Failure of Gay Rights Organisations in Singapore
The other day I was arguing with some people online. They were complaining, as gay rights activists in Singapore are wont to do, against the government not repealing 377A on the grounds that most Singaporeans are against gay sex. I wrote that the government is correct in not going ahead of the intentions of the people.
Perhaps I should have foreseen that it would have provoked a little bit of controversy. People were accusing me of being conservative (I’m not – I support gay rights). Or being cowardly. Or having a hidden anti-gay agenda. Admittedly that was a bit of a rash statement, but after thinking about it for a while, I felt that if it was genuinely true that people were opposed to gay rights in Singapore, the government position should reflect that.
The gay rights movement in Singapore is a civil rights movement. They should do whatever they do in order to advance their rights. But the government has to be more conservative about its actions. It can only act a little behind time, after all the dust has settled. After a little bit of arguing, during which I challenged the other guy to name me one instance where the government has gotten away with doing something ahead of the curve, and early, he didn’t give me any good examples. He only mentioned a lot of wars – well that was my point. Either you write laws after the issue is done and dusted, or you start a war by acting too early. And the example I gave was the legalization of abortion during Roe vs Wade, where it was passed even though there were violent objections. The end result is that the violent objections are still going on up till today.
Then it led me to think about the gay rights movement in Singapore. Now I’m not that well acquainted with it because obviously I’m a straight guy and I don’t hang out with them. I know that there are groups in Singapore, like Fridae, People Like Us and Trevvy. But I’ll just give some observations about the gay rights movement in Singapore. Yes, the title of this post is provocative, and it is meant to be. But I just feel that the people in charge of this are just doing a fairly poor job, and this article is to show how and why.
1. The right audience The segment of the population most likely to support gay rights is the liberal and westernized Singaporeans. So it’s not that surprising that Vincent Wijeysingha decided to run in Holland-Bukit Timah. But it does seem that the gay rights movement also comprises of people almost exclusively from this group. To them, the cause of gay rights is self-evident. But do they know that they have to win over people belonging to other walks of life? I don’t see that awareness amongst them. The heartlanders
To be sure, these are the people that are most likely to join the gay rights movement next. They have negative stereotypes of gay people, although they haven’t met many gay people amongst themselves. They are fairly unlikely to hold strong views about gays, but they are at the moment uncomfortable with the idea. And a lot of the time, this is because they hold conservative viewpoints, they hold stereotypical viewpoints about gays. In order to win these people over, you have to reform the image of gays in Singapore.
A crucial element in this will be the People’s Association. It will be interesting to try to win them over, but it’s not impossible – even LKY is not anti-gay!
The Christians This is another mixed bunch. On one hand, there is a large overlap between this group and the western / liberal group. On the other hand, this group contains the bunch of people who are the most adamantly opposed to gay rights. The conservative fundamentalist Christians were pretty adamant about getting their way. They took over AWARE because AWARE was teaching schoolkids that there was nothing wrong about homosexuality. So, the government actually tried a more liberal gay policy, and was punished for it. AWARE is now back with its original founders, but gay rights suffered a setback as a result.
The big pity of this is that Thio Li-Ann is normally somebody who is normally pro-democracy and pro-human rights, but on this issue is a big enemy. The gay rights movements will have to grapple with those facts. You will be competing with mega churches with mega budgets. At some point, you will need their support and you have to figure out how to win them over. The more conservative ones – forget about it, it’s a lost cause.
The mega-churches have a burgeoning enrolment. They will be a very important constituency. They are usually not ultra-conservative, but they will be very careful about what they do and say, lest it becomes an issue that loses them a lot of enrolment.
The Muslims It is very difficult to win these bunch of people over, because Islam is adamantly opposed to homosexuality. Luckily there are people who are both Muslim and gay, who can speak out. Also, the Malays are usually easy-going people, who are usually moderate Muslims. Singapore does have to be sensitive to the feelings of their neighbours. The silver lining in the cloud is that if Malay or Indonesia liberalizes its stand towards gays, it will be very difficult for Singapore not to follow suit.
