On the evening of Friday, December 11th, 1998, a momentous event — well, a small one at least — was happening in Singapore, and I didn’t even know it. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew was on CNN International fielding questions by callers when — gasp! — a gay question came in.
I was completely out of the loop at that time. I was taking our little support group on a ‘field trip’ to Little India and Desker Road. The support group members were young men from good families in the sedate suburbs. Spending an evening in an area of backlane brothels, transvestite streetwalkers, and, thronging adjacent streets, thousands of foreign workers from India and Bangladesh, was going to be an eye-opener. I hoped, an education. We even had working-class Indian food for dinner sitting among Bangladeshi workers, canteen-style.
Meanwhile that Friday night, on CNN, Senior Minister Lee was dealing with the telephone question from an unnamed caller:
I am a gay man in Singapore. I do not feel that my country has acknowledged my presence. As we move into a more tolerant millennium, what do you think is the future for gay people in Singapore, if there is a future at all? 
Well, it’s not a matter which I can decide or any government can decide. It’s a question of what a society considers acceptable. And as you know, Singaporeans are by and large a very conservative, orthodox society, a very, I would say, completely different from, say, the United States and I don’t think an aggressive gay rights movement would help. But what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don’t impinge on other people. I mean, we don’t harass anybody.
There were no follow-up questions. The plan of the program, hosted by Riz Khan, did not have that option.
It took me more than 2 weeks to find out, by asking around, who the questioner was. In a sense, this is an indicator of the growth of the out-and-proud community here. There was a time when the circle was small enough for such news to zip around within a day, whether you were interested in it or not. Now, we have determined individuals popping up here, there and everywhere doing their own thing, and Yawning Bread has to do detective work to find out who did what!
So how did the episode happen? This is what the caller wrote to me:
Words in [square brackets] have been added by Yawning Bread.
The whole process went like this: I was watching CNN when they announced that [Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew] was up next. When the show started, they had a mini story about the country’s history and they flashed a telephone number to call with questions. I did. They took down my name, and asked for my question. The fella on the other end of the line told me to hold on — I thought he went to get paper to jot down the info or something — next thing he told me to turn down the volume [of my TV]. Riz Khan started with [Mr Lee] and the latter started to answer the first question (an email question). I was reminded again to turn the volume down and was told I was up next. Before I knew what happened, I heard over the phone Riz Khan acknowledging my call and I was [asked to repeat my question, which went out live]. I didn’t even know what was going on as I was, by then, watching another cable channel. By the time I switched back to CNN, [Mr Lee] was answering my question and before I could ask a follow up question, I was cut [off]. I only heard the full context of my question and his answer when they showed the repeat on TCS-5.
We can see from the above that the Senior Minister had no forewarning of the question. He had to give an impromptu response.
The text of the interview was carried by the Sunday Times on December 13th.
The local TV station, TCS-5, carried a repeat telecast of the CNN interview on Tuesday, December 15th. In the two or three days preceding that, TCS-5 made a trailer out of a few questions, including the gay one, and aired it quite frequently to generate interest in the upcoming program. Few Singaporeans could have failed to notice it.
The Straits Times however, had nothing more on the subject after December 13th.
I wrote a column a few days later, and offered it to the newspaper, but it wasn’t published. Here is what I wrote:
The gay issue : When state bureaucracy fails to live up to fair-minded political leadership
In a CNN interview, a gay Singaporean called in to ask Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew if there was a future for homosexuals in the Republic. Mr Lee’s answer was encouraging to gay Singaporeans and all the more refreshing given that local media tend to leave the topic well alone or shy away from the reasonable position taken by SM Lee. Given Singapore’s political culture, it would require the SM to say what he said before this issue can be dealt with constructively.
SM’s position is that how acceptable homosexuality is is a matter for society rather than the government to decide. He added that his government has been leaving “people to live their own lives so long as they don’t impinge on other people.”
These are thoughtful words and therefore deserves more than just a blanket acceptance that if the SM said so, let it be so. If we Singaporeans are so intellectually lazy, thoughtful words by political leaders would be wasted on us. It is in that spirit that this column is being written.
I believe there is a need to understand the nexus between societal opinion and state. The two are not completely independent of each other.
The question of whether society considers homosexuality acceptable is complex. If it could be aggregated as an index at all, I suspect that index of acceptability is a shifting one as Singapore society undergoes the changes that come with education and contact with a fast changing world.
In the past, opinion on homosexuality was heavily weighted towards the disapproving end, and when virtually no gay persons were out enough to make a stand, there simply wasn’t any gay issue to be tackled.
