Yawning 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:

  • Some questions about method
  • Results and trends
  • The misplaced question

Some questions about method

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.

What we know from the newspaper report is that it was a telephone survey of 300 individuals who lived in HDB flats [1], aged 15 and older.

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 when polled."

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.

Results and trends

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 [2]. 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" [3].

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.

The misplaced question

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 


Posted by "klwl" on SiGNeL on 18 May 2007

Bai Xianyong and how the Chinese press handled his sexual orientation

For those who are familiar with Chinese literature, the name Bai Xianyong should be a familiar one.

Bai, who is 70 years old, is an eminent author from Taiwan, and his body of works include 'Yuqin Shao', 'The Last Night of Jin Daban', 'Youyuan Jingmeng' and the epic landmark novel 'Nie Zi' .

'Yuqin Shao' and 'The Last Night of Jin Daban' were adapted into screenplays and made into highly-acclaimed movies, while 'Nie Zi' was made into a Taiwanese serial titled 'Crystal Boys'.

In recent years, Bai revived and restaged the famous Kun opera 'Peony Pavilon', using young Kun opera artistes as the main leads. He claimed that unlike the other adaptations and revivals, his version is the most traditional, authentic and truthful to the genre of Kun opera. The 100th performance of the opera was held in Beijing last weekend, and Bai is in talks with organisers in Singapore to showcase the opera in the Esplanade in September 2008.

Earlier in SiGNeL, there was the issue raised whether the attitude towards -- and treatment of --- the topic of homosexuality is different between the local mainstream English and Chinese dailies. On 8 May 2007, Lianhe Zaobao did a full-page feature interview/article with Bai on Pg. 4 of its supplement 'zbNOW', which is the Chinese equivalent of Straits Times' 'Life' section. The writer/interviewer was Zhou Wenlong.

About three-quarters of the article dealt with Bai's love of Kun opera and the reasons for him doing a revival run of 'Peony Pavilion'. What was interesting was that at the bottom right hand corner of the article, there was a separate box story that focused on Bai's personal love life.

It said in the box story that Bai has made it known publicly that he is a homosexual since some time back. He had a lover of 40 years by the name of Wang Guoxiang, who unfortunately, has passed away. The reason for Wang's death was not elaborated upon.

The writer commented that the theme of living and dying for love, as espoused by 'Peony Pavilion', was also evident in Bai's personal love life. Bai himself said that Wang knew about his literary and artistic pursuits, and had been very supportive all along. Bai has been feeling very lonely and desolate since the death of his lover. However, being involved in the revival of 'Peony Pavilion' enabled him to be revived/reborn emotionally. He also said that Kun opera is his current 'lover'.

The article even included a small black and white photo of Bai and Wang taken in 1957, and I must say that both of them make a very handsome couple indeed!

I cannot say conclusively that the publication of this article reflects the Chinese daily and/or the local Chinese community's lax and more tolerant attitude towards homosexuality. But the article was certainly written in a neutral stance and Bai's homosexuality was depicted as a matter-of-fact, rather than something of an abomination. I have also not seen any letters from Zaobao readers complaining about the feature/interview or person covered. I certainly cannot say the same about the English daily and (some of its) readers.



  1. 'HDB' stands for Housing and Development Board. It is used in Singapore to mean public housing. According to the Department of Statistics (2006), approximately 82% of Singapore citizens and Permanent Residents live in HDB flats.
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  2. See the article Social Attitudes Survey 2001 - the first monograph
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  3. See the article Half of young Singaporeans consider homosexuality acceptable.
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