Yawning Bread. January 2007

Half of younger Singaporeans consider homosexuality "acceptable"


    

 

 

Half of Singaporeans under the age of 30 found homosexuality "acceptable", a new survey reported. Involving 800 respondents aged 15-29, the study was conducted by the Singapore Polytechnic's School of Business. As of the time of writing, full details of the method used and its results have not been published in any readily accessible way.

However, Kwa Lay Ping, a lecturer from the School of Business, told Fridae.com in an email that there was only one question in the survey. It consisted of a statement "I find homosexuality acceptable" with a choice of Agree/Disagree/Don't know for answers.

50% agreed with the statement, 42% disagreed and 8% said "don't know".

"Females generally tend to find homosexuality more acceptable than males," wrote Kwa. "57% of the female respondents found homosexuality more acceptable as opposed to 44% of the male respondents."

 
Earlier data had shown the trend

This result may strike some Singaporeans as surprising, but in fact, it's been presaged by the Social Attitudes Survey 2001 conducted by the then Ministry of Community Development and Sports. Buried among the results of that study, were data showing a significant difference between those under 30 years of age and those older, when it comes to the question of homosexuality.

Percent who find homosexuality "unacceptable"
  All respondents 85%
  15-29 years old 71%
  30 years old and above 88%
Source: SAS 2001 [1]

 

Based on the above results, Channel NewsAsia reported in October 2002 that "one third of Singaporeans under 30 found homosexuality acceptable." But since most newspaper reports focussed on another aspect of the SAS 2001 findings -- that of women above 30 staying single -- few would have noticed the leading indicator from the youth data regarding homosexuality. [2]

SAS 2001 also found that those who had received more education tended to be more accepting of homosexuality, a finding consistent with surveys done in other countries.

 
So what if people are accepting?

No doubt, many gay and lesbian Singaporeans will consider the upward trend in the latest Singapore Polytechnic data to be very positive. There will be the natural tendency to use this to argue that the Singapore government is behind the times, in the same way that the government will use its 2001 data ("85% of all respondents find homosexuality unacceptable") to argue that the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans are "conservative".

Both, in my view, miss the point entirely. To focus too much on acceptance is to reinforce the idea that the way the state should deal with difference is on the basis of permission [3]. Only when a majority allows a minority to be, is a minority free to be.

It should be the other way around. The default position should be full equality and full liberty unless there is a very, very good reason why the state should circumscribe it. Minority opinion and preferences should be equally free until injury to others can be substantially demonstrated, a principle that should apply across many facets of human free will, from religion to sexuality to political opinion. It shouldn't matter how popular or "acceptable" a minority view or behaviour is; no permission should be necessary.

However, this is not to detract from the fact that social acceptability does make living in a society easier. Ask anyone belonging to a minority race in Singapore. For all the legal equality that they have, obstacles are still posed by other bigotted or thoughtless people.

So how has this, quite considerable change in attitudes towards homosexuality come about?

The internet is one reason, but even more important although less visible and hence underrated, has been a certain consensus among gay leaders in Singapore that it was important to drive the coming out process. I'll come back to this later.

 
Direct effects of the internet

The internet has acted on the gay and straight communities in somewhat different ways. With straight youth -- and it's mostly the youth who flocked to digital media -- it has meant exposure to ideas from the English-speaking West, and to Hong Kong and Taiwan. From both these directions have come rather more liberal ideas about individual expression, including sexual expression.

As V Maheantharan, director of the School of Business at Singapore Polytechnic told Channel NewsAsia, "There is a gap between me, the way I think and the way youths in Singapore think. But I'm not surprised because they are under so much more different influences than what I went through. They've got 100 movie channels and they've got the Internet." [4]

However, from America has also come the strident homophobia of their fundamentalist churches. Nevertheless, on balance, the direction of the shift in attitudes has been towards the liberal end.

That much has been the direct effect of the internet.

 
Indirect effects of the internet

With gay and lesbian youth, the impact of the internet on them is more profound, which in turn has generated far more downstream consequences. For most lesbians and gays of this generation, the internet is where they discover themselves and find out what being gay means. For many, it is also the platform of choice in their search for gay and lesbian friends, love and sex. A larger and more essential part of their lives and identity depends on the internet than is the case for their straight counterparts.

However, there is no inherent reason why the use of the internet for self-discovery and social connection should have spillover socio-political effects in the public sphere. Conceivably, gay individuals can know themselves and develop circles of friends through the internet and yet still remain unpoliticised and closeted. In fact, this may be the case with the gay community in Malaysia, for example.

But Singaporeans, being conversant in English (and for many, in Chinese too) would be exposed to the gay discourse from the West and Greater China, where these issues are expressed in more affirmative, rights-based terms. The result is that in learning from the internet what it means to be gay, Singaporeans also absorb the self-positioning and self-image that the gay discourse from those societies tend to promote.

