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I Heart Janadas Devan

Seriously, I do. Right now, I want to have his kids because I want them to inherit his wits and brains [and my good looks… okay, okay, you can stop throwing the rotten tomatoes now].

My father, of all people, pointed out an article he wrote in Insight in today’s Straits Times. He presents a far better rebuttal of Thio than anything I or the other bloggers have written, and way funnier. I don’t agree with him on the gun bit, but the rest of the article is pure gold, in my opinion.

Please send him love-mail.

And guys, I know Thio Li-Ann is everyone’s favourite strawman… er…. strawwoman, but please don’t send her hate-mail. She’s not worth it. It is rather funny, though, how everything Thio does kinda backfires on her, or doesn’t quite have the effect she is hoping for. She complained about the banned pink picnic, and just to spite her, 150 people turned up for the non-existent picnic which would otherwise be attended by a measly 20-30 people. Her hysterical anti-gay stand in parliament, while gaining support among the die-hard conservatives, is alienating the moderate middle [which is the real majority, despite her assertions to the contrary].

I am actually kind of happy she made that speech. Long Live Thio! Please continue doing what you do. [Subscription required]

Oct 27, 2007
377A debate and the rewriting of pluralism
By Janadas Devan
I CONFESS: I found the parliamentary debate on Section 377A of the
Penal Code exceedingly depressing. It is no fun at all finding oneself
holding a view – I believe the provision is odious and should be
scrapped – with so little support.

Of the 82 PAP MPs, only 3-1/2 expressed views that resembled mine – Mr
Charles Chong, Mr Hri Kumar and Mr Baey Yam Keng. The half was Ms
Indranee Rajah, who suggested 377A might be scrapped at some point,
only not in this century. Her citation of how long it took to end
slavery suggested we might have to wait roughly 2,500 years.

Of the nine NMPs, only one, Mr Siew Kum Hong, who presented the
citizens’ petition calling for the repeal of 377A, stood up for
homosexuals. And among the three opposition MPs, none did.

My depression was infinitely deepened when I read NMP Thio Li-Ann’s
parliamentary phillipic – entitled Two Tribes Go To (Culture) War – as
well as her Insight article yesterday. She was brilliant, incisive,
learned, witty and civil. The ‘moral conservative majority’ has found
a formidable warrior – notice that ‘War’; and my side – the immoral
liberal minority? – was left looking stupid, speechless, confused,
sour-faced and uncivil.

Consider how she tore to shreds so many of our cherished beliefs. The
idiots that we are, we had believed ‘pluralism’ meant, among other
things, ‘autonomy and retention of identity for individual bodies’, a
‘society in which the members of minority groups maintain their
independent cultural traditions’, ‘a system that recognises more than
one ultimate principle or kind of being’, as the Oxford English
Dictionary puts it.

But we were wrong. ‘Democratic pluralism,’ Prof Thio wrote incisively
yesterday, ‘welcomes every view in public discussion, but does not
commit the intellectual fallacy of saying every view is right. The
goal is to ascertain the right view for the circumstances.’ That means
that under certain circumstances – to be determined by whatever passes
for the majority at any moment, I suppose – pluralism can insist on a
singular ‘ultimate principle or kind of being’.

We silly fellows had also misunderstood the nature of secularism. We
had thought it meant separation of religion from the state, politics
and public policy. We were wrong. As Prof Thio explained trenchantly
in her ‘culture war’ speech: ‘Religious views are part of our common
morality. We separate ‘religion’ from ‘politics’ but not ‘religion’
from ‘public policy’ (emphasis mine).

I never knew that! I had always assumed that it was necessary to
separate religion from politics as well as public policy, for it was
impossible to separate public policy from politics, and both from the
state. But it turns out my assumption was baseless.

Jawaharlal Nehru, a Brahmin who insisted on untouchability being
banned in the Indian Constitution despite the opposition of many caste
Hindus, simply did not understand a thing about secularism. Bishop
Desmond Tutu, a Methodist who insisted that discrimination against
homosexuals be prohibited in the South African Constitution, was
similarly clueless. And all those Enlightenment chaps in powdered wigs
who insisted on the separation of church and state in the United
States – in part, because there was no ‘common morality’ among
religions – well, silly fellows, they knew nothing.

