“Who am I Speaking To?”: How Former NMP Siew’s Audiences Influenced his Rhetoric by Gladys Khoo Lin Fang

It is perhaps arguable that we are not fully conscious of the different techniques we employ when persuading others. In one scenario, you may attempt to persuade your younger brother to give in to your demands by claiming that it is his duty as the “younger sibling” and your right as the “older sibling”. In another scenario, you may persuade your parents to give in to similar demands by logically reasoning out the benefits of doing so. In this relatively simple example, we see that an argument very much relies on the audience it is addressing, and not just dependent on the speaker’s position. In an alternate scenario where the “sibling” argument addresses your parents, not only is it inappropriate, it is highly unlikely to be convincing. Then, it can only be beneficial to shape our rhetorical techniques based on the audiences we are trying to persuade. In this essay, I will examine former NMP Siew’s Parliamentary speech that attempts to persuade two audiences to support his repeal of Section 377A – the Members of Parliament (MP) and the Singapore public that includes the MPs. This example hopes to illustrate how Siew’s choice of enthymemes, appeals to authority, and identification with the speaker appear more suitable for persuading the MPs, while rhetorical techniques that identify with fundamental Singaporean values and emotionally resonant symbols appear more suitable for all Singaporeans, including the MPs. From this example, the reader will see how strategic use of rhetorical techniques will create arguments that resonate more strongly with different audiences.

Before we examine Siew’s Parliamentary speech, we have to first consider the rhetorical situation he was in. In 2007, the Ministry of Home Affairs summited the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill to the Parliament. In the Amendment Bill, the Ministry proposed to decriminalise Section 377, which made private, consensual anal and oral sex between heterosexual adults illegal. However, they also chose to retain Section 377A which criminalised the same acts between homosexual males. This proposal to keep the clause sparked protests from various groups in the public and led to the creation of an online petition site which appealed against the retention (Lim, “Penal Code”). As Siew believed that the retention of Section 377A was “intrinsically and inherently unjust” (qtd. in Tan, “Siew Kum Hong”) he used his privilege and right as an NMP to present the petition to Parliament on behalf of its supporters. Moreover, even though Siew gave a Parliamentary speech addressing the MPs, he may have factored in the media coverage given to the petition, as well as the broadcast of the parliamentary speech to the public. It then appears likely that Siew may have intended his speech to address all Singaporeans as well.

Initially though, Siew begins his speech addressing his direct audience first – the MPs. Perhaps in accordance with the genre of a Parliamentary speech, he crafts a logical argument with many technical references to the legal aspects of Section 377A. Establishing a legal justification may make it more likely for Parliament to entertain Siew’s appeal to revoke a criminal law. His establishment takes the form of an enthymeme – a three part deductive argument relying on unstated assumptions that are either largely well-known or agreed upon. According to Longaker and Walker, enthymemes are a type of argument used in rhetorical logic (logos) and they are typically made up of three parts: claim, datum and warrant (191-192). A claim refers to a disputable idea that the speaker asserts, while a warrant is an unstated presupposition held by the speaker and the audience. Datum, as previously mentioned by Dr. Brantner in class, can be split into the ‘reasons’ and ‘evidence’ supporting the speaker’s claim.

Using this structure of claim, datum and warrant, I will illustrate how Siew attempts to use logos to persuade the MPs. At the start of the enthymeme, Siew first claims that Section 377A should be repealed because it is unconstitutional. To support the reason behind his claim, Siew provides evidence of the specific Article in the Constitution that the (Amendment) Bill violates: “the amendment of 377 without [the repeal of] 377A is [considered to be] unconstitutional under Article 12(1) of the Constitution” (“NMP Siew”). Since Article 12(1) states that “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”, he argues that repealing 377 without doing the same for 377A is equivalent to saying that homosexual men are not as privileged as heterosexual men under the eyes of the law – an implication that contradicts the notion of equality in Article 12(1). Since both Siew and his audience are well aware that constitutional law is considered fundamental and above ordinary law in Singapore (the warrant), it goes without saying that criminal laws such as Section 377A have to be constitutional in order for their retention to be justified. Siew’s explicit denouncement of 377A as unconstitutional leaves little room for MPs who are motivated by factual and logical reasoning to be persuaded to not repeal 377A.

