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A New Way Forward for Singapore’s LGBT Movement

A New Way Forward for Singapore’s LGBT Movement

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Top image credit: Asia Times

In Part 1, we explained how our otherwise pragmatist establishment has been reluctant to pass pro-LGBT reforms. We also explained how this inaction at the political level, coupled with the rise of domestic fundamentalism and foreign interference, could necessitate the need to counter these unwelcome developments with novel perspectives.

In Part 2, we did this by expounding on Hindu and Buddhist LGBT narratives. This may sound counter-intuitive to the idea of pushing for LGBT rights using scientific rationale, but given the way the pragmatist option has seemingly gone out the window, the next best option is to create ideological counter-narratives—in the hopes of creating an eventual equilibrium in the moral sphere.

This ideological equilibrium, if ever realised, might hopefully even jump-start the pragmatic process, by making the state realise that there are indeed alternate viewpoints, and that it may actually be politically expedient to make things better for LGBT Singaporeans.

In any case, the silver lining is that the end result would be a Singapore that values the composite meshwork of value systems that make up Singaporean society, and ensures that everyone gets a seat at the table.

This final instalment in our 3-part series tackles potential solutions that could give the LGBT rights movement in Singapore the ideological oomph it needs.

A recent advertisement from Poh Heng, featuring Dennis Chong with partner Chong Kok Keong.
A New Strategy

1. Stand On Our Own Two Feet

In 2016, the government decided to bar foreign corporations (mostly American MNCs) from sponsoring the annual Pink Dot parade at Hong Lim Park. In 2017, foreign citizens were prohibited from participating in the annual parade. Singaporeans were predictably despondent about the ban.

If we want our advocacy to have any heft, then we should take the ban in our stride. If Singaporean LGBT activists seek allyship and monetary support from foreigners and their corporations, it will only result in certain elements allying with the Lou Engles and the Billy Grahams of the world, which is already happening.

It will also create an unwanted sense of dependency. We need to be able to stand on our own two feet instead of latching on to white saviours, who may not be concerned with the organic development of LGBT rights within our own cultural and socio-political contexts. This dependency is not sustainable in the long run, and it runs the risk of alienating swathes of people who may not necessarily identify with Western rhetoric—which is mostly the preserve of upper-class Singaporeans who enjoy significant mobility.

This is not an argument against adopting foreign ideas, per se. Western civilisation has its merits, and Western LGBT rights movements have changed the global state of LGBT rights for the better. The term ‘LGBT’ is itself a product of contemporary Western discourse, and movements in the United States have inspired millions of oppressed LGBT people around the world. Any development in favour of LGBT rights must be welcomed.

However, within the context of Singaporean society, the Westernised nature of our discourse does far more harm than good. Former colonies are often left with a static vestige of the colonising country’s prevailing social mores. Britain’s Victorian values, which are now antiquated in their country of origin, are frozen in time in their former Asian and African colonies. In many cases, such as in Singapore’s, these bygone mores have undergone a process of indigenisation, to the point where people falsely believe that they are congruent with ‘Asian values’.

This makes the values championed by contemporary Western civilisation, which have had a century to organically evolve, confront an anachronistic snapshot of what Western society used to be. All this does is create cognitive dissonance. After all, how can we import the value systems of contemporary Western civilisation, when we have not even upended the fossil of it that lies buried in these parts? They are irreconcilable.

All they will do is clash, and leave even more disenfranchised people in their wake.

This is precisely why it is imperative to develop organic movements from within—movements that are inspired by our own roots—just like how Western LGBT rights movements were centred around their unique struggles, within the contexts of their own societies.

True empowerment is only possible if it is developed organically. At this juncture, band-aid solutions cannot be imported. If we refuse to re-orient, we might as well waste a few more decades stuck in the current status quo.

At Pink Dot, Singapore. / Image credit: HRW
2. Try A Native Flavour

With the advent of the Internet, Singaporean youth have started co-opting Americanisms with increasing zeal. US-centric discourse, which the world has had the misfortune of witnessing since the particularly acrimonious election of 2016, is full of hot air, of very little substance, and of dubious relevance to this part of the world. This is not a surprising phenomenon; it is merely the inevitable culmination of our society’s long march towards Westernisation.

Because Singapore’s youth are so Westernised, they are incapable of thinking through the prism of their own civilisational frameworks. They do not have the intellectual capacity to delve deep into their history, to seek inspiration from it, and to harness that inspiration towards the development of Singapore-centric problem-solving skills.

Every proposed solution for our societal ills is willy-nilly plucked from the realm of American discourse; no one actually cares to debate the merits of these ideas. Singaporean youth are incapable of coming up with uniquely Singaporean theories on race, gender, sexuality, class, poverty, as well as every other dynamic that defines our society.

