Singapore – Cruisy and Free but within Limits
Singapore is a multi-cultural society with majority Chinese population. It had developed economically as a British colony, part of what were termed the Straits Settlements – a tripartite trading centre along with Malacca and Penang. As the British withdrew from their Empire, Singapore was given a degree of self-governance in 1959. The leader of the majority party, English-educated Lee Kuan-yew, felt that Singapore could not possibly exist on its own.
So he went into a formal alliance with his Malayan neighbours to the north and formed Malaysia – the ‘SI’ in Malaysia refers to Singapore. That marriage quickly died. Malaysia’s constitution gave preference in many aspects of life to ethnic Malays, clearly unacceptable in Chinese-dominated Singapore. The Malay leaders, sensitive that their minority Chinese population controlled much of the commerce and industry, did not like the idea of yet more Chinese being part of their country. So Lee pulled out and in 1965 founded the Republic of Singapore.
It’s hard to think of any Asian leader more admired in the west than Lee Kuan-yew. With no natural resources and hardly any cash, he dragged the city-state from nowhere and nothing to one of the richest and most developed countries in the world. But when we look more closely, not all was – or is today – rosy in the island state. Lee himself stressed that he could not have achieved this “miracle” if he had had to lead a country with constant changes of government. Not surprisingly his party has had a total dominance of power ever since the state’s founding. He also held some pretty tyrannical views, as this one reported in The Straits Times in December 1984. “We have to lock up people, without trial, whether they are communists, whether they are language chauvinists, whether they are religious extremists. If you don’t do that, the country would be in ruins.”
If you think that is pretty draconian, he followed that in 1987 with these words. “I say without the slightest remorse, that we wouldn’t be here, we would not have made economic progress, if we had not intervened on very personal matters – who your neighbour is, how you live, the noise you make, how you spit, or what language you use. We decide what is right. Never mind what the people think.” Democratic in name and with regular elections, Singapore remains virtually an authoritarian regime.
In 1861 parliament in Victorian London passed a law whose disastrous effects continue to reverberate around much of the world through the persecution of men who wish to enjoy sex with other men. The innocuous sounding “Offences Against the Person Act” introduced a punishment of from ten years to life in prison for the act of sodomy. As dreadful as this seems today, a slight gleam of light for those convicted under the Act, including the noted homosexuals Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing, might have been that prior to the passing of the law, punishment for sodomy had been death under the more appropriately named “Buggery Act” of 1533!
As by far the world’s largest Empire, Britain considered itself the arbiter of its moral values. Without taking any local views into consideration, this law immediately spread to its colonies, even though most had no previous issue with homosexuality. Many even openly accepted it. The irony here is that no other colonizing country – and there were many – had any such criminal provisions on their statute books. As a result, it was only the British colonial peoples who became subject to what has been called the “staunch homophobia” of Victorian England. An even greater irony is that by the time this law was repealed in London in 1967, Britain had withdrawn from its overseas Empire leaving many dozens of new countries with that dreadful 1861 law still entrenched in their legal systems. One is Singapore.
Despite this, walk down Orchard Road and you not only see the world’s top brand names, you are in one of the cruisiest streets in Asia. Young Singaporean men are mostly slim, gym-fit and incredibly good looking. A lot are also gay. And herein lies a contradiction. Lee’s constant concern was the development of a harmonious society. This had to come before individual rights. The Singapore government has said it cannot repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, that sodomy law bequeathed by the British, as Singapore society will not permit it! But the present Prime Minister, Lee’s son, has also stated it will not act on the law.
As the eminent French statesman Jean Baptiste Colbert stated in the 17th century, “If you enact a law and do not enforce it, you are condoning what you condemn.” But that matters little in Singapore. So it has gay bars, clubs and saunas. This does not mean, though, that it has been given a green light to the freedoms gay citizens enjoy in Taiwan, for example. Singapore will not permit a Gay Pride Parade. Those who are gay feel a need to remain largely in the shadows.
The law stays in part because of fear. Right-wing evangelical Christian churches have sprung up. Like their counterparts in the west, they continually speak out about not extending gay rights. One is led by the homophobic Pastor Lawrence Khong. This bigot is on record as saying “homosexuality is the greatest blasphemy against the name of God!” The man is clearly a clown – and he really is a professional magician mounting his own large-scale entertainment shows (you thought I meant his church services, didn’t you? LOL)!
The pastor of the large evangelical Christian Harvest Church and half a dozen of his colleagues have recently been sentenced to up to eight years in jail for what is essentially embezzlement of Church funds. When you start to think about it, it does somehow seem odd that it is this crazy Christian community in Singapore that is so anti-gay whereas the Muslim community appears to be relatively silent on the subject. Singapore gays simply cannot enjoy all the freedoms now extended to their fellow gays in Hong Kong.
What’s your observations about Gay Singapore History and Culture? Please post your comments below
Contribution by Penn Regis who is an academic who regularly visits Asia.