10 October 2008

Academic freedom and the Rascals Prize

Academic freedom has to be fought for. A spark has been lit in Singapore, with a protest on Hong Lim Green. Apart from political OB markers, gay subjects are often taboo in academia too, but the last 5 years or so have seen students exploring this field and lecturers encouraging them to do so. Time for a prize to honour the best work. Full essay.


yuen said...

>took the decision to censor the story on their own

I assume people remember the story of Mr Brown and Today - his column was suspended after MICA wrote to criticise the article "Singaporeans are fed. Up with progress." The event made the position of the Editor Mano Sabnani untenable and he subsequently had to leave.

That event too caused a demonstration: about 30 people wearing brown shirts gathered at an MRT station for a brief protest; there were no speeches however.

Anonymous said...

Well said YB. Academic freedom to the understanding of the Singapore government, means the freedom to write about (well almost) everything under the sky in scholarly journals and other related publications. It is also clearly separated from student politics and associations. However, I do feel that Wawrick university decision on not setting up a campus in singapore reflects financial considerations rather than the high sounding ideals of human rights and academic freedom.

Nevertheless, i feel that the institutions in Singapore do consistently shoot themselves in their feet. I don't understand why nobody tells them than it is better to ignore Chee. Everytime, something like this happens, Chee's position gets strengthened by exposing the naked power of Singapore's political culture behind the rhetoric of the inclusive society.

Liew Kai Khiun

Anonymous said...

academics like josephine ho, judith butler and Judith Halberstam... and the great Foucault contributed to queer activism through their intellectual work. (i am a fan of the 'history of sexuality' and its life-changing historiography)

overturning essentialisms in gender and sexuality through education is the first way to change the next generation. we need more of that. correct me if i'm wrong but a lot of queer activism in Singapore today is darwinian/psych- based, which essentialises and pathologises sexuality instead of challenging notions of social constructs.

Anonymous said...