But it is not entirely their fault. Our education system is largely responsible for this.

Singaporean children are not given an adequate grounding in their civilisational heritage, because Singapore cares not for pursuits it considers futile, such as the holistic and cultural development of our youth. Our formerly visionary establishment has failed to grasp the benefits that could have been reaped by turning this country into a central nerve for the study of Asian civilisations; into a hub for the development and propagation of new theories and road-maps that relate to us as a collective.

We could have leveraged our status as the most developed English-speaking country in Asia to become a global exporter of radical new ideas  developed independently of a Western framework. If not for our stunted sense of imagination and our aversion to equipping our youth with critical thinking skills, such a development would have served Singapore’s apparatus of soft power exceedingly well.

In the United States, for example, there have been calls to reinstate the teaching of Western civilisation as a core subject in schools. Similar calls have also been made in Australia. In Western societies, it is not uncommon for the average high school student to dissect the views of pre-eminent philosophers like Aristotle, Plato, and Socrates. This helps them get a civilisational grounding early on in life.

There is an exhaustive list of Asian philosophers of similar calibre, but how many can the average Singaporean student actually name?

An unintended consequence of this deracination has been the stunting of the LGBT rights movement in Singapore. Its opponents have been given the fodder they require in order to malign LGBT rights as a manifestation of Western degeneracy. We lack the intellectual capacity to craft Asian LGBT narratives, and are incapable of using these narratives as a shield against homophobia, which has left a moral vacuum that some unpleasant elements have since filled.

It is high time LGBT rights organisations took that fodder from them by de-Americanising Singaporean discourse.

Instead of looking to the other side of the planet for moral and ideological support, study our own histories, and learn from LGBT organisations in Nepal, India, Taiwan, and Thailand —four countries that have passed pro-LGBT legislation. Emulate them, and argue in favour of LGBT rights from civilisational, religious, and historical standpoints  (nativist standpoints), instead of bandying about Americanisms that contribute nothing of depth to a deeply complex issue.

Thailand and Nepal have managed to surge far ahead without even speaking English or depending on white saviours for salvation. That is an encouraging phenomenon. Their organic pathways towards LGBT enfranchisement could well be replicated in Singapore in due time. The solutions are out there; all we have to do is reach out and grab them.

A Thai couple kisses. / Image credit: TIME
3. Think strategically, not emotionally

When Thio Li-ann, a former Nominated Member of Parliament, made her infamous speech in 2007, condemning LGBT Singaporeans from a Christian standpoint and categorising them as sexual deviants, the backlash was emotionally charged — and accomplished precisely nothing. A social commentator even got himself into a legal tussle over a derogatory note he had addressed to the NMP in anger.

If any Hindu or Buddhist at the time had cared enough to strategise and formulate a civilised response to the NMP, virtually everything she said could have been rebutted , and it would have worked. A Hindu or Buddhist, acting individually or in tandem with an organisation, could have opposed the NMP’s speech on the grounds of it:

Being an intrusion of Judeo-Christian values into our secular Parliament, which is illegal, thus:

1. Violating the personal religious and cultural norms of almost half (over 40%) of the populace in a secular country by making moralistic judgements on their behalf. The mythological story of Sodom and Gomorrah, alluded to in the NMP’s speech, is exclusively of Judeo-Christian origin, is utterly irrelevant to anyone outside of that cultural sphere, and its connotations are non-taboo for anyone born into a Dharmic faith. It means absolutely nothing to Hindus and Buddhists, and it has absolutely no place in Singapore’s parliament. The Bible belongs in a church, and should stay there.

2. Being an attempt to enforce cultural and religious majoritarianism, which would be anathema to the very idea of Singapore.

If any Hindu or Buddhist had argued that the NMP had zero say over their personal value systems, it could have potentially turned the debate on its head. Her assertion that homosexuality was nothing more than a manifestation of the “sexual libertine ethos of the wild wild West” would have held little weight, in the face of Hindu and Buddhist resistance to an ahistorical and reductionist dismissal of their open and tolerant value systems as a ‘Western’ conception. They could have easily called her bluff.

Thio Li-ann’s clandestine support of gay conversion therapy, an Evangelical tactic of abuse that has psychologically scarred many young American children, could have also been rebuffed by a coalition of concerned Hindu and Buddhist parents opposed to her characterisation of alternate sexualities as ‘disorders’.

The rhetorical holes in her speech could also have been picked apart and reverse-engineered, so as to further dismantle her arguments in favour of retaining Section 377.

In her own words: “Religious views are part of our common morality. We separate ‘religion’ from ‘politics,’ but not ‘religion’ from ‘public policy’. That would be undemocratic. All citizens may propose views in public debate, whether influenced by religious or secular convictions or both.”

