BBC World Service: Coming Out: Gay and Lesbian Life in East Asia

Wednesday, November 22, 2000

Coming Out: Gay and Lesbian Life in East Asia

Standing out from the crowd is hard in any country. But what if your sexuality was outlawed and practising it could land you a lengthy jail term? And what if there was no word in your language to describe the very essence of your being?

The breadth of gay and lesbian experience in East Asia is incredibly varied. It ranges from Chinese lesbians who call themselves 'female comrades' for want of a better word, to 'Muk nar' or transvestites in Islamic Malaysia. East Asia Today's special series: Out In Asia explores the experience of gay men and women in Asia.

Homsexuality and the law
The breadth of experience varies but there is one unifying theme: prejudice. In some cases this is state-sanctioned, as in Malaysia where an accusation of sodomy landed the former Deputy Prime Minister Anwar Ibrahim in jail. Across East Asia, laws criminalizing homosexuality exist in Burma, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei.

Even when there are no specific laws prohibiting homosexuality, discrimination occurs through other more obscure laws, such as in Vietnam where men are forbidden from wearing 'weird or sorcerous garments' or in Taiwan where a law against 'overt lewdness in public places' can give police the power to intimidate the gay community.

Societal pressure
In countries where nothing is specifically enshrined in law, societal pressure can still lead to a fall from grace: recently in South Korea a popular children's television presenter had to resign when he felt he could no longer deny his sexuality.

Even in countries that have traditionally had more lenient views towards homosexuality, like the Philippines, gay people are only accepted into wider society if they fit certain stereotypes. A Filipina sex therapist, Margarita Holmes, describes how gay men are acceptable in the Philippines if they are effeminate, theatrical and perhaps work in a beauty parlour. If they are serious doctors or teachers they are not.

Across Asia the family occupies a paramount position in society. This can lead to incredible pressure on those who do not conform to the so-called norm. In Singapore, Sheila Rajamanikam describes the experiences of lesbians there:

Most of them are forced into marriage and end up having children… there's a huge amount of depression and a few suicides

Sheila Rajamanikam, a lesbian from Singapore

As a result, many gay and lesbian people are driven underground, too afraid to talk about their sexuality or 'come out' to their families and friends. Xiao Pei, a Chinese lesbian said:

"I am too afraid to come out to any Chinese friends. If I tell them and they don't understand I am afraid I will lose them and I'm quite afraid of losing my family."

Even when brave enough to come out to their families, ignorance about what it means to be gay can prove astounding. When Zhun Li, a Chinese gay man, told his mother that he was gay she begged him to get a doctor to check if there was something wrong with his body.

Glad to be gay
But despite these adversities, there is a growing feeling among the gay and lesbian communities that things are changing for the better. In Taiwan and Indonesia that is being assisted by more open societies following political change and the gay scenes are flourishing.

Even in Malaysia, despite the spread of Islamic conservatism, there is growing recognition of the existence of gay and lesbian Malaysians who have been previously been ignored. As one young gay Malaysian said of the prosecution of Anwar for sodomy:

It's exposed what was once a taboo in our country…we are still being discriminated against, we are still looked on as freaks. But … it has brought awareness to the community that we do exist and that our existence can no longer be denied.

A gay man, Malaysia

When asked if Asia was a good place to be gay, Dede Oetomo, a gay man from Indonesia said:

"It can be once you get beyond the problems with your family, your school, your workplace, but if you can get beyond that then it could be a good place. People are actually quite accepting of people who are useful to the community. They may find gay people, lesbians and transgenders (sic) rather unusual at first but if you can prove yourself to be useful to the community, they can accept you".

Colorq: Baby Dykehood in Singapore (Jul 00)

Saturday, July 1, 2000

I was never active in the glbt club scene of Singapore, having left while still a baby dyke. Yet, strangely, my early teenage world seemed to be full of dykes. When I left Singapore with a happy lesbian heart, I thought there was a gay, pink and rosy world out there. I came to in America only to have my face ground in the dirt over and over for merely speaking up for gay people, not to mention being queer myself.

