“I think we pragmatically adjust …”
– Lee Kuan Yew on gay rights in Singapore, CNN, 1998
Whenever I travel abroad and converse with the locals I come across, revealing my country of origin often elicits expressions that range from admiration to even outright awe.
We have generated quite the name for ourselves in the international circuit. Many Nigerians and Kenyans, in particular, often pose the perennial ‘Singapore question’: how is it that we were all impoverished polities when the British left, yet the nations of Africa, with all of their natural resources, failed to prosper and thrive in the manner that we did? These two countries were former British colonies, just like us, and we share several things in common — down to the use of English as the lingua franca and the language of education and commerce — yet our development trajectories could not have been more different.
Any analysis that discounts the convoluted melange of geographical, cultural, and colonial circumstances that lead us to this point would be overly simplistic, but amidst it all, there is one overarching political factor that stands out: A pragmatist system of governance.
Virtually all Singaporeans are cognisant of the fact that we are a ruthlessly pragmatic state. We do not do idealism in Singapore.
We adopt ideas that work, and institute them as policy, regardless of where these ideas come from, regardless of how they are perceived domestically or abroad, regardless of the contexts in which these ideas were formed. If it works, it becomes policy, it becomes law.
Singapore, simply put, is a paradox in nation-state form. Our fundamental reality as a construct—a non-nation turned unexpected nation—necessitated a steely political class, helmed by Lee Kuan Yew, that dealt not in hypotheticals, but in approaches that simply worked.
In order to keep what was then a non-nation of three disparate ethnic groups from collapsing into anarchy, with internecine spats and sectarian squabbles, the PAP, under Lee Kuan Yew, decided that an autocratic and authoritarian form of government would be the best option for a fledgling nation.
When Chinese chauvinists protested against the use of the English language as a lingua franca that would unify the disparate ethnic groups, Lee Kuan Yew chose to steamroll over them, and dismantled Nantah, the only Chinese-medium tertiary institution in Singapore.
When it came to the issue of abortion, Christian sentiments on the matter mattered not. Abortion was legalised in order to prevent single, pregnant mothers from becoming a financial burden on the state.
When it came to Islamist terrorism after 9/11, suspects were thrown into ISA dungeons underneath Sentosa — without trial. The human rights of would-be terrorists mattered not. All that mattered was the safety of the common citizen.
When it came to sexuality education in schools, the Ministry of Education gave the inclusion of preventative measures and contraceptives the greenlight, despite the fact that the vocal, pro-abstinence Christian segment opposed the curriculum.
Time and time again, the government has proven that our laws are unapologetically pragmatic, influenced not by matters of race, religion, culture, or other tangible or intangible biases, but by science, rationality, and practicality.
And for the most part, it has been an acceptable form of governance. Singapore is safe, developed, prosperous, and well-educated. We have our problems, just like any other country in the world, but from a comparative standpoint, our problems are not as wretched as those faced by our neighbouring countries.
This minority, although not representative of the sensible majority of our Christian compatriots, has been involved in several high-profile incidents, all of the negative sort. In addition to disrespecting Singaporeans of other religious backgrounds, this minority has pervasively tried to police non-Christian Singaporeans across all spheres of life — be it their participation in quintessentially secular activities, like the arts, to their own personal or interpersonal choices, or to even inalienable aspects of their very being, like their sexuality or gender identity, with particularly vociferous opposition to the latter.
In an ideal situation, the government would give LGBT Singaporeans their rights based on the now-established scientific premise that diverse sexual orientations and gender identities are natural. The most Singaporean thing to do would be to rescind the archaic laws criminalising homosexuality, and to give LGBT Singaporeans the civil protections and privileges afforded to non-LGBT citizens.
In the Singapore we all remember, religious and historical viewpoints, be they against, or in favour, would not factor into the decision-making process. Every decision made would be in strict accordance with what the science says. Mythological books, written in an archaic age, would never get to dictate public policy.
It should never have come to this. The pragmatic process should have prevailed. Medical science and common sense should have prevailed. Yet, here we are.