2. Political positioning How are you going to convince people from the broader segment of Singapore society that anybody could be gay, that this is an issue that affects the common man? The Chee Soon Juan type who gets arrested for protesting and then protests about getting arrested. Here I’ll list a few other things that people mentally associate with the gays in Singapore, that are to the detriment of gay rights.
Association with western liberalized bunch It just seems that gay rights movement people are the English-speaking bunch. Homosexuality is not something that’s invented in the West. The Japanese samurai were all gay as fuck! But because westerners are the most permissive, that’s why most people from the gay rights movement are the westernized bunch. The bottom line: people get this wrong impression that homosexuality is some new faddish idea from the west. That’s the problem.
Association with foreign talent There is this indignation that the Singapore government is permissive towards gays because of the importance of attracting foreign talent. Well that’s not going to be good for your politically. People are sick and tired of foreign talent at the moment, and they’re not going to like things that are associated with them. You will require that these people are those who grew up in Singapore, because if gay rights is seen as an issue forced by foreign talent, that will not be good politically. Association with sexual promiscuity, AIDS, and hedonism
People have this image of gay rights organizations. Angmoh pai western human rights groups who don’t understand Singapore society. Hedonistic nightclub goers. Artists who make works for rich people. Champagne socialists. The sort of people who walk naked down Holland Village. What are you doing to reform this image?
Association with a self-absorbed constituency You will need to assemble a broad coalition of people who support the gay rights movement. The comparison to the policeman, the red Indian and the fireman of Village people is too much of a parody, but otherwise that’s the idea. Pink Dot – I don’t know. That sounds really exclusive, as though you’re only in it for you. The rainbow is a very good image to adopt, because the message is a positive one: gay people are everywhere, they come from all walks of life, they are people you know and live amongst you. Acceptance of gay people is consistent with the words of your pledge. The biggest and most important card that the gay movement can play is that they are the suffering minority. But from the looks of it, the gay people in Singapore live well. The more visible members are the ones who live well. And the ones who are invisible, who are in the closet and are actually suffering – well you don’t really hear from them either, which is a shame.
If they were to change their tack from “I want rights, and I want rights now!” to “look at these people, they are suffering. You shouldn’t allow them to suffer” it’s much more effective that way.
Association with transgendered people It’s very unfortunate that Singapore is so close to Thailand, where you have a great tradition of transsexuals. The gay movement thus conjures up garish associations with Orchard Towers. People get confused between the two. Well there’s not that much education. People still have misconceptions about gays. People think that you can choose to be gay, that you can influence people to be gay and that there’s no difference between being gay and transgendered.
3. Milestones When I compare the progress of gay rights in Singapore to that of the US, there are a lot of milestones they have reached that we haven’t. It’s useful to talk about these milestones because they are a tangible reference of what has been done and what’s yet to be done.
Gay spokesmen It is very important for somebody to be brave and be seen in the public light, it is important to put a human face on gays. You need people to appeal for understanding. Don’t give me your Alfians and your Roystons. Everybody knows they were gay in the first place. Thankfully you have Wijeysingha on your side. That’s the kind of public face you want for a gay icon. Somebody who cares, is articulate, and advocates the rights of disadvantaged minorities other than himself. Maybe also Alex Au, who writes stuff that makes people think. This is the sort of person you want on your side.
Prominent members of society coming out Another step is that you have to have people coming out of the closet. People who everybody knows. People who are respected members of society. I’m sure that there are gay people who have made their way to the top (no pun intended). I want a prominent member of society who has outed himself. Maybe a Tim Cook. Maybe a Sir Elton John. Maybe a David Geffen. If your Olivia Lums are going to sit down and keep quiet, what hope do you have? I’ve been told that many Mediacorp artists are gays. Why won’t any of them put a public face on the gay rights movement? How many of you know that Katherine Hepburn was gay?
