14 November 2005

And if you are not queen, my dear

My colleagues at Singabloodypore have covered cut and pasted press articles and statements regarding the PLU/NLB affair extensively. Singabloodypore is a groupblog distinguished by the stringent analyses its contributors make on local issues and public policy, but in this matter, PLU has been given a free pass on the critical thinking treatment. After it has become apparent that no one here is willing to rise above their positions as PLU minions cheerleaders, I will have to make a sober assessment of the matter.

Let's go through PLU's initial announcement of the forum event on 1 November.
So we're going to hold a meeting there where the public can see real lesbian and gay people... talk about gay stuff. The public are of course free to wander in and listen. We're even going to allow members of the public to speak and offer their views. However, we will set one condition. If anyone wants to speak, he must take on the persona of a gay or lesbian person and speak from that perspective.

That's a stunning vote for free speech, don't you think? Especially when PLU was aware that the purpose of the NLB-sponsored open committee meetings was "allow the public to observe and perhaps engage with the issues that these civil society groups deal with."

The whole idea of fighting for gay and lesbian rights rests on the refusal of homosexual people to continue speaking up and acting in society under a default heterosexual persona. And here they are, stipulating the public can only speak at their event if they take on a gay/lesbian persona. I'm sorry, but do you seriously think you'll get a sympathetic understanding from any straight person from this "How does it feel to have the boot on your face for a change" exercise? No one from the left would support this lack of free speech. No one from the centre will be won over by this unfair rule of engagement. No one from the right will be... well, they never were anyway. As a festival open to all, the programming needs to be accessible and have a broad appeal - and this PLU event has a broad repugnance.

Today's reporters and PLU's steering committee clearly know what the real objection of the NAC was. Here, they backpedal and play down the significance of their silly rule: "While we are discussing, members of the public are free to offer suggestions. In a way, it's also interactive theatre." Yes, Alex. The public is free to give feedback, as long as they speak in the appropriate persona. I however fail to see how interactive theatre would not have been served if the audience were allowed to speak up as their real selves.

Then, there has been some form of defence for the rather odd rule. Put simply by pleinelune elsewhere, the gag rule is there to deter some homophobic zealot from grabbing the mike and hijacking the meeting/forum/theatre. Yet the founding father of the Singaporean struggle for gay equality denies this: In the Today article, he estimates that "not more than 10 PLU3 members and only a handful of members of the public would have turned up".

Now, if your event is so unpopular that only a handful would turn up, the NAC should give the venue to a more popular group - and one that doesn't attract so many disruptive homophobic zealots. And if among that pitiful handful, there is still a "homophobic zealot" (and what about free-speech zealots?), who then will ensure that the zealot will follow the gag rule? And should the zealots make a scene about the gag rule and flout it at the same time, who shall control them? The security guards of the NLB? Armed officers from Singapore's counterterrorism squad? Special officers from the NAC? One of your well-built committee members?

Now, this is purely from the point of view of the idelogical audience and the organisation of the event. What about the authorities? The state worries that if the event proves it is effortless, harmless, and equally human to speak from a gay or lesbian persona, it will lead to the normalisation of gays and lesbians in mainstream society. This is tantamount to the criminal act of promoting homosexuality and homosexual lifestyles! Yes. This gag rule was in effect a very good excuse for the machinery of the state to shut the event down. Why did PLU give them such a convenient excuse?

Then, there's the issue of the agenda. Note that the initial release didn't mention anything about the agenda - Spell#7 had just gotten the in-principle, preliminary go-ahead from NAC, which had not been in communication with PLU at that time. Yes, that's precisely what I just said. Read carefully the extract of NAC's clarification email to Spell#7:
Would you mind writing up a brief outline of how you envisage conducting the meeting, and what issues would be addressed? Perhaps if you have any other information about the PLU(3) group, and a list of its recent state interactions and public profilings, that would also be useful.

Now, when PLU says it got an "initial approval" from NLB, we must understand that
1. Spell#7 as the organiser of the series had definite approval of the series. It then got preliminary approval for the PLU event, not definite approval from NLB/NAC.
2. NLB/NAC was never in communication with PLU when it was alleged to have given its "initial approval".

Let it be known that the NAC tried to signal to PLU that it had to do a better job at selling its meeting. First, the original agenda was inappropriate:
In the planned Open Closed Door Session, a few of them, about 5 to 6, plan to talk about a Quarterly forum they are organizing in January and the forums after that. Possible forum topics are "The Singapore Constitution and Gender Issues" and "The Home Affairs Ministry's Review of Sex Laws"

Let's see. A public forum on state property, funded by state organs. Possible forum topics all lead to: we oppose these following policies of the state. And then you want to involve the audience, as part of performance theatre? This is of course more subversive than any piece of performance theatre (which is usually less direct) practised in Singapore.

When asked by NAC to reconsider the agenda, PLU's reply was a masterpiece. "The purpose of a committee meeting was purely organisational (i.e. we would be talking about setting up events and how to get speakers, venues, publicity, about attending other conferences, and arranging meetings with researchers, reporters and other activists coming to Singapore)". And the purpose of the series of events hosted by NLB is (just a reminder) allow the public to observe and perhaps engage with the issues that these civil society groups deal with. I'm sure the purely organisational stuff is something the public is keen to observe and engage with.

