June 2000

Do gays have a place in Singapore?

source: The Straits Times, 27 May 2000, by Irene Ng


 

 

 

 

A forum on gay issues was cancelled when the authorities rejected its application for a permit. But if "Everyone Matters" according to the Singapore 21 vision, don't gays matter too? Can community concerns and gay expression be reconciled? IRENE NG takes the wraps off a taboo subject.

 
DON'T ask, don't tell. And don't promote.

For a long time, this has been the unwritten code guiding how the homosexual community relates -- or should relate -- to the mainstream society in Singapore.

People are not asked as a matter of course if they are homosexual. Homosexuals do not have to tell and, as long as they do not promote their lifestyle, they can enjoy their pockets of freedom.

Underlying this code is the belief that the less said about homosexuals and their activities, the better the rest can live and let live, and the more homosexuals can go about their lives.

 

Foreword by Yawning Bread

The Straits Times carried, on 27 May 2000, a feature article by Irene Ng on gay people in Singapore. It was groundbreaking, considering the years of silence on the subject.  However, the article carries views which cry for rebuttal. The journalist's own expressions are also misleading in places.  Yawning Bread's comments are put in boxes, and the commented-on phrases are highlighted in bold.

 

Mr Alex Au, 47, a gay man [1], had hoped to ask, tell and promote at a function tomorrow. He had planned to hold a forum at the Substation to ask where gay and lesbian Singaporeans stand in relation to the Singapore 21 vision.

It would tell of perceived discriminations against the gay minority, and promote the idea that homosexuality and its activities should not be stigmatised, criminalised or censored.

No such luck.

On Tuesday, the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit of the Home Affairs Ministry rejected his application for a permit to hold the forum. [2]

In the clearest terms yet, the authorities said the forum would advance and legitimise the cause of homosexuals in Singapore.

As the mainstream moral values of Singaporeans are conservative and homosexual acts are unlawful, it would be contrary to the public interest to allow the forum, the police said.

So, for now at least, the status quo is protected.

But can it be maintained?

 
Status quo re-examined

WHETHER society likes it or not, there is now a thriving gay scene with gay bars and clubs. Nothing hush-hush about it, too Impressive guide-lists are available on various websites, such as the Utopia Homo Page.

 

 
Don't jump at the word "promote". Read on, and you'll see that the journalist satirises the word. Bigots use the word "promote" to mean inducing people to become homosexual. The journalist subverts that belief, as seen from the second set of bold words.

 

Films with gay themes, such as the Wedding Banquet and The Birdcage, have been shown at cinemas. At the recent film festival, four such films were screened to full houses.

Artistic experimentation has also become bolder. Some local plays have fleshed out gay-related dilemmas.

Bookstores, which used to carry one or two gay-related books, now have four to five shelves dedicated to them.

In a typical view, Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, a member of the policy-discussion group The Roundtable, notes that society is already very tolerant of homosexuals, despite its conservative tenor. 

 

These aren't the best examples of gay-positive films. The Wedding Banquet ultimately preaches the idea of a sham marriage "to save face", and The Birdcage has been rubbished by gay people as stereotypical.  Better examples are The Sum of Us and The Opposite of Sex.

 

 

 

Says Tanjong Pagar GRC MP S. Vasoo, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee on Community Development "As I see it, anyone in Singapore can have his private interests and everyone can do anything he wants in his life, so long as it does not violate the laws of our society."

Therein lies the rub.

Many homosexuals interviewed point out that rules and institutions still discriminate against them. They chafe at censorship rules which block out material "advocating" homosexuality. Popular TV episodes of Felicity and Ally McBeal with gay themes, for example, have been canned.

The Singapore Broadcasting Authority Act prohibits material which "advocates homosexuality or lesbianism, or depicts incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia".

Song-writer and Lianhe Zaobao columnist Ng King Kang is aghast that homosexuality and lesbianism are lumped together with "incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia".

"Is this being conservative or plain ignorant?" he asks rhetorically, wondering if this law could withstand scrutiny.

Another source of grievance is the mainstream media, which many homosexuals tend to view as an adversary. According to sociologist Leong Wai Teng, in his article on Singapore in a 1997 book, Sociolegal Control Of Homosexuality "The media treats gays as criminals, perverts and subjects for gossip and scandal."

He also referred to two government ministries "known to have employment policies tied to sexual orientation".

 

This is a whitewash. When same-sex relationships are criminalised, something very fundamental to gay people is proscribed. It's like saying to black people, you can do whatever you want so long as you obey the law that requires you to powder your skin white all the time.

