A Deeper Look at LGBT Discrimination in Singapore

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Is there discrimination against LGBT persons in Singapore? Activists and bloggers insist there is. Janelle Faye, a transgender Singaporean, arguesthere isn’t.

I think the truth is somewhere down the middle. In recent history, the authorities have not launched sweeps targeting LGBT people. There are no laws punishing people for the crime of being non-heteronormative. Sex change operations are freely available here, and LGBT-friendly bars, saunas and non-government organisations operate openly. Discriminatory attitudes and practices against LGBT people occurs at the level of individuals, families and organisations; not at the level of society. There are no formalised mechanisms of oppression aimed at LGBT people in the same fashion as, say, Saudi Arabia, Nigeria or the Islamic State.

At the same time, there still exists laws and policies that, for better or ill, sweep up LGBT people in their wake.

Section 377A and its Consequences

Section 377A of the Penal Code states:

Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with >imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.

Singapore inherited its laws from the British, and the Penal Code is based off India’s. Since Independence, other legislation that criminalises “unnatural sex”, such as non-vaginal sex or lesbian sexual intercourse, have been struck down. Section 377A still remains on the books, but the government insists that it will not prosecute gays under the law.

In practice, this is mostly true. As far as I know, in the past two decades Section 377A has only been trotted out to handle cases of public nuisance, rape and statutory rape. It has never been used to prosecute men who have consensual sex with men in private.

Singapore’s government needs to balance the needs of multiple groups in society, including religious conservatives. Keeping Section 377A can be seen as a peace offering to keep them happy while the government does away with less controversial legislation on other kinds of sex. Unfortunately, retaining Section 377A has knock-on effects.

In the military, gay soldiers are assigned a special deployment status, kept away from sensitive information, and confined to day duties for the rest of their careers. This essentially means that openly gay soldiers will never be placed in career-enhancing positions within the military. I don’t think this is institutional discrimination, rather an operational security measure. If a spy learns that a gay soldier has access to classified information, the spy can deploy a honey trap and take compromising photographs of the soldier, blackmailing him to reveal this information on pain of being arrested and charged under Section 377A.

The criminalisation of homosexual male acts also has wide-ranging impacts on civilian life: marriage, housing, insurance, legal aid, medical services. Since same-sex relationships are not officially recognised by the government, such couples are not eligible for the same benefits as heterosexual couples, and homoseuals cannot make legal decisions for their partners. This situation will likely remain so until and unless there are no longer any laws on the books criminalising consensual sex acts between adults. Perhaps longer.

While Section 377A has not led to institutionalised discrimination, this is only due to the policy of the current government. With the People’s Action Party enjoying a supermajority in Parliament (82 out of 84 seats), if the government decides at a future date that it will benefit from cracking down on gay men, there is nothing to stop it. Likewise, if a future government decrees that it shall henceforth prosecute all gay men in Singapore, Section 377A empowers it to do so.

Section 377A hangs like a sword of Damocles over the gay community. Its existence automatically criminalises men who have sex with men, even if they have done nothing to harm others. No citizen can count on the eternal benevolence of the state. Section 377A must be abolished. In its place, Parliament must revise existing law to cover cases of public nuisance, rape, statutory rape and other crimes that were previously prosecuted under Section 377A, with an eye towards deterring and punishing harm as opposed to consensual acts.

LGBT People in the Media

There are no laws forbidding the portrayal of LGBT people in the mass media. Instead, the Media Development Authority — which develops the media by censoring it — issued guidelines forbidding the “promotion or glamorization of the homosexual lifestyle”.

This policy has claimed a long list of victims of censorship. Barack Obama’s pro-LGBT comments. A same-sex kiss from a theatrical production of Les MiserablesMass Effect, for its femShep/Liara relationship, for a while. A number of local films and plays. A full list of censored media can be found here.

This isn’t to say that the MDA demanded the media to hide LGBT characters. Indeed, there is no bar against having such characters, so long as they aren’t portrayed positively. A local Mandarin-language police procedural featured a male-to-female transsexual as a killer. Another drama had an episode where the cast convinced a transvestite to give up his cross-dressing ways.

This is discrimination by regulatory fiat. The MDA does not answer to Parliament or the people. If the government believes more restrictions should be placed on the media, the MDA can do it without having to go through the formalities of a Parliamentary debate or try to convince the people through the press.

But this should also be seen in context. The government has long held the position that Singapore’s media should be a ‘nation-building media’. The media takes its cues from the government, delivering the messages and creating the narratives that the government wants it to deliver. When controversies erupted over en bloc sales of real estate in Singapore, MediaCorp suddenly produced a drama about a family caught up in an en bloc sale. Press coverage of national events tend to be slanted to favour the government, emphasising Singapore’s ‘traditional values’, including religious harmony, efficient government, and de-politicisation of racial and religious matters. This is part of the government’s overall strategy of justifying its rule through ‘Asian values’, which is really a hodgepodge of Confucian and Victorian moral norms. It creates a narrative of ‘Asian values’ through the media, then uses it to claim the moral high ground.