Today, the younger and more cosmopolitan sections of our population, exposed to the thinking and trends from abroad, are increasingly migrating to a more liberal and tolerant viewpoint. They see realistic portrayals of gay persons and get to know that homosexuality is never a choice for anyone. It’s a given.
The two ends of the population arrive at such different conclusions simply because they start from very different perceptions. This gap is deepened by the lack of local information and discussion of the subject. One side gets its information from abroad, the other gets its information from the past.
Far from leading to a resolution of the question, present trends may point to it becoming more contentious.
What is needed is for this society to be open to discussion about homosexuality so that at least people can start from a more informed basis. This then begs questions of the role of the media, and access to books, films and other resources in Singapore. Partly, self-censorship may be inhibiting us from addressing homosexuality, or bringing in materials touching on the subject. But quite obviously too, the limits set by the government, real or perceived, play an important part.
The government sets the climate in countless ways. They vary from petty bureaucratic action to longstanding laws in the statute books.
The film ‘Happy Together’, about a gay couple trying hard to stay in love, was barred from commercial release by the censorship board. It had won the Best Director Prize at Cannes. It wasn’t pornographic. It had one scene of the two men making love, without frontal nudity and with less explicitness than many other films screened in Singapore showing heterosexual sex. Had it been shown, it would have provoked thought about the ups and downs of gay relationships. Instead, its banning just reinforced gay Singaporeans’ view that they have no future in Singapore.
In 1996/7, ten citizens applied to register their society called People Like Us, with the aim of helping gay and lesbian Singaporeans lead more positive lives. This kind of self-help group is what civil society is supposed to be made of. However, registration was denied. No reason was ever given.
One can speculate that because sections 377 and 377(a) of the Penal Code make homosexual acts criminal, it is impossible for the government to condone such a group. However, the logic is difficult to understand. It may be illegal to sell cigarettes to children, but it can’t mean that it is illegal to organise a group to discuss the subject, or to work with children who do smoke.
In any case, the law itself is also an issue. The law is highly intrusive into private lives, since it applies even when homosexual sex takes place in the bedroom. To live up to the Senior Minister’s assurance that the government will “leave people to live their own lives”, this law needs to be repealed.
Remaining on the statute books, the law does more harm than good. A few years ago, there was a case in which a lawyer was charged even when he had consensual sex with another man, in a bedroom. Because the other man was the complainant, he wasn’t charged. Ultimately the judge acquitted the defendant, but by then his career had been seriously compromised by the case.
The law also creates a climate in which people feel justified in showing all sorts of petty discrimination against gay and lesbian citizens. It buttresses prejudice and intolerance.
It may be argued that the family is central to our cultural values and that homosexuality is inimical to the family, hence intolerance serves a useful purpose. However, intolerance makes sense only if sexual orientation is a habit or a choice, like drink driving. Then through law and social pressure, people can be persuaded to be heterosexual. But since sexual orientation, whether heterosexual or homosexual, is not a choice, but an innate part of one’s person, like left-handedness or musical talent, then intolerance has very perverse effects. Sons and daughters who happen to be gay are ostracised, and instead of strengthening families, we fracture them.
Two themes that the SM touched on in his CNN interview, albeit in relation to other questions, are also relevant here. The first is that culture goes very deep. Asian communities do not behave exactly the same way as Western communities. The second is that throughout his career, he has striven to make Singaporeans realistic. Bring these two together, and one can understand his statement that an aggressive gay rights movement would not help. But movements don’t always have to be aggressive. Singapore has plenty of examples of movements that are moderate, but still beaver away at their mission. There is AWARE, the women’s movement, various religious or cultural groups, and other groups like the Nature Society and the Heritage Society.
Sometimes they are in disagreement with the government, occasionally vocally so, but they don’t necessarily emulate the tactics of the greens, feminists or black power movements from the West. Our local movements are coloured by the culture of our country. Likewise, there is no reason to assume the worst of an emerging gay movement in Singapore.
Yes, SM Lee is right to say the key issue is how ready Singapore society is to accept gay persons. But government comes in many layers, and sometimes the lower layers of the state bureaucracy has not lived up to his fair-minded and sensible vision. So, on a day to day level, gay and lesbian Singaporeans can feel very aggrieved.
And that would have been why the caller asked SM Lee, ” … if there is a future at all?”
At the same time as I sent the column to the editor of the Straits Times, I mailed a copy to Senior Minister Lee, for his information.
The caller prefaced his question by saying he was out to his family and at work, as we heard on the repeat telecast, but the transcript carried by the Straits Times, which is what I reproduced above, edited that.
Mr Lee Kuan Yew was Prime Minister of Singapore 1959-1990.