#55: A win for Taiwan, more hard work in Singapore

Hello from Taipei! I’ll be speaking tomorrow at a forum organised by the Foundation for Excellent Journalism Award—looking forward to learning from presentations from Malaysia, Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea and the Philippines, and to sharing my observations of press freedom and civil liberties in Singapore.

It’s been a most excellent week so far; on Thursday evening I won a Human Rights Press Award for commentary writing (for my 2018 pieces on the “fake news” debate in Singapore—and look where we are now, unfortunately). I’ve wandered about Taipei, eaten a lot of truly excellent food, and today I got to attend the rally outside the Legislative Yuan and be there as Taiwan’s Parliament officially approved same-sex marriage. Congratulations, Taiwan!


Where’s Singapore on the LGBT issue?

Given the great news about Taiwan being the first country in Asia to legalise same-sex marriage, we might as well start with the LGBT issue in Singapore.

Let’s get it out of the way: the news isn’t as good as what happened in Taiwan this week. Two separate reports in Singapore have found that social workers feel ill-equipped to work with LGBT clients. This reminds me of a story I did last year in that highlighted how schools, school counsellors and teachers might not be great at working with LGBT students either.

This past week also saw the launch of Pink Dot, which will take place on 29 June this year. This year, they’re focusing on highlighting discrimination and urging people to take a stand against it. Organisers premiered their campaign video, and also revealed this year’s ambassadors. Which was all going pretty fine and dandy until actor Tosh Zhang, one of four 2019 Pink Dot ambassadors, was called out for homophobic and misogynistic tweets from years ago. He’s since had to apologise.

Drugs and the death penalty

A survey done by the Ministry for Home Affairs found overwhelming support for maintaining Singapore’s anti-drug laws, but only about 52.7% of Singaporeans aged 13–30 felt the death penalty was appropriate for those caught trafficking large amounts of drugs. In the article, it’s framed as if that’s a problem that requires more government education to emphasise why it’s important this law must stay. But there isn’t actually any evidence that the death penalty is more effective than any other punishment in deterring drug offences.

Related: I’ve just heard that there’ll be at least one execution this coming Friday.

C’mon, it’s time for #TimesUp in Singapore now

After the important uproar the Monica Baey sparked, another female student has been filmed by a male peer in the National University of Singapore. This guy is both a perv and an idiot. He’s been charged with criminal trespass and insulting the modesty of the female student. But he isn’t the only one: he’s actually the fourth reported voyeur case in a Singaporean university since Monica Baey brought up her case last month. Students say that their institutions need to do much better.

A man charged with sexually assaulting his stepdaughter when she was eight and nine years old has had his guilty plea turned down. He’d claimed that the child had made advances on him. He’s now facing more serious charges.

Another guy, notorious in the sex worker circles, has finally been punished for assaulting women.


Observations from Taiwan, and what it means for Singapore

I’d like to share some thoughts here about what I observed at the rally for same-sex marriage in Taipei today, separate from the issue of LGBT equality.

It was absolutely pouring with rain but thousands of people—organisers say there were as many as 40,000—showed up to take a stand for marriage equality. A giant screen had been erected with a live feed of parliamentary proceedings broadcast for all to see (if you could see from your position in the crowd) and hear what the legislators were discussing in the House. This meant that the LGBT activists who were leading the rally were able to provide a live commentary of the proceedings: they could comment on arguments raised by particular parliamentarians, rebut problematic assertions, explain aspects of the law being debated to those gathered, and examine the voting record of each legislator on each aspect of the law. They elaborated on why different bits of the law—beyond the line on same-sex marriage—were important, and how it would impact lives. During lulls in the debate, they’d provide some basic education on processes—such as the documents that you need to bring to register a marriage, with an additional warning that sometimes public offices would send notices to your registered address (for those who might be estranged from their parents, but are still registered as living with them). They encouraged people to call up legislators’ offices or go to their social media pages to leave messages of thanks and encouragement if that representative had support marriage equality; if the parliamentarian hadn’t, activists asked those gathered to keep it in mind when the next election rolls around.

It was such a world of difference from Singapore, where we tend to think of politics and debates and parliamentary sessions as done deals in which we have no genuine input. While the mainstream media gets a live feed of Parliament piped straight into their newsroom, Singaporean citizens don’t have access to such a feed. If the media doesn’t live-tweet or do fast-writes of what’s going on in the House, we wouldn’t have a clue what our elected representatives are saying or doing (unless we went down to observe the session in person). This is ludicrous and embarrassing.

Case in point: there was no reporting during chunks of the POFMA debate, and friends who had gone to Parliament to watch the session could not be contacted because they weren’t allowed to bring electronic devices with them. I was reduced to trying to glean information from journalists friends who might have their laptops or phones in the media gallery or press room of Parliament… or just waiting and hoping for some news. Ugh.

There’s an argument that parliamentary live feeds have low viewership, and so there’s no point in doing one. But I don’t buy that; parliamentary live feeds don’t exist for ratings, they exist for accountability. They matter when big issues—such as marriage equality—are on the table. They also signal something: that the people are and should be part of the process, and in real-time, rather than having their democracy mediated for them in a top-down system. It really makes a difference when we can watch and respond as our representatives speak on our behalf, rather than be cut out of the process until later.

There are many other factors that lead to the sense of ownership and power that the Taiwanese feel over their politics and their democracy, so I can’t say it’s as simple as having a live feed of Parliament. But it’s one little piece of the puzzle, and really shouldn’t be that much of an ask in Singapore. We are, after all, supposed to be a Smart Nation.