I will once again not be in Singapore for this year’s Pink Dot celebration, scheduled for 5pm, June 28th at Hong Lim Park (see here).
Aside from being our biggest civil demonstration, and looking like a rather fun party, of all the illiberal policies in Singapore, nothing offends my sensibilities more than the continued criminalisation of male homosexuals.
As I mentioned at the launch of Hard Choices (see here), I strongly believe that the presence of this law is a stain on our collective moral conscience. In the same way that future generations of humans may wonder how the world took so long to get ecological sustainability right, I am certain future generations of Singaporeans will ask how a developed, democratic, aspiring global city took so long to guarantee fundamental rights to a minority group.
Of course gay rights, just like ethnic rights, women’s rights, and every other human right, is a function of the social norms of the day. But this is the 21st century: while the rest of the developed world wonders whether or not to legalise gay marriage, some Singaporeans cling onto atavistic fears, dressed in cultural relativism, about legalising homosexuals themselves.
Though I have spoken publicly about this bigotry many times and touched on it in Floating on a Malayan Breeze, this is my first article or blogpost on the matter.
I actually didn’t think it necessary to write this—since many more enlightened souls have already spoken—but two people recently convinced me to do so. But since so much has already been written in Singapore and overseas, I will limit myself to what I believe are under-explored areas on the issue. This is not meant to be a comprehensive essay.
Indeed, a good primer on Singapore’s long-standing debates on this issue is a parliamentary discussion on the Penal Code in 2007 (see here). Siew Kum Hong, then nominated MP, outlined the pro-repeal (i.e. gay rights) stance; Thio Li-ann, then nominated MP, outlined the anti-repeal (i.e. anti-gay) stance; and Indranee Rajah and Christopher De Souza, PAP politicians, outlined the government’s position, which remains consistent to this day (to be discussed below).
The official position is disingenuous
The Singapore government’s main argument against repealing S377A is for its “signalling” effect in what it considers a still conservative society.
“Therefore, the stance which the Government is taking is, in fact, an exact reflection of what Singapore society in general think, which is that if you really have to do it in private, the Government and the Police will not take a proactive enforcement policy but, at the same time, we do not want to send a message to everybody that this is correct, because we have to take into account the majority view.”
– Indranee Rajah, 2007
The majority view? But throughout our history, the government has ignored the majority view and actively sought to dictate values, whether, for example, in terms of culture in the 1960s (language policy: Mandarin over dialects), family values in the 1970s (“Stop at two”); or societal norms in the 2000s (the return of gambling).
One reason the “Singapore consensus” is so admired by many emerging-market countries and businesses is precisely because of its ability to push through unpopular policies in the name of long-term developmental goals, ethical considerations or egalitarianism.
But not gay rights. When it comes to gay rights—and some other issues, such as the death penalty—the government suddenly remembers the quaint notion of “the majority view”, and we the citizens are allowed to revel, fleetingly, in the participatory joys of a representative democracy.
But this is not real democracy. Every democracy has an obligation to protect minority rights, not succumb to majoritarianism. What if a majority of Singaporeans wanted to ban all new immigrants?
Second, even if the government did, at the expense of minority protection, want to decide this issue by popular vote, I do not believe Singaporeans have ever had the opportunity to engage in a proper national conversation on it. All mainstream media is government controlled, and probably wary of wading into the culture wars. I have never read a single editorial on gay rights. Nor watched a proper debate about it on TV.
In 2012, when Singapore’s National Arts Council (NAC) refused to award a publishing grant to Floating on a Malayan Breeze because it apparently “has the potential to undermine the authority of the Singapore government”, one of the offending passages highlighted to me was this one:
“Private, consensual sex between males is punishable by up to two years in prison. Though the law is rarely enforced, its presence is a stain on the conscience of Singapore, which claims to be an inclusive, modern global city.” – p. 211
If even writers are not supposed to broach the topic in books….then who? How are Singaporeans expected to engage in a constructive debate?