Queer visibility in Singapore

OK, I didn't have any lesbian friends in Singapore. But a large number of my friends and acquaintances were bisexual girls/women who dated lesbians. And almost all non-queer female acquaintances knew at least one other lesbian.

I knew some other lesbians by sight. There was a young, gorgeous butch alum from my middle school whom I had a major crush on. There were plenty of girls (even straight ones) swooning over her already. My entire high school class knew about it. So did she. She had the smuggest smile I'd ever seen, so confident she was that any girl, queer or not, would adore her.

Lesbian visibility rose in the late 80s/early 90s. A child publication of the nation's main English language newspaper ran a front page article on young women who date other young women. The article had an anxious tone, but conspicuously absent was the kind of rabid ranting and raving which characterizes some of the editorials on gay issues we see in U.S. newspapers today.

My Experience Being "Out" in High School

My male classmates enthusiastically tried to "chase" girls for me. Unfortunately, they were not very good at it. I was often embarrassed beyond belief by school boys "whispering" in public, "THERE SHE IS!!! I KNOW SHE'S YOUR TYPE!!! GOOD FOR YOU! THE GIRL'S LOOKING AT YOU!" (Is it surprising she's looking at me when boys are tugging at my sleeve, pointing excitedly in her direction and yelling?)

There were 3 "out" kids in my senior high in Singapore -- one lesbian, one bisexual girl, and one gay. No one bothered us. People had many ways of being cruel to their peers, but gay-bashing was just not one of them.

My gay schoolmate, a flamboyant queen, publicly declared his plan to run for prom queen. He would attend the prom dressed in drag as Madonna. The school principal simply said, "No, you are a boy, you can't run for prom queen." No punishment from authority figures, no attack from peers, no nothing. The worst feedback I've heard about his idea was, "Why Madonna? What bad taste! Pick somebody else!"

In my Singaporean high school years, nobody ever shunned me because of my orientation. Even people who rejected homosexuality on religious grounds didn't see the need to take me off their list of friends. After I came to America, Asian and non-Asian Americans alike, people who claimed to be my friends, cut off contact with me once they found out I was queer. It was culture shock for me -- "Hello! There are people who will walk away from you because you are not heterosexual!" I learnt the word "homosexual" in Singapore. I learnt a new word "homophobia" in the USA.

Gay/Lesbian Life in Singapore

GLBT life in Singapore might sound worse than GLBT life in the US, or better, depending on who you talk to. The key to understanding this is knowing that there is a gap between youth culture and adult culture and a difference between the social climate and the legal climate.

While many young Singaporeans do not mind glbts, most older folk I spoke to disapproved of queers and branded homosexuality as a Western import. I told them, "You don't know these people. You have no idea how many of the queer women I met are 1st, 2nd or 3rd generation Chinese immigrants with traditional Chinese values."

In Singapore, I knew many young people of high school age who were openly queer, but once they reached college age, most of them seemed to go back into the closet. I was surprised when I came to the US and found that the reverse was true. Many of the openly gay/lesbian college students I met had no idea they were queer while they were in high school. For young queer Singaporeans, attaining adulthood means entry into a society which does not tolerate non-conformists of any sort. For their Americans counterparts, attaining adulthood symbolizes independence -- the freedom to be gay/lesbian, finally.

While anti-glbt violence is almost unheard of in Singapore, marriage between persons of the same sex is already written out of the legal definition of marriage. There are no legally-recognized queer organizations. Certainly no groups like PFLAG, and no groups lobbying for same-sex marriage. A group of queers and their straight allies tried to organize a social group, but the Registrar of Societies denied their application, no reasons given. Since all unregistered societies are illegal, the group was basically outlawed.

A Singaporean gay man noted: "There is a lively gay scene in Singapore. But gay men can get into trouble with the sodomy law. (which applies to homosexual and heterosexual acts alike) Lesbians are actually tolerated since they do not break any law."

Another gay Singaporean complained, "Socially, being gay in Singapore isn't bad. The majority of people don't mind gays, and some even delight in the fact that someone is gay. But the legal and political climate is hostile."

