For all of Singapore’s first world accolades, we are sorely lacking in the department of human rights, and in particular – LGBT rights. With the archaic S377a still in the legal books, Singapore holds the unenviable title of being the only developed country in the world that still has laws criminalizing homosexual relations. Forget same sex marriage, Singapore’s great cultural debate is over the basic constitutional rights of LGBT minorities. In many instances, it was the Government that has proven to be the biggest obstruction to progress.
Pop culture has been subjected to the moral policing of the MDA – The secular equivalent of the Sharia Police in countries like Saudi Arabia. Movies or video or audio content that portray LGBT individuals in a positive light are banned by the MDA. In 2007, the popular video game Mass Effect was banned for featuring a lesbian scene. In 2013, The National Library destroyed 2 children’s books for featuring stories of same sex parents in the animal kingdom. That same year, an Archie comic featuring a same sex wedding was also removed from bookstore shelves. In 2015, Taiwanese pop singer Jolin Tsai’s music video “We’re All Different, Yet The Same” was banned from being aired on TV or radio stations for featuring a same sex wedding. In 2016, Mediacorp deliberately cut a portion of Ellen’s interview with former US President Barack Obama. In the portion that was cut, President Obama praised the openly gay talk-show host Ellen DeGeneres for her role in advocating gay rights.
In the aftermath of Pink Dot 2016, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a blanket statement that “foreign sponsors” will be banned from supporting events like Pink Dot. This announcement came as a shock and disappointment to the LGBT community and its allies. Many saw the move as a knee jerk reaction to the passionate response by religious conservatives.
Given all that has happened the past few years, it came as little surprise that PM Lee openly declared that he would not repeal 377a despite its redundancies in the 21st century. In a BBC interview with Stephen Sackur, PM Lee called 377a an “uneasy compromise” and insisted that the law had to stay until “social attitudes change”. A Freudian slip or a blunt admission that the Government is still beholden to the influence of religious conservatives? For a leader who passionately spoke out against populism in the wake of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, PM Lee’s Government is guilty of the worst form of regressive populism. By pandering to the views of Singapore’s religious conservatives, PM Lee’s Government is effectively using the rights of Singapore’s LGBT minority as a bargaining chip to secure votes from their conservative base.
PM Lee’s disappointing response was a far cry from the late Mr Lee Kuan Yew who boldly declared back in 2007:
“If in fact it is true, and I have asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual – because that’s the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes – you can’t help it. So why should we criminalize it?”
It’s no secret that the evangelical right has considerable influence in every level of government – from the ranks of the civil service all the way to the highest echelons of power. The late Mr Lee Kuan Yew even warned Singaporeans of the implications of a desecularized Government intertwined with religious forces.
The Government can continue to pay lip service by claiming we’re a “free and open society”. But for as long as they perpetuate a climate of stigma against the LGBT minority and a compromising attitude towards the religious conservatives, no logical person would take their words seriously.