The logical soundness of his argument notwithstanding, some MPs may argue that despite Section 377A being unconstitutional, its derogation from Article 12(1) might still be valid. Appearing to have already considered such counter-arguments, Siew attempts to use another enthymeme to support his claim that is indeed unconstitutional. He argues that retaining 377A does not contribute to the preservation of the aim of the Penal Code, which is according to the Government, “[the maintenance of] a safe and secure society”. Since the criminalisation of private sexual conduct between homosexual men does not help make Singapore more safe or secure, it should therefore not be considered a crime in the first place. However, Siew appears to assume that such private acts are not harmful based on his own opinions. Given that the evidence he provides to support his reason is not beyond reasonable doubt, this logical argument would be insufficient to convince the MPs that repealing 377A would not impact Singapore’s safety. In order to convince his audience that his opinions are valid, Siew has to rely on ethical appeals to ensure his viewpoints are credible and trustworthy.

To support his logical argument, Siew utilizes ethical appeals that appeal to authority. In the words of Longaker and Walker, “when making an ethos appeal, the rhetor askes for the audience’s trust based on his/her character” (233). Also, “a rhetor’s character is central to his persuasive potential” (232). This means that in order for Siew to persuade his audience to believe in his opinions, he has to first earn their trust by establishing the soundness of his character. In this case, Siew inhabits the ethos of an authority figure. He does so subtly by mentioning that he was a previous law student in NUS, as he “indeed [recalls] being taught [the definition of criminal activity] over ten years ago”. By portraying that he is someone who is more knowledgeable about criminal law than the average person, Siew builds his ethos as an expert who can be trusted with his facts on law and legislation. Only then are we more likely to believe his claim that the private sexual conduct of consenting adults is not considered a crime in Singapore. Moreover, to further support his argument, Siew taps on the ethos of reputable people such as Dr. Michael Hor, a professor who teaches criminal law, as well as reputable organisations like the Law Society. According to Siew’s speech, Dr. Hor believes that the Government no longer thinks of the private sexual conduct of homosexual men to be harmful to society, while the Law Society has lawyers who believe that such acts are also not recognisable by criminal law. Hence, Siew makes it appear as if there are many legal experts who support his opinion that the private sexual conduct of consenting adults causes no harm to society. By appealing to various authority figures, the MPs are now more likely to be assured of the credibility of Siew’s statements, and thus assures himself of a higher chance that his audience will be more receptive to his logical argument. If Siew is able to persuade the MPs that Section 377A does not have a valid derogation from the Constitution, they may be more inclined to support its repeal.

Having addressed his direct audience, Siew next addresses his indirect audience: all Singaporeans. In addressing a wider Singaporean audience, Siew adopts a different approach, moving from an argument based on logical reasoning and legal jargon to an ethical argument that relates to the Singapore identity shared by himself, the MPs, as well as the public. His switch from the use of logos to those of ethos exemplifies the limits that a logical argument has in persuading the MPs to repeal Section 377A. As Section 377A solely focuses on criminalising sexual acts between homosexual men, it has often been closely associated to the issue of gay rights in Singapore. In particular, the discourse surrounding gay rights has often been debated using arguments that are based on a certain set of religious beliefs and family values, rather than through logic. Thus, in order to convince the MPs, Siew cannot afford to solely rely on an argument that uses logical reasoning as he is attempting to persuade an audience who has probably justified their stance on gay rights based on divisive religious beliefs and family values. Instead, it might be more effective for him to seek a consensus by re-orienting his argument to appeal to the shared fundamental values that the MPs and the public share as fellow Singaporeans.

Therefore, in his next section on the Universality of non-discrimination argument, Siew introduces a different type of ethical appeal that identifies with Singapore’s fundamental values of justice and equality. Based on the words of an English Professor M. Jimmie Killingsworth, ethical appeals can “go from author to audience, but [its] success [is]. . . determined by some association [he] forms with a third entity” (254). In this process of identification, Siew appeals to the common ground of Singaporean values in order to bring himself and his Singaporean audience closer together. In his speech, Siew asserts that:

. . . the repeal of 377A is not a gay issue. It is not about gay rights. It is not for just gays, or friends or relatives of gays. No. It is about fairness, justice and non-discrimination. . . It is about upholding the fundamental protections afforded by the Constitution, the basic pillars underpinning our country. These are issues for all Singaporeans.

