October 2005

The government is not homophobic, the Prime Minister says.




"I don't think we are homophobic," Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said. Then he went on to give everyone reason to wonder.

At a luncheon Question and Answer session organised by the Foreign Correspondents' Association on 6 October 2005, Lee was asked by Time magazine correspondent Jake Smith how he felt about gays, while throwing in a comment that the Singapore Government gave "every impression of being somewhat homophobic".


For press reports on what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, see the appendix Fear homosexuals? Not the government

The full reply is transcribed in Lee Hsien Loong's answer to the gay question at the FCA


Immediately came Lee's denial: "I don't think we are homophobic. I agree [with former PM Goh Chok Tong's comment] that homosexuals are people like you and me."

Then, barely stopping to take a breath, came the backtracking. "But there's some segment of Singaporeans who vehemently disagree with that and we have to be aware of that."

On the one side are the gay activists who want more space and feel entitled to it. On the other are those who condemn homosexuality. A balance needed to be struck between two opposing forces, the Prime Minister said.

He went on to pose the question, "How do we provide the maximum space...." but in phrasing it, he revealed a paucity of intelligent thought: "....without it becoming intrusive and oppressive on the rest of the population and without causing a backlash which will lead to polarisation and animosity?"

Excuse me! Who is being intrusive and who is oppressing whom?

In criminalising consensual homosexual relationships, is the State not intruding into gay people's private lives? Is the homophobes' insistence that gay relationships should be condemned and penalised, when it's none of their business, not intrusion? Is irrational prejudice, censorship and the deliberate reinforcement of social stigma not oppression?

Instead, Lee thinks that if gays and lesbians feel they are entitled to equal treatment and say so, that is being intrusive and oppressive upon the rest of the population. 

For a person who is holding the post of Prime Minister, Lee seems bereft of bearings. He failed to recognise that his government is duty-bound to defend justice and equality. It is a sad day when the Prime Minister thinks that ignorance and hate should be given equivalent weight to considerations of justice and equality, and that his job is merely to achieve some balance that keeps everybody happy.

Not even balance, actually. In order to avoid "polarisation and animosity", the trade-offs all come out of the gay side. Illegal. Censored. Banned. 

Meanwhile fundamentalist Christians are free to organise rallies to condemn homosexuality, and pass around uncensored flyers calling it a sin. 

Worse, now the Prime Minister himself, in acknowledging that "there will be those who say this is wrong, it's a sin, not just a crime but a sin," has inadvertently conceded that a religious proscription is being taken into account in formulating laws and policies. 

Lee should remind himself that this is a secular state, and the moment we begin to let one religion arm-twist government policy, we are finished.

People Like Us, a gay and lesbian advocacy group, also made this point. In its press statement, the group said,

The Prime Minister referred to people who objected to homosexuality as a "sin". The government should ask whether the opposition to gay equality is not a virulently vocal, religiously-motivated campaign by a small number of people that is in no way representative, but merely seem so because they have the clout and resources to make themselves heard. Policy-making by a secular government operating in a multi-racial society like Singapore should not be taken captive by the religious beliefs of segments of its citizens.

For someone who claims his government is not homophobic, Lee made 2 remarkable gestures.


Firstly, he ruled out gay marriage, apparently unaware that more and more judicial benches in other countries are ruling that denial of equality in marriage is homophobic discrimination.

Secondly, he ruled out gay celebrations. Once again he used homophobic language to prove his non-homophobia. He said gay groups should not "flaunt (their) gayness" through parades and parties 
like the Nation.05.

Flaunt is a word much favoured by the Christian fundamentalist rightwing of America. Their thinking goes like this: if you aren't ashamed that you are gay, then you are "flaunting" it. 

It is unfortunate in the least, that the Prime Minister is using such language.

* * * * *

This reason for not allowing gay events was that "it will be offensive to a large number of Singaporeans and will be very divisive."


Nation party revellers.
"Not just a crime, but a sin." 

A devotee getting his tongue pierced.  

Meanwhile the Singapore Tourism Board is proudly selling Thaipusam as another of Uniquely Singapore's colourful festivals. The police likewise lend their support to ensure that the Kavadi processions go smoothly.

Thaipusam is a Hindu festival introduced into Singapore and Malaya by the indentured labourers brought here by the British colonial administration. The main feature of the celebration here is the state of trance and acts of penitence involved in carrying the kavadi. The more extreme and elaborate kinds of kavadi require something like a hundred body-piercings. Interestingly, it has more or less died out in India, where, I am told, it is considered to be a practice associated with a very uneducated approach to Hinduism.

So what we have is a festival that many people would not want their children to witness (lest the kids get ideas), and some adults themselves may find rather gross. In other words, Thaipusam could be said to be "offensive" to some people. Even more, some Hindus too disapprove of the practice.

Nonetheless we adhere to the principle that if some Singaporeans want to celebrate Thaipusam in this way, so be it. If you can't bear the sight of it, you can always stay away, can't you? The principle behind our social peace is not that minority communities should be circumscribed until the majority approves, but that the majority should be enlightened enough to respect the equal freedoms of the minorities.

People Like Us made a similar point reference to ethnic harmony. In its press statement, it said, 

Just as maintaining racial harmony is founded upon the core principle that people of all races are equal in law and policy, and racist speech frowned upon, so integration and acceptance of the gay community cannot be realised unless the government adopts a similar principle regarding sexual orientation, and recognises that the threat to social harmony comes primarily from homophobia.

It's easy for the Prime Minister to claim his government is not homophobic. But this is Singapore. We like objective measures of performance. So People Like Us' press statement laid them out:

.... the following are critical to establish that the government's positions are not homophobic:

  1. Decriminalisation of consensual gay sex and the equalisation of the age of consent; 
  2. Equalisation of censorship standards between heterosexual and homosexual themes and content; 
  3. Registration of gay-identified societies; 
  4. Removal of homophobic bias in the Ministry of Education's curricula.

From now on, there will be no more wasting of time with doublespeak. There will be objective tests to determine government homophobia or non-homophobia.

Yawning Bread 


During Thaipusam, Hindu penitents carry Kavadis, with hundreds of fine steel skewers piercing their bodies. They walk miles from one temple to another.


Barbs on his back, pulling his Kavadi.
This kind of diversity can be
celebrated in Singapore,
but not gay diversity.