[Descriptions of queer life in Singapore are from the writer's own experiences, and are by no means the only views of the glbt experience Singapore]

Singaporean lesbian who studied and worked in the US

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.

ST: Singapore is not ready to accept homosexuality

Saturday, June 3, 2000

Singapore is not ready to accept homosexuality

What Readers Say

More than 80 readers gave their responses to last week's feature which discussed if gays should be given more space in Singapore. Here is a summary of their opposing views.

"Make no mistake, society is not ready to accept homosexuality in Singapore." Mr Richard Chiang believes that homosexuality is morally wrong. "I think I represent quite a percentage of Singaporeans when I say that we tolerate homosexuality, but do not respect it at all.'' But, like several others, he adds: "It is not a matter of whether homosexuality will ever be recognised, but a matter of when. Homosexuals may get a more understanding and tolerant audience in probably the next generation or two.''

Agreeing, reader Anthony Koh notes that gays are already enjoying freedom here. He asks: "What more do gays want? A gay marriage certificate? Or the right to apply for HDB flats as gay married couples?'' Reader Raymond Ng describes Singapore as a modern society rooted in traditional values. "Do I hate homosexuals? Not the person, but I shun the act, and I am appalled by the gross misrepresentation in terms of political power which they enjoy in the United States. "I hope that will never come to pass in Singapore,'' he says. Ms Eugenia Ho applauds the Government's decision to reject an application
by gay activist Alex Au to hold a public forum on gay issues. Decision-makers must be responsible to the larger society, she says.

In Ms Anna Chew's view, homosexuality is unnatural and can cause "many social problems if allowed to flourish''. These problems include the rise of Aids and sexually-transmitted diseases, she says. "I do not deny that homosexuals may contribute a lot to society. "However, I believe that, with proper help given to them so that they may revert to heterosexuality, they can contribute even more and also prevent social problems from escalating,'' adds Ms Chew

ST: More youths going public, seeking help

Friday, June 2, 2000

More youths going public, seeking help

Intro: young people in Singapore are "coming out" into the open about their homosexual orientation, and a steady stream is seeking help on coping with it.

Singapore Planned Parenthood Association's president, Mr John Vijayan, believes this is because "more are looking for support from others with similar experiences and struggles", and that the younger generation is more accepting of gay persons. In the last three years, the SPPA, which advocates family-life education programmes and offers advice on sexual matters, has counselled about 40 people each year. Their ages ranged between 13 and 30, and their concerns included fear of their own inclinations and confusion about their feelings.

Some grappled with self-hatred and anger at their parents and society, while others fought depression and suicidal tendencies, says Mr Vijayan.

Tanjong Pagar GRC MP S. Vasoo, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee on Community Development, notes "Singapore is globalising and one cannot but be confronted with various social changes which are brought about by human interaction and IT [internet technology?]). "Some of these can affect our social values and, in turn, our life courses and choices." The young must be taught, he adds, "how to live their lives at their best, with due concern for others". Father Bernard Teo of the Novena Church says his staff members working among youth have reported that many are going through the phase of sexual confusion and talking about it.

It may be due to peer pressure to come out, he says. "Some go along with the flow, some grow out of it, while others affirm it." Finding out their child is gay "comes as a shock to some parents. They don't know how to handle it", adds the Catholic priest. This does not mean, of course, that the number of gay people in Singapore has shot up. No official data is available, but, going by the average in most countries, the homosexual community here should make up no more than about 5 per cent of the population. In the United States, about 4 per cent of men and 2.3 per cent of women are exclusively homosexual. In China, surveys have found that about 5 per cent are homosexual.

In any case, when it comes to human rights, numbers do not settle the question. The Indian community in Singapore is also about 5%, the Eurasian, Baba or Sinhalese, much, much less. For that matter, the ballroom dancing, golfing or cricket enthusiasts too. Would we be justified in criminalising them, denying them their public forums, societies, films or reading material because they are not numerous?