After news of trouble with the higher bureaucracy, PLU hastily changes the agenda to:

1. Quarterly Forum (Dec) - speaker(s), exact date, venue options?, publicity arrangements
2. 2006 Pride Month - activity proposals from JC, venue status, time to call for papers
3. Asia Pacific Network conference Kuala Lumpur (2nd week Nov)
4. Upcoming visit of PJ (4th week Nov) - meet and dinner
5. Asia-Pacific Queer conference 2006 - discuss possibility?
6. MC's idea for a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival - discuss possibility?

Great. Work. At. Getting. Support. From. Non-gays.
Yes, a Pride Month would definitely get the sympathy of the public. As with a film festival - Singaporeans watche an average 8 films a year? And the purpose of the series of events hosted by NLB is (yet another reminder) allow the public to observe and perhaps engage with the issues that these civil society groups deal with.

There's a time and place for everything. I have no problems with both agendas of the PLU, and the set of events in the second agenda seem interesting to cover in SBP in the future. Both agendas were inappropriate for the NAC's purposes - they wanted a safe and entertaining show, not this. And both agendas could be discussed in any other private meeting by the PLU committee; they didn't need the NLB/NAC event at all.

PLU clearly didn't try its hardest to get the event. It botched the negotiations with the wrong agendas and the wrong gag rules. So why the free pass at critical analysis? If Singabloodypore prides itself on dispassionately dispatching bloopers and objectionable policies from the establishment, why not do the same for alleged members of civil society? Equal opportunity, I say.

Also, refer to other mistakes made by PLU, the première [note: premier is spelt without an e and without the silly accent] Singapore advocacy group for gay equality.

Si non dominaris, inquit, filiola, iniuriam te accipere existimas?
And if you are not queen, my dear,
Think you that you are wronged?


The Legal Janitor said...

good post.

akikonomu said...

Shianux, thanks! Unfortunately it appears to be the minority opinion? Since when did Singaporeans have such low standards for their lobby groups...

coupdegrace said...

nice work, spot on.

i think most contributors @ singabloodypore at times come about as being too reactionary, rather than truly analytical.

akikonomu said...

I think the main argument on the SBP version of this post centres around:

"How much free passes should we give to the undeveloped civil society movement?"

Anyone wants to discuss or deconstruct this?

the third wei said...

wowz! love your article. i certainly like minority views, especially when they are written with such confidence. :)

pantalaimon said...

What is a "free pass"? Does the phrase even have any meaning? If you mean to say people who disagree with you on this matter believe that PLU is above any criticism, that's clearly wrong. I have repeatedly stated that I am happy to accept that PLU's tactics may not be the most effective available. But I disagree that they are restricting free speech, and to the extent that the ineffectiveness is borne out of wrongdoing by the authorities, I see no particular grounds for criticism of PLU on that count.

Not being convinced by your - rather flimsy - arguments does not equate lionising the organisation concerned as beyond criticism, or being in any other way 'reactionary.'

akikonomu said...

Free pass:

I don't think Singapore's civil society groups should be 'held to a higher standard' at all. If anything, the fact that they already face so many problems and restrictions means that we should be more sympathetic to their cause.

You described PLU as an organisation that owes you no debt of political responsibility and has no actual political power which might form the basis of wishing it to be accountable.

Now, instead of saying "your argument is flimsy", perhaps you would be more honest and just simply say "I categorically reject your argument" instead.

pantalaimon said...

But exactly WHAT does "holding it to a higher standard" entail?! This is what I have never figured out. And you edited that quote to remove the part where I expressed that doubt. I don't understand what it means to hold it to a higher standard (also, 'higher' than what?), I don't understand what the 'free pass' means. Exactly WHAT would we do differently, besides mouth off differently, between 'giving them a free pass' or not 'giving them a free pass', between 'holding them to a higher standard', or not 'holding them to a higher standard'? As far as I can see, none of your arguments change the fact that the authority in question behaved wrongfully in refusing to allow the event, and that PLU cannot be held responsible for someone else's wrongful behaviour. Insofar as you are arguing that this position I have just outlined is wrong, your arguments -have- been flimsy, and I don't accept them. Insofar as you are not arguing that this position is wrong, this notion of 'free passes' and 'higher standards' strikes me as meaningless and hollow.

On accountability. The point is, at the end of the day, they have no reason to need to be accountable to any of us, except their members. We have grounds to criticise their activities on the basis of wrongfulness (regardless of our interests) or even ineffectiveness (if we are interested in furthering their cause) but there's no reason for them to be accountable, as such, to us. Do you get my drift?

I almost never reject arguments categorically unless there's an obvious moral basis for doing so. Everything I say has to be taken in context; I don't see any value in arguing from acontextual and ahistorical principle. So, no, I'm not about to reject your arguments 'categorically'. I just think they don't make any sense in the current situation.

pantalaimon said...

