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.