Thursday, July 26, 2007

Section 377A Repeal Means Less Two Lives

In the last three years, my work in a cooperative and in the community have often brought me opportunities to engage with different school students in Singapore.

Through these opportunities, I have met at least three students who not only have done extremely well in school but have been also been very active in non-academic activities.

They have now left or are about to leave school but they continue to be very active in the community. Some of them have also been roped into Singapore's national youth movement.

Another common thread between these three students is that they are in same-sex relationships.

When I met person A, I thought she was in a healthy heterosexual relationship. But later, she shared with me that she was not very happy in that relationship and ended it.

She now tells me that she is much happier in a relationship with another female friend. She has also disclosed the existence of her homosexual relationship to her loved ones, who I understand have accepted her for what she is.

Person B was comfortable enough to introduce me to his partner recently. However, before that, I had been under the impression that he was heterosexual and was seeing someone. He still maintains a public profile where he continues to see a woman, who loves him.

Person C continues to tell me how he is dating different women and happily looking to find someone to eventually marry and settle down with her. Little does he know that I know through some mutual friends he is actually homosexual. But, nevertheless, I am happy to let things be until he is ready to trust and tell me more about who he really is.

Reading the book "SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century", I have found that these stories are not unique.

Author Ng Yi-Sheng also shares the difficulties he faced when getting people to share their stories in the book, "On seeing the finished stories, a few people actually withdrew, disoriented by a first-person account that they hadn't written with their own keyboards. Two people agreed to be interviewed, then cancelled because their fathers had just forbidden them to talk about their orientations."

Other friends have shared with me about how some marriages have broken because one of the partners a few years into the marriage discloses his or her homosexuality. Some of these persons are forced into such marriages by their parents.

Going back to the three students, I found it rather odd that a girl should be able to come to terms with herself more easily and be open about it. After all, it is our boys who go through National Service and are meant to have been trained to find the courage to face their deepest fears.

I also found it odd why some parents in Singapore would forbid their own children from speaking publicly about their own orientation or how one could demolish the sacred institution of marriage with such frivolousness.

And the more I think about it, the more I am convinced it has to do with Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises gross indecency between two males. (Of course, I am not ruling out other possibilities.)

Over the past months, since the review of the Penal Code was announced, many people have provided different reasons on why Section 377A must go.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has put his foot down on this issue and said people should not be penalised for a medical condition. He has expressed his hope that the day will come when Section 377A is repealed. His parliamentary colleague, Baey Yam Keng, has also come out to support a repeal. But their voices represent a minority in the largely conservative ruling party.

Alex Au, who runs the Yawningbread.Org website, remains strident in his view that Section 377A is discriminatory. He points to how Hong Kong's Court of Final Appeal has on 17 July 2007 declared the law on homosexual buggery discriminatory and unconstitutional.

However, citing Singapore law, he notes, "The problem of course, is that the Singapore constitution does not explicitly forbid discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation; in fact it does not even forbid discrimination on the basis of sex. So men and women can be treated differently under Singapore law, and indeed are. What is a crime for men need not be a crime for women. If we haven't even recognised that men and women are equal, this only shows how backward we are."

Likewise, the Council of The Law Society of Singapore has stated, "The retention of Section 377A in its present form cannot be justified...Private consensual homosexual conduct between adults does not cause harm recogniseable by the criminal law. Thus, regardless of one’s personal view of the morality or otherwise of such conduct, it should not be made a criminal offence."

Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong has alternatively provided, "I truly do believe that a strong economic argument is the only way to get the Government to move on Section 377A in the near-future, and that an argument based purely on civil liberties will get us nowhere."

He suggests that it should be framed "in a lingo that will convince the Government" by showing "it's all about growth, jobs, money". He notes, "If you can make a convincing case that 377A is somehow affecting that, I think you've got a really good chance."

Frankly, some of these are not reasons for which I would have supported a repeal of Section 377A and, until recently, I was unconvinced about why Section 377A should go.

But now a key reason why I would support a repeal of Section 377A is because its departure would mean less people in Singapore will be cornered or compelled to lead two lives, and that more people will find it easier to be themselves.

It will enable one to stay focused on bettering oneself, instead of using that time to conjure foolish plans to keep one's sexuality secret.

