out our traditional values just to follow the latest trends in other societies. What has worked in the West may not be applicable here, and vice versa. Our values exist for a reason as they have stood the test of time. It would be stretched to believe that everything which our ancestors had stood for thousands of years ago are wrong and all it takes are liberal initiatives to resolve all our problems once and for all.

Only time will tell where Singapore will eventually swing. But until then, it would be business as usual in Singapore.

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