I also believe that the government has never really accurately gauged public sentiment on this issue, instead relying on somewhat inaccurate surveys, and deciding by fiat.
When I say these surveys are “inaccurate”, all I mean is that they are not actually asking about the electorate’s view on the legality of homosexuality or S377A.1 Rather, they tend to ask about general perceptions towards homosexuals—perceptions that, as mentioned, have been strongly influenced by narrow reportage and a national, institutionalised history of anti-gay discrimination (as recently as the 1990s the Singapore Police engaged in odious sting operations against gays in Singapore).
For instance, the most recent one was a survey on race, language and religion conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS), which showed that Singaporeans maintain conservative views on homosexuals.2
Newspaper reports, social media and everyday conversations immediately tied this finding to support for S377A. That is slightly problematic. There are many behaviours and values that people might disagree with yet do not feel should be illegal.
In the same survey, 72.5% say having a pregnancy outside marriage is wrong; 69.2% say gambling is wrong; and 56.4% say pre-marital sex is wrong. But do Singaporeans want to criminalise those activities? I suspect not.
On a related note, one curious finding from this survey is that Singaporeans are more tolerant of gay marriage than sex, and even more tolerant of gay’s adopting a child. Usually, a society first accepts gay sex before child adoption and marriage.
Why the reverse? One researcher I spoke with believes it has to do with Singaporeans’ focus on family values. I think it could also be because S377A has been drummed into us, whereas issues like gay marriage and child adoption are never even remotely discussed.
“Those answers told us more about how good Singaporeans are at responding to (political) message cues than about what they really thought,” says Alex Au, one of Singapore’s leading gay-rights advocates, who blogs at Yawning Bread. (Alex is also vice-president of Transient workers count too (TWC2), an NGO that promotes the rights of low-wage migrant workers.)
Therefore, even if Singapore decided that it wanted to suspend minority protection and decide this issue by popular vote—a very big IF—then it still has not been done in a precise way. First, we need a proper national conversation. And then, a proper referendum on “Do you believe private, consensual homosexual activity should be illegal in Singapore?”
To surmise, Singapore is a country that prides itself on
a) Government leading societal views and norms
b) Minority protection
c) Analytical rigour
When it comes to S377A, however, we seem to have temporarily suspended all three. Why?
Bear in mind also that Lee Kuan Yew himself has spoken up for gay rights (see here). Now is there any other fundamental right that the old man believes in that Singapore has not pursued? Unfortunately, today’s leaders have neither his political spine nor capital, something I deal with below.
Therefore, for all these reasons I believe the government’s position is disingenuous and I think it knows it is arguing on shaky ground. When I read poor Indranee Rajah’s transcripts from 2007, I am actually quite appalled. It is nowhere near what one would expect of somebody who is a minister today.
For instance, at one point she actually finds it acceptable to question sexual free choice with a reference to murder:
“I come to what is Singapore prepared to accept. I do not think we want to have a situation where we demonise homosexuals. We certainly do not want to regard them as anything less than Singaporeans. But the point is: what does our society want for itself? Societal rules are not purely a matter of free choice. A murderer could say he is free to kill but society disagrees. Murder is a crime.”
At another, she seems to misunderstand the concept of a secular state:
“A secular state’s position should be that we go with the majority view unless there is a particular reason to uphold the minority position, and legislation has to be a reflection of the societal norms and what is acceptable to that society.”
This is completely unfounded. There is nothing in a secular doctrine that speaks to majoritarianism. In fact, often the very purpose of secularism is to reject majoritarian rule so as to protect minorities from the religious majority. That is precisely why some segments of India today are worried about a Modi-led government and its implications for non-Hindus (and liberal Hindus).
One final thought on minority rights. There are those who argue that since Singapore is an illiberal democracy—not one steeped in traditional liberalism—the concept of minority rights does not really exist.