BBC News: Singapore relaxes HIV-spouse ruling

Monday, May 29, 2000

Singapore relaxes HIV-spouse ruling

Foreigners with HIV are "prohibited immigrants"
Singapore has relaxed a ruling under which foreign spouses with HIV, the virus that causes Aids, are expelled from the country.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was quoted by the Sunday Times newspaper as saying that most of the 12 spouses already repatriated would be allowed to return.

The spouses, four of whom had children, were married to Singaporeans.

Appeals of other similar cases would also be considered sympathetically.

Goh said the law had to think of the family. "The law cannot just apply without thinking of the consequences to the family," Mr Goh told a family forum.

"It is not meant to throw out people who are already permanent residents or visitors on a tourist pass [that have] married somebody here or have been here for some time."

Since April last year, 12 foreign spouses have been repatriated, of whom 11 were women from Thailand, Indonesia, China and the Philippines.

'Prohibited immigrants'

On Saturday, the government defended laws introduced earlier this year that require foreigners wanting to live permanently or work in Singapore for over six months to undergo a test for HIV.


Foreigners wanting to live in the country have to undergo an HIV test

"HIV screening of foreigners seeking immigration or work passes is a measure to safeguard public health," the home affairs ministry said in a statement.

Foreigners wanting to live permanently or work in Singapore for over six months have to undergo a medical examination which also includes a test for tuberculosis.

Singapore amended its Immigration Act in October 1998 to classify foreigners with HIV as "prohibited immigrants".

People falling in this category will not be allowed to stay and will be turned away should they attempt to re-enter the country.

The rate of HIV infection is low in the city-state, at less than 1%.

ST: Do gays have a place in Singapore?

Saturday, May 27, 2000

Do gays have a place in Singapore?

by Irene Ng

Intro: A forum on gay issues was cancelled when the authorities rejected its application for a permit. But if "Everyone Matters" according to the Singapore 21 vision, don't gays matter too? Can community concerns and gay expression be reconciled?

Don't ask, don't tell--and don't promote

For a long time, this has been the unwritten code guiding how the homosexual community relates -- or should relate -- to the mainstream society in Singapore. People are not asked as a matter of course if they are homosexual. Homosexuals do not have to tell and, as long as they do not promote their lifestyle, they can enjoy their pockets of freedom. Underlying this code is the belief that the less said about homosexuals and their activities, the better the rest can live and let live, and the more homosexuals can go about their lives.

Mr Alex Au, 47, a gay man (author of the gay Web site Yawning Bread) had hoped to ask, tell and promote at a function tomorrow. He had planned to hold a forum at the Substation to ask where gay and lesbian Singaporeans stand in relation to the Singapore 21 vision. It would tell of perceived discriminations against the gay minority, and promote the idea that homosexuality and its activities should not be stigmatised, criminalised or censored.

No such luck. On Tuesday, the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit of the Home Affairs Ministry rejected his application for a permit to hold the forum. [2] In the clearest terms yet, the authorities said the forum would advance and legitimise the cause of homosexuals in Singapore. As the mainstream moral values of Singaporeans are conservative and homosexual acts are unlawful, it would be contrary to the public interest to allow the forum, the police said. So, for now at least, the status quo is protected. But can it be maintained?

Statue quo re-examined

Whether society likes it or not, there is now a thriving gay scene with gay bars and clubs. Nothing hush-hush about it, too. Impressive guide-lists are available on various websites, such as the Utopia Homo Page. Films with gay themes, such as the 'Wedding Banquet 'and 'The Birdcage', have been shown at cinemas. At the recent film festival, four such films were screened to full houses. Artistic experimentation has also become bolder. Some local plays have fleshed out gay-related dilemmas. Bookstores, which used to carry one or two gay-related books, now have four to five shelves dedicated to them.

In a typical view, Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, a member of the policy-discussion group The Roundtable, notes that society is already very tolerant of homosexuals, despite its conservative tenor.

