How Discrimination Kills Gay Men in Singapore

Author: John Lee
Published:

The gay man, or more precisely, someone perceived as a cisgender male person who is attracted to one or more cisgender male person/people, is the target of systemic cradle-to-grave discrimination in modern Singapore. This essay discusses five aspects of such discrimination – law, military, housing, education, and health – and explain how gays attempt to retain agency, dignity, and autonomy in the face of these respective constraints.

Law

…Because of the wