ST: 'Mum asked if I could change ...but how to change something as basic as being gay?'

Sunday, July 13, 2003

'Mum asked if I could change ...but how to change something as basic as being gay?'

Jim Chow, 32 In the light of the Prime Minister's revelation that the Government is employing openly homosexual people, one gay Singaporean tells THERESA TAN about his 'coming out' experience.

When he was nine, Mr Jim Chow remembers watching Taiwanese movie legends Lin Ching-hsia and Chin Han romance each other on the big screen. Then in Primary 3, he would wonder: Ching-hsia's pretty, but why do I find Chin Han attractive too? A couple of years later, while still in primary school, he chanced on Oscar Wilde's The Importance Of Being Earnest. While the play is not about homosexuals, he found the literary classic intriguing enough to want to read up on the author. 'It was then that I found out Wilde was a homosexual, and I identified my feelings as being homosexual ones.'

Unlike the 19th century Irish wit, who was jailed for being gay, Mr Chow, 32, said he has never felt discriminated against in Singapore, except in one instance 'some time back'. He was working out in a gym with his partner, when someone called him a 'faggot', a derogatory term for homosexual.

He is very thankful for Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's recent revelation that the Government is now more open to employing gay people and that with time, more people would accept them. Out and proud of his sexuality, Mr Chow 'came out' to his mother when he was 18, in his second year of junior college. That was when he started dating. The late nights and long telephone calls got his Cantonese-speaking mother asking him some rather pointed questions. He said: 'My mum would ask why I had so many guy friends calling. I said I had many guy friends.

Over time, the questions got more specific. 'One night, she asked me if I liked guys, and I said yes.' Mrs Chow, who accepts her son's sexuality but declined to be interviewed, could not believe what her second youngest child told her at first. His four siblings are straight. A divorcee with five children, the 50-something Chinese-educated beauty salon owner thought homosexuality was something abhorrent and an illness. Mr Chow said: 'She went through a denial stage, and then there was a 'let's fix it' stage. 'She asked if I could change. She asked what went wrong. She was worried what people would think of me and also her. 'I told her I was sure of my sexual orientation and it was here to stay. I rationalised with her. How could you change something so basic?'

It took her a few months but she accepted that fact and, over time, has met some of his boyfriends. In fact, she once went on a holiday with him and a boyfriend. Now, she has meals at least once a week with him and his partner, a 30-year-old information technology professional. During Chinese New Year festivals and other special occasions, his partner is invited home and is treated as part of the family. He has always been very open about his sexuality with relatives, friends and colleagues, he told The Sunday Times. For example, he said, his friends from school and some of his teachers knew he was gay.

He went to a top boys' school and graduated from university here, but declined to name the schools. He said: 'I never pretended I was straight. I never pretended to have girlfriends. 'Once you get to know people, even in working relationships, eventually they will ask the right questions to find out.' But some of his relatives are too embarrassed to ask him about such matters or broach the subject gingerly. 'During wedding dinners, some relatives ask: When's my turn? I tell them I'm never going to marry and they get the picture.'

Mr Chow, who has worked in five different companies in sales and marketing jobs, said that his colleagues have never been bothered by his sexuality. 'Most people are quite cool about it or they don't care. As long as you perform in your capacity, I don't think they are very concerned about your sexuality. 'And if someone asks point-blank if I'm gay, I tell them point-blank. If they hint at it, I hint right back.' He has no qualms about reaching for his partner's hand in public. 'I'm not very self-conscious in that way,' he said. 'I've other things to think about, like work, paying bills, health.'

An articulate man who loves to read and exercise, he admits he probably has it easier than most of his gay friends. 'Coming out is not a bed of roses for most gay men I know but most of their parents never gave them a really rough time either. Although some parents are in perpetual denial about the issue.' While he feels most straight Singaporeans have been tolerant towards homosexuals, he does not believe the Prime Minister's revelation in an interview in Time magazine, reported on July 4, would result in a flood of gay people coming out of the closet. 'People are still fearful of doing so and dealing with the issue. It takes more than one man in the highest office to change that fear overnight.'