I like to comment on the direction the gay movement in Singapore is going.
Presently, there have been attempts to get a gay advocacy group registered, several exhibitions with gay themes shown, attempts to launch gay pride film festivals and plays with gay themes being staged, among others.
While all these are necessary, they are not sufficient.
The reason is that the scope of reach is very limited. How many Singaporeans attend plays? Intellectual arguments also do not appeal to most Singaporeans because most Singaporeans are not well-read enough. Even among the well-educated like our dishonorable NMP with her anti-gay speech in parliament, they may have their own agendas to achieve. In Singapore, as long as you are not overtly gay (I leave you to interpret what that means), most Singaporeans are still tolerant. To an average Singapore, at least conceptually, a gay person is just like a foreign worker, a social outcast, tolerated as long as he knows his place. But this should not be objective of gay advocacy groups, to be tolerated like a social outcast. A gay person should not be satisfied with the status of a second class citizen.
Since any open discussion of gay issues are not permitted, there must be a certain strategy in overcoming that. The average Singapore is fascinated by icons and idols. Therfore, there must be some kind of publicity to draw attention to famous gay icons. Most Singaporeans who study history know what Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo are but they do not they are gay. Perhaps attempts can be made to inform the public media that they are gay and they have contributed as useful members of their societies. Of course, this has to be done skilfully, in a way that does not say you only bring them out because you are gay and they are gay. It must be done in a way that these icons are not simply gay icons but also icons of the world. To give an example, a scientist will consider a great revelation to him if he knows that Issac Newton is gay. Either he has to dispel his earlier beliefs that there is something wrong in being gay or that he has to conclude that Newton is not a great scientist. It is more natural for the former reaction to be elicied because the latter response is simply not true. Perhaps, he may conclude that gayness has nothing to do with his greatness as a scientist. In this case, it is still a victory for a gay person. He ca still succeed in his professional life, despite his gayness. Perhaps all these icons are too old. We need modern icons. The problem with modern gay icons is that they usually come in the form of pop stars like George Michael, Boy George and Elton John. The perception among Singaporeans is that they are pop stars anyway. They are supposed to be wild. So their gayness is a matter of choice for a wild lifestyle. We do not have icons in professions such as entrepreneurs, writers, lawyers and doctors, professions that Singaporeans respect. The closest we have in the form of a local icon is David Gan. But not to sound disrespectful, David Gan is a hairsytlist, albeit a successful one. It is a profession that most Singaporeans do not have high regard for. The problem with gay professionals, both local and the West is that they guard their privacies jealously even they have already embarked on a gay lifestyle. There was one remark made by an Oscar-winning lesbian actress who said that she preferred to be known as an actress, rather than a gay actress. A successful gay person will be accepted into a social circle and once they are accepted, they do not want to risk their acceptance by being too vocal.
There are two approaches to be taken. One is to change social attitude. Once social attitudes change, there would be a natural change in legislation. The other is to force the government to change legislation. Once the government changes legislation, social attitudes will also change. I have already touched on how we might change social attitudes. The way to ask the government to change is not to rely on the conscience of our leaders. This government is not founded on moral principles. It is founded on the principle of achieving economic progress. Imagine we have a gay owner of a multinational who is proud of his gay lifestyle and feels stiffled in Singapore. If he chooses to immigrate and to transfer all his businesses out of Singapore and that the Singapore GDP depends very much on his business, will the government not change legislation in order to keep him.
BThus, both approaches need the presence of positive gay icons. What we need to embark on is a skilful PR campaign. Look at the Brokebacks Mountain. Would it have the same effect it has actors who are not handsome? Similarly, the approach taken by the muslims in the Israel-Palestinian conflict is wrong. Sure, the Israelis always emphasize the holocaust as a mark of unfairly they have been treated. The Palestinians tried to do likewise by showing pictures of their women and children being killed on television. This is counterproductive because people quiclkly become desentisized. The difference between Israel and Palestine is that they have a lot of Jewish bankers, Jewish scientists etc but the Palestinians have few such sons and daughters that they can be proud of. The West is still very much anti-semitic but it has become politically incorrect to do so because powerful Jewish groups would come out and criticise if anti-semitic remarks are being made in public. However, it is not politically incorrect in the West to be anti-muslim. The more the muslims reacted with violence, the more the Westerners are going to hate them. The way for the Muslims is to send their sons and daughters to Western universities who outdo their western counterparts and then who became advocates for their cause. This takes a longer time but it is more effective than the present gun-holding approach by the Muslims. At this stage, I would like to clarify that I have no paricular group affiliation in the Israeli-Palestianian issue. I can draw a similar example in the Tibetan issue. Would the West pays as much attention to the Tibetan issue if they do not have an icon, the Dalai Lama. There are other humaitarian issues in the world like in Somali. Why is the West not paying similar attention to it? My answer is obvious.
To sum it up, the point that I am trying to make is that one important way for the gay campaign is to have sufficient positive gay icons.

Anonymous said...