For evidence they can point to professional discrimination against Muslims in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), as well as Singapore’s long-standing policy of importing more Chinese so that the ethnic Chinese supermajority in the population is always maintained, in the face of higher birth rates amongst Malays and Indians.
My own feeling is that while Singapore is an illiberal democracy, and these policies are certainly illiberal, they are not so much reflections of popular sentiment as archaic realpolitik, i.e. the vast majority of Singaporeans do believe in fundamental minority rights. Indeed, this was one of the main reasons we separated from Malaysia in 1965.
S377A threatens Singapore’s secularism
The Christian right often appears as the vanguard of the anti-gay movement. One immediately thinks of Thio Li-ann, the nominated MP who with flowery rhetoric articulated this position in 2007 (“To slouch back to Sodom is to return to the Bad Old Days in ancient Greece or even China where sex was utterly wild and unrestrained”).
And her mother, Thio Su Mien, the septuagenarian, self-styled “feminist mentor”, who in 2009 while planning an effective coup at AWARE, the women’s rights organisation, wailed “Are we going to have an entire generation of lesbians?” (No. How about a generation of vitriol-spewing bigots?)
In truth there are many other anti-gay religious conservatives in Singapore. In the IPS survey, while an overall average of 78.2% of Singaporeans feel that gay sex is wrong, when considering only Protestants it rises to 85.8% and for Muslims 93.3%. By contrast, for those who profess no religion, this drops to 64.6%.
Historically in Singapore’s culture wars it appears as if conservatives of other stripes are often quite happy for the Christians to lead the charge publicly. In recent times, however, the Muslim voice has grown louder.
First, one thinks of the recent controversy over statements made by NUS professor Syed Muhd Khairudin Aljunied, who in a Facebook post compared homosexuality to a cancer that must be treated. He later modified the posts, acknowledging “poor judgment in the tone and choice of words” (see here).
Second, in relation to this year’s Pink Dot, a tudung-wearing Muslim girl who expresses support for the event has been chastised by members of her community (see here).
The government seems to believe that by maintaining the status quo (i.e. not repealing S377A), society will naturally achieve some happy equilibrium between the gay community, who will be discreet, and religious conservatives, who will ignore them.
Far from it. Quite simply, the presence of S377A emboldens religious conservatives in Singapore and threatens the country’s secularism.
In fact, the religious conservatives have been so successful in shifting the conversation to the right, that many in Singapore today believe to advocate for the repeal of S377A is to embrace social liberalism, i.e. if you want homosexuality decriminalised, you must be socially liberal.
That is like saying: if you accept migrants in Singapore, you must be a free-market, economic liberal.
Society must be wary of any xenophobe who tries to shift the local-migrant issue that far to the right.
Similarly, we should be aware of religious conservatives who try to shift the national gay rights conversation to the right. Repealing S377A is not a question of social liberalism; it is one of fundamental rights.
All this religious conservatism has a deleterious impact on our society, specifically with the arts. Just last week, A-Mei, a Taiwanese singer, was barred from singing her song Rainbow in Singapore because it depicts homosexual relationships (see here).
Meanwhile, in 2011, the Singapore Art Museum censored Welcome to the Hotel Munber, a work by Japanese-British artist Simon Fujiwara, apparently because of its homosexual content (see here). Welcome to the Hotel Munber is an installation that “examines the violent oppression of human freedom and the censorship of homosexual literature under General Francisco Franco’s fascist dictatorship in 1970s Spain.”
Ah, so delightfully poetic. An exhibit on censorship by an anti-gay fascist regime in the 1970s is censored by an anti-gay conservative society in 2011.
S377A also threatens the concept of a rules-based society
There is an oft-repeated argument, both by conservatives and some liberals, that since gays are fairly free to live their lives in Singapore, nothing more needs to be done.