ST: About the 'new' gay tolerance in Singapore

Saturday, July 5, 2003

About the 'new' gay tolerance in Singapore

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong dropped something of a small bombshell this week when he revealed to Time magazine that the Singapore Government had changed its policy on hiring homosexuals in the civil service. 'In the past, if we know you're gay, we would not employ you,' he said. 'But we just changed this quietly. We know you are. We'll employ you,' he revealed.

The Government does not seem to have adopted quite the same policy as the United States military's 'don't ask, don't tell', but the effect is analogous. Gay people do not have to declare their sexual orientation - nobody in Singapore is required to, actually - but Mr Goh seemed to suggest it would be best if they did, so as to avoid being blackmailed, especially those in sensitive positions. 'Disclose, and we won't bother' would seem to encapsulate the new policy.

This newspaper welcomes the change. As the Prime Minister explained, broader changes in the laws regarding homosexuality will have to await changes in the beliefs and attitudes of what remains, by and large, a conservative society, but this is a step in the right direction. Homosexual acts will still remain an offence - but as everyone knows, these sections of the Criminal Code are not strictly enforced. Singaporeans are not about to witness gay parades or festivals - but as everyone knows, private gatherings of the gay community are not prohibited. And the Government is not going to institute in the near future a strict anti-discrimination policy towards homosexuals - similar, say to anti-discrimination policies on the grounds of race or religion - but as Mr Goh made clear, the Government itself will not discriminate against gays, and large segments of the private sector have long ceased to make an issue of it.

No homosexual in Singapore is starving because of his or her homosexuality; no homosexual is jobless because of his or her sexual orientation. What Singapore has, de facto if not de jure, is a live-and-let-live attitude towards homosexuality. 'So let it evolve,' as Mr Goh put it, 'and in time, the population will understand that some people are born that way. We are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me.' Some American studies have suggested that as much as 10 per cent of any population is homosexual. In all probability - the science on this is not settled - homosexuality is as genetically determined as heterosexuality, or one's height, for that matter.

Ethically and logically, it is as untenable to exclude people on the basis of their sexual orientation as it is to exclude them on the basis of the shape of their noses or the colour of their hair. If it is 'natural' to have snub proboscis as it is to have high ones, it is as 'natural' to be a heterosexual as it is to be a homosexual. There is no one model of the natural; nature is by definition various. Why should anyone be faulted simply for possessing certain traits - of gender, race, sexual orientation, or inherited disability, or even body type - over which they had no control? 'Blaming' someone for being homosexual is equivalent to faulting that person for simply existing. But this is not a position that everyone would agree with. Many religions - or more precisely, segments of many religions - explicitly prohibit homosexuality.

These views are sincerely held, and no society, not even avowedly secular ones like the US, can ignore them. If Western Europe, Canada and Australia are any indication, attitudes towards homosexuality will change in the long term. But the process cannot be forced.

IHT: Quietly, Singapore lifts its ban on hiring gays

By Wayne Arnold

SINGAPORE:: With its export-driven economy winding down, Singapore's government has quietly lifted restrictions on hiring homosexuals as part of a broader effort to shake the city-state's repressive reputation and foster the kind of lifestyles common to cities whose entrepreneurial dynamism Singapore would like to emulate.

Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong initially divulged the policy in an interview with Time magazine's Asia edition, excerpts of which were published this week in the magazine's July 7 issue and carried by news organizations here Friday.

"In the past, if we know you're gay, we would not employ you, but we just changed this quietly," Goh told his interviewer, according to a transcript obtained from Singapore authorities.

Singapore has a vibrant gay and lesbian community. But gay sex is illegal and the government has yet to officially recognize any organization for homosexuals. Despite a proliferation of bars and saunas catering to the gay community, therefore, homosexuality still remains largely taboo.

Books and films with homosexual themes are banned. When HBO airs its "Six Feet Under" television series here, most scenes dealing with the homosexuality of one of the main characters are excised.

"It's a good, tiny step forward," said Russell Heng, a fellow at the government-run Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and a co-founder of a local gay support group, People Like Us. "The leaders of this country are very sensible and they are cosmopolitan. And so I think that basically there is an awareness there that you've got to allow for diversity."