The problem here isn’t just discrimination per se. It’s that the government uses the media as its mouthpiece to spread its version of public ethics, politics and news, and LGBT issues is just one of them. Singaporeans cannot count on the mainstream media to explore alternative stories and narratives that contradict the party line, and there is little profit in petitioning the MDA to change its policies if the government won’t. A more realistic approach would be to engage the government itself on portrayals of LGBT people, and why LGBT people should be given fair portrayal in the media.

But I won’t hold my breath. Creators who want to have LGBT characters in their works would find better luck in spaces the MDA can’t touch. In the age of the Internet, creators can upload works on YouTube, use Patreon or Kickstarter for funding, write and narrate digital stories, and more. Instead of butting heads with the MDA on legacy media platforms, seek places where the MDA cannot reach and build your audience there. This will pull receptive audiences to your platforms, allow you to render any and all discriminatory media portrayals in Singapore irrelevant.

Marriage and Housing

In Singapore, it is usually joked that the most common way to propose marriage is to ask your would-be spouse to buy a flat with you. That’s because public housing in Singapore is strictly limited, favouring family units (including newly-weds). LGBT couples must either purchase flats on the private/resale markets or wait until they are 35 years old and purchase a flat under the joint singles scheme. Is this discrimination?

Singapore, it must be remembered, is a tiny, land-scarce country. Land use must be carefully planned, and a flat may be retained in the same family for two or even three generations out of necessity. The government must prioritise the needs of families with children and newlyweds who will produce children, for they will ensure the continued survival of the nation and the people. Lesbians, gays and transsexuals who will not or cannot produce children will not contribute to the next generation or the generation after, so their needs must be placed last.

Unfortunately, since bureaucracies must operate with a broad brush, there will be unintended victims. This year, a couple lost their marriage to the mechanisms of state. They registered their marriage as a heterosexual couple, but the male declared that he intended to transition to female. The marriage was nonetheless allowed to continue, and was registered as a heterosexual marriage. After the former husband transitioned, the marriage became a same-sex marriage — which is illegal here. After months of hemming and hawing, the state forcibly dissolved the marriage and the couple had to move to a smaller home.

I understand where the government is coming from and recognise the necessity of prioritizing heterosexual couples (and, by extension, the long-term survival of the country), but this is most unfortunate for the couple mentioned above, and other edge cases that the bureaucracy isn’t equipped to resolve. On the other hand, I don’t think Western-style civil unions can resolve the matter either. If non-heterosexual couples in civil unions are accorded the same rights as heterosexual couples in recognised weddings, it could have a significant impact on the availability of public housing in Singapore. It is not fair for a tiny non-fertile percent of the population to have such an outsized impact on the rest of the population that will ensure the nation’s continued existence.

Should we build more public housing? Singapore is the very definition of a concrete jungle: where can more land be found? What about letting LGBT people rent flats? Rent prices are sky-high in Singapore: rental flats cater to PMETs with astronomical salaries or groups of people, leaving rented rooms the only viable option for most people.

I don’t have any easy answers. What I do know is that this issue isn’t discussed in public at all. LGBT people are left to fend for themselves while the government will not accommodate them. Instead of harping on such abstract matters as the ‘freedom to love’, LGBT activists should focus on everyday matters that affect the lives of people, and the government should in turn engage these activists to hopefully reach a win-win solution.

Roll Up Your Sleeves and Get to Work

Having attended the original Pink Dot, I can confirm Faye’s remarks on its essential vacuity. Yes, it celebrates the freedom of love. Yes, it trots out speakers affirming non-heteronormative relationships and the virtues of tolerance and diversity. Yes, there is music and live performances and balloons. For one day a year it makes people feel good. But what about the other 364 days of the year?

I don’t care about feeling good. I care about doing good.

There isn’t widespread systemic discrimination against LGBT people in Singapore on the scale of the Middle East or elsewhere. However, Section 377A allows potential tyrants to oppress the LGBT community. Media portrayals of LGBT people in Singapore are a facet of the government’s control over the media. Housing for LGBT people remain a thorny but underdiscussed issue.

This is only the tip of the iceberg. LGBT people face a number of unique challenges that aren’t aired openly. Half of lesbian relationships involve domestic violence. Last year, there were 408 new reported cases of HIV transmission, and 52% of them originated from homosexual transmission. Advertisements about HIV/AIDS awareness and prevention targeting the LGBT community cannot be aired here.

It’s easy to jump on bandwagons, chant slogans and repeat the tired rhetoric of power, privilege and discrimination. It makes people feel good, but it doesn’t do anything to resolve these issues. If you’re truly interested in helping LGBT people, then roll up your sleeves and get to work.

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