Yes, I must admit, Prof Thio demolished my side with astonishing ease.
First, her big guns – pluralism is not plural; secularism can be
religiously informed – left us limbless. Then, equally impressively,
the cultural warrior sliced and diced us with her rapier wit and
uncommon civility. We were finally left with our torsos tossed into
ideological ditches and our heads stuck on cultural pikes.

‘To say a law is archaic is merely chronological snobbery,’ she
thundered, referring to 377A. That sent me reeling. So original! So
conclusive! So brilliant!

‘Chronological snobbery’ was first coined by Owen Barfield and C.S.
Lewis, two eminent British popular theologians. It first appeared in
print, I think, in Lewis’ moving spiritual autobiography, Surprised By
Joy. Lewis and Barfield coined it to stigmatise modern ‘intellectual
fashions’ that they thought consigned unfairly religious faith to a
seemingly unregenerate past.

Prof Thio, a most learned person, must have known of the origin of
this phrase in theological controversy, and she brilliantly extended
it to the law. And if one linked this extension to the profound truths
she uncovered about public policy in a secular state, one would see
how her stigmatisation of ‘chronological snobbery’ can be extended
further still. All those in favour of teaching ‘intelligent design’
alongside Darwin’s theory of evolution in schools, raise your hands.
Done! Education Ministry, please take note.

Then there was her wit, deployed so civilly. Anal sex is like ‘shoving
a straw up your nose to drink’, she said. A colleague of mine googled
that and discovered it was an often cited image in American anti-gay
pamphlets. To top that, she said 377A must be kept on the books so we
can say ‘Majullah Singapura’, not ‘Mundur Singapura’. If you did not
get the joke, here is a clue: Mundur means ‘backward’ in Malay, and
‘backward’ here alludes to that ‘straw’ and another orifice. See? Now,
isn’t that funny?

Oh, I cried when I read that. Imagine that: The moral conservative
majority makes better vulgar jokes than the immoral liberal minority –
and in Parliament too. If the immoral minority cannot beat the moral
majority even in this department, we are really and truly kaput.

What sent me into shock was the discovery that Singapore is actually
the US. I am referring to Prof Thio’s sources of inspiration. Google
‘culture war’ and you will discover them.

The term was made famous by Mr Patrick Buchanan, a right-wing
conservative (many would say zealot) who challenged former president
George H.W. Bush, a moderate, for the Republican presidential
nomination in 1992. At the Republican convention that year, Mr
Buchanan alarmed many Americans by declaring: ‘There is a religious
war going on in our country for the soul of America. It is a cultural
war, as critical to the kind of nation we will one day be as was the
Cold War itself.’

Once one understands the milieu from which this statement issues, one
would understand the origins of Prof Thio’s profound understanding of
pluralism and secularism. It does not derive from the Enlightenment or
from contemporary Europe or Asia. It derives from the American
religious right. It is they who insist pluralism cannot ultimately be
plural; it is they who demand public policy be informed by religious

And all but a few thumped their seats when Prof Thio finished her
speech? They must have missed the radical – yes, radical and extreme –
nature of her claims. One person who did not, I think, was Prime
Minister Lee Hsien Loong. My colleague Chua Mui Hoong reported he did
not thump his seat.

That lifted my depression somewhat. I did not like one bit the upshot
of the Prime Minister’s speech – that 377A will stay because the
majority, especially Christians and Muslims, are opposed to its
scrubbing. But I was proud of what he had to say, and how he said it.

There are ‘limits’, he said, for homosexuals in Singapore. But there
would be limits too, in how religious beliefs are applied in the
policing of homosexuals. Section 377A will not be applied
‘proactively’, he said – meaning, it will be inoperative.

Mr Stuart Koe, chief executive of gay Asian portal, was
wrong to liken 377A to a gun being put to the heads of homosexuals and
not pulling the trigger. There is a gun, it remains symbolically
loaded, but it has been laid down.

For that – a small victory – we have to thank old-fashioned pluralism,
not Prof Thio’s radical rewriting of it. Some of us – our children,
our friends, our siblings – have different sexual orientations, so
let’s give them space.

For the rest – well, we will have to wait, but hopefully, not for
2,500 years.


October 27, 2007 - Posted by | Law | , , , , , , , , ,

1 Comment »

  1. I stumbled on this rather late but I love the fact that you have a i-heart-janadas-devan blog! He is perhaps one of the few journalists who writes with both his heart and his mind and.. his wit. I hope he continues to inspire you, the way he inspires me.

    Comment by Arathi | August 11, 2010 | Reply

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