 

 

 

"In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, self-acknowledged homosexuals are barred from appointments involving access to classified information, while "outed" homosexuals are dismissed or exiled to another ministry," he wrote. Homosexuals are "outed" when people force them out of the closet by making their sexual orientation known.

According to homosexuals interviewed, the status quo flies in the face of equality and the Singapore 21 dictum that "Everyone Matters". All they want, they assert, is nothing more than the rights enjoyed by other citizens.

These include the right to form associations and to have sexual relations without the Penal Code calling it "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" or an act of "gross indecency".

In a sense, the gay community has used these laws and guidelines as a kind of mirror, observing their reflection in the statutes criminalising their activities.

Nominated MP Claire Chiang says she has asked several gay activists what they want to do that they cannot already do discreetly. Why, a few years back, she was even invited to a gay "wedding" here. Their common response, she says, was that they crave social acceptance and affection.

The homosexuals, being a fringe minority, lack the political clout to affect change. They do not enjoy widespread grassroots support, but have won a growing group of sympathisers from the ranks of the secular elite.

 
Then came the internet

IN RECENT years, a series of catalysing events have served as an ongoing impetus for the more vocal homosexuals to act on their unhappiness.

One is the Government's rejection of their application to form a society called People Like Us (PLU) in 1997.

Its stated mission: To promote awareness and understanding of the issues and problems concerning gay, lesbian and bisexual persons.

Its application was rejected without official explanation in 1997, despite appeals right up to the Prime Minister.

 

In other words, deep-closetted homosexuals (precisely the ones with deep dark secrets) can have access to classified information. See the article Security Clearance.

 

 

 

Feeling even more alienated, gays have banded more closely together, where once their community was diffused and lacking in direction. The HIV scare has bonded them further.

Then came the Internet.

It opened the floodgates of communication, spawning chat forums, e-mail lists and Web personals. A vibrant virtual gay community was born.

Furthermore, as Mr Ng documents in his 1999 book, The Rainbow Connection The Internet And The Singapore Gay Community, the wealth of information available online on gay-related issues has the effect of personal empowerment.

According to Mr Au, websites reporting the strides made by gay movements elsewhere have also emboldened the gay community here to step out.

So galvanised, gay activists here latched on to the Government's promise of opening up.

After all, they recall, in an S21 forum early this year, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "There is no policy too sensitive to question, and no subject so taboo that you cannot even mention it."

Indeed, it was mentioned -- and loudly -- during a live CNN interview with Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1998 A gay man phoned to ask if gay people have a place in Singapore "as we move into a more tolerant millennium".

Mr Lee's reply, in a nutshell It is a question of what a society considers acceptable, and Singaporeans are still largely very conservative.

 

 
I don't know where Irene Ng got this information. As always, people like to mention gayness in association with HIV. It reveals the lingering and prejudicial association in their minds, and it reinforces this same prejudicial association in readers  But writers omit the fact that in the Singapore context, HIV primarily strikes  heterosexuals. This kind of omission is not blameless.

 

 

Different, not deviant

PUBLIC attitudes towards homosexuality are varied and uneven across different groups. They are tied up closely with community norms and religious values in this multi-racial and multi-religious society.

Mr Murat Mohd Aris, manager of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore's Office of Mufti, tells Insight categorically that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam.

"Islam views homosexual behaviour as a sinful act, which is a symptom of the decadence of society. It is a perverted means of satisfying natural urges. Homosexuality degrades a person and is a most unnatural way of life."

He adds "Individuals with homosexual behaviour require psychological or medical treatment."

Then there is the Catholic stand, as expounded by Father Bernard Teo, Major-Superior of the Redemptorist Order in Singapore and Malaysia.

 

I heard from two straight persons within a space of 24 hours, this view: that of all the quotes in this article, his statement sounded the most primitive.

 

 

 

The Church makes a distinction between a person with a homosexual orientation and one who seeks homosexual activity, says the Novena Church priest, who has a PhD in moral theology and Christian ethics.

"The Catholic Church doesn't accept homosexual activities as a right because sexual activity has a special procreative meaning attached to it. But people with gay orientation are to be respected as persons in their own right."

So, it is all right to have a homosexual orientation as long as the homosexuals are chaste. 

On the other end is Venerable Shi Ming Yi, secretary-general of Singapore Buddhist Federation. Asked about the Buddhist stand on homosexuality, he appears stumped. "We have never discussed this."