Here, Siew expands the scope of the issue from merely being about “gay rights” to a broader focus on “fairness, justice and non-discrimination”. According to the government, the majority of Singaporeans appear to disapprove and reject homosexuality based on their religious beliefs or conservative family values (“Lee Hsien Loong’s”). To overcome this hurdle, Siew attempts to frame the repeal of Section 377A not as a contentious issue of “gay rights”, but as an issue of “fairness, justice and non-discrimination” – topics which are perhaps more easily recognised and accepted by Siew’s opponents. This is because the majority of Singaporeans have been exposed to these values during their education and experience of government policies. Fairness can be seen in the meritocratic system that grants no favour except to those with the best results. These policies provide the opportunity for those with merit to climb the social ladder, with high achieving students given more scholarships and opportunities regardless of race, language or religion. We see non-discrimination most evidently in the segregation of public housing based on the current race ratio in Singapore, as well as Grassroots Constituency (GRC) which require at least one member of the group to be from a minority race. Lastly, we see justice in Singapore’s anti-corruption laws, as well as harsh penalties meted out to those that do harm to society.

With these values being a part and parcel of everyday life, it is perhaps understandable why Siew frames them as “the basic pillars” of Singapore society. By framing the repeal of 377A to be an issue addressing “fairness, justice and non-discrimination” rather than gay rights, Siew aligns his stand to be one that is alongside the protection of Singapore’s values. Consequently, instead of seeing him as an advocate of gay rights, Singaporeans may be more inclined to view Siew as an advocate for the fundamental values that they too, would uphold as Singaporeans. This helps Siew to unite his Singaporean audience who have been previously divided as “pro-gay” or “anti-gay” based on their own religious beliefs or family values to take a similar stance of “pro-justice” against the discriminatory 377A. In Killingsworth’s terms, Siew is attempting to align the three positions of himself, his audience and the third entity, Singaporean values together. Through this ethical appeal of identification, Singaporeans are more likely to support Siew’s cause on the basis of supporting Singapore’s ideals.

To further convince the Singapore public, Siew introduces a new angle that employs the use of pathetic appeals in his section on No pro-active enforcement of 377A. Here, Siew attempts to elicit sympathy in his audience by highlighting the pain and suffering of Singaporeans whom the criminalization affects. Thus, even if his audience chooses not to identify with Siew, they may perhaps better sympathize with fellow Singaporeans who are suffering from the retention of 377A. The specific emotional appeal (pathos) Siew uses here relies on emotionally resonant symbols which, according to Longaker and Walker, can be woven into powerful associative networks in order to evoke strong emotions in a particular audience (219). Although left unmentioned in his speech, Siew uses the emotionally resonant symbol of “rejection”, which is itself tied to negative feelings of shame and depression. He then borrows this idea of “rejection” and its negative associations and embodies them in a series of personal statements from a doctor and two mothers. With this, Siew attempts to evoke in his audience strong feelings of pity towards these individuals who continue to be tormented because of 377A. To quote the words of the ‘criminal doctor’:

I’m a doctor. People tell me that’s a noble profession. My parents are proud of me. My teachers are proud of me. . . But I am ashamed of myself. . . It doesn’t matter how many lives I save, it doesn’t matter how much suffering I relieve, it doesn’t matter how much good I do, it doesn’t change one shameful fact. I’m a criminal doctor.

It can be seen how this doctor’s sexual identity is making him feel ashamed and depressed. He fears that his identity as a gay person would tarnish his reputation as a respectable doctor, and he is afraid to be rejected by his parents and his teachers. Upon reading this statement, Singaporeans are also able to identify with the doctor’s feelings of dejection as they too, are afraid to be rejected by others. Such identification may perhaps trigger feelings of pity in the audience when they sympathize with the seemingly poor plight of the ‘criminal doctor’ who is shamed by 377A.

Moreover, Siew quotes the words of two women, Madam Mak and Madam K, who are both mothers to gay sons. Here we have two mothers who, in accordance to Section 377A, are supposed to reject their sons, as their homosexuality makes them criminals in the eyes of the law. However, even though society may choose to reject their sons, both mothers cannot bring themselves to do the same. By situating this idea of “rejection” within such an associative network, it could potentially make Singaporean parents reflect on how hard it is to reject their own children, and how depressed they might feel if society rejected their children as well. These statements increase the likelihood of Singaporeans sympathizing with the plight of these mothers who are tormented by the rejection that their children face in society. Through the use of emotionally resonant symbols such as “rejection” in his speech, Siew perhaps aim to evoke strong feelings of pity and sympathy towards Singaporeans who have been affected by Section 377A. In response to such feelings, Siew’s audience may even support his petition in order to help relive the sufferings of the victims of 377A.