Goh said the government's policies reflected the conservatism of the majority of its constituents. In addition to a traditionally Confucian ethnic Chinese minority, Singapore also has a sizable Muslim Malay minority whose religion condemns homosexuality.

Goh said it was because of this remaining conservatism that the government did not amend the law against gay sex.

But he said that attitudes were evolving and that the government was becoming more open to homosexuals.

Gay people have long worked within Singapore's civil service, although apparently not openly.

Goh indicated that the government's new policy was to allow homosexuals to occupy even "sensitive positions" in the civil service provided they disclosed their sexual preference.

"If you're discovered by somebody else, then he can blackmail you," he said. "You have to openly declare and people know you're gay. Then, you can't be blackmailed."

Singapore's openness to homosexuality has been evolving for years, as leaders extolled the virtues of diversity and tolerance. Such rhetoric has become routine in speeches designed to convince the local population of the need for so-called "foreign talent."

Though they may fear that foreigners will take the best jobs, Singaporeans are told that overseas professionals are essential to introducing new skills to Singapore's economy.

Economic prosperity has cost Singapore much of the manufacturing competitiveness that was crucial for its success. China's seemingly inexorable rise as a manufacturing base for high-tech goods has further hurt Singapore.

But as Singapore chased the tech boom in the late 1990s and, more recently, biotechnology, it discovered to its dismay that years of authoritarian rule have largely extinguished the average Singaporeans willingness to take risks, to be entrepreneurial.

Official hope that foreign professionals will, in addition to investment, trade and technology, breathe the entrepreneurial spirit back into Singapore.

Recent efforts to reinvent Singapore's economic structure, therefore, have also included an emphasis on making Singapore a lifestyle capital.

Censorship rules have been eased, if not eliminated. The same government that banned the importation of chewing gum and Cosmopolitan magazine has become a booster for such ephemeral civic qualities as courtesy, spontaneity, creativity and fun.

Still, as recently as 2000, the government rejected an application by People Like Us to hold a forum on gays in Singapore. And in his interview with Time, Goh said that the government would still not allow a gay parade.

But Goh also seemed to signal that further changes were to come.

"So let it evolve and in time to come, the population will understand that some people are born that way," he said in the Time interview. "We are born this way and they are born that way but they are like you and me."

BBC News: Singapore eases gay ban

Friday, July 4, 2003

Singapore eases gay ban
Singapore has begun employing homosexuals within the government, in a reversal of its previous policy, the prime minister has told an American magazine.

Gay people are now allowed to work in "certain positions in government", Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said in an interview with Time magazine, excerpts of which were released by his office.

"In the past, if we know you're gay, we would not employ you but we just changed this quietly," he told the magazine.

However he said that homosexual acts would remain illegal in the country.

Conservative pressure

Mr Goh says gay people will have to declare their sexual orientation in job application forms.

He said the requirement was for the applicants' own protection.

"If you are working in a sensitive position and you're trying to hide your sexual preferences and instinct... if you're discovered by somebody else, then he can blackmail you," he said.

It is not clear when this new policy was introduced, and Mr Goh did not say what jobs homosexuals could take.

Mr Goh also said that, although the government had relaxed its stance with regard to government jobs, Singapore would still not consider decriminalising homosexuality.

He said this was due to pressure from religious groups, and from a majority of Singaporeans.

"The heartlanders are still conservative. You can call it double-standard," he said.

"And for the Muslims, it's religion, it's not the law. Islam openly says the religion is against gay practice."

'Relaxed attitude'

Gay rights groups have responded with cautious optimism to the announcement.

Russell Heng, a researcher and founding member of People Like Us, a gay support group, told Singapore's Straits Times newspaper he hoped for more dialogue with the government.

"We need to have less hang-ups about discussing this issue," he said.

Time magazine also said the Singapore Government was relaxing its attitudes towards gays in an attempt to attract foreign professionals, and to keep talented locals working in the state.

It also said that gay saunas and bars had also emerged in some of Singapore's neighbourhoods.