Says Tanjong Pagar GRC MP S. Vasoo, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee on Community Development "As I see it, anyone in Singapore can have his private interests and everyone can do anything he wants in his life, so long as it does not violate the laws of our society." Therein lies the rub. Many homosexuals interviewed point out that rules and institutions still discriminate against them. They chafe at censorship rules which block out material "advocating" homosexuality. Popular TV episodes of Felicity and Ally McBeal with gay themes, for example, have been canned. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority Act prohibits material which "advocates homosexuality or lesbianism, or depicts incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia".

Song-writer and Lianhe Zaobao columnist Ng King Kang is aghast that homosexuality and lesbianism are lumped together with "incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia". "Is this being conservative or plain ignorant?" he asks rhetorically, wondering if this law could withstand scrutiny.

Another source of grievance is the mainstream media, which many homosexuals tend to view as an adversary. According to sociologist Leong Wai Teng, in his article on Singapore in a 1997 book, Sociolegal Control Of Homosexuality "The media treats gays as criminals, perverts and subjects for gossip and scandal."

He also referred to two government ministries "known to have employment policies tied to sexual orientation". "In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, self-acknowledged homosexuals are barred from appointments involving access to classified information, while "outed" homosexuals are dismissed or exiled to another ministry," he wrote. Homosexuals are "outed" when people force them out of the closet by making their sexual orientation known.

According to homosexuals interviewed, the status quo flies in the face of equality and the Singapore 21 dictum that "Everyone Matters". All they want, they assert, is nothing more than the rights enjoyed by other citizens. These include the right to form associations and to have sexual relations without the Penal Code calling it "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" or an act of "gross indecency". In a sense, the gay community has used these laws and guidelines as a kind of mirror, observing their reflection in the statutes criminalising their activities.

Nominated MP Claire Chiang says she has asked several gay activists what they want to do that they cannot already do discreetly. Why, a few years back, she was even invited to a gay "wedding" here. Their common response, she says, was that they crave social acceptance and affection. The homosexuals, being a fringe minority, lack the political clout to affect change. They do not enjoy widespread grassroots support, but have won a growing group of sympathisers from the ranks of the secular elite.

Then came the Internet

In recent years, a series of catalysing events have served as an ongoing impetus for the more vocal homosexuals to act on their unhappiness. One is the Government's rejection of their application to form a society called People Like Us (PLU) in 1997. Its stated mission: To promote awareness and understanding of the issues and problems concerning gay, lesbian and bisexual persons. Its application was rejected without official explanation in 1997, despite appeals right up to the Prime Minister.

Feeling even more alienated, gays have banded more closely together, where once their community was diffused and lacking in direction. The HIV scare has bonded them further.

Then came the Internet. It opened the floodgates of communication, spawning chat forums, e-mail lists and Web personals. A vibrant virtual gay community was born.

Furthermore, as Mr Ng documents in his 1999 book, 'The Rainbow Connection The Internet And The Singapore Gay Community', the wealth of information available online on gay-related issues has the effect of personal empowerment. According to Mr Au, websites reporting the strides made by gay movements elsewhere have also emboldened the gay community here to step out. So galvanised, gay activists here latched on to the Government's promise of opening up. After all, they recall, in an S21 forum early this year, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "There is no policy too sensitive to question, and no subject so taboo that you cannot even mention it."

Indeed, it was mentioned--and loudly--during a live CNN interview with Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1998. A gay man phoned to ask if gay people have a place in Singapore "as we move into a more tolerant millennium". Mr Lee's reply, in a nutshell It is a question of what a society considers acceptable, and Singaporeans are still largely very conservative.

Different, Not Deviant

Public attitudes towards homosexuality are varied and uneven across different groups. They are tied up closely with community norms and religious values in this multi-racial and multi-religious society. Mr Murat Mohd Aris, manager of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore's Office of Mufti, tells Insight categorically that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. "Islam views homosexual behaviour as a sinful act, which is a symptom of the decadence of society. It is a perverted means of satisfying natural urges. Homosexuality degrades a person and is a most unnatural way of life." He adds "Individuals with homosexual behaviour require psychological or medical treatment."

