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.