Yawning Bread. November 2007

Minorities and state protection




In parliament on 23 October 2007, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, "Nor do we consider homosexuals a minority, in the sense that we consider, say, Malays and Indians as minorities, with minority rights protected under the law -- languages taught in schools, cultures celebrated by all races, representation guaranteed in Parliament through GRCs and so on." [1]

Hang on, why not?

To answer that question, we need first to examine the basic principles why a state would acknowledge a certain group of people and their interests as deserving of protection, and then ask ourselves whether gay people qualify in similar ways.

Instead, Lee merely asserted that we do not consider the gay community deserving of protection, without explaining why not.

Separately, Straits Times journalist Andy Ho wrote on 10 November 2007, "Already, in the parliamentary debate, there were claims of 'minority' group status for homosexuals. I also have an e-mail -- obviously from a legally trained mind -- asserting that gays form a 'discrete, insular and disadvantaged minority'." [2]

In that same article, Ho said, "By self-identifying as 'a minority', the claim is that his group will inevitably be ignored or victimised by the (demonised) majority."

He appeared to suggest that gay identity was conjured out of thin air, in order to create an illusion of victimhood.

Further on, Ho claimed that "the gay lobby..... tends to reduce complex human beings to one trait - homoerotism. That is, it regards all individuals who have this orientation as being, in essence, the same in (all) other respects."

By this point, Ho was beginning to mischaracterise the meaning of gay identity as reductive and essentialist. This is a point I will come back to later.

He then went on to point out that every individual has multiple attributes, and "because we move from one grouping to another fluidly as the situation demands, our personal group borders are never fixed." This argument was further developed to suggest that identity politics was a bad thing, as "it balkanises, promoting an obstreperous, rancorous self-pity about the 'tyrannical majority'. "

Finally, at the end of this article, he revealed his main point: Parliament should never have openly debated NMP Siew Kum Hong's petition to repeal Section 377A. It was "a mistake that has, regrettably, fostered the identity politics of sexual orientation here."

It should have been referred to committee which would discuss it in closed session, he argued. Presumably, Ho expected that it should never emerge from committee at all.

So who or what is a minority?

The above begs two questions:

  • What do we mean by 'minority'?
  • Why should the state acknowledge and protect the interests of certain minorities?

To take the first question, we can begin by seeing 'minority' in a purely descriptive way to mean any group of people with a common characteristic, who are outnumbered by others without that characteristic.

Thus, people with plucked eyebrows are a minority. As are those who love blue cheese, or those who have a second toe longer than the big toe.

However, in social and political discourse, this is not normally how we use the term 'minority'. Instead, we usually use it in a more restricted way to mean such groups with a characteristic that brings social consequences. This necessarily means markers that are at or near the forefront of other people's minds and that would modulate their attitudes and reaction to members of such minority groups.

These 'significant' markers typically include race, religion, gender, socio-economic class, age, physical disability, physical looks, language fluency, national origin and marital status.

Some markers bring about a relatively positive reaction from others towards that minority. For example, Caucasians often get better treatment in Singapore. People who own cars are seen more favourably than those who can't afford one. Certainly people who look attractive get a far better deal in life than those with a physical disability.

Politically, the kinds of minorities that deserve attention are the vulnerable minorities, i.e. those who are at the receiving end of negative attitudes and discriminatory behaviour, with no rational basis. Or they are disadvantaged by inherited laws, policies and institutionalised practices, economically, culturally and politically. In response, a modern state, attempting to live up to the ideal of 'equal protection of the laws', would consider making special provision to compensate for the ugly realities of social prejudice and unjust systems.

This is the impetus behind affirmative action, of which there are plenty of examples in Singapore, e.g. special provision to teach minority languages in schools, legislation to compel property developers to include ramps and toilets for the disabled, and the increasing attention in the Attorney-General's office to pursue cases of maid abuse.

In other words, it is social reality that determines which minorities the state considers as worthy of heightened protection, not a blind adherence to custom. The justification for giving special protection to Malays and Indians in Singapore does not arise from any self-referencing and arbitrary importance accorded to race, but from the inescapable reality that these ethnic minorities are disadvantaged by the numerical weight and attitudes of the majority Chinese. Where a racial minority is not so disadvantaged, e.g. the Caucasians, we don't worry too much about extending political protection to them.

In short, we shouldn't see the status of 'minority' deserving of protection purely as a discretionary honour for the state to bestow. On the contrary, it emerges from a recognition of real conditions, one that obliges the state to act upon, in the interest of justice.

To summarise,

  • Descriptively, any marker can be used to define a minority;
  • But of these, only some markers bring about significant reaction from others;
  • Then of these, only some markers bring about irrational negative consequences: these are the vulnerable minorities;
  • And it is in these cases that a government has a duty to do what it can to redress the disadvantage.

Minorities deserving of governmental redress come and go

Ethnic and religious minorities appear to be permanent recipients of state protection in almost every civilised country, but again it is not because of some immutable principle that they should be. It so happens that these differences somehow provoke enduring habits of exclusion among humans.

Even then, exactly which ethnic group or religious group deserves attention can be quite fluid. Over time, some ethnic or religious minorities may get mainstreamed, and new ones start to receive the worst of discrimination. For example, 100 years ago, the Italians and Irish, and Catholics in general, were seen negatively and to an extent discriminated against by the Protestant Anglo-Americans. It's no longer so today.

