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#21: Ready for repeal? The 377A debate heats up.

I’m going to try to keep this one short because it’s been a long day and it’s 1:10am now and I’m still writing this newsletter… my cat is sending some strong hints about it being bedtime!

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377A is a hot topic once more as LGBT activists push the #Ready4Repeal campaign in the light of both the Indian Supreme Court decision and Singapore’s upcoming review of the Penal Code. Their petition has, at the time of writing, over 40,000 signatures.

As mentioned in the last issue, the government is reluctant to move, citing social norms. A survey finds that 55% of Singaporeans are in support of retaining 377A, supporting the government’s assertion that the majority of Singaporeans are conservative and don’t want to repeal the homophobic colonial-era law. The National Library Board has also moved eight children’s books to sections for older readers in the past four years following complaints of “homosexual content”. The National Council of Churches Singapore has also made clear that it doesn’t think the law should be repealed (although as a secular country they shouldn’t get so much sway in the first place). But op-eds have argued—and I agree—that a human rights issue like 377A shouldn’t be left to the court of public opinion.

To up the ante a little further, a new court challenge has been filed against 377A. But where would we be without some straightsplainin’? This time, it’s Minister for Education Ong Ye Kung telling us that there’s no discrimination against the LGBT community in Singapore. Because no one knows better than a privileged straight male Chinese politician.

Public consultation on the Penal Code

The government is calling for feedback on proposed amendments to the Penal Code. But the consultation period ends 30 September, which isn’t long at all considering the proposed amendments are over 500 damn pages long.

There’s good news, though: under this review, we might finally see the end of marital immunity for rape—thank you so much to activists who worked on the No To Rape campaign in 2009—and perhaps also the decriminalisation of attempted suicide.

Much ado about smoking

MPs have urged Singapore authorities to curb smoking in homes because they say their constituents have complained about secondhand smoke from their neighbours entering their flats. This comes off the back of amendments to the Smoking (Prohibition in Certain Places) Act, which allow the government to designate more no-smoking zones and give officers more powers to enforce the rules. But how would one restrict smoking in the privacy of someone’s home? It cray.

Hawker centres

Hawker centres. We love them so much in Singapore we want them to be UNESCO-stamped heritage. But hawkers are struggling to keep up. RICE Media profiles Maxwell Food Centre, where after-hours business has dropped. Meanwhile, The Online Citizen followed up on the story of hawkers being made to pay fees to management to conduct spot checks; although the management claimed that this was an optional fee, hawkers told TOC that they weren’t aware they had a choice.

Ragging in the SCDF

More details of the tragic death of Corporal Kok Yuen Chin have emerged. His colleagues had pushed him into the pump well to celebrate the end of his National Service, and it took 36 minutes for them to pull him out, by which point it was too late.

About the neighbours

I’m not doing visual breaks or events and announcements today because frankly, I ran out of time to collate them this week. Instead, I’m giving you a bonus interview with Clare Rewcastle Brown, who was very briefly in Singapore launching her book The Sarawak Report: The Inside Story of the 1MDB Exposé. (I got to interview her in the backseat of a car on the way from the airport to the launch!)

Give us a brief introduction of your book.
This is really my perspective on 1MDB. And I thought it was worth writing because I was the journalist that really got stuck into the story to begin with. I’d been working on corruption-related issues in the run up to really discovering that I could get an inside track on what had happened at this fund, where there was already a great deal of suspicion about what its purpose really was and where the money was going. And it turned into a rather exciting story from my perspective… I think 1MDB makes a very good case history of so many things that are much bigger than just one corrupt theft or even a corrupt government or even people within a corrupt government. It’s about the whole global system and how there are not enough regulatory structures in force or being enforced internationally to protect people like the Malaysians who had so much money being stolen from them by a corrupt prime minister, and to keep banks and other international financial systems mindful of their responsibilities. These were all issues that I was able to look at and touch on through my expose of this case and through the story as it unfolded, which is why I felt it was important to write the book. It’s very, very rare to get a light shone in brutal forensic detail on a multi-national offshore fraud.

How do you even get stuck into a story like that?
I got to grips with it because I was looking. I think the media has failed in its duty to investigate these things properly, and I think there are many good reasons for that. There’s a vested interest in many of our large media organisations in not stirring things up, not ruffling feathers in host countries, for example. And they want to produce so-called news cheaply. They don’t want to invest the sort of effort that I did, and the sort of time and energy in getting to grips with a really difficult story, which is what this was.

You mention cyber-warfare and fake news in your book. What was your experience with this?
You have to remember, before Donald Trump successfully turned the whole meaning on its head, “fake news” was about deliberately commissioned news to mislead people by high-powered, highly-paid media operations. I got a very early flavour of it as the Internet got going, when I upset Taib Mahmud and Najib, because both of them hired companies who had been looking at social media and how to manipulate it for high-paying customers, primarily corrupt and despicable regimes. The company that was hired by Najib and Taib was working for just about every other unpleasant autocratic, despotic regime on the planet, polishing up their image by abusing social media and other forms of media. So they were working and developing a whole art of fake news and it was really interesting because Malaysia was a test ground for that. And again, there are so many global connections. By working on a small story on one corner of the planet, I very soon began to realise everything in this world is interconnected. You have local crooks and international crooks working together, fake news was tried out in Malaysia one election, at least, before it became a real issue in America in their election in 2016. So what affects us in one place tends to affect us all these days.

There’s so much hope in the new government in Malaysia, but do you think things are really going to change?
Things have changed. By the fact that the people have discovered that they can bring in a new government, and that they can throw out an unwanted, corrupt leader… that is change in itself. And of course the fact that the new government had to come in, if it wanted to be elected, on a reform platform, and will be under pressure to carry it out. There will be failings, there will be shortfallings, there will be inadequacies, there will be worse, there will be wrongdoing… perfection is not really something that one can expect. But already change has happened, and I think Malaysia’s on the path to much better things. And on the path to being a country where the people know they’re in charge and that they can change the government.

What about Sabah and Sarawak, though? We often focus on West Malaysia and forget about East Malaysia.
I make it very clear at the end of my book that unfortunately my observation is that I am only at the beginning of the end when it comes to my original remit, which was looking at Sarawak and Sabah. And so, yes, it was not surprising that the tsunami [rakyat] did not reach Sarawak, but it’s certainly woken them up. And I’ll certainly be returning to campaign, I hope, with a very different power behind me than when I was campaigning as a lone voice back in 2010. Because look where we’ve come.

In Singapore, you can get Clare’s book at Books Kinokuniya or Select Books.