Nevertheless, the audience with the power to decide on the outcome of the petition are the MPs, who are bound to their duties as a Parliamentary member rather than their identity as Singaporeans. Accordingly, Siew ends his speech attempting to persuade the MPs who are still unconvinced to support his stance against Section 377A. In the final two sections on The majority view and Do the right thing, Siew once again uses the ethical appeal of identification to align the himself as an NMP with the duties of a Parliamentary member. In his speech, Siew first reminds the House of its purpose in Singapore. He argues that:

In any event, this House should be leading and not following. We should lead by example. We should be doing what is right, fair and just, what is constitutional and keeping in spirit with Singapore’s cherished principles of equality and non-discrimination. We pride ourselves on doing the unpopular but right thing, so why are we abdicating our responsibilities now?

Siew is in effect asking his audience to carry out their duties as an MP and abide by the purposes of the House – to ensure that there is justice and equality in Singapore. He acknowledges that the repeal of 377A may be unpopular with the Singaporean masses, but he also reminds the MPs that their responsibilities do not lie with doing the popular thing, they lie in doing the “right thing”. The responsibility by the MPs to do the right thing can be said to originate from former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew’s Parliamentary address in 1977. In his speech, PM Lee asserted the government should not “flinch from [doing] the unpopular” (“His Own Words”) and instead, focus on making these unpopular, but right, policies gain popular support by demonstrating that they have worked. As a result, decisions on implementing policies such as the Area Licensing Scheme and building casinos in the Integrated Resorts were still implemented by the government despite their unpopularity amongst Singaporeans back then. Moreover, both eventually proved to be beneficial for Singapore’s transport and economy in the long run. Due to these successes, the government takes pride in their ability to fearlessly make unpopular decisions if they are deemed to be “right” for the country. Similarly, Siew is appealing to this duty that the MPs are expected to uphold. By reminding them of their “pride” in “doing the unpopular but right thing”, he is in effect, asking them to support his repeal of Section 377A as it is also an unpopular but much needed action for the benefit of society.

Siew then moves on to establish his ethos as a fellow Member of Parliament when he says “. . . I, as a Member of this House”. By saying this, Siew attempts to unite everyone regardless of whether they are against or in support of the petition under the single umbrella of “Members of this House”. In this process of identification, Siew becomes consubstantial with every MP, and he can now address them as fellow partners who are working together to serve a common goal. Therefore, if Siew, an MP that believes that the repeal of 377A is in line with the goals of the House, then the rest of the members are also obliged to support him in doing the “right thing”. From this we can see how the ethical appeal of identification could have aided Siew in persuading the rest of the MPs to join him and repeal 377A.

More important than the outcome, we see that over the course of his speech, Siew employs wide ranging rhetorical techniques that involve appeals to logical reasoning in logos, authority and identification in ethos, as well as emotions in pathos. We also see Siew changing his choice of rhetorical techniques to resonate with the Singaporean public, as well as the MPs’ identities as members of Parliament and as Singaporeans. Despite the individual distinctiveness of these techniques, Siew ensures they complement each other, working towards the ultimate goal of persuading his audiences. Through this case, it is arguably evident that the identity of the audience should always be considered when one attempts to craft a persuasive discourse.

Works Cited

“In His Own Words: Make the Right Decisions, Even If They Are Unpopular.” The Straits Times. 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 16 Apr. 2015.

Killingsworth, M. Jimmie. “Rhetorical Appeals: A Revision.” Rhetoric Review 24.3: 249-63. JSTOR. Taylor & Francis, Ltd. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

“Lee Hsien Loong’s Speech on Section 377A.” Yawning Bread. 1 Nov. 2007. Web. 20 Apr. 2015.

Lim, Puay Ling. “Penal Code Section 377A.” Penal Code Section 377A. 1 Jan. 2010. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

Longaker, Mark Garrett, and Jeffrey Walker. Rhetorical Analysis: A Brief Guide for Writers. Boston: Longman, 2011. Print.

“NMP Siew Kum Hong: Turn Our Backs on Prejudice, Discrimination, Intolerance and Hatred.” The Online Citizen. 22 Oct. 2007. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

Tan, Sylvia. “Siew Kum Hong, Former Singapore NMP, Wins Award by Gay Group PLU.” Fridae. 4 Aug. 2009. Web. 24 Mar. 2015.

Process Notes

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