Yawning Bread. April 2007

The oracle from St James




Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew told members of Young PAP -- the youth wing of the People's Action Party -- that on the question of homosexuality, Singapore has to "take a practical, pragmatic approach to what I see is an inevitable force of time and circumstance."

Reuters reported this as "Lee Kuan Yew questions homosexuality ban ". I'd like to think so too, but I'm not so sure. Read his exact words [1] carefully:

You take this business of homosexuality. It raises tempers all over the world, and even in America. If in fact it is true -- and I have asked doctors this -- that you are genetically born a homosexual because that's the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes, you can't help it. So why should we criminalise it? But there's such a strong inhibition in all societies -- Christianity, Islam, even the Hindu, Chinese societies, and we are now confronted with a persisting aberration. But is it an aberration? It's a genetic variation. So what do we do? I think we pragmatically adjust, carry our people. Don't upset them and suddenly upset their sense of propriety and right and wrong. But at the same time let's not go around like this moral police do in Malaysia, barging into people's rooms and say 'khalwat'. That's not our business. So you have to take a practical, pragmatic approach to what I see is an inevitable force of time and circumstance.

These comments came in answer to a question from Loretta Chen, who had asked where censorship was headed in the next two decades. The event was a dialogue session with the Young PAP held on 21 April 2007 in the Dragonfly room of St James Power Station, a trendy night spot.

Like oracles from old, you cannot be sure what exactly Lee meant. He was speaking in generalities. Was decriminalisation really at the back of his mind? Was he trying to say why it cannot be done, or why it should be done? What is meant by "practical"?

One has to allow for the fact that he was answering a question, and thus extemporising, but even so, it is particularly opaque.


What little we can see from the answer seems to be that, firstly, he is persuaded that homosexual orientation is innate, though he cast it rather simplistically as a genetic thing.

Secondly, that something "is an inevitable force of time and circumstance". Presumably that inevitable force is full gay equality, though he didn't spell it out.

But all these amount to just philosophising if they are not followed up. In practical terms, what changes in policy and legislation, if any, are being mooted? What does he mean by not upsetting anti-gay groups' "sense of propriety and right and wrong"?

Does his "practical, pragmatic approach" mean repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code (which criminalises "gross indecency" between two males) anytime soon? Or in the next two decades? Concrete steps are what I'm interested in; there's no point drawing any conclusions from mere words.

* * * *

What was more interesting was what he said about having to convince the younger ministers about the need to open up. This suggests either of two things: That the younger ministers are more conservative than he is, or that, contrary to various boasts about their scintillating intellect, they are unable to think out of the box with regard to social issues, sticking to the "done thing". Or both.

As reported by the Straits Times,

When the Cabinet debated whether to allow the Crazy Horse topless revue into Singapore some years back, there was a chorus of nays from among ministers. Then, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew gave what he called his 'tuppence worth'.

He said to his colleagues: Let the show in. It does not make sense to keep things out in this globalised age.


Recounting the discussions with Cabinet colleagues, he replied: 'I said, Look, once upon a time, Singaporeans watched peep shows. You know, you pay 10 cents and you turn an old film in a box at Chinese wayangs.

'Today, they are going to Paris, they go to the Folies Bergere. I mean it doesn't make sense any more,' he said, referring to the renowned topless cabaret show.

'I said, 'Let it go'. So they said, 'No, we must stop this, stop that'. I said, 'You either go with the world and be part of the world, or you will find that we become a quaint, a quixotic, esoteric appendage of the world'.'

The Crazy Horse revue was allowed here and opened to much fanfare in December 2005. But poor attendances led to it shutting down in February this year.

-- Straits Times, 23 April 2007, Adjusting
to the realities of a globalising world

Further down the same news report, it said,

Later in the dialogue, he added that with the prevalence of the Internet, censorship is just not practical any more.

'We have created a society which is totally educated. You are all able to go on the Internet. So all this censorship and so on makes no sense to me. You are on the Internet 24 hours, broadband.

'We're going to have Wi-Fi throughout the whole city. We cannot stop this. If we stop this, we stop the progress. We are marginalised.'

-- ibid.

That this suggests that the younger ministers are more "conservative" does not surprise me. There have been various other indications in the past, starting with an observation my friends and I have made -- that there are a disproportionate number of Christians in the cabinet.

However, it isn't entirely due to religion, though the Christian influence does impact specifically on their reluctance to address the gay issue. I think the process by which the government tends to accumulate "conservatives" is more subtle than that. But that also means it's happening without them even realising it.

We all know how difficult it is for the People's Action Party to persuade people to join them. At every general election, this fact comes out somehow. Few people like to be associated with a harsh authoritarian regime. The ones that do will therefore tend to be those who do not mind being part of an authoritarian set-up, with personal beliefs that subscribe to the virtues of benevolent authoritarianism.

It should be no surprise that those who subscribe to political authoritarianism also tend to subscribe to moralistic authoritarianism. Thus the instinctive tendency, as Lee described, to say "no" to relaxation and "stop this, stop that."

* * * * * 

Yet, for all Lee's attempts to don the cloak of the liberal in the cabinet, I find it hard to square what he's said with the fact that censorship is still very much alive.

Just last Friday, the organisers of the Singapore International Film Festival announced that the Singapore-made film Solos (Loo Zihan/Kan Lume) will not be shown [2]. The government censor has insisted on three cuts, all related to scenes of homosexual intimacy, despite an appeal. The Film Festival, as matter of principle refuses to screen films with cuts.

Is it so difficult to consider 2 simple facts: that giving a film an R21 rating will keep out anyone under 21 years of age, and that no one will accidentally encounter homosexual intimacy, since one has to take the trouble to pay money and buy a ticket to see the film? Who is going to be offended?

That the censor will not budge, the Minister for Information, Communication and the Arts, Lee Boon Yang, will not budge, is consistent with the view that our ministers are generally "conservative". More than that, they seem to be incapable of thinking.

But the fact that they still insist on their stand also suggests that Lee's claim that he argues for less censorship is less than meets the eye. Has he actually told the cabinet that "all this censorship and so on makes no sense to me"? Because if he did, I can't believe they would defy him.

All said and done, who do we believe anymore? Words have been devalued. Time to show us some action.

Yawning Bread 


I myself would not put the genetic case as definitively as that. As explained in many earlier articles, while genes almost certainly play a part in homosexual orientation, other biological factors do too.

See the article from the New York Times archived in the appendix: Pas de deux of sexuality is written in the genes

What we can rule out though is that of social factors -- these have not been shown by any reputable study to play a part at all, despite the best efforts of the religious rightwing to propagate this discredited notion. 

Nonetheless, it's interesting how Lee's leanings towards gene transmission and eugenics -- most notably seen in the "graduate mother scheme" in the early 1980s which nearly everyone detested -- may be coming to the aid of gay people.



  1. These words were taken from both the print and video editions of the Straits Times, 23 April 2007, and from Fridae.com. In the print edition, the newspaper paragraphed the words. I feel that paragraphing them would overlay a certain interpretation, thus I have avoided doing so myself.
    Return to where you left off

  2. Solos was also mentioned in an earlier essay Lights, action.....and cut
    Return to where you left off

  3. See also the transcript of the Reuters interview: "Eventually," said Lee Kuan Yew