Then there is the Catholic stand, as expounded by Father Bernard Teo, Major-Superior of the Redemptorist Order in Singapore and Malaysia. "The Church makes a distinction between a person with a homosexual orientation and one who seeks homosexual activity," says the Novena Church priest, who has a PhD in moral theology and Christian ethics.

"The Catholic Church doesn't accept homosexual activities as a right because sexual activity has a special procreative meaning attached to it. But people with gay orientation are to be respected as persons in their own right." So, it is all right to have a homosexual orientation as long as the homosexuals are chaste.

On the other end is Venerable Shi Ming Yi, secretary-general of Singapore Buddhist Federation. Asked about the Buddhist stand on homosexuality, he appears stumped. "We have never discussed this. There is nothing on the matter under the five Buddhist precepts," he mumbles. Faced with such a mixed reception, gays have erected their own altars on the Internet, publicising groups such as Gay Christian Fellowship and Gay Buddhist Fellowship.

In secular society, however, sociologist Tan Ern Ser senses that social opinion on the gay issue has changed over the years, viewing gays as different rather than deviant. This intuitive view seems to be backed by a recent survey by Mr Au and his friends, who polled about 500 Singaporeans on the streets and via the Internet. Among other things, it found that of the 240 polled on the Internet, 74 per cent felt they would be able to accept a gay sibling, if not immediately then after a while. In contrast, of the 251 polled on the streets, including HDB neighbourhoods, 46 per cent said the same. This suggests that the Internet-savvy elite might be more open to the matter.

Among them is Ms Dana Lam, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), who asserts "As a heterosexual parent, I would not like my children to add to the unhappiness in our society by discriminating against difference." But she alone cannot teach them this, she intones. "They need to be supported by society in their learning." Chinese intellectual Lau Wai Har, a veteran educationist, does not think society is ready for this. "Homosexuality is not acceptable practice here."

In stronger terms, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, the president of the association of adult Islamic religious students, Perdaus, says Singapore should not be seen to promote social practices that are not acceptable by the religious groups here.

The two largest religious groups in Singapore -- the Taoism and Buddhism -- have no proscription against homosexuality. As far as I know, nor does Hinduism. Only the religions from the Middle East are obsessed with homosexuality, and even the Christian Churches are reexamining their positions. In any case, Singapore is a secular state, and large numbers of Singaporeans declare themselves "free thinkers", so why should the state take instruction
from a few religious theorists?

He adds "It is certainly a real issue that must be addressed, but not by way of officially recognising that to lead a homosexual life is acceptable." Perdaus does not think that homosexuality and lesbianism are consistent with the S21 vision, which aims to strengthen the family institution. "In fact, it destroys the traditional family unit. It also goes against the policy to encourage Singaporeans to have more children." So, while some community norms may evolve, one remains rock solid--The Family--as the basic building block, with the responsibility of carrying this unit into the next generation.

Against such a background, acceptance of a community of homosexual people seems difficult. Opponents are thus inclined to link gay people's defiance of conservative sexual morality with an "anything goes" lifestyle that undermines the structure of society.

To compound matters, an accusation often levelled against gays is that they can influence the impressionable young to try out homosexuality. Similar concerns prompted the authorities in Britain to ban in 1988 "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".

But one should not over-simplify or over-generalise.

Father Teo says that he knows many homosexuals who make great contributions to the church and community and lead respectable lives. "We need to respect them as persons and to educate people that these people have rights to their dignity," says the priest. The issue needs to be addressed "because a lot of people suffer when things are not clarified". But how to address it without being accused of "promoting" homosexuality? asks academic researcher Russell Heng. "There are some real hurdles -- psychological, emotional, social, economic -- which gay people must face in many areas of their personal life and they want to talk about these issues."

So too heterosexuals who have a gay relative but who are unsure of how to deal with it because of the taboo nature of the subject, he says. It seems then, that Nominated Member of Parliament Claire Chiang thought the authorities were wrong in denying the forum a permit.