Above all, the repeal of Section 377A will go some way in alleviating this distrust and climate of fear that exists in Singapore society.

A piece of legislation that lowers the self-respect a person has for oneself and forces one to live a double life; that induces the sons and daughters of Singapore to lie again and again to their loved ones; and that makes parents take unnecessary precautions to protect their children should have no place in Singapore.

It is time for Section 377A to go.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Monopoly, Moratorium, Minorities

In about 2 weeks, I will begin a process, which will last about 2 years and will eventually see me being called to the Singapore Bar.

After that, I will be able to represent another person in the Singapore courts.

As part of that process, I need apply one year in advance for pupillage in a law firm. This usually involves shadowing a senior lawyer, who helps you achieve certain learning outcomes.

Competition for pupillage is very strong in the top firms and it is very much like applying for a few lucrative positions, with thousands of other graduates.

The only difference here is, because of the caps the Singapore government imposes on law school demographics, you compete with far less applicants and have a better chance of success.

Places in these top law firms usually get snapped up very fast.

I understand the only local law school imposes a moratorium on such applications, that is no student is allowed to apply before a certain date. Those who break the moratorium usually face a penalty.

An excerpt from the directive local law school, according to one blogger, reads as follows: "In order to ensure that everyone has an equal opportunity when applying for pupillage, students will have to sign a Letter of Undertaking stating that they agree to not apply for a pupillage position until the class imposed moratorium has been lifted... Any student found to be in breach of this Undertaking before the Moratorium Date will likely jeopardize his/her pupillage position in the Law Firm. As such, students are highly encouraged to apply for a pupillage position at the Law Firm of their choosing on the Moratorium Date or soon after."

I am told that, because of the moratorium, the human resource teams of several large law firms are forced to work a lot harder.

Interviews and offers for places need to be made within days or valuable talent will be lost to other firms.

I also learnt that from a lawyer working in one law firm that her firm held back interviews and offers for places this year. What happened was something I would personally consider unprofessional as much as it may be well-intended - some law students turned up at the door demanding to be interviewed.

To me, such a moratorium smacks of anti-competitive practice, and I hope a local law student will consider having this practice escalated to the Competition Commission of Singapore for a view.

Of course, one could argue that it's not anti-competitive since the whole process is voluntary and students are always entitled to opt out. Some students, who form a minority of the law school population, choose to opt out -- bravo to them!

Fortunately, the moratorium does not apply to law graduates, who studied overseas.

But what it sometimes means is that, by the time some overseas law graduates apply, pupillage vacancies have already been taken by local law students.

Dharmendra Yadav

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Thursday, July 12, 2007

Mass Whistleblowing Military-Style

Whistleblowing has been the flavour of corporate governance for some months now.

In the last few hours, it has been alleged that a Singapore military officer of Second Lieutenant rank sent out an e-mail to a whole bunch of individuals whistleblowing about certain things one of his more senior officers had done.

There has been no official verification about this by the Ministry of Defence in Singapore. It has also not been reported by any media yet.

But if this is true, three thoughts immediately come to mind:

a. The Second Lieutenant deserves every protection he can receive as a whistleblower. He should not be punished but he should be commended for what he has done, even if one may not necessarily agree with the manner in which the issue was reported.

b. But maybe the manner in which the issue was reported can be attributed to the circumstances the officer found himself in. For example, could it be that the issue was reported and no one acted on or looked into the issue, and the Second Lieutenant acted after he was frustrated by inaction?

c. Perhaps, it also highlights the lack of a whistleblower mechanism within the public service, which is why the e-mail ended up being sent to so many people and eventually its contents are now being disclosed and discussed in the public sphere.

I will reserve further comment on this issue until more information is known. And if this issue is untrue, I ask the reader to treat this as purely a work of fiction.

I will however add that a whistleblower mechanism can and should be put in place most organisations, especially large ones and where public money is involved.

Such a mechanism will enable individuals of these organisations to better report practices, which appear questionable. The mechanism should also provide enough space for an independent investigation of the practice.

The investigation should be carried out by a person with a reporting line to the highest-ranking person in the organisation, such as the Chief Legal Officer or General Counsel.

Dharmendra Yadav

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