July 2003

Gum, gays and the gogglebox
Time to consider a U-turn

source: Straits Times, 12 July 2003, Commentary by Chua Mui Hoong,





Chewing gum, gay rights and satellite dishes.

It's time for a U-turn on these policies. Not only because gum-chewers, homosexuals and television viewers stand to benefit from the changes. Rather, the whole of Singapore society will benefit.

Gum, gays and satellite TV can be considered 'leading indicators' of Singapore's socio-political climate. Changing these signals to Singaporeans and foreigners a sea change in the environment.

The long-standing policies that restricted all three have several things in common.

First, they curb minority interests for the sake of the majority.

The import and sale of gum in Singapore was banned in 1992 because of the cost of cleaning up gum spat out in public transport systems. In one fell stroke, an administrative headache for public transport operators, which was also a public nuisance for the majority, was cured by the ban on gum.

Criminalising consensual sexual acts between gay adults is another example of sacrificing minority interests to satisfy the majority.

The other common thread: The paternalistic assumption that the state must be an arbiter of the public's morals.

Privately-owned satellite dishes are banned because of concern over access to unsavoury entertainment and information. Legal strictures against homosexual behaviour aim to 'protect' the majority from being offended by such behaviour.

But should the state determine private morals? Should minority interests be set aside for the majority?

Instead of lending its coercive power to support intolerance by the majority, which would be quite alien to Singapore's tradition of social harmony, the state should instead consider taking a lead in supporting tolerance and openness by reversing the three bans.

The advantage of changing tack on these issues, which have become icons, extends beyond Singapore's shores.

The ban on chewing gum put Singapore in the news a decade ago, and continues to be cited as an example of an authoritarian regime and communitarian society.

The ban on privately-owned satellite dishes represents the state's attempt to regulate and censor content, another bugbear among liberal-minded commentators.

Icons are symbolic and represent more than themselves. Changing icons signals to the world at large, and Singaporeans themselves, that a new epoch is in the making.

For example, the decision to allow a Hyde Park-style Speakers' Corner was interpreted by Singaporean and foreign observers alike as a harbinger of a more open society.

Sceptics will ask: Why bother to change icons unless the whole tenor of society changes with it? Isn't there moral hypocrisy in relaxing a few bans, unless there is a deep-seated change in mindset?

The answer: Icons matter in shaping perceptions, and perceptions matter in the battle for talent and investments.

As PricewaterhouseCoopers' Marcel Fenez noted recently, in response to the announcement of the $100-million fillip for the media industry: Singapore must loosen censorship rules if it wants to be a global media city. It may have the right ingredients, but must also contend with 'external perceptions' when attracting investors.

Just what are some of those external perceptions?

Well, one quick way to figure this out is to look at the indices published by respected think-tanks, much in the same way that you would look at global competitiveness reports and GDP per capita rankings when assessing how investors view an economy.

The best-known freedom survey is devised by Freedom House, a leading democracy advocate group founded by Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of former US president Franklin Roosevelt, nearly 60 years ago.

The latest 2003 Freedom House report ranks Singapore once again as a 'partly free' country, with a score of 4.5 (1 being most free and 7 being not free) that puts it in the company of Kuwait and Nigeria. It has dismal scores for political freedoms (5) and civil rights (4).

Hitherto, poor perceptions of Singapore's socio-political climate have not hindered its ability to generate real income growth.

But the negative perceptions may exact a higher cost in future, as they will certainly mar Singapore's ability to position itself as a creative talent capital and as a centre of innovation.

Changing external perceptions of Singapore will take a long time. But every journey begins with a small step. And small, significant steps are a good way to start.

As it is, the three policies highlighted have already been modified.

Selected brands of sugarless chewing gum will be imported and sold over the counter from January, in a compromise settlement reached under the Singapore-United States Free Trade Agreement, after gum- maker Wrigley's executives reportedly lobbied US Congress to insist on freer conditions of sale.

Instead of a partial relaxation, why not scrap the ban altogether, and see it as an opportunity to allow a more open - and hopefully more mature and less gum-littering - society to blossom?

Similarly, the ban on satellite dishes has already come under review by the Economic Restructuring Committee (ERC) last year.

Removing this barrier, and the implementation of other ERC recommendations for the infocommunications technology industry, could see jobs double to 227,000.

As for the policy on homosexuals, as Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong disclosed in a recent Time magazine interview, the public sector as an employer has stopped discriminating against gays, and has hired them even in sensitive positions.

There are grounds for taking the next step - allowing residents to use satellite dishes, and scrapping the archaic statute criminalising sexual acts between consenting adults.

Reversing these policies requires acts of leadership. They need not happen all at once, but rather after time and effort has been spent explaining the change to those perturbed by it.

After all, this Government has never been shy about exercising moral leadership.

In the three examples, the changes are incremental but significant, and have the potential to become rallying points to generate debate about a new, more open Singapore.

Change will turn the policies on chewing gum, satellite dishes and gays from being icons of intolerance and restrictions, into icons of openness and tolerance in a new, remade Singapore. There are dividends to be reaped from the change.   


Foreword by Yawning Bread

See also Chua Mui Hoong's article It's not about gay rights, it's survival