Hindus and Buddhists could have argued that strict adherence to her statement would actually leave her with no choice but to accommodate non-Christian viewpoints. Anything less than that would be exclusionary and un-Singaporean.

At the end of the day, advocacy groups like Pink Dot are admirable. But supporting ‘love’, ‘equality’, and ‘freedom—though commendable—can only take you so far. Take the emotion out of the equation, and meet your opponents on a level playing field. Use rhetoric to counter rhetoric.

“To slouch back to Sodom is to return to the Bad Old Days in ancient Greece…” — Thio Li-ann, NMP, 2007

4. Stand Your Ground

Above all, we need to have a candid discussion about the rise of religious fundamentalism in our country. We need to question why hate preachers like Lou Engle have managed to slip through the net. It defies belief, given that our country has a history of preemptively banning or deporting hate preachers from other countries. 

We need the Evangelical fringe to understand that the Pandora’s Box they have opened can and will go deeper than just matters of sexuality alone. If they value stability and continuity in Singapore, they must respect secularism, and should stop acting like the authoritative voice on matters of morality.

Singaporeans, as a whole, need to understand that we all share a symbiotic relationship with one another. We do not exist in a vacuum. We need to carefully consider the impact that our actions will have on society-at-large, not just within our own circles.

Image credit: Pink Dot
LGBT Singaporeans Deserve Better

That a ‘secular’ and ‘modern’ Asian nation like ours voted against the UN resolution on LGBT rights, when neighbouring nations like Thailand, Japan, South Korea, Timor-Leste, Vietnam, Nepal, and even the Catholic-majority Philippines voted in favour of it, is absolutely indefensible.

While even China and India chose to abstain from voting on the resolution, Singapore explicitly voted ‘No’, in line with some of the most oppressive countries on the planet, like Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and Iran, countries notorious for torturing and summarily executing their LGBT citizens. Even Russia, a country with homophobia thoroughly entrenched in its society, had the decency to abstain from the process.

The very least Singapore can do, right now, is to enact stringent anti-discrimination legislation and repeal the archaic provision of the Penal Code that criminalises consensual sexual activity between two adults of the same gender. Same-sex marriage is a profound issue that requires collective societal consensus, but there is no need for the most basic, fundamental safeguards for LGBT citizens to be voted upon.

Singapore’s founding fathers did not flounder before mandating for multiracialism and minority rights in Singapore. Why flounder now?

“No, it’s not a lifestyle. You can read the books all you want, all the articles. There’s a genetic difference, so it’s not a matter of choice. They are born that way and that’s that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone. Whether they should be given rights of adoption is another matter because who’s going to look after the child? Those are complications that arise once you recognise that you could actually legally marry, then you say I want to adopt. Vivian Balakrishnan says it’s not decisively proven. Well, I believe it is. There’s enough evidence that some people are that way and just leave them be.”

— Lee Kuan Yew, when quizzed on whether homosexuality is genetically determined or a matter of personal choice | ‘Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going’ (2011), page 377

Anti-discrimination legislation is the absolute need of the hour, because while Singapore has fortunately managed to avoid homophobic attacks, it would be fallacious to assume that it may not ever happen in this country. In 2013, Yang Tuck Yoong, a Christian pastor, beseeched his congregants to prepare for a ‘war’ against homosexuality. 3 years later, a 36-year-old Singaporean man was arrested and charged for threatening to ‘open fire’ against LGBT Singaporeans.

If you think that is bad, just wait till you find out what happens north of our border.

In February 2017, a 26-year-old Malaysian Indian transwoman, Sameera Krishnan, was brutally murdered, raped, and mutilated in the city of Kuantan. The Malaysian media was so clueless — or perhaps callous — that they referred to the deceased victim as a man. In June 2017, an 18-year-old Malaysian Indian teenager, T. Nhaveen, was fatally bashed by his schoolmates for being effeminate, presumably gay. The rise of hate crimes against neighbouring Malaysia’s LGBT community should serve as a wake up call to Singapore.

“They (Singapore’s ministers) are modern thinking people. This is the reality of the society, we decide what is in our interest and how the people will react. Homosexuality will eventually be accepted. It’s already accepted in China. It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.”

— Lee Kuan Yew, when asked about whether the religious beliefs of Singapore’s ministers might influence their stance on certain issues | ‘Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going’ (2011), page 247

Closing Note

I am not in a position to talk about Chinese LGBT history, because I am not familiar with the deeper aspects of Chinese civilisation. I would however encourage Chinese Singaporeans to bring a Sinocentric narrative to the table, because that is another missing piece of the puzzle. There are also several indigenous Nusantaran narratives that fall outside the purview of Hindu-Buddhist civilisation. These constituent narratives need to be pieced together, and this is a task that is now up to Singaporeans to accomplish.

This is Part 3, read Part 1 here, and Part 2 here

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Siddhanth Melwani Contributor