The inevitable outcome of the ongoing Christianisation of our moral discourse will be disenfranchisement across the board—and not just amongst members of the LGBT community. Patriotism and a sense of stakeholdership are intertwined. Denying Hindus and Buddhists the right to stake out their own turf in our moral pie will have far-reaching consequences for the state of pluralistic coexistence in Singaporean society.
The vast majority of Singaporeans do not follow the Christian interpretation of morality. Homophobic and transphobic sentiment have historically been exclusive to the Abrahamic faiths and to their associate cultures. It is intrinsic to the Western Judeo-Christian and Arabo-Islamic civilisations; outside of these civilisational spheres, they are alien biases.
Dharmic religions, such as Hinduism and Buddhism, hold views on LGBT people that are diametrically opposed to the Abrahamic standpoint.
These are reductionist, overly idealistic Americanisms that belong to the realm of Western socio-political thought. These socio-political theories are non-exportable to matters of morality in the Southeast Asian civilisational context, and they have eroded the sense of pragmatism that formerly defined our discourse. These catchphrases serve no purpose other than to derail legitimate conversations about our LGBT citizenry.
Instead of parroting these simplistic viewpoints, our discourse should shift towards accounting for ancient and contemporary attitudes towards LGBT people in our own civilisations, because drawing from our historical moral frameworks is now the only plausible way to effect change for Singapore’s LGBT citizens. In the Singaporean context, we need to study Confucian, Taoist, Hindu, Buddhist, and pre-Islamic Malay viewpoints towards a varied range of sexual orientations and gender identities.
This series of articles focuses on Hindu, and by extension, Buddhist viewpoints towards LGBT people. The viewpoints of Dharmic religions have long been neglected in the fight for LGBT rights in Singapore.
Hindu and Buddhist Singaporeans need to leverage their collective demographic strength, and bring their own moral narrative to the table. We need fresh narratives to create a bulwark against the increasingly hegemonic Evangelical moral narrative, which has occupied so much space in our national psyche, that there is little room for alternative views.
“Churchmen, lay preachers, priests, monks, Muslim theologians, all those who claim divine sanctions of holy insights, take off your clerical robes before you take on anything economic or political. Take it off. Come out as a citizen or join a political party and it is your right to belabour the Government. But if you use a church or a religion and your pulpit for these purposes, there will be serious repercussions.”
— Lee Kuan Yew, National Day Rally, 1987
In 2017, Taiwan made the monumental move to become the first country in Asia to unequivocally legalise same-sex marriage. Vehemently opposed to it, Taiwanese Christian fundamentalists wasted no time in mobilising against the high court’s ruling. The most curious thing about these protests was the fact that white men were seen mingling with the protesters.
As alarming as it sounds, this kind of neo-imperialist meddling in the politics of foreign countries, under the guise of Christianity, is nothing new. The British first perfected it in colonial India.
For the most tragic example of what happens when imported Evangelical Christianity gets wedded to populist politics, look to Uganda in East Africa.
Christian missionaries from the United States have converted Ugandans en-masse to Christianity, and have spread so much hatred and misinformation against LGBT people that gay Ugandans have been lynched to death or incarcerated by their own compatriots. White men have violated Ugandan sovereignty by deliberately inciting violence against gay Ugandans, thus setting a dangerous precedent for the wholesale global export of their ideology of hate.
If you think we are immune to these neocolonialist forces by virtue of our supposedly multi-racial and multi-religious society, you have not being paying attention.
Singapore has long been used as a launchpad to the rest of Asia by predatory Evangelical fundamentalists from the United States. One such fundamentalist is Lou Engle, an American preacher who made an appearance in Singapore in March 2018.
Engle, incidentally, once showed up in the Ugandan capital to co-sponsor a government bill that sought to execute Uganda’s gay citizens for the ‘crime’ of being gay. It is beyond appalling that one of the instigators of the homophobic violence in Uganda made an appearance in our country — invited by none other than our fellow Singaporeans.
