The gay issue : When state bureaucracy fails to live up to fair-minded
In a CNN interview, a gay Singaporean called in
to ask Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew if there was a future for homosexuals in
the Republic. Mr Lee's answer was encouraging to gay Singaporeans and all the
more refreshing given that local media tend to leave the topic well alone or
shy away from the reasonable position taken by SM Lee. Given Singapore's
political culture, it would require the SM to say what he said before this
issue can be dealt with constructively.
SM's position is that how acceptable
homosexuality is is a matter for society rather than the government to decide.
He added that his government has been leaving "people to live their own
lives so long as they don't impinge on other people."
These are thoughtful words and therefore
deserves more than just a blanket acceptance that if the SM said so, let it be
so. If we Singaporeans are so intellectually lazy, thoughtful words by
political leaders would be wasted on us. It is in that spirit that this column
is being written.
I believe there is a need to understand the
nexus between societal opinion and state. The two are not completely
independent of each other.
The question of whether society considers
homosexuality acceptable is complex. If it could be aggregated as an index at
all, I suspect that index of acceptability is a shifting one as Singapore
society undergoes the changes that come with education and contact with a fast
In the past, opinion on homosexuality was
heavily weighted towards the disapproving end, and when virtually no gay
persons were out enough to make a stand, there simply wasn't any gay issue to
Today, the younger and more cosmopolitan
sections of our population, exposed to the thinking and trends from abroad,
are increasingly migrating to a more liberal and tolerant viewpoint. They see
realistic portrayals of gay persons and get to know that homosexuality is
never a choice for anyone. It's a given.
The two ends of the population arrive at such
different conclusions simply because they start from very different
perceptions. This gap is deepened by the lack of local information and
discussion of the subject. One side gets its information from abroad, the
other gets its information from the past.
Far from leading to a resolution of the
question, present trends may point to it becoming more contentious.
What is needed is for this society to be open
to discussion about homosexuality so that at least people can start from a
more informed basis. This then begs questions of the role of the media, and
access to books, films and other resources in Singapore. Partly,
self-censorship may be inhibiting us from addressing homosexuality, or
bringing in materials touching on the subject. But quite obviously too, the
limits set by the government, real or perceived, play an important part.
The government sets the climate in countless
ways. They vary from petty bureaucratic action to longstanding laws in the
The film 'Happy Together', about a gay couple
trying hard to stay in love, was barred from commercial release by the
censorship board. It had won the Best Director Prize at Cannes. It wasn't
pornographic. It had one scene of the two men making love, without frontal
nudity and with less explicitness than many other films screened in Singapore
showing heterosexual sex. Had it been shown, it would have provoked thought
about the ups and downs of gay relationships. Instead, its banning just
reinforced gay Singaporeans' view that they have no future in Singapore.
In 1996/7, ten citizens applied to register
their society called People Like Us, with the aim of helping gay and lesbian
Singaporeans lead more positive lives. This kind of self-help group is what
civil society is supposed to be made of. However, registration was denied. No
reason was ever given.
One can speculate that because sections 377 and
377(a) of the Penal Code make homosexual acts criminal, it is impossible for
the government to condone such a group. However, the logic is difficult to
understand. It may be illegal to sell cigarettes to children, but it can't
mean that it is illegal to organise a group to discuss the subject, or to work
with children who do smoke.
In any case, the law itself is also an issue.
The law is highly intrusive into private lives, since it applies even when
homosexual sex takes place in the bedroom. To live up to the Senior Minister's
assurance that the government will "leave people to live their own
lives", this law needs to be repealed.
Remaining on the statute books, the law does
more harm than good. A few years ago, there was a case in which a lawyer was
charged even when he had consensual sex with another man, in a bedroom.
Because the other man was the complainant, he wasn't charged. Ultimately the
judge acquitted the defendant, but by then his career had been seriously
compromised by the case.
The law also creates a climate in which people
feel justified in showing all sorts of petty discrimination against gay and
lesbian citizens. It buttresses prejudice and intolerance.
It may be argued that the family is central to
our cultural values and that homosexuality is inimical to the family, hence
intolerance serves a useful purpose. However, intolerance makes sense only if
sexual orientation is a habit or a choice, like drink driving. Then through
law and social pressure, people can be persuaded to be heterosexual. But since
sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is not a choice, but
an innate part of one's person, like left-handedness or musical talent, then
intolerance has very perverse effects. Sons and daughters who happen to be gay
are ostracised, and instead of strengthening families, we fracture them.
Two themes that the SM touched on in his CNN
interview, albeit in relation to other questions, are also relevant here. The
first is that culture goes very deep. Asian communities do not behave exactly
the same way as Western communities. The second is that throughout his career,
he has striven to make Singaporeans realistic. Bring these two together, and
one can understand his statement that an aggressive gay rights movement would
not help. But movements don't always have to be aggressive. Singapore has
plenty of examples of movements that are moderate, but still beaver away at
their mission. There is AWARE, the women's movement, various religious or
cultural groups, and other groups like the Nature Society and the Heritage
Sometimes they are in disagreement with the
government, occasionally vocally so, but they don't necessarily emulate the
tactics of the greens, feminists or black power movements from the West. Our
local movements are coloured by the culture of our country. Likewise, there is
no reason to assume the worst of an emerging gay movement in Singapore.
Yes, SM Lee is right to say the key issue is
how ready Singapore society is to accept gay persons. But government comes in
many layers, and sometimes the lower layers of the state bureaucracy has not
lived up to his fair-minded and sensible vision. So, on a day to day level,
gay and lesbian Singaporeans can feel very aggrieved.
And that would have been why the caller asked
SM Lee, " ... if there is a future at all?"