Asia Times Online: Singapore sex on the straight and narrow

Thursday, May 17, 2007

By Alex Au

SINGAPORE - Singapore will host its first Formula One motor race in 2008, following the signing of a recent agreement in London between Formula One Management and well-known Singapore tycoon Ong Beng Seng. But is the Singaporean government true to its recent stated drive to allow for a racier, more liberal society?

For decades, it was accepted wisdom in the city-state that car racing was one of the degenerate activities that the former Lee Kuan Yew-led government had swept away, never to return. There had been an annual Grand Prix from 1962 to 1972, but closing
roads and ensuring safety for the race was then not considered economically rational, and that glamorizing speed could have negative social effects.

In 2005, Lee, now Minister Mentor in his son Lee Hsien Loong's cabinet, reversed that sentiment when he said he regretted that Singapore didn't host an F1 race. He might not have spelt it out, but everyone knew that Malaysia's tourism receipts from its Sepang race were on his mind. Immediately, government officials began to take a serious interest in the idea, participating in discussions that led up to the recent signing.

So does this represent another step in Singapore's gradual liberalization? On the surface, it does: part of Lee junior's drive to make the city state a more exciting place in which to work and live is a move toward engendering in the population what he once referred to as the "X factor".

Like the earlier decision to allow for the construction of two new mega-casinos, however, the justification was primarily economic rather than a genuine social loosening. And like the casino question, it took some public musings by the Minister Mentor Lee to uncork the stifled public debate.

Now there is a third instance of the senior Lee musing aloud, which if followed up by government would represent a genuine opening of Singapore's highly repressed society. Last month, the Mentor Minister Lee told Reuters that "eventually" the law against homosexual sex would have to be repealed. "If this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world - and I think it is - then I see no option for Singapore but to be part of it," Lee said.

Currently, Singapore has two laws criminalizing homosexuality. Section 377 of the Penal Code makes "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" - usually interpreted to mean oral sex and anal sex - a crime punishable with up to life imprisonment. The law makes no distinction as to whether the parties are heterosexual or homosexual, or whether the act takes place in public or in private. Section 377A, meanwhile, makes undefined acts of so-called "gross indecency" between two consenting men - whether in public or in private - an offence punishable with up to two years in jail. By its wording, it targets only gay males, not females.

While the government has not actively enforced the draconian laws for over a decade, the legislation has created a climate that allows for discriminatory practices in employment and other areas. Singapore has seen a steady brain-drain of gay professionals to more welcoming foreign destinations in the West, and more recently the climate of intolerance has complicated the government's drive to attract more foreign talent.

Conservative backlash
The government proposed last November to repeal Section 377, which if done would legalize sodomy for heterosexuals. However it has also said it intends for now to leave 377A on the law books, thus keeping gay male sex of any kind a criminal offence.

This has stirred a vigorous public debate pitching progressive and conservative forces. This year, the Law Society came out in favor of repealing Section 377A as well. Leading the defense of the status quo of criminalizing homosexuality among men has been the National Council of Churches, which has recently urged the government to extend the law to criminalize lesbian sex as well.

For instance, law lecturer Yvoone Lee recently wrote a commentary piece in the government-affiliated Straits Times newspaper that provided legal reasoning for continued criminalization of homosexuality. She associated gay sexual orientation with sexual diseases and pedophilia and warned the legalization could lead to "clashes with fundamental liberties such as free speech". There was a "broader homosexual rights agenda to transform social morality", she charged.

Her university boss, vice dean Victor Ramraj, penned a rebuttal, but the newspaper requested that his piece be toned down for publication, according to sources familiar with the exchange. Nevertheless, there has been an outpouring of criticism in cyberspace of the law lecturer and her spirited defense of the continued criminalization of homosexuality.

This being Singapore, few consider it likely that the government will be moved by the public feedback. Especially as the government in its law reform explanatory notes published last November has seemingly already nailed its colors to the mast by saying, "Singapore remains, by and large, a conservative society. Many do not tolerate homosexuality, and consider such acts abhorrent and deviant. Many religious groups also do not condone homosexual acts ... Hence, we are leaving section 377A as it is."

To some surprise, in April Lee Kuan Yew uttered his dissenting opinion, saying "They tell me and anyway it is probably half-true that homosexuals are creative writers, dancers, etcetera ... and if we want creative people, then we got to put up with their idiosyncrasies." However, "I am not in charge of government policy. I am just a Minister Mentor," he added, qualifying his remarks.

The gay question serves as an important litmus test for the government's avowed wish to open up Singapore and create a more cosmopolitan, vibrant and tolerant society.

Soon after Richard Florida's highly acclaimed book, The Rise of the Creative Class was released, Singaporean ministers frequently referred to the book for pointers to move the country in the direction of the author's so-called "innovative knowledge economy". However, at the same time, they coyly refused to acknowledge that central to Florida's arguments was his use of the "gay index" as a vicarious measure for how societies embraced mavericks and creative rebels.

So far, the tiny steps that the government has taken to liberalize society have not borne any lasting fruit. Despite much fanfare, the opening of a Singapore branch of the Parisian nude revue, Crazy Horse, lasted barely 13 months. It closed in January due to poor business. However, the management complained bitterly that the government imposed onerous restrictions on its marketing - for example, it was not allowed to advertise in mainstream channels.

Ironically, as recently as three months before its closure, none other than Lee Kuan Yew touted Crazy Horse as a token of Singapore's determination to break past social taboos. In 2003, the poster-child for liberalization was counter-top dancing. Previously it had been illegal for bar patrons and hired performers to dance atop tables and bar counters. Then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong decided to loosen the rules after many pleas from bar owners, but he also used the gesture as a totem of his government's push to liberalize Singapore.

In actuality, allowing counter-top dancing was more form - and rhetoric - than substance. That is, the loosening was confined to entertainment, but it was the only example of social liberalization at the government's disposal. However, it was recently reported by the Straits Times that currently no bars in the downtown area now feature counter-top dancing on a regular basis. To the government's chagrin, the fad has passed.

Compared to the question of homosexuality, permitting a tightly-cordoned nude revue and counter-top dancing – no nudity included in the case of the latter – were low-hanging fruits. For the same reason, they were never convincing demonstrations of true government-backed social liberalization.

Whether the government can grasp the nettle of the anti-gay law, which even the authoritarian Lee Kuan Yew apparently now thinks should be abolished, serves as a true barometer of the junior Lee's liberalizing convictions.

Alex Au is an independent social and political commentator, freelance writer and blogger based in Singapore. He often speaks at public forums on politics, culture and gay issues.

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