Asiaweek: Showing 'Greater Humanity'

Friday, June 9, 2000

Showing 'Greater Humanity'
Family values trump a tough stand on HIV

In Singapore, swift reversals of policy are rare. So it was noteworthy when the Home Affairs Ministry announced on May 27 that 12 foreign spouses of Singaporeans, who have been or were about to be repatriated because they have the AIDS virus, would be allowed to return or stay in the country. The 11 women and one man had been asked to leave under laws that prohibit HIV-positive immigrants. The cases came to light recently when the local Straits Times newspaper reported how some of the expulsions had separated children from parents. The story sparked public support for the families and opposition against tough application of the rules.

Singapore's leaders took notice. "The law cannot just apply without thinking of the consequences to the family," Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong declared publicly. Within hours, the Home Ministry made known its decision. Later, in a letter to the Straits Times, the ministry insisted that there had been no policy reversal. The law, it explained, was never intended to affect people with family roots in Singapore.

Still, many Singaporeans saw the move as an about-face that underscored the government's more open attitude -- even on an AIDS-related issue. It "shows a greater sensitivity and humanity than expected and also accords with public sentiment," says legislator and lawyer Simon Tay. But he quickly adds that authorities remain firm that HIV-positive visitors be kept out. In no way does the u-turn signal any softening of Singapore's hardline HIV policy, says gay-rights activist Alex Au Wai Ping. The initial decision indicated how "the bureaucracy seems to be completely out of step with public opinion."

Au says that a similar gap exists between bureaucrats and citizens on the treatment of homosexuals. On May 23, the police refused to approve an application by Au to hold a public forum on gay and lesbian issues. The reason, said the rejection letter, was that such a meeting would "advance and legitimize the cause of homosexuals in Singapore. The mainstream moral values of Singaporeans are conservative, and the Penal Code has provisions against certain homosexual practices. It will therefore be contrary to the public interest to grant a license." In late 1996, Au and others applied to register an informal group called "People Like Us" so it could meet to discuss gay and lesbian issues and circulate a newsletter. The application was denied. Three appeals, including one to Goh, were turned down. In April this year, authorities explained that the law indicated refusal if a group "is likely to be used for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order."

Au and his colleagues say that getting the government to cite reasons for the rejection is a tiny step forward. But they remain perplexed. The treatment of gays, they argue, is a litmus test of the authenticity of the official drive toward a more open society. To promote civil society, the government is, for example, launching a "speaker's corner" in a local park. There, Singaporeans will be allowed to speak their minds without having to register beforehand.

While the authorities say that citizens aren't yet willing to accept homosexuals, Au and his colleagues counter that attitudes have changed. They recently released a survey which they say shows that citizens -- even in the supposedly more conservative housing-estate heartland -- are more tolerant toward gay activity than expected. For example, 46% of streetside respondents and 74% of those replying on the Internet said they could accept a gay sibling. "It's an indication that Singapore is not the monolithic, anti-gay society the government says it is," Au concludes.

Yet in recent years, authorities have softened their stand on gays -- at least unofficially. "We leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on others," said Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1998. "We don't harass anybody." Indeed, Singapore has several widely acknowledged gay hangouts, and local homosexuals are especially active on the Internet. Police have largely discontinued their sting operations to flush out gays. And officials consult more with groups with homosexual members, such as Action for AIDS. Gay themes are often tackled in plays, while movies with homosexual scenes are permitted. In a recent breakthrough, the debut show of a Chinese-language TV drama serial had a gay storyline.

Such loosening is one thing, says Tay, but granting a license to a homosexual group is another. "To allow a society or a public meeting can be likened to ending the ban on Playboy," he notes. "It's a question of symbols, of what is officially allowed. Singapore society has a strong conservative streak that will back the government decision on this issue." In other words, don't expect a major shift on this hot-button topic anytime soon.