Cautions Mr Zulkifli, "this is all very well, but if the matter is opened up for discussion, be prepared for some serious conflict and a hardening of conservative views." Science cannot yet produce unequivocal answers to many of the questions regarding homosexuality that vex politicians or stir the "moral" community.

One factor, however, has become clear. Anyone who expects to make sense of Singapore society must accept that gay activities have become a more visible part of the social landscape. No doubt, this will include the upcoming Speakers' Corner. There, speakers require no police permit, but only this: A Singaporean identity and the courage to face the crowd.

Inter Press Service: RIGHTS-SINGAPORE: Deportation of People with HIV Stirs Row

Wednesday, May 24, 2000

SINGAPORE, May 24 (IPS) - Singapore sees its deportation of nine foreign women with HIV this month as a self-protective step, but critics say the move only heightens the stigma against people living with the virus and violates their rights.

The nine, married to Singaporean nationals, were reported to have been deported as "prohibited immigrants" in a news report by the English-language newspaper 'Sunday Times' on May 14. A source said they were probably deported earlier on the same week.

The repatriation of HIV-positive foreigners is "necessary", said the health ministry's spokesperson, "to ensure that they will not pose a threat to the public health in Singapore".

Action for AIDS (AFA), a local non-government organisation, sent a letter of appeal to Singapore's President S R Nathan last week. "We hope the government will accept some flexibility in enforcing these regulations," said AFA president Dr Roy Chan.

Roger Ang, a volunteer coordinator of a support group for HIV patients and one of letter's three signatories, added: "I feel that it is not necessary (to repatriate them). I understand the government's views, but on a humanitarian side, these are people with families, with children."

He says the government should consider the situation from the viewpoint of people with HIV. It seems the government is taking a "cautious stand," he said. "Perhaps they think that their number is too small to make an issue of it."

Singapore's tough policies do not impress AIDS activists elsewhere, who say the city state's immigration rules are not a sound way to fight the spread of HIV/AIDS pandemic anyway.

Singapore's hard-line approach may help prevent the indiscriminate spread of HIV by foreign commercial sex workers, but the deported married women -- some have children -- are not likely to spread the disease, says John Ungpakorn, a senator and secretary to Access Foundation, a Thailand-based NGO that works with people with HIV/AIDS.

"The government would be building a false assurance. People would think that just because these HIV-positive foreigners are deported, Singapore is safe," he said in an interview.

Apart from the nine deportees, another 10 foreign women mostly from Thailand, Indonesia and the Philippines, are to be deported and separated from their families when their social-visit passes expire, news reports say. These passes allow stay in Singapore from two weeks to one year, often obtained by foreigners who wish to live with their families in the city state.

The families affected by the deportation were distraught when interviewed by the 'Sunday Times'. Daniel Wee works in the marine industry. His wife, Phay, a Thai national, is expecting their child in September. "I'm afraid they will be separated. She also won't be able to take care of the baby and the child will not have the chance to know the mother," he said.

Nan, a Thai national, seems resigned to her helplessness. She said: "We can't do anything but hope. Hope that the laws can be changed and we can live with our families."

Under amendments announced in February this year, all applicants for permanent residence or for immigration passes valid for more than six months must undergo compulsory HIV testing.

This is part of the country's attempt to "further strengthen the control of communicable diseases like HIV infection," said various government ministries in a joint statement released in February.

But critics of compulsory HIV-testing say the procedure violates human rights and compromises the confidentiality of medical information.

According to figures released by the Ministry of Health, more than 3,000 foreigners have tested positive for the HIV virus since 1985 in Singapore, compared to 1,200 Singaporeans in this country of 3.8 million people. Likewise, an amendment to the immigration law in 1998 made non- citizins with HIV or AIDS "prohibited immigrants".

People who work with those with HIV/AIDS say this month's deportation is a sign of a bigger problem -- Singapore's policies that give inadequate sympathy to people with HIV despite the need to approach it more as a human problem, and not an immigration problem or less vital one simply because it affects fewer people.