To clarify, the accountability point is also meant to distinguish a private group from the government. Broadly speaking, the government should be accountable to us for all the actions it takes. Whereas broadly speaking, without specific circumstances suggesting the contrary, an NGO should not. This doesn't strike me as at all controversial if you have even an ounce of democratic belief in your body.

akikonomu said...

From SBP, Shianux said:

"in order to successfully change the existing mainstream culture, they must be held to a higher standard of 'actions' (for want of a better word) than they have done so far."

So listen up, Pantalaimon.

1. PLU's eventual goal is acceptance of homosexuality by the mainstream, yes? That means it's in a long-term project to change the mainstream, or to get lots of ordinary people change their minds about homosexuality. Of course its attempt at such will have to be accountable to even mainstream, non-gay, non-PLU people.

2. PLU is a civil society group. Its actions affect the credibility of civil society and the liberal movement. They are accountable as a member of civil society, to the stakeholders and members of civil society.

3. PLU doesn't claim to speak for its members, it claims to speak for the entire community of gay and lesbian people - who fall far far outside whatever unofficial membership PLU has. That you suggest it be only accountable to its members either suggests you're talking out of your depth on this matter, or you don't really care about the real stakeholders of PLU.

Yes, folks. There is something really reactionary about my colleagues at SBP. Where even members of the community like jaded_basement claim to be annoyed at PLU's actions and pleinelune admits PLU makes mistakes in planning like any organisation, Pantalaimon stays the course!

pantalaimon said...

All I've done is disagree with your particular criticisms and the notion of 'accountability' insofar as you originally applied it in terms of its analagousness to the accountability of the government. I've never once said they're above criticism in any way, or specifically above criticism of their effectiveness. I just think your particular criticisms as well as your particular notion of 'accountability' is a load of bollocks. The fact that I have continued to hold this position fairly steadily strikes me more as testimony to your own inability to persuade (OOOOH INEFFECTIVENESS!) than to my supposed reactionary nature.

pantalaimon said...

To respond to your specific points:

1. I want to make money. In order to do this I must persuade people to pay me money. THIS MAKES ME ACCOUNTABLE TO OTHER PEOPLE IN MY ATTEMPTS!

2. This is just silly. If you are left-handed, are you accountable to all left-handed people for how you 'represent' them? No. If you're an engineer, are you accountable to all engineers for how you 'represent' them? No. They're private people seeking to achieve a particular aim. Even if the aim is political in nature, that doesn't transform them into 'representatives' of other people.

3. This is more sensible but then the more appropriate criticism is that they shouldn't claim to speak for people they don't represent - not that they should be held accountable to people they don't represent.

I'd still like to see you answer my question about what we would actually do differently if we held them 'accountable' or did not hold them 'accountable.'

Anonymous said...

The examples that P gives are not good parallels at all. An engineer does not have a personal committment or mission to better the lives of engineers everywhere. Same goes for lefties. PLU is a private group, but its mandate extends to gays everywhere in Singapore. By that extension to the public domain, it is to be differentiated from other groups like private companies, who are only answerable to their shareholders.

In this case, gays everywhere are not the equivalent of shareholders in a private company, but they do have a right to be disappointed when PLU fails. They also have an interest in seeing PLU succeed. If PLU fails, the public doesn't have a right to sack the PLU exco, but it can definitely contribute ideas to PLU so that it can be more effective, Akik's being that they should simply be more modest in their goals.

If PLU wants to ignore public advice and criticsm, then it does so at not only its own peril, but that of gays everywhere. Because of the potential impact of mission failure, it owes it to the public to be receptive to criticism.

rench00 said...

interesting post and comments. always an education when i read this blog.

i'm not too acquainted about the movement, so correct me if i'm wrong in drawing the following conclusions:

1. Aiki's point of view is that PLU could have done things in a more efficacious manner wrt their event that was rejected.

2. in not doing so, PLU has reflected badly upon Civil Society groups

3. we should expect our Civil Society groups to be of better standards than what they are currently exhibiting now so that there are reasonable grounds for the Government to take Civil Society groups seriously.

4. Unfortunately, the way things are being done currently by some Civil Society groups makes it too easy for the Government to dismiss them as frivolous and inconsequential makers of noise and blowers of hot air.

5. what i think is my greatest takeaway, we should not only blame the Government for not listening to Civil Society groups but should also see how Civil Society groups can be more efficacious by being more critical.

in response to the issue with the PLU:
1. i feel that PLU could have done more to make their proposal for the event more palatable (and hence more 'yes-able') to NAC.

2. it is not clear what PLU was trying to achieve.

3. what the PLU wants to do does not seem to be grounded in reality and hence seems less than achievable, which is fine but only if they have a solid action plan to get around obstacles. this supposes that they know what the obstacles are in the first place.

just some thoughts of what i have gleaned from the post. correct me if i'm wrong please.

akikonomu said...

rench00, it's also important to try to understand why other people disagree with me. The discussion here is a continuation of the commentary there, where my post was mirrored.