I would like to talk about the attitudes of Chinese Singaporeans who are Buddhists, Confucianists or Taoists toward homosexuals.
Basically, these group of Singaporeans are not very religious, as it is the case with the entire Chinese race in history. The main influencer of Chinese attitude is Confucianism which strictly speaking is a philosophy of moral behaviour and not a religion. The other lines of influences are Buddhism and Taoism which act as the 'yin' in Chinese culture to counter the dominant 'yang' of Confucianism. Thus, traditionally, the Chinese, as with modern Singaporean Chinese are more influenced by Confucian concept of relationships. In Singapore, the main concept centres around family, with filial piety being generally considered the most important relationship. Except for the very few who truely understands and practices Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, the Chinese, both in the past as well as the present usually views Buddhism as having an idol, Buddha who can look after sentient beings, although strictly speaking Buddha is not a god. Similarly, most Chinese Taoists are just concerned with the Taoist gods like the Monkey God or the Jade Emperor. Buddhism and Taoism serve more to provide rituals. The only influences of these philosophies on Chinese attitude is the concept of fate, that you must accept what is unchangeable. Thus, in the past, although there is the Confucian attitude of the importance of having an heir, most Chinese in the past would view homosexuality as a fact of life and thus cannot be changed but must be accepted. Thus, there is general tolerance as long as it does not interfere with the Confucian duty of having offsprings. However, in moern Singapore, the attitude towards gays are not so much shaped by religious beliefs in this group of Singaporeans. Rather, it is influenced more by media portrayals of gay people. At its very best, gay men are being shown on television as sissies, somebody who are to be laughed at but still to be tolerated as long as they are not associated with the sexual act. At its worst, gay people are portrayed as perverts or mentally sick people. So unless these group of Singaporeans have gay friends, they will generally hold the same attitudes towards gay people as most Christians. Since most Buddhists and Taiosts are just temple-going members, they are not very much influenced by the philosophies. It is only the very educated who are interested in the essence of these philosophies. However, most Buddhist texts and the main Taoist text are silent on the gay issue. Thus, the interpretation of these philosophies on the gay issue depend very much on the individual. The official Buddhist line seems to me to be based on current Singaporen societal attitude and the government response, rather than on actual Buddhist philosophy. It is like sometimes, if you have a prejudice, you can always find some dogma to justify it. This is contrasted with the general Thai tolerance of gays. The reason is that the Thais have a less strict interpretation of Buddhism than its Chinese, Korean or Japanese counterparts. Thus, the Thais are usually not so much concerned with dogmas. The general attitude there is it is more important to be happy in life. However, having said that, even among the Thais, there is still some prejudice against gays as said by a successful cross-dressing Thai in a documentary. I think this is more a result of Western influence and in-group-out-group dynamics. Furthermore, there is a general need for Singaporeans to conform and Singapore is a society that emphasizes a lot on "proper" behaviour, gays in Singapore still face a harsher treatment from Singaporeans in general, regardless of their religious affiliations than their Thai counterparts.
In conclusion, the general Singaporean attitude is still very shaped by the Judeo-Christian prejudice as the Western civilization took a different atttitude, from the Greek tradition when the apostle Paul pronounce gays as sinners who cannot inherit the heaven. Contrary to popular belief, the current Asian prejudice does not come from Asian cultures. It is due to the Judeo-Christian attitude that was prevalent in the nineteenth century and the spread of Western colonial power in the nineteenth century. This colonial influence still persists today, although colonialism is a thing of the past in the form of institutions as it is the case with Section 377A in the Singapore law. Even in America, the pro-gay camp is still fighting a very difficult battle as they are up against the anti-gay group who can always cite the bible to justify their prejudices. The nature of the Christian religion is that it is not based on religion but more on faith. The problem with faith is that you can still believe in irrationality as long as it is based on dogma. Although there may be pro-gay people among the Christians, these are few and between. Because however liberal you want to interpret the bible, you cannot erase the obvious and direct interpretation of the biblical statement made by Paul. Even the most liberal Christian will base his stand on humanitarian reasons, rather than religious reasons. They will say that it is not up to them to judge but it is up to God. The implication behind this stand is that they cannot say that homoseuality is just a different form of sexual expression but rather it is wrong to judge. So, they are placing gays in the same league as prostitudes and drug addicts. Therefore, I will blame the Judeo and especially the Christian religion because of its more widespread reach on gay suffering.

Anonymous said...

I would like to comment on the observation that female-to-male transgenders usually pass themselves off as straight men and male-to-female transgenders are rarely considered as full woman.
You posed the question, "Which strategy works best?"
I think it is not a matter of choice for them. Due to the patriachal nature of our society, it is still more acceptable to be considered as a tomboy, rather than a sissy. Thus, the society will not bat an eyelid when they see a female wearing male clothes but if they see a male, walking around in female clothing, it will cause a scandal. And in our society, it is natural for females to hold hands but when the public sees two men holding hands, it will immediately cause a commotion. Therefore, in normal social interactions, when confronted with a female-to-male transgender, even if there remains female characteristics on the person's body, people will not question the transgender's private life and may mistakenly take "him" to be a female. The interaction can continue without much fuss. The same does not happen to male-to-female transgender. Unless that person is very feminine in appearance, such as the transgender Korean actress, it is very hard for the person interacting with the transgender to regard "her" as a female. Coupled with the fact society judges a woman more on her appearance, than that of a male, looks to the transgender male-to-female is very important.