For me, a pertinent analogy is jaywalking. Since a few people are willing to jaywalk across a country road, there is no need to build a pedestrian crossing. But what about those squatting behind the palm tree, too afraid to cross? What about those jaywalkers who get knocked by speeding cars? And finally, what about those drivers who, with proper pedestrian facilities, are more naturally inclined to walk than drive?
Singapore, more so than most other places, is a rules-based society where each individual’s conception of moral rectitude is aggressively and relentlessly shaped by the prevailing laws of the land.
When I was in school here, I actually heard other people rationalising anti-gay discrimination, including physical abuse, on the grounds that “They’re illegal, what?”
S377A indelibly shapes society’s perception of homosexuals.
Imagine if Singaporeans did not assiduously abide by the rule of law, as is the case in some other countries I’ve visited. One might then have more reason to ignore a potentially unjust law.
There is a counter argument that although Singapore presents itself as a rules-based society, in reality its enforcement of laws is highly selective. One thinks of S377A and the chewing gum law as examples where a light-touch is employed to protect individual rights.
Separately, anecdotal evidence suggests that Singapore has not strictly enforced laws that might scare away foreigners or foreign capital. This includes laws surrounding financial transparency—hence the occasional perception overseas that Singapore is a tax haven in which to stash away ill-gotten gains—as well as newer laws introduced after the last election in 2011 to distinguish citizens rights and benefits.
While this may be true—and if so, it is a risky electoral game being played by the PAP—my argument here is that there is still an overriding perception in society of Singapore as a rules-based society. Hence S377A colours ordinary citizen’s views of gays and thus, even on those grounds alone, should be repealed.
Singapore’s hunger for the Pink Dollar reflects the most reprehensible aspects of “pragmatism”
About 10-15 years ago, Singapore started to become more tolerant of gays largely because of economic imperatives (see here). First, it realised that the gay population has significant spending power. Second, it realised that gay tolerance was essential in its bid to become a global city and attract multinational corporations and talented individuals.
Some gays themselves make instrumentalist arguments for this approach, suggesting that it is the best way to promote gay rights.
While perhaps true, I find this aspect of pragmatism reprehensible. As a society it brings out the worst in us: “We want you for your money—you’re rich!—but you will remain illegal.”
Worse, by promoting this sort of cold, calculated assessment of a particular constituency, I believe it encourages Singaporeans to adopt the same uncaring, inhumane view of other groups, including construction workers, maids and unmarried mums.
It is completely at odds with efforts to build a compassionate society.
Given Singapore’s democratic evolution, there is less and less political will to repeal S377A
When it comes to political motives for change, it is interesting to contrast the legalisation of gambling in Singapore in 2004-05 with any push to repeal S377A in today’s climate.
For the former, there was a small element of political risk involved, in that the PAP might have alienated some of its conservative voter base; however, the opposition was weak then, and even though Low Thia Khiang, the Workers’ Party (WP) leader, made some criticisms in parliament, he was not in a position to translate that into political gain.
Mr Low had asked the PAP why it was going against the majority’s wishes (most were against gambling) and argued that legalising would constitute a point of no return; the government clearly overruled him. But the irony is that when it comes to S377A, the PAP employs these two similar arguments—majority’s wishes and slippery slope—to justify the act.
With gambling, of course, there were significant national and personal economic incentives on offer. The dominant belief was that Singapore’s economy would benefit both directly from the integrated resorts and indirectly through its continued ascent as a fun, sexy, global city.
Politicians also stood to benefit personally, as their remuneration is tied to GDP growth, in turn directly linked to the construction and performance of the integrated resorts.
In other words, with gambling legalisation, there was a strong alignment of corporate, political, and (perceived) national interests.
With S377A today, the tables are turned. There are minimal corporate, national or personal economic incentives on offer, especially since major multinational corporations have reconciled themselves with the realities of S377A, and seemingly have no difficulties attracting talented people, straight or gay, to work here.
Meanwhile, today, unlike ten years ago, there is a huge potential political cost of pushing through unpopular legislation. The PAP is effectively in decline and its vote share will likely continue to shrink in the next two general elections almost regardless of what happens in Singapore.
