The Orlando shootings: Will they make a difference in Southeast Asia?

Photo: Jimmy Liew/CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

By Holly Reeves

Two weeks ago a gunman with an assault rifle killed 49 people in a gay nightclub in Orlando; America’s worst ever act of gun crime. And his actions have sparked an outpouring of emotion and contempt that even conservative Southeast Asia needs to address.

In heavily regulated Singapore, politically or socially sensitive public gatherings can only be held in Hong Lim Park, the country’s sole official protest area. But on 14 June, the sculpted corner of the bustling city became an aching sea of pink as hundreds of people came together in support of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community.

Similar vigils and memorials were also held in Orlando itself, as well as cities around the world, including London, Berlin and Bangkok. But not everyone with their eyes on the proceedings in Singapore was an ally. More on that later.

The main organiser, Nicholas Lim, said in a statement read at the beginning of the event that the LGBT community was “part of a larger family – we are sons, daughters, brothers, sisters, friends and co-workers”. But he knows as well as any that the rights of homosexuals is a thorny issue for Singapore’s island nation.

In Singapore, sex between men is illegal according to the statute books, but over the years the rules have been loosely observed and homosexuality is quietly tolerated. According to Lynette Chua, an assistant professor of law at the National University of Singapore the city-state’s leaders have even said the anti-gay law, known as Section 377A of the Penal Code, will not be enforced. But, “discrimination remains rife, although it is subtle and often masked under the need to protect a pro-family Asian culture.”

And this discrimination and resistance is sometimes not even subtle. Conservative voices have lobbied for the law to be maintained through a campaign to ‘Wear White’ as a counter to Pink Dot; the home-grown LGBT rights pressure group. But on 14 June, things turned a little darker.

A comment posted on a public Facebook discussion by a man called Bryan Lim said he would like to “open fire” on a gay rally. His disturbing narrative continued: “I am a Singaporean citizen. I am an NSman. I am a father. And I swore to protect my nation.”

“Give me the permission to open fire. I would like to see these £@€$^*s die for their causes.”

Lim now suggests the comment was taken out of context, that he didn’t mean it, that everything has been blown out of proportion. But his outburst nonetheless brought a quick reply from senior figures.

A duty to protect

Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam, said, “The government’s duty is to protect everyone. Their race, their religion, their sexual orientation – these are not relevant in terms of the government’s duty to protect.”

His public declaration on Facebook added, “I think in this incident, (it) again highlights the threat of terror, whether it’s targeted at religious groups or whether it’s targeted at specific people, individuals. And we, as Singaporeans, have to come together, unite together to fight this terror.”

However, the threat to the LGBT community is not actually from gun violence, continues Lynette Chua. Instead, “we must remember that violence takes many forms, not only physical.” As such, the gay, lesbian and transgender community is “still unprotected by the law from discrimination on the basis of their sexuality or gender identity.”

In the wake of the sudden interest, gay rights groups are calling for politicians to back up their words with actions. Just last year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said Singaporeans are not ready to accept same-sex marriages, as the wider community is “still conservative.”

He explained, “If they push the agenda too hard, there will be a very strong pushback. And this is not an issue where there is a possibility that the two sides can discuss and eventually come to a consensus. Now, these are very entrenched views, and the more you discuss, the angrier people get.”

Is this fulfilling the state’s duty to “protect everyone”? Or does that protection extend only to threats of violence? The balance that must be found in Singapore, and across Southeast Asia, is to stay true to traditional cultures without supporting the kind of extreme ideas expressed by Bryan Lim.

In the words of Pink Dot themselves, “The presence of individuals who harbour such thoughts and who publicly perpetuate intolerance based on their narrow perspectives of the world deeply saddens and concerns us.”

“This clearly shows we should never take what we have for granted and continue to seek dialogue and opportunities to highlight to others the dangers of discrimination and intolerance.” And the sentiment is quite correct. Extremism, radicalisation and terror is too often tarred with the brush of religion but intolerance can take many forms.

And as the events in Orlando show; the blood of innocents runs just as easily, whatever the motivation for pulling the trigger. We must be vigilant. We must be kind. You don’t need to agree with how people live their lives, just recognise their right to do so.