THINGS ARE HAPPENING: A brief look at recent developments in gay rights in Singapore

Picture 077aLooking back at the past few months and the things that had happened to the gay community, it is not difficult to realize that something important is brewing.

First, there was the outcry against the Health Promotion Board (HPB)’s question and answer about sexuality.  Then it was followed by the protest against the Pink Dot by the religious wear whites.  This was closely followed by the National Library Board (NLB) saga when three books about gay families (animal and human) were taken off the public library shelves and in the process of being pulped.

In all three incidents, the way the whole scene played out was somewhat in favor of the community.

An Honest Answer

The HPB episode:  the Q&A about sexuality, lambasted by the homophobic sector of the population, received the official backing of the Health Minister Gan Kim Yong who said that “The FAQs do not encourage same-sex relationships, but rather provide advice to young persons and their parents on mental and physical health issues from a public health perspective.”  Although he did not show any direct support for the gay community which would not have been right as it would go against the official government stand, he did follow up with the fact that both heterosexual as well as homosexual relationships “require the commitment of two people” and “it is possible to remain faithful to one’s partner, regardless of one’s sexual orientation.” (http://www.moh.gov.sg/content/moh_web/home/pressRoom/Parliamentary_QA/2014/hpb-sexuality.html )

Of course this is all in the context of STI and HIV prevention.  However, it is at least a recognition and acknowledgement of same sex relationships in a non-judgmental way.  To me this is a long way from the time when outright denouncement was the call of the day.

A Matter of Colours

Then there was the Pink Dot controversy which started off with a Muslim leader calling for Muslims to wear white in protest against the annual gay event which has grown exponentially from a mere estimated 2,500 in attendance to 26,000 in just 6 years.  He was joined by the notoriously homophobic magician-preacher who called on his members to join forces with the Muslims.  This is in spite of Minister in charge of Muslim Affairs, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim saying that “differences of opinion and personal choices should be expressed in a way that avoids dividing the society and community”.  Again while it was not an open support for the gay community, it was an overt call for tolerance.

A Pulping Frenzy

The most recent saga involved yet another public institution, namely NLB.  The pulping of 3 children’s books because of one homophobic religious right winger’s complaint and subsequent bragging and calling for more to act barely weeks after the Pink Dot controversy must have been quite a sit-upper.  At first, Dr Yaacob Ibrahim (again the poor man has to deal with the issue but it so happens that he is also the Minister for Communications and Information) stood by NLB’s decision – “The country’s information minister Yaacob Ibrahim has said he supports the decision to pulp all copies of the book along with two other titles”.  (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/jul/12/singapore-libraries-pull-gay-penguin-book )  In a turnaround after the protest by supporters of the 3 books, he rescues them from destruction, albeit too late in one case.  This saga seems to have more to do with what goes onto the library shelves rather than about the plight of gays in Singapore.  But is it not a baby step in creating awareness in the public psyche about the presence and situation of a minority group of people in society?  The so-called ‘silent majority’ quiet up till now, must have responded in some way in their minds?  If this is a numbers game in a fight to see which side has a larger supporting, then the fight for support from the middle-grounders must surely be very important.

Shut Up and Sit Down

All these 3 events took place recently.  But the mother of all sagas happened five years ago in May 2009.  This was the rise of the by now notorious ‘Feminist Mentor’ and the coining of the most uniquely Singaporean phrase “shut up and sit down”.  In a coup d’etat, the religious right wingers took over the executive committee of AWARE* claiming that AWARE was pro-gay.  In the dramatic turnaround like in the Star Wars’ The Empire Fights Back, the rightful committee gathered its forces and at a confrontational Extraordinary General Meeting threw the rebels out.

It is darkest just before dawn so the adage says.  I am hopeful for 2 reasons.

Firstly, all the forces gathering against the community is to me a sign that better days are ahead and nearing us quicker than many of us know and expect.  The opposition knows it and their forces are gathering.  They are galvanizing their strength and taking action because they see the light in the horizon in our favour as all of us are seeing it too.  Secondly, the authorities are recognizing the existence and the needs of the community.  This is surely a good thing.

For those of us who grew up in the 50s, 60s and 70s, the thought of such polarizing attitudes would have been unimaginable.  No one talked about being gay; the word still meant ‘happy’ at that time.  The only talk was either in hushed whispers or in embarrassing gay jokes.  Society in general was against us.  Many of us even took on these societal norms ourselves.  And Stonewall** was only a foreign fantasy (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stonewall_riots).

We have come a long way since then, thanks to the efforts of many.  We are indebted to people like Paddy Chew, Alex Au, Miak Siew and former bishop Yap Kim Hao, Jason Wee and Clarence Singam, Alfian Sa’at and many unsung heroes who in their own capacities whether as activists, religious leaders, counselling and psychological wellness advocates, practitioners of the arts or just your people-next-door, were making a mark and either openly or silently but tirelessly doing their bit for the community.

In 2003, the landmark announcement by the then Prime Minister of Singapore, Mr Goh Chok Tong that Singaporean society should let things “evolve, 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.”  He also announced that the civil service, the largest employer in Singapore would now allow gays to serve in ‘sensitive positions’. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_history_in_Singapore   (For more information about LGBT history in Singapore go to: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LGBT_culture_in_Singapore)

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Yes, the light is at the end of the tunnel.

In time, society will understand;

in time, 377A will be gone;

in time, there will be more acceptance of our community.

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As we celebrate our 49th National Day as independent Singapore and look forward to 2015 when we will be celebrating our 50th, we should also celebrate how far the gay community has come.  In the words of Mr Goh – “…in time the population will understand…”  Yes, the light is at the end of the tunnel – in time, society will understand; in time, 377A will be gone; in time, there will be more acceptance of our community.  I used to think that perhaps I will not be around to see the time when all these things happen.  But now, I am not so sure.

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*AWARE – Association of Women Action and Research is Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group.

** Stonewall – The riots took place in New York, USA.  They were spontaneous and violent gay demonstrations in 1969 and are icon in the gay liberation movement.

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