The only thing analysts seem to disagree on is what its guaranteed short-term voter base, or floor, is. Some suggest that from 60.1% of the vote in 2011, the PAP’s decline will bottom out in the 55% range. Others believe it will sink below 50%.3
Put another way, Singapore is in the midst of a transition from a one-party state to a new political equilibrium. This could take the form of a PAP-dominated government with a much smaller mandate. Others believe it will be a two-party state. Still others a multi-party democracy.
Given these likely scenarios, then, there are two reasons why S377A will not get a fair hearing soon. The first is time and resources. There are far more popular agenda items, from housing to transportation, for the PAP to spend its valuable political capital, increasingly in short supply, on a gay-rights issue.
The second is specific to S377A and the positions adopted by the PAP and the WP, its main rival. In a rare show of unity, they actually agree on S377A—to maintain the status quo. (By contrast, some other parties, such as the Singapore Democratic Party, have called for repeal; see here.)
In other words, there is a tactical deadlock. Neither the PAP nor WP is likely to make the first shift from this position because of a fear of surrendering a conservative voting bloc to the other side.
When one considers this predicament in terms of political leverage, it becomes apparent how powerful religious conservatives—particularly the rich mega-institutions—must feel about throwing their weight around, be it on gay rights, a takeover of AWARE, A-Mei or Lady Gaga. The apparent strengthening of religious fundamentalists in Malaysia today is proof of how dangerous this road can be.
Perhaps worst of all, by maintaining S377A religious politicians are emboldened to ruthlessly cleave society along lines of sexual tolerance for personal political gain. In the lead up to the 2011 general election, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan and his entire PAP team—Sim Ann, Christopher De Souza, Liang Eng Hwa and Teo Ho Pin—attempted to smear Vincent Wijeysingha, their opponent and Singapore’s first openly gay politician, by questioning whether he would “pursue this [gay] cause in the political arena” (see here).
Do you know of any other developed country where a minister would attack his opponent’s sexual orientation? Is Singapore trying to embrace constructive—or gutter—politics?
For all the above reasons, then, the political momentum for repeal strikes me as far greater in 2007 than today. In my assessment, it is only after Singapore achieves some semblance of a new political equilibrium—possibly in 2016, but more likely in the 2020s sometime—that S377A will come up for serious political debate again.
I hope I am proved wrong.
The other avenue—and perhaps the best chance of overturning S377A in the short term—is through a constitutional challenge currently wending its way through the Singapore courts (see here).
In the meantime, well, let’s keep partying Pink:
5pm, June 28th, Hong Lim Park (see here).
Because this is not simply about gay rights. It is about protecting the fundamental rights of a minority group. It is about fending off religious conservatives to ensure that the Singapore state always remains secular. And it is about showing care and compassion to those in society different from you and me.
Which are just some of the attributes that make Singapore great.
Note: I would like to thank Alex Au for giving me some good critical feedback on the draft of this essay.
Note: Before writing this piece, I asked Gerald Giam of the WP, whom I know, and Baey Yam Keng of the PAP, who has been fairly outspoken in the past on S377A, for their comments, specifically on their respective party’s positioning vis-a-vis the other. Both declined to comment, and pointed me instead to their respective parties’ 2007 comments, which they say are still relevant (see here).
1The only survey I could find that actually asked about the “legality” of homosexuality was a 300-person “Heartland” survey by MediaCorp’s Media Research Consultants in 2007, where 62.3% of respondents disagreed that homosexuality should be legal (see here). Aside from the small sample size of this HDB door-to-door survey, other methodological problems have to do with the extremely skewed demographic (46% of respondents have “no income”) and possibly the phrasing of the question.
2Insights on the IPS Survey on Race, Religion and Language. See here
3That said, there is also a small but notable minority that believes that the PAP can actually stem the slide, and increase its vote share at the next election.