In addition, the internet enables social mobilisation to an unprecedented degree among hitherto silenced and isolated communities. This mobilising power has been demonstrated most convincingly for mass parties -- understandably, since parties have the advantage of instant gratification and therefore has mass appeal. Through the last decade, virtually all gay parties, bringing together thousands, have been advertised only through the internet, reinforced by word of mouth. However, the mobilising power of the internet has also been applied for other ends. On a smaller scale, it has been used to create other interest groups, e.g. sports and faith groups, bringing together people who might not have known others sharing similar interests.

Again, like identity formation, mobilising for such purely social and private objectives need not have any political dimension, but against a background of raised consciousness as a result of having been exposed to the gay arguments from abroad, the physical coming together, whether for partying, worship or sailing, reifies the sense of empowerment that each individual has earlier and latently absorbed.

This sense of self-confidence and empowerment generally leads the individual to be open about his homosexual orientation. He doesn't feel it is anything wrong, or shameful. Why should he hide it? He feels he is equipped to deal with the crap that some others may throw at him, since through the internet and his socialisation, he's well informed and assured of the power of the group behind him.

 
Coming out as a conscious activist objective

Besides the natural tendency for people to eventually come out as an indirect result of the digital revolution, gay leaders in Singapore have, for 14 years, quite consciously made coming out one of the major planks in their mission. This may be fairly unique to the Singapore experience compared to other Southeast Asian countries, at least in terms of how early we started on this goal.

Within a month or two of the founding of People Like Us in 1993, there was a discussion about setting up a Coming Out Support Group. It never materialised in quite as didactic a form, but support groups were indeed formed, and by today, there have been many generations of them led independently by lots of people, unconnected with People Like Us.

People Like Us itself has over the years established the principle that one should be honest and open about one's sexual orientation. We have also demonstrated through example that in the Singapore context, it is safe to be out.

Fridae.com was the other powerful force leading in the same direction. In a recent interview, Stuart Koe, the CEO of Fridae, told me, "We didn't want to create an environment where we pandered to the closet."

The result was an editorial stance premised on the assumption that everybody was out. This included pinning up pictures of various social events on their site. Some people might have been shocked to see their faces on Fridae at first, but they survived it and got accustomed to it.

A better gauge of gays' and lesbians' self-confidence can be seen in Fridae profiles -- the part of the site where members can put up their self-profiles and photographs.

"When we first started, people were unwilling to post photos of themselves, but soon more and more did," Koe said. "Before long, people were confronted by what others were doing and were encouraged to do likewise. People got used to it very quickly."

"Now, huge numbers either have their real names on their profiles, or their faces, which is as good as telling the world your name -- teachers, bankers..."

 
Impact on straight friends and family

Coming out started to become a noticeable phenomenon in Singapore from year 2000 onwards, and the impact on the larger society has been exactly as gay activists foresaw. Studies from America have shown that the chief determinant of a heterosexual person's attitude towards homosexuality is simply whether he has a friend or family member who is gay.

Even someone who has not fully come out can have an effect. His friends may be able to read clues because the gay person is no longer in denial and no longer making any serious effort to hide his orientation. Suspecting that their friend or colleague is gay, the heterosexuals around him begin to temper their language or jokes, and may even subconsciously interrogate their prior beliefs about what homosexuality means to them. They begin to see homosexuality not as a 2-dimensional alien, but as something in their friend, something they can live with.

Last week, Channel NewsAsia had a young adult on television saying, "To youths, it's common knowledge that homosexuals exist in Singapore. In fact, if you ask any youth, he'll say that he knows at least one homosexual friend." [5]

And from there, it snowballs.

Yawning Bread 


 

Data from the UK

In the UK, their Social Attitudes Survey is conducted annually, but the most recent result that I can find on the internet is from 2002.

Their question on homosexuality is phrased differently, asking respondents not whether it was acceptable or unacceptable, but whether it was wrong. From this source, it was reported that,

There has been a dramatic change in attitudes towards homosexuality. In 1985, 70% of people thought it was "always" or "mostly" wrong. Now under half (47%) think this, while a third (33%) says it is "not wrong at all".

You should not directly compare this with the Singapore Polytechnic survey results, because the British SAS 2002 sampled from the whole population, like the Singapore SAS 2001.

If any reader can point me to more recent data, I'd be grateful.

 

Footnotes

  1. See the article Social Attitudes Survey 2001 - the first monograph 
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  2. For a review of what the media reported of SAS 2001, see Social Attitudes Survey 2001 - the media reports 
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  3. I can't remember who, but someone at a forum I attended recently made the same point about Singaporeans' tendency to hold back from voicing their dissent on political questions. The Singaporean habit, she said, seems to be to wait for permission before they will speak out; they seem to think that until permission has been given, they have no legitimate right to do so. Thus the constant clamour for the government to clarify OB markers (limits beyond which the government will rebut robustly, or even take people to court). It also explains the lack of initiative Singaporeans have for forming their own civic groups to further their own interests, preferring to let the government take the lead.
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  4. Channel NewsAsia, 17 Jan 2007, Half of Singaporean youths think premarital sex is okay -- survey. 
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  5. Ibid.  
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Addenda

None