TODAY: What price, the pink dollar?

Sunday, May 20, 2007

What price, the pink dollar?

WHAT HEARTLANDERS SAY What it means for the hunt for talent how businesses strike a balance

Weekend . May 19, 2007

Jasmine Yin and Gracia Chiang

HE IS your typical high-flyer - head of corporate finance at a major investment firm here. But 40-year-old Jeremy (not his real name) may soon bid farewell to his life in Singapore.

His partner of seven years, a scholar with a master's degree, is eyeing a home in cities that are "more open" to gays, such as New York, London and Hong Kong, where he can "be himself" - without a law against homosexual activity hanging over their heads.

"I just want to live my life quietly and be who I am, without having to constantly worry if one day the Government will decide to enforce this law." said Jeremy.

The law in question, Section 377A of the Penal Code, may rankle with those such as Jeremy who think it an archaic, discriminatory piece of legislature that should be repealed, since the authorities have said they do not proactively enforce it in the case of private consensual acts between adults.

But many others believe it is a necessary moral safeguard, a signal of society's still-mostly conservative and wholesome family values. And as a poll commissioned by Today showed (see table), a majority of Singaporean heartlanders share this view.

Asked if homosexuality should be made legal, 62.3 per cent of the 300 respondents disagreed - 25.3 per cent strongly so. Only 11.6 per cent thought it should be legalised while, interestingly, 26 per cent had no views either way.

The issue cropped up for debate recently, when Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew flagged the need for a "practical, pragmatic approach" at a forum.

While the conservative majority's views on homosexuality should be respected, he had said, "they tell me, and anyway it is probably half-true, that homosexuals are creative writers, dancers, et cetera. If we want creative people, then we've got to put up with their idiosyncrasies so long as they don't infect the heartland".

While it is unlikely that Section 377A will be repealed any time soon, Mr Lee noted: "If this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world - and I think it is - then I see no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.

"Some have long argued that a law criminalising homosexuality can only work against the Republic's push to lure foreign talent here and to grow an ideas-driven, creative economy. But equally, such pundits have failed to convince a large segment of heartlanders of the economic value that homosexuals might bring.

In the Today telephone survey, 41 per cent of respondents disagreed with the statement that gay people had much to contribute to the national economy. In contrast, 32.7 per cent thought they did.

Political scientist Kenneth Paul Tan is one of those who frames the debate in the context of Singapore's aspirations to become a global city. He feels the law will be another reason for talent not to come here.

It will be seen as a culturally intolerant and sterile place and that is the image it presents to the world by persisting with Section 377A, said the Assistant Professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy.

He cited a study published in 2002 by Carnegie Mellon academic Richard Florida, who coined the term "creative class" - comprising talented and innovative people who can choose to work anywhere in the world. They are likely to be drawn to cities that show a tolerance for differences, and in turn, these cities perform well economically, Prof Florida argues.

Places that welcome the gay community are seen to welcome all kinds of people, he notes. San Francisco and San Diego - two cities in California - rank on his list of most diverse and creative in the United States.

Others have pointed out that mobile gay professionals with spending power can contribute to a nation's economy in other ways. Indeed, some businesses in Singapore are eyeing the "pink dollar".

One example is four-year-old fashion chain NewUrbanMale, which recorded $6 million in revenue last year. Said founder-director Shenzi Chua: "We are perfectly cool that we are known as a gay brand even though our target group is much wider and includes straight men and women." Half his design team is gay.

There is, however, a catch: Some enterprises worry about what conservative customers would think of a gay-friendly business.

Gays account for up to 20 per cent of takings at Hotel 1929 near Chinatown. Said its sales manager Charmaine Wee: "We see that business increasing if the law changes, but we won't say that we are going to pursue the pink dollar enthusiastically.

"The hotel is aware that a large number of corporate clients are uncomfortable with the idea of targeting the pink dollar.

But is the promise of economic gains enough to sway naysayers - which include the religious groups - that the Government has often described as the "traditional" majority?

Notwithstanding the survey results, Dr Tan called the idea of a conservative majority that is actively against homosexuality a "myth".

Said the political scientist: "There are certainly conservative Singaporeans whose views any open society must also take into account. Most, however, don't really have a view on homosexuality either way, but may feel compelled to offer a 'safe', meaning 'conservative' , response when polled.

"But when it comes to elections, no government would want to take a chance."

Certainly, such voices have been vocal in the media. These range from those who lament the erosion of social and religious values, and what they see as harm to the public good, to those who say they are "okay" with gays as long as they keep their distance and are "discreet".

Some pundits say these attitudes will change as society gets more cosmopolitan and connected globally. Yet, there are some in the gay and lesbian community who pooh-pooh the economic argument for decriminalising homosexuality.

Said Dr Ethan Lim, a 29-year-old doctor who is gay: "I would rather people see me as a person. But our society places heavy valuation on economic success.

"Touting economic benefits can "help sell most things" - but Dr Russell Heng, senior fellow at the Institute of South-east Asian Studies, says he would rather "believe that the driving forces here should be principles of equality in citizenship, doing what is right, and not just what may be profitable".

A better reason for repealing Section 377A, said Dr Lim, would be how it would help national health efforts in tackling sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) and HIV/Aids. Groups like Action for Aids would then have more leeway to reach out to such groups with its message of safe sex. "It's not so much about homosexuality but unsafe sex practices that increase the risk of getting STDs," he added.

The divisions are clear. At the core of the debate is the question of what kind of society Singapore is.

Accommodating alternative lifestyles, yes. Welcoming such lifestyles with open arms, not yet.