In Singapore, I would argue that over the last 2 generations, there has been a very gradual (glacial?) integration of the traditional main racial groups, partly as a result of housing and school-language policies. 


On the other hand, as numbers of foreign workers from India and Bangladesh increase, they're beginning to bear the brunt of our racism, not just from the majority Chinese, but also from Indian and Malay Singaporeans. As recent newspaper reports indicate, there is a growing awareness that the state may need to intervene in some way, when it has never intervened before.

In Little India where foreign workers gather in huge crowds on weekends, the government has put up portable toilets. Partly, this is the state making special provision for a disadvantaged group who have nowhere to socialise but in open spaces; partly, it is also to safeguard the environment.

Minorities do not only appear out of an increase in numbers. Another way in which a minority can emerge is when a marker that has always existed, though previously ignored, comes into significance. Gender, sexual orientation and physical disability fall into this category. There have always been people who were female, transsexual, homosexual and disabled. But as the ideals of equality and self-expression spread, aspirations change. Where once these disadvantaged groups were resigned to their lot in life, they aren't anymore.

Indeed, they begin to identify with these markers when they did not before, but contrary to what Andy Ho suggested in his article, it's not a casual choice. It is a totally predictable response to an evolving consciousness of the gap between the social realities they face and the ideals that we all profess.


Foreign workers a minority?

It may strike some readers as strange how I speak of Indian and Bangladeshi workers as "minorities" in Singapore. But why not? They're here and they live and work among us. On the contrary, I think it is when we don't see them as part of our community -- part of "us" -- that it is strange.

In fact, it is precisely because we treat them as aliens, that our government now has to take steps to compensate for our social attitudes. A few years ago, a concerted effort was made to get employers to house these workers properly in dormitories. Next year a new rule to ensure that they have medical insurance will kick in.


You don't see identity politics from the coloured-hair minority, the golfing minority or the tall-men minority, not because these markers don't exist, but because these people do not face social exclusion as a consequence of these markers.

Identity politics is not cause, but effect

When Andy Ho suggested that it was mere political expediency for the gay lobby to encourage self-identification as a minority in order to claim victimhood, he got cause and effect totally reversed.

The truth is that the campaign for gay equality, as for women's equality, is purely reactive. It arises out of the prior victimisation that this class of people face. They are picked upon because of a particular marker, and as a result, the marker becomes significant to them. The day that gays and lesbians are mainstreamed, the day that women suffer no disadvantage as a consequence of their sex, is the day such identity politics will disappear.


Social markers can fade in significance

In reverse, markers that used to be socially significant can fade in importance, and so a socially disadvantaged group that might previously have qualified for state protection, even if they didn't get it, might not qualify today.

One example could be divorcees. One or two generations ago, marital status was an important social marker. Today, it is not.



To hope that identity politics will disappear even while discrimination remains in place is completely unrealistic. To suppress expression and debate, as Andy Ho seems to desire by his view that the petition to repeal Section 377A should have gone into the closed-door committee, is no better. In fact, the attempt to outlaw and censor validates the very same identity politics.

In his article, Ho also made the point that every individual has an infinite number of ways by which to identify himself, e.g. male, Chinese, 40-ish, stockbroker, father, Buddhist, football fan. He argued that speaking of "gay people" would thus be improperly essentialist. By that, he seemed to argue that gay identification should not be accorded much significance; that it ought to be diluted with countless other characteristics that a person can identify with.

This argument completely ignores social reality. Indeed the identity we wear at any given time is situational, but at that moment and in that situation when that particular aspect of one's personhood is being picked upon, to expect one to put it aside is unreal.

Those of us who like swimming may not normally identify as pool-lovers, but the moment others go around closing pools depriving us of places to swim, by gosh we will so identify!

As for Lee Hsien Loong, he falls well short of statesmanship to pronounce that his government does not "consider homosexuals a minority" deserving of protection. It betrays a flawed appreciation of the moral basis of modern government.

It is not the prime minister's job to entrench discrimination. It is his job to compensate for irrational social attitudes and behaviour, in order to give substance to the promise of equality. The reason that the state extends a helping hand to Malays and Indians is precisely the same reason why it should towards lesbians and gays.

Yawning Bread 


Don't erase the disadvantage, erase the marker, some would say

One response from the homophobic lobby to this discussion may be to dispute sexual orientation as a valid marker. This takes the form of the "you can change" argument, which essentially posits that the marker is erasable and therefore cannot be accorded political significance.

Immediately, readers will see the rejoinder: the accumulating scientific evidence is that it is not erasable.

But more than that, even if people can change, why should they? Why is one sexual orientation to be imposed through coercion over another? What happened to the ideals of personal autonomy and self-expression that underpins our conception of civilisation?

Erasability by itself is no reason why we should discount any identity marker, unless we can demonstrate a compelling rational and legitimate societal purpose to do so.

Consider too: Religious affiliation is erasable. In fact people change religion all the time. Yet we protect an individual's choice of religious identity, and we would consider forced conversion a crime against humanity.



  1. Lee Hsien Loong was speaking in Parliament during the debate on the petition to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code... Archived here.
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  2. Straits Times, 10 Nov 2007, There are gays, and there are gays.... Archived here.  
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