In Singapore, it is not uncommon to come across ahistorical Christian blogs that proclaim this nation ripe for conversion:
“I long for the day where this lion city rises with a roar and establishes an unparalleled network of spiritual ‘trade routes’ in advancing the gospel, within our borders and beyond. The prophetic destiny of our nation awaits to be unleashed, so let us commit to contend for our nation to fulfil this destiny. We can all press into prayer, desiring for our country to return to claiming her spiritual heritage. As this little red dot has yet to reach the pinnacle of the prophetic fulfilment as the ‘Antioch of Asia’, I believe we all need to ‘pray [for] the Lord of the harvest to send out labourers into His harvest… in hopes that we shall witness Singapore return to her spiritual DNA’.”
Blogs like the one above are unfortunately relatively pedestrian, and are symptomatic of a larger and more malignant trend.
In what is perhaps the most extreme case of local homophobia I have ever documented, Dominic Foo, a Singaporean Christian chauvinist who runs another blog under the pseudonym Rubati, once horrifically claimed that the Orlando Massacre of 2016 was an act of ‘God’s wrath’.
A closer look at Foo’s blog, a repository for Christian moral posturing against just about everything under the sun, unearthed other gems, such as these posts suggesting that we surrender our sovereignty to our former coloniser:
– A Couple of Wild Concrete Proposals to re-join the British Empire;
– The Complete Singaporean Guide to the work of our British Colonial Masters;
– Why Singapore Ought to Consider Becoming a British Protectorate;
– The Superiority of Western Civilisation and Why I became a Christian;
– Why We Should Treat 6th February as our National Day (6th February being the day Stamford Raffles established an East India Company trading post on the island of Singapura).
It is indeed true that anti-LGBT sentiment is a key tenet of all three Abrahamic religions, but it is important to make a distinction in the Singaporean context: Regardless of the personal views of Singapore’s Malay Muslims, it would be folly to assume that Quranic homophobia and Judeo-Christian homophobia are on an equal footing in this country.
Public condemnations against homosexuality have rarely, if ever, come from our local Asatizahs or Imams; the most vociferous opponents are Evangelical Christian pastors and their growing congregations, and 2014 was a watershed year for them. 2014 was when an enormous hue and cry was raised about ‘And Tango Makes Three’—a harmless book about a gay penguin couple—but that year also saw a very dangerous red line being crossed.
In 2014, the Health Promotion Board (HPB) decided to issue a guide for LGBT youth. In an incredible precedent that reverberated throughout society, non-heterosexual and non-cisgender identities were normalised and given implicit support by a government agency. This move made perfect sense, being fully in line with our pragmatist, pro-science form of governance. In a pragmatist state, the mental and physical wellbeing of young LGBT Singaporeans would be prioritised, and the HPB’s move was a step in the right direction.
After all, LGBT youth are often mentally distressed, and are at higher risk of suicide than their heterosexual peers. Any move that puts their welfare front and centre is an absolute must.
As expected, the HPB’s move was viciously opposed by the Evangelicals, adamant about maintaining the status quo. Lawrence Khong, the pastor of the Faith Community Baptist Church and one of our most prolific anti-LGBT fundamentalists, railed against the HPB’s move to provide mental and emotional support to LGBT Singaporeans.
In a frenzied open letter addressed to Mr Gan Kim Yong, the Minister for Health, Lawrence Khong claimed that the HPB was spreading propaganda to ‘mainstream’ homosexuality. In his callous disregard, not only for the mental health of our troubled youth, but also for Singapore’s pluralistic society, he went as far as to say that anti-LGBT sentiment was ‘the prevailing view of Singapore’s majority’.
No, Mr Khong. You are wrong.
Mr Khong would be well-advised to step out of his fervent stupor to consider that the majority, that is, the 80% of Singaporeans who do not follow the religion of Christianity, never asked for him to be their moral representative.
Given the pernicious nature of Evangelical fundamentalism in this country, the onus is ultimately on Singaporeans to be cognisant of the futility of empty ideological posturing—which will do little to dent the proponents of homophobia. Waving pink flags and banners at Hong Lim Park and making speeches laden with trendy catch-phrases lifted from Western discourse is the equivalent of bringing a figurative penknife to a gunfight.
Singaporean LGBT activists need to reform their activism from the ground-up by bolstering it with strategic heft, and this can only be done by employing an arsenal of state precedents against their opponents. These precedents, our pragmatism and pluralism, can go a long way in ensuring a triumph—if employed right.