Conservatives speak out for gays Already in the USA, there are prominent conservatives who have outed themselves. You will need people on both sides of the political spectrum. OK, one such conservative is LKY himself, although his pro-gay stance is not very strong. Otherwise, being gay is largely considered to be something exclusive to the liberal side of the political spectrum.
Other constituencies speak up for gays. I’m talking about the churches, of Muslims, and the Chinese-speaking segment of the population.
Decriminalising of gay sex Well I was arguing about this issue earlier. Criminalising this act is pretty extreme, and that’s actually a weak point of my stand to support the government not repealing 377A. Yet it is very difficult to tell whether, if a referendum were to be called on this issue, who would win. But at some point, 377A has to go.
Gays in the military When the military in the US discriminated against gays, at least they had an excuse: military service in the US is voluntary, and if you are gay, you can always go find employment anywhere else. In contrast, military service in Singapore is compulsory. Gay people shouldn’t have to be forced to serve, and in spite of service to the country, get discriminated against. Bill Clinton’s first political move as president was to try to end gay discrimination in the military. It was a complete disaster and it caused his relations to the military to be fraught with suspicion thereafter. However, almost 20 years later, “don’t ask don’t tell” was repealed. So I think also around 20 years will elapse between our first attempt to get 377A repealed, and eventual success. 20 years from 5 years ago is 15 years.
Positive stereotypes about gay people In Singapore, I don’t know what the stereotypes about gay people are. Probably they are in the entertainment industry, they might have rich parents, or they are maybe a little lazy. In the US, now that a lot of people have come out, and you can pass some judgement about them, people think that they are well groomed (hence the term “metro sexual” = hetero people who are also well groomed) and are good with women. Women always complain that all the good people turn out to be gay. That is a very positive stereotype of gay people. When will gay people in Singapore get a good reputation?
4. The political struggle in Singapore. This is a political issue. This is a political struggle. Gay rights organisations will win the fight when they win the political struggle. You may think that you are fighting for the government to hand you victory on a plate. You are wrong. In fact you are struggling for the hearts and minds of the average Singaporeans, the heartlanders. Until you wake up and realise that, you will not make much headway.
Newly democratic Singapore. You know that it is true that Singapore is not a democracy. I was thinking about Singapore’s democracy. Our discourse is ridiculously insular. We haven’t really been exchanging notes with the South Koreans, the Hongkies or the Taiwanese. The other 3 tigers which are also struggling between authoritarianism and democracy. We don’t really think that much about their experiences, whether there is transferrable expertise. In the last 30 years there have been so many cases of people struggling for and winning their political freedom, from Eastern Europe to Tiananmen square. The other 3 tigers. The Arabs. Malaysia. Indonesia. The PIIGS. South America. North Africa. Why do we think we have to learn from the angmohs when it is all these other guys that we have to learn from? The Online Citizen, Yawning Bread, TR Emeritus talk about almost exclusively Singaporean issues. Why do they not look at the struggle for human rights in other countries, and see what experiences have been transferred to us? Why do we not think about what worked, what didn’t work? Why do we not look to them for instruction about how to conduct our fledgling democracy?
Look at the progress that other countries have made in their struggle for gay rights. There will be milestones. You will probably pass those milestones yourself. First is the abolishment of 377A. Then you have gay pride marches. Singapore has a lot of Chinese. Chinese people are not as anti-gay as Muslims or Christians. My advice to you: I think Taiwan has a successful gay rights movement. Research them, see what they have done, and try to do the same.
The priorities of the people in the post 2011 Singapore. Going back to our “dissident” publications. I have gone over the Online Citizen. Yes, they wrote a lot of topics about 377A when it was being discussed in parliament. But right now it’s not exactly a hot topic, is it? Sorry, but your “gay agenda” is going to be shelved for a little while. People will complain about floods, income inequality, foreign talent, maids rights, GRC system, Hougang, before they come down to gay rights. This is not a problem. This is the aftermath of 2011, and a lot of issues are coming to the front. The way the debates are played out in the next few years will have a great impact on shaping Singapore’s future as a fledgling democracy. You can either participate in those discussions for the time being, or you can make use of the time that the spotlight is not on you to regroup and plan your next move. I’m sorry, but gay rights did not feature very prominently on GE 2011 other than the Vivian / Wijeysingha episode.
