ST Review: Being gay and Singaporean (Oct 25)

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Oct 25, 2007
Being gay and Singaporean

IT WAS no surprise a citizens' attempt seeking abolition of a law against male homosexual sex did not gain Parliament's assent. Many Singaporeans across the religious and language spectrum are not ready (if ever) for a radical bohemisation of sexual mores. This is clear in the weightage of pro and con views conveyed to the media and through the Internet, via the Government's own channels of citizen feedback and the occasional survey on gay issues, inexhaustible though these were. The wish for status quo in statutory law was reinforced by the majority sentiment of MPs who spoke on the debate lasting two days this week. Law academic Thio Li-Ann, a Nominated MP, stood out as an example of bedrock conservatism. The socially progressive would consider her characterisation of gay behaviour as over the top, but many more Singaporeans would endorse what she said.

What the proceedings did accomplish was nevertheless noteworthy, important even, in that an issue that is partly about cultural morality and partly about individual rights has been clarified. It had been left vague until now. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in his summation, took care to validate for most Singaporeans their adherence to long-held values of family and individual decency. But it was his declaration that gays are entitled to their space as full-participating citizens of the Republic that should be welcomed as progressive and timely. First reactions from gays have been positive. It showed they needed reassuring. The old official frown on homosexuals has gradually given way to toleration and then acceptance over the years, including in civil service recruitment, but it was significant hearing the Prime Minister say it. The straight-laced and deeply conservative among Singaporeans might consider even this to be too much of a concession. It is important for the gay community - typically well-educated, self-assured and creative, obvious assets to the nation - to know they belong. They have much to contribute. They need not decamp to countries more 'congenial' and accepting of alternative lifestyles.

The conservative streak runs deep through Singaporean society, however. Homosexuals should be smart enough to acknowledge it and tailor their programmes and campaigns accordingly. Singaporeans delight in being described as cosmopolitan. But that still is a leap to liberalism in social thought. This unusual episode of a citizens' petition being brought before the House for its consideration showed something else: Gay rights of both the male and female variety may never be resolved to the satisfaction of every interest group and citizens' constituency.