For instance, the lack of fair treatment fpr Singaporean HIV patients was discussed in a recent 'Asiaweek' article. It says all deceased people with HIV are double-bagged and incinerated within 24 hours.

Singapore's authorities claim that the HIV virus remains active for several days in the body of the deceased. As such, embalming is outlawed to minimise the risk of transmission, said a health ministry spokesman.

Without embalming, a body decomposes rapidly in Singapore's tropical heat, thus justifying the 24-hour cremation ruling, he added.

This rule however is "contrary to the norms of internationally accepted practices", argued AFA president Chan.

It typifies the "widespread stigmatisation and discrimination of PWAs (people living with HIV/AIDS)," he said in his message for the 10th Candlelight Memorial observance for deceased who had HIV/AIDS held on May 21.

Likewise, apart from standard health care subsidies that all Singaporeans are given, those with HIV do not receive additional subsidies for anti-retroviral (ARV) drugs, which the health ministry considers "non-standard".

When administered appropriately, ARVs can significantly reduce the amount of HIV virus in a patient, says Ungpakorn.

However, a Singapore health ministry spokesperson said the long- term effectiveness of ARVs is still unknown, and treatment is also "expensive". He added: "It is better to channel our subsidies to more cost-effective treatments for the benefit of the majority of our patients."

Patients who "require financial assistance can approach Action for AIDS or other charitable organisations for help," the spokesperson said.

AFA honorary secretary Brenton Wong was nonplussed about the government's stand. "We boast about our high foreign reserves and wonderful economic development, yet we can't take care of our own people."

He also believes that people with HIV here are discriminated against because there is no law that prevents companies from firing employees because they are HIV-positive. An employee of a local hotel was recently dismissed when his HIV status was discovered, he says.

Because the government does not subsidise "non-standard" forms of treatment, HIV patients need protection from unwarranted dismissal in order to afford the often-expensive treatment.

Wong also said that despite government efforts to reduce HIV transmission, rates of infection have not fallen in Singapore, though they remain far below harder-hit countries like Cambodia where one out of every 50 people between the ages of 15 and 49 have HIV. In 1998, 199 new cases of HIV/AIDS were reported in Singapore.

"The government tends to put a moral judgement on AIDS. They are loathe to deal with it realistically," Wong added.

In his message for this month's candelight ceremony, AFA's Chan said: "While we have been able to avoid an epidemic on the scale seen in some other neighboring countries, we cannot rest because people are still getting infected through ignorance, negligence and complacency." (END/IPS/ap-hd-he/kn/js/00) .

Rainbow Network: Singapore Survey Reveals Gay Support

Monday, May 22, 2000

A survey of nearly 500 adults in Singapore has shown that the majority would have no problem accepting a gay or lesbian member of the family.

Despite the government’s efforts to curb homosexuality in Singapore, some 46 per cent of those polled on the street and 74 per cent of internet respondents said they would accept a gay relative in the family - if not immediately, then after a while. They far outnumbered those who felt they would not be able to (only 26 per cent on the street and nine per cent from the internet).

Gay activist Alex Au, who helped organise the survey, said: "I am not surprised. In coming out, I have met nothing but friendliness and open-mindedness."

Another widely held view was that employers should not discriminate against homosexual employees.

Some 73 per cent of streetside respondents and 83 per cent of internet respondents agreed. It is not illegal to be gay in Singapore, but it remains illegal to conduct homosexual acts, either in private or public.

The government curbs displays of homosexual acts in the media. An episode of the American television series ‘Ally McBeal’ was recently banned because it showed lawyer Ally and co-worker Ling Woo kissing during an experimental date.

Gay activists conducted the survey as part of a recent push to gain greater recognition in society. They admit it was not 100 per cent scientific, but claim its results reflected public opinion.

Activists have applied for a licence to stage Singapore`s first ever homosexual forum this Sunday. They submitted their application on May 3, but have yet to receive a response.

The event would discuss the prospects for homosexuals under ‘Singapore 21’, a government campaign launched last year aimed at encouraging Singaporeans to participate more in society. Its slogan is ‘everyone counts’.