March 2005

Sociologist says gays in Singapore have 'pretty much' everything




Channel U aired a current affairs program Feichang toushi yan (Very penetrating insight) on 23 February 2005. The half-hour program was devoted to the question of whether lesbians and gays were accepted in Singapore.

You can see a full transcript and translation of the Chinese-language program at Channel U: Very penetrating insight.

The program began with about 10 people interviewed in the street, most of whom were middle-aged "uncles and aunties" (our local expression for Chinese-speaking lower-middle and working-class folk past 45). To our eyes they can seem to be very colourful, because they tend to follow the fashion of a generation ago and hold views of an even earlier epoch. And naturally, their reasoning for their views cannot be expected to meet any rigourous intellectual standard.

The bulk of the program featured interviews with two gay activists from People Like Us, Eileena Lee and Charles Tan, the assistant artistic director of a theatre company, Nelson Chia, an anonymous chub called 'David' and an associate professor in the Sociology department of the National University of Singapore (NUS), Paulin Tay Straughan.

Most of my friends who watched the program thought it was quite fair. And if you're aware of how recent has been the permissibility of touching on gay issues by our broadcast media, you'd say it also marks a significant step forward in the 'liberalisation' of Singapore.

For instance, look at how the 1999 ChannelNewsAsia program CNA special assignment: homosexuality went. There it discussed how sex education for teenagers touched on homosexuality, but the underlying message was encouraging people to turn straight.

The truly memorable breakthrough was Channel U's one-hour program in July 2003, 'OK, no problem'. You can see the gist of it in Gay tutorial on Chinese TV. That program ended by making the audience cry over the difficulties faced by 'Anthony', a gay guy who came out on the program itself.

I know it does beg the question of whether the Chinese media is more progressive about the issue than the English media, but it may be too early to judge.

* * * * *

The one reservation almost universally expressed by my friends who watched Channel U's Feichang toushi yan, was over the comments of the sociologist Straughan. One friend's reaction was "at first, she seemed quite fair, but towards the end, she lost her grip on reality, and then it was downhill all the way."

Straughan teaches sociology at NUS. On the department's website, it listed her areas of interest as "Medical Sociology (with emphasis on preventive health behaviour and mental illness); Gerontology; Work and Family; Organizational Behaviour."

They jump at you, don't they? Medical sociology! Health behaviour! Mental illness! It does appear as if she is the successor to the counsellor, psychiatrist or psychologist, who used to be a regular feature in any discussion about homosexuality. In the 2003 story, No Mardi Gras, says PM, I commented that:

I despair of our reporters and their editor bosses sometimes. Whenever they write about any gay-related issue, they bring in a counsellor and includes his views.

Immediately, homosexuality is cast as a psychological condition, maybe a psychiatric condition. The fact is, homosexual orientation is NOT a psychological defect. Professional associations in the US, Europe, Australia, even China, have made a firm stand on this.

So, was Straughan looking at the issue of gay acceptance through the lens of medical sociology? Did she unconsciously see the gay people as an abnormal group, like other abnormal groups she has studied, trying to find a place in society?

Strictly speaking, gays are often seen as abnormal, but that's just it: "seen as". The abnormality is a constructed one; others construct us as abnormal. This is quite different from, say, the mentally ill, who if serious enough, are irrational, and therefore present a real difficulty in how they can operate within society that goes by rational rules.

Since our 'abnormality' is constructed by straights, the dismantling of it, i.e. acceptance, has to take place in the minds of the the straights, the same way that racism is dismantled not by changing the behaviour of the minority, but by changing the minds of the majority.

* * * * *

Now let's look at exactly what she said, and I will deal with specific points. In the program, Straughan spoke in English, so there was no risk of translation error.

Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan: As we become more mature as a society, we become more confident. And when we become more confident, we become more embracing. Technology has broken down a lot of barriers. So, access to the Internet and therefore to support groups from other countries is now available, right?, to the local gay community.

I have nothing to add. Further on in the program, she said,

Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan: I think we also have to understand the role of the state. When we deal with issues like homosexuality, while on one hand, we expect the Government to, you know, to appreciate and embrace every single member of society, right?, and that is the right thing, right? Just because you're homosexual doesn't make you a lesser member, right? But at the same time, the Government is also mindful that everything it does is read as an initiative, right?, and there are members of the society who will expect the Government to be...they look towards the Government as some kind of, you know, moral authority, right?, you know, on what should be and what shouldn't be encouraged. So acceptance is one thing. Promoting is another thing. And these two need not be the same.

When she said that "people look towards the Government as... moral authority", it may be true as descriptive reality, for the present. She doesn't pose the question of whether this looking up to authority is something that should be. It may be inconsistent with a liberal polity (and as I have argued elsewhere, when we speak of an open, diverse and inclusive society, aren't we talking about a liberal society?) that the government should still try to be an arbiter of morals.

Then she goes on to say, "So acceptance is one thing. Promoting is another thing." By that she implies that homosexuality can be promoted. Those of us with a grasp of the facts would contest that. But more insidious is the implication that acceptance is already here, we only need to watch out that we don't go overboard, which becomes 'promoting'.

Moving on, 

Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan: I think that's overstating, huh? I don't see it as a denial of gay rights. I think the people involved in promoting gay rights should be very mindful that there are certain rights, you know, there are certain privileges that you want to fight for because that means inclusion into mainstream rights and privileges, you know, that other members of society get. Things like employment and so forth, right? That you should not be denied a job just because of your sexual tendencies. You should not be denied housing, healthcare, education, just because, you know, of your sexual tendency. Bottom line is if you want, if you ask the question, you know, "How well are we accepting our gay members?", then, the question would be, "If you are gay and a Singaporean, do you have access to everything available to your straight friend?" And if the answer is yes, and I think the answer pretty much is yes, then we're doing OK.

I have a huge problem about the bogeyman called 'gay rights'; however in this case she might just have been responding to the interviewer using the term.

More problematic is her confusion between rights and privileges, as in the sentence, "should be very mindful that there are certain rights, you know, there are certain privileges that you want to fight for because that means inclusion into mainstream rights and privileges... that other members of society get."

Then it gets worse. She enumerated a few things which in her mind were examples of "rights/privileges": employment, housing, healthcare, education. In every one of them, I can easily tick off examples where gay people are treated unequally:

Employment - as 'David' said in the program, "As far as looking for employment is concerned, if you openly admit, 'I'm a homosexual', I think that this will have a great effect on your clinching the job." Straughan is too taken in by Goh Chok Tong's statement that openly gay people may be employed in the civil service. The reality is still far from the gloss. For one thing, even in the civil service, let alone the private sector, I know that the Education Ministry sees itself exempted from that statement, because in their view, they have to pander to parents' prejudices when hiring teachers, at least for primary schools. 

Housing - why are heterosexual couples (for whom there is a legal provision for marriage) able to purchase subsidised flats from the Housing Development Board, and why are gay couples (who aren't allowed legal marriage) excluded because they're not 'married'?

Healthcare - transferability of Medisave, visitation and next-of-kin rights...

Education - how does the homophobic content of our schools' sex education package (see Sex education package ) impact on the self-esteem of gay teenagers? And on the views formed in straight teenagers' minds?

Clearly, Straughan has no basis to so blithely suggest that gay people aren't deprived of equality in these areas. 

But further on, she really strayed into the world of imagination when she said, 

"If you are gay and a Singaporean, do you have access to everything available to your straight friend?" And if the answer is yes, and I think the answer pretty much is yes, then we're doing OK. (emphasis mine)

Eyes pop.

Yawning Bread 



  1. The full transscript of the program can be seen in Channel U: Very penetrating insight