On S377A and gay rights in Singapore


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.

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Sir Ian McKellen

There is an article on Sir Ian McKellen in the Aug 27th New Yorker. Wohttps://sudhirtv.wordpress.com/wp-admin/post.php?post=62&action=editnderful insight into his life.

Made me think about a couple of things:

  1. The Singapore audience

I watched Sir Ian in two shows last month, at our very own Esplanade—King Lear and Seagulls. Was blown away. Not just by Magneto (although he was spectacular). But by the whole production. All the actors, the set, the sounds, everything. Very happy that such top-notch productions are finding their way to Singapore.

A British colleague of mine was very upset with the audience, however. She lamented the inappropriate laughter at inopportune times (e.g. when King Lear was visibly going mad, a sorry scene about an old man’s dementia). That left a sour taste in her mouth. She said that she felt like going to each actor backstage and apologising to them.

So, I was somewhat surprised to read Sir Ian’s own glowing review of our audience. In his words, “Singapore was a wow—full houses and standing ovations”.

Hmmm, no mention of annoying laughter. Maybe we weren’t so bad, after all.

  1. Homosexuality

Sir Ian’s struggle with his sexuality is discussed frequently in the article. What I found interesting is that he only ‘came out’ in Britain in 1988, amidst a dominant British climate of gay intolerance. Today, much progress has been made in Britain on the front: gays in the military, an equal age of consent for homosexuals and heterosexuals, civil partnership. Sir Ian is an active gay-rights campaigner.

But what struck me was that it was less than 20 years ago that he had the nerve to come out in Britain. Very recent. Societal acceptance of homosexuality in Britain, the US, and many parts of the West is a fairly new thing. And even then, not everybody has accepted it. For every San Franciscan hippie, there is a right-wing, God-fearing member of the Christian Army in the South, denouncing sexual liberalism.

Singapore’s relationship with homosexuals has been uncomfortable, to say the least. There is still legislation banning homosexuality in our country. Senior politicians in our country have been unclear on the issue—on some occasions arguing that gays should have rights, on others asserting that the law shouldn’t be changed. And there is a suspicion that the government cosies up to gays not out of respect for their rights, but out of love for their ‘pink dollar’. One month we permit a gay activity, the next we clamp down on an innocuous ‘gay run’. In this uncertain climate, it must be difficult to feel free as a homosexual in Singapore.

My sense is that there is a lot more homophobia in Singapore than we care to admit. When I was in (all-boys) secondary school, from 1990-1993, I was surrounded by homophobes. Some students I knew would take great pride in beating up gays. The rest of us listened to their stories, non-plussed. In Army, homophobia was rampant. When I left Singapore for California in 1999, I was a homophobe.

Four years in Berkeley changed that. Living and studying in the midst of homosexuals changed my (horribly biased) perception of them. I now have gay friends and colleagues. And am the happier for it. Am a more well-rounded person for it.

However, while I had become accepting of homosexuality, many of my old friends had not. Lots of them harbour homophobic tendencies. Some show it, others don’t.

And even though they may not be outright homophobes, a lot of people in Singapore I chat to—young and old, religious and secular—have reservations about gay rights. For many of them, these are core worldview beliefs that may take some time to change.

So, while many liberals in Singapore go on about the slow pace of change here vis-à-vis gay rights, when I compare it to supposedly liberal societies having only recently become gay-friendly, I actually think we’re doing ok. I don’t mean to condone homophobia, or anti-gay legislation in any way, which is outright bigotry.

But I do think that some people will take a lot longer to come round than others. Blasting their draconian views won’t always work. Sometimes it might. It’s a delicate game.

I think that although there is still a long way to go, gays in Singapore should also be proud of how far we’ve come. Just think–in 1993, there was still active entrapment of gays by Singapore policemen, posing as would-be lovers.

I’m happy that Sir Ian spoke out for gays when he was here. His words should influence many.