Bread. May 2007
Mediacorp's survey on decriminalisation
The survey conducted by Mediacorp, published in 'Today' newspaper, 19 May
2007, will prove to be a useful one. See What price, the pink dollar?
However, the extent of its usefulness needs to be carefully understood. To this end, I will make 3 observations here:
As usual with media reporting of surveys, unlike academic reporting, 'Today' was more interested in writing up the results with only cursory remarks about the method used.
The fact that there were only 300 respondents would suggest a margin of error in the 4 – 5 percent range, but this was not mentioned by the reporter.
Furthermore, no details were provided as to how the 300 were selected. For example, if the pollster called a fixed-line telephone at a home address, how did the pollster choose which person in the household to interview?
I would assume that all respondents were asked if they were Singapore citizens or permanent residents, since this is becoming the standard population set for surveys here. However, 'Today' did not confirm if the same criterion was applied.
Nor did it not say whether the respondents' demographic profiles were matched with national population profiles. For example, were certain races over/under-represented? Were certain age groups over/under-represented? Income groups?
Even if they matched demographic profiles, it doesn't mean that inferences can safely be drawn about sub-groups' opinions. For example, only about 7% of Singaporeans are Indian. So out of 300 respondents, one would get just 21 Indian interviewees. How does one draw conclusions from such a small sample?
What should have happened is for the researcher to have polled a lot more ("oversampled") Indians, and then adjusted their contribution to the total score in proportion to their share of population. I don't know if this survey did that, but I doubt it.
Given the above, we should use the data with care.
I would also make the point that confining the survey to only HDB residents may have skewed the results to the conservative end. The data showed that the better educated tended to be more liberal than the less educated. Since better education correlates with higher income which correlates with living in private houses and condominiums, a bias may is likely to have been introduced. That said, the newspaper did make clear it was talking about "heartlanders", and that's something we should bear in mind. We should avoid taking the results as representative of Singaporeans as a whole.
Kenneth Paul Tan was quoted in the newspaper article
saying most people "don't have a view on homosexuality either way,
but may feel compelled to offer a 'safe', meaning 'conservative', response
This is a common difficulty in polling, especially if other family members may overhear what the respondent is saying over the telephone to the pollster. So long as being against homosexuality is perceived by many as the social norm, there will be a tendency to give this kind of answer.
It's like if a survey was carried out asking people about their views on prostitution. People will tend to say they disapprove of it even if they don't actually have a strong opinion one way or another, sometimes even if they visit prostitutes themselves.
So here again, the telephone method used in this survey may have introduced another conservative bias.
Although 'Today' mentioned the 2001 Social Attitudes Survey conducted by the Ministry of Community Development and Sports, the two surveys aren't directly comparable. The questions were not the same, nor were the reference populations. SAS 2001 polled over 1,400 Singaporeans aged 15 and above and was meant to be representative . Mediacorp's survey polled only 300 and confined itself to HDB residents, with a likely bias towards the conservative end.
Despite that (and allowing for margin of error), some trends are very noticeable.
SAS 2001 found that 85% of Singaporeans found homosexuality "unacceptable". Mediacorp found 62% agreeing with the view that homosexuality should be illegal. On the face of it, there's a fall of about 20% over 6 years.
SAS 2001 found that of those between 15 – 29 years old (both ages included) 71% found homosexuality "unacceptable". From Mediacorp's survey, only "four in ten" of this age group thought homosexuality should be illegal. That indicates a fall of about 30% over 6 years.
This also brings to mind the findings from the 800-respondent survey of Singaporeans aged 15 – 29, reported by the Singapore Polytechnic in January this year: 42% of them found homosexuality "unacceptable" .
Since Mediacorp's survey questions and population base were not identical to the other surveys, we really shouldn't draw hard numerical conclusions about the differences; yet at the same time, the trends -- and the momentum -- are clear.
'Today' said that the Chinese community had a lower disapproval rate compared to other races: 58% of Chinese felt that homosexuality should be illegal, compared to 62% from respondents as a whole. I'm not sure if this is significant given the margin of error, but at least it does not contradict another observation I have made, which is that Chinese attitudes are softer than commonly believed.
In this connection, a member of SiGNeL, a gay and lesbian email list, recently wrote about how a story in the Chinese-language newspaper Lianhe Zaobao dealt in a matter-of-fact way with well-known writer Bai Xianyong's love life. It didn't bury it or play it down. It highlighted it in a side story. See box at right.
On a separate note, Today's cover story showed, painfully, why there is a need for commentary to supplement reporting. Reporters and editors often have to rush to meet deadlines, and don't the luxury of time to reflect on the way they have framed an issue.
In this instance, both the front end and the back end of the headline "What price, the pink dollar?" missed the point and thus tended to misinform.
The issue before us, as presented by Lee Kuan Yew's comments in April 2007, was not pink dollar, but pink talent. And the price is not what price we need to pay to attract or retain talent that happens to be pink, but what price we will end up paying if we carry on as we are doing now. In other words, "What price, status quo?"
That simple error changes the debate. The newspaper's headline makes it seem pricey to move forward, when actually, the price is in not moving.
This blindsidedness is particularly curious when the story itself contains the necessary information. It opened with a mention of a high-powered gay couple who were contemplating emigration. It quoted Kenneth Paul Tan saying, that in the context of Singapore's aspirations to become a global city, the law will be another reason for talent not to come here.
As many have asked, who exactly would be injured if homosexuality is decriminalised? Whose business would be interfered with? Extending equality does not carry a price. Not extending it does, as no less than Lee Kuan Yew -- someone who has never shown any love for dissenting liberals -- has said.
But at the end of the day, civil rights should never be contingent on popularity or profit. It's nice to have these factors on one's side, but they do not comprise the basis for the argument. Respecting others and treating others fairly is simply the right thing to do. The sorry side to this whole debate is how the government seems not to understand this point.
© Yawning Bread