Liberals who talk to conservatives You will need to read the works of Drew Westen and Jonathan Haight, who have done work on the politics of the human brain from the neurological perspective. Scientific studies have shown that people are liberal or conservative based on the differing gut feelings that they are born with. Unfortunately conservatives understand the gut feelings of liberals better than the other way around. Liberals have been talking to the conservatives the wrong way all these years, which is why progressive causes have not made a lot of headway lately. Unfortunately, Slut walk is a terrible idea. Gay parades are also a pretty questionable tool for advancing gay rights. The idea of taking what conservative people do not like about gay people and rubbing it in their faces is a terrible way of advancing your cause. You actually have to demonstrate to them that gay people can also be the sort of humble obedient decent citizen that they like, much as you do not enjoy it.
Generally, there are two main milestones for gay rights in Singapore ahead of the movement. First of them is the abolition of 377A, which outlaws gay sex. The second of these is gay marriage. Of these two milestones, the former is the more pressing issue, because it institutionalises discrimination. The latter will come in time, and it does not seem to be a pressing issue, but it's almost a mirror image of 377A in that it institutionalises gay couplehood (think of marriage as the institutionalising of a couplehood between a man and a woman).
The other thing is that over the last two years the advancement of gay rights in the US of A is very rapid. First, it was just California and Massachusetts which legalised gay marriage. Then it got struck down in California. Then that got changed back, and then a few more states decided to legalise gay marriage. The tipping point was when the US military decided that it couldn't do without its gay servicemen. Singaporeans are insular and they have conservative attitudes, and they may not be aware that these changes have taken place in the US, because they have been so rapid.
The other issue concerning the advancement of gay rights is - can people hold on to them? The granting of civil liberties is not something that people can necessarily hold on to. After the emancipation of slaves in the US, there followed 100 years of Jim Crow before the Civil Rights act was enacted. Fortunately, gay rights is something that does not have a direct connection with class conflict. Whereas when you are black, or maybe even when you are female, it means that you're from the lower class. As far as I know, there is no similar relationship between being gay and which socio-economic class you're from. That's a good thing, because the most difficult division to overcome are class divides. This is due to the "rich get richer, poor get poorer" dynamics of society. Unfortunately, what this also means is that gay people from the upper class are more likely to enjoy equal rights, as opposed to gay people from the lower class.
I don't think that the gay rights movement is something that can be advanced by the mandate of the government alone. I sense that the government is sitting on the fence with regards to this. They just won't want to do anything unless there is a very strong signal from the people. There is a sort of wisdom to this, because whenever civil rights have been advanced without the consent of a large section of the population, there has always been trouble, and there has always been blowback. When civil rights were granted to black people, there were a huge section of the population who believed that states' rights were infringed upon. When abortion was legalised, abortion clinics started to become targets of terrorist attacks from the religious right, something that takes place up till today.
There are a lot of issues on the plate of leaders and governments across the world. First is the issue of the true universalisation of democracy across the world. It used to be that only a few countries were liberal democracies, and the "third world" were all ruled by dictatorships, and from the macro perspective, it was just like the old world of masters and slaves. We will not understand the true nature of democracy until the whole world is rid of masters and slaves. Then we will see what a world without slaves is really like.
Another issue is humanity's capacity to destroy the natural habitat and the possibility that we will be living in the long emergency from the middle of the century onwards.
The other big issue is the contradictions of capitalism. Capitalism results in the formation of monopolies, predatory lending, widening of the income gap, subversion of the democratic process, capture of the law - ie the law gets rewritten to serve the interests of the wealthy and powerful. How the developed nations manage this, and whether the developing nations eventually manage to produce democratic institutions.
And it is hard to say that the question of gay rights is as important as these other issues, even though they are still very important.