Story by Nicholas Carverhill, Guest Columnist
On Jan. 27, 2016, Yale-NUS Governing Board Member Ambassador Chan Heng Chee spoke at the Universal Periodic Review of Singapore’s human rights, hosted by the United Nations. At this review she defended Singapore’s position on gay rights and the existence of Section 377A—institutionalized inequality—in the Penal Code. No less than 12 delegations recommended that Singapore protect LGBTQI+ persons more robustly—most of those delegates called explicitly for Singapore to repeal Section 377A. Ambassador Chan is, admittedly, merely acting as a mouthpiece for the Singapore government’s oft-repeated position on the issue—discriminatory laws on the books, but not in practice. Be that as it may, it is unacceptable that Yale-NUS College, a community composed of a strong LGBTQI+ student population, retain Ambassador Chan as a member of its Governing Board so long as she must advocate for this position.
The Governing Board is responsible for the highest level of strategic oversight of our College, and it is morally imperative that those members are able to defend this community’s values unequivocally. Ambassador Chan may very well be fulfilling her role as a civil servant, whose job it is to defend Singapore’s position on gay rights. In this capacity, she is obviously unable to speak freely on legislation like 377A.
Such is the unfortunate reality of being an ambassador—or, in many cases, a file-and-rank politician. Regardless, if Yale-NUS is to live up to its claim of “creat[ing] a pluralistic and inclusive college community, in which all students are able to openly express the multiple social and personal identities they hold,” it cannot have leadership that must actively advocate for policies that contradict this commitment—as Ambassador Chan has this past week. Section 377A is undoubtedly harmful to LGBTQI+ individuals; it perpetuates damaging norms and leads to tangible discriminatory practices—these have been catalogued and documented widely by civil society groups in Singapore. Tolerating (unofficial) gay bars, (a heavily regulated and challenged) Pink Dot, and a thin representation of queer characters in theatre (those are the ones that get by the censors) is not enough. So long as gay men are singled out in official legislation, the state will be endorsing the norm that they are ‘different’ from the ‘rest of us’ whose sexual choices are not subject to official censure.
Yale-NUS may be beholden to the laws of Singapore, but we do not have to accommodate the government’s official position on gay rights within our own leadership ranks. We must have the backbone to reject discrimination in any way we can. This issue should not be up for debate in the Yale-NUS College community; all students deserve equal treatment in practice and in theory. We have an entire office (Diversity) dedicated to this principle. To suggest that we can negotiate this issue is antithetical to the ethos of this space that we share. Causing potential offense is an inadequate justification for discrimination. This is not an endorsement of the ‘gay lifestyle.’ It is, plain and simple, a commitment to equality through leadership that is positioned to defend this norm.
So what next? The first step is to welcome Ambassador Chan and our College’s leadership to engage in conversation with the student body on the issue—it is important to hear from them. Although unlikely to result in a public reversal of her position on the issue, we ought not jump to immediate conclusions. Half-measures, however, will not do. Barring a willingness to defend the rights of LGBTQI+ students—including a stand against official discriminatory government policies—Ambassador Chan must be asked to relinquish her position on the Governing Board.
We, as a community, must have the collective moral fortitude to put our highest aspirations of equality and opportunity above power politics. Ambassador Chan is no doubt a valuable contributor to the Governing Board; her connections, intellect, and experience surely serve us well. What’s more, there is no doubt that Ambassador Chan is tremendously accomplished in academia, politics, diplomacy, business, and other fields. It also goes without saying that she has made meaningful, and progressive, contributions to the endeavours with which she has been involved—including international diplomacy, philanthropy, and community building.
Nonetheless, we abandon the core of our College’s commitment to diversity and inclusion if we choose to sacrifice our LGBTQI+ peers at the altar of political expediency. Let there be no mistake about it, that is what retaining Ambassador Chan would entail if all else remains equal. Yale-NUS is morally bankrupt if we stand in silence and complicity—#WeAreYaleNUSToo, and we will defend equality and inclusion, even at the cost of political capital.
The views expressed here are the author’s own. The Octant welcomes all voices in the community. Email submissions to: email@example.com