There is nothing on the matter under the five Buddhist precepts, he mumbles.

Faced with such a mixed reception, gays have erected their own altars on the Internet, publicising groups such as Gay Christian Fellowship and Gay Buddhist Fellowship.

 

 
At least this Church is consistent. They forbid contraceptive pills and condoms (population explosion and AIDS notwithstanding) for the same reason.

Even so, they recognise the difference between orientation and sex, and they try to accord gay people due respect, though how that can be reconciled with not accepting "homosexual activities" is a matter they don't seem to have sorted out.

 

 

In secular society, however, sociologist Tan Ern Ser senses that social opinion on the gay issue has changed over the years, viewing gays as different rather than deviant.

This intuitive view seems to be backed by a recent survey by Mr Au and his friends, who polled about 500 Singaporeans on the streets and via the Internet.

Among other things, it found that of the 240 polled on the Internet, 74 per cent felt they would be able to accept a gay sibling, if not immediately then after a while.

In contrast, of the 251 polled on the streets, including HDB neighbourhoods, 46 per cent said the same. This suggests that the Internet-savvy elite might be more open to the matter.

Among them is Ms Dana Lam, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), who asserts "As a heterosexual parent, I would not like my children to add to the unhappiness in our society by discriminating against difference." 

 

A week before this feature article, another Straits Times journalist wrote up a news article about the survey and its results. This article was stopped from publication by the editors. Hence the mention of the survey in this feature article floats in a vacuum. It would have been mitigated if the article at least gave the URL where the survey results could be found, but as you can see, no leads were given.

The survey results can be seen in the People Like Us website
www.plu-singapore.com

 

 

But she alone cannot teach them this, she intones. "They need to be supported by society in their learning."

Chinese intellectual Lau Wai Har, a veteran educationist, does not think society is ready for this. "Homosexuality is not acceptable practice here."

In stronger terms, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, the president of the association of adult Islamic religious students, Perdaus, says Singapore should not be seen to promote social practices that are not acceptable by the religious groups here.

People who are "anti" always speak of gayness as "practice". Bigotry arises from ignorance and a refusal to see facts. The reality is that gayness is not just a choice, or a practice that one decides to engage in. It is as deep to a person as his race, his native tongue, his culture and identity. Could one label the Arab race, Vietnamese language, Japanese culture or grandmother-identity as "unacceptable practices" without sounding stupid?

 

He adds "It is certainly a real issue that must be addressed, but not by way of officially recognising that to lead a homosexual life is acceptable."

Perdaus does not think that homosexuality and lesbianism are consistent with the S21 vision, which aims to strengthen the family institution.

 

The two largest religious groups in Singapore -- the Taoism and Buddhism -- have no proscription against homosexuality. As far as I know, nor does Hinduism.  Only the religions from the Middle East are obsessed with homosexuality, and even the Christian Churches are reexamining their positions.

In any case, Singapore is a secular state, and large numbers of Singaporeans declare themselves "free thinkers", so why should the state take instruction from a few religious theorists?

 

 

"In fact, it destroys the traditional family unit. It also goes against the policy to encourage Singaporeans to have more children."

So, while some community norms may evolve, one remains rock solid The family as the basic building block, with the responsibility of carrying this unit into the next generation.

Against such a background, acceptance of a community of homosexual people seems difficult. Opponents are thus inclined to link gay people's defiance of conservative sexual morality with an "anything goes" lifestyle that undermines the structure of society.

 

The "traditional family unit" is a common, thoughtless phrase. It is nothing but bigotry under the guise of nice words. 

To put the "traditional family unit" on the pedestal is to treat people in other households structures, e.g. headed by a grandmother, or single divorced father, as somehow less worthy. To this criticism, the "traditionalists" tend to say these are "also" good and worthy families.  When one drills them further, it becomes apparent that the only bad people are the homosexual ones and their families! What does that tell you?

Even if a family fits the bill of having a "traditional" structure, it doesn't tell you whether it's a happy or unhappy one. Why the stress on form rather than substance?

What gay people say instead is that whatever the form, the important thing is to have love, understanding and acceptance. It is hate and ostracism that destroys a family, not whether it's "traditional" in form or not.

Secondly, on the matter of having more children, here again, the "anti" argument rests on the assumption that people choose to be homosexual.  This is simply not true. Homosexual people by their very nature, have no interest in the opposite sex and for millenia, have not been engines of reproduction. (That doesn't mean they haven't contributed to society in many other ways). Encouraging homophobia isn't going to make them procreate.

