Ambassador-at-large Professor Chan Heng Chee spoke recently at the Universal Periodic Review (UPR) some time late January. The UPR is a forum of the Human Rights Council of the United Nations to review the human rights policies and practices of the member nations of the UN. As expected, Prof. Chan had to respond to calls to repeal Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code. That is the part of the Penal Code that criminalises sex between two men. As expected, Prof. Chan said things which could be construed to defend NOT repealing 377A.
Let me first state upfront that I am all for repealing 377A. What two men do behind close doors consensually is up to them. If indeed what they are doing is an expression of the love they have for each other, then we should just wish them well and leave them be. Why should we have laws that punish them?
But for whatever reasons, our government doesn’t think this way. And Prof. Chan, as the head of the delegation at the UPR, had to do her duty and defend that position. We would be surprised if she acted otherwise.
Prof. Chan is also on the governing board of the Yale-NUS college in Singapore. It’s a liberal arts college, whose purported mission is to encourage “habits of creativity, curiosity, and critical thinking”. It’s also supposed to have a “diverse group of students, faculty, staff, and supporters”. Within such diversity, I suppose there would be groups of people who are for appealing 377A as well as those who are against.
The voices supporting the repeal of 377A definitely rang out loud and clear from Yale-NUS college in response to what Prof. Chan said at the UPR. In particular, a certain Nicholas Carverhill wrote an article in The Octant (a Yale-NUS student publication) calling for Prof. Chan to relinquish her position from the governing board of Yale-NUS. Nicholas wasn’t alone. Apparently a number of other students have also echoed this position.
What hypocrisy! Yale-NUS College is supposed to embrace diversity. How can it then be that the moment someone says something you don’t agree with, you want to boot that person out of your community? That’s like saying: “If you say something I don’t agree with, then you have no right to say anything at all!” How’s that “liberal”?
“Ah! But it’s about integrity and consistency! Yale-NUS embraces diversity! We must not have anyone on the governing board who defends 377A.” Isn’t that already a contradiction? It’s like shouting “We will be inclusive, except if you oppose our views. If you oppose our views, out you go!” It gives the impression that the proponents of repealing 377A don ‘the just want to shove their opinions down the throats and up the arses of everyone else, they would exile anyone who still opposes their views. How is that inclusive? How is that embracing diversity?
And if the proponents of integrity and consistency are truly that idealistic, then what would they do if Yale-NUS refuses to force Prof. Chan to leave the governing board? Would they, in order to maintain their own integrity and consistency in their support of repealing 377A, quit Yale-NUS because it is no longer aligned to their personal con victims?
There is nothing wrong with having a healthy, vigorous discussion about this (or any) issue. In fact, there is something beautiful about youths standing up for what they believe. There is something inspirational about youths coming forth to try to change the world for the better, to right the wrongs, to bring justice to those who have been treated unfairly. But it cannot be that the only way to do this is to turn the tables and oppress and silence others.
I am also not saying that we need to tolerate intolerance. No. We should not. We should fight against intolerance. But we should not become intolerant to those who were intolerant (which is exactly what the Yale-NUS students who are calling for Prof. Chan’s resignation are). We must be always mindful not to become the oppressors. As Nietzsche said: “Beware that, when fighting monsters, you yourself do not become a monster… for when you gaze long into the abyss. The abyss gazes also into you.”
In any case, one could argue that making Prof. Chan resign from the governing board would do more harm than good. Would Prof. Chan’s resignation from the governing board do anything to lessen the discrimination (viz 377A) that the LGBTI+ community is experiencing? No. Not a single iota. Would Prof. Chan’s resignation from the governing board make it more likely for 377A to be repealed? Nope. Not in the least. So what benefit would there be in forcing Prof. Chan to resign from the governing board? Probably nothing. But the rest of the Yale-NUS community would lose the benefit of having someone like Prof. Chan serving on the governing board. Net result? More harm and probably nothing good.
I hope that the majority of Yale-NUS students are smarter and less hypocritical than those who have been baying for Prof. Chan’s resignation.
[Featured image: Ambassador-at-large Prof. Chan Heng Chee at the UPR. Image from Channel News Asia]