 

 

To compound matters, an accusation often levelled against gays is that they can influence the impressionable young to try out homosexuality.

Similar concerns prompted the authorities in Britain to ban in 1988 "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

But one should not over-simplify or over-generalise.

Father Teo says that he knows many homosexuals who make great contributions to the church and community and lead respectable lives.

"We need to respect them as persons and to educate people that these people have rights to their dignity," says the priest.

The issue needs to be addressed "because a lot of people suffer when things are not clarified".

But how to address it without being accused of "promoting" homosexuality? asks academic researcher Russell Heng.

"There are some real hurdles -- psychological, emotional, social, economic -- which gay people must face in many areas of their personal life and they want to talk about these issues."

So too heterosexuals who have a gay relative but who are unsure of how to deal with it because of the taboo nature of the subject, he says.

 

An accusation that is again based on the wrong premise that people can be "converted" to be homosexual. In any case, so what if people "try"?  Why the great fear? Do Chinese condemn those among them who try Greek food?  The whole thing is extremely irrational.

Irene Ng should have mentioned, for accuracy, that the law is being repealed in Britain.

 

 

On that point, Ms Chiang, too, agrees. She also believes that there is room for freeing up the intellectual perspective on this issue. Social stigma can be moderated "by discussing it openly and raising our tolerance thresholds by signalling to the gay and lesbian community that it matters".
It seems then, that Nominated Member of Parliament Claire Chiang thought the authorities were wrong in denying the forum a permit.

 

Cautions Mr Zulkifli, this is all very well, but if the matter is opened up for discussion, be prepared for some serious conflict and a hardening of conservative views.

Science cannot yet produce unequivocal answers to many of the questions regarding homosexuality that vex politicians or stir the "moral" community.

One factor, however, has become clear. Anyone who expects to make sense of Singapore society must accept that gay activities have become a more visible part of the social landscape.

No doubt, this will include the upcoming Speakers' Corner. There, speakers require no police permit, but only this: A Singaporean identity and the courage to face the crowd.   


 

 

Beware, the reverse also applies. A hardline position by the State and religious groups tends to increase militancy by the marginalised, precisely the outcome the State does not want to see happen.

 

Quotes accompanying the article above:

Respect Them or Loathe Them?

NOT MY CHOICE 

'I never chose to be gay anymore than anybody chose to be straight. But I knew I was gay when I was 10 ... Why do I have to justify my existence? It's not an academic issue to us gays.'

-- Gay activist Alex Au

SOCIETY LESS CRITICAL

'My opinion is that society is less critical towards gays and lesbians than we expected. More gay men and lesbians are unafraid to interact in public openly or to even "come out of the closet".' 

-- Song-writer and Lianhe Zaobao columnist Ng King Kang, author of The Rainbow Connection: The Internet And The Singapore Gay Community.

DISCRETION HELPS

'Certainly, homosexuals are a minority and, as long as they do not practise or promote their lifestyle openly, I think, increasingly, many Singaporeans are likely to adopt the view that homosexuals, like other types of minority groups, have rights.'

-- Sociologist Tan Ern Ser

IT'S AGAINST NATURE

'Homosexuality is contrary to every natural law of human life. It runs counter to the morals, purposes and institutions of a procreative society. Individuals with homosexual behaviour require psychological or medical treatment.'

-- Mr Murat Mohd Aris, manager of the Office of Mufti, Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis).

NOT ACCEPTABLE

'Homosexuality is not acceptable practice here.'

-- Chinese intellectual Lau Wai Har, a veteran educationist.

THEY'VE GIVEN A LOT

'Homosexuals have contributed side by side with heterosexuals to the advancement of the arts and in industry. We know of many who are contributing in banking, law, accountancy, architecture and other fields. We insult their dignity and their gifts to society when we claim their personal successes as ours at the same time that we deny their right to be who they are by withholding from them the rights of other citizens.'

-- Ms Dana Lam, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research. 

THEY DESERVE RESPECT

'The Catholic Church doesn't accept homosexual activities as a right... But people with a homosexual orientation are to be respected as persons in their own right. We will never recognise homosexual marriages, but how far society can tolerate, that's a subject for debate.' 

-- Father Bernard Tan, Major-Superior of the Redemptorist Order in Singapore and Malaysia.


 

Footnotes

  1. Alex Au is Yawning Bread himself
    Return to where you left off
  2. See the article My forum was banned
    Return to where you left off
  3. See also the archived story,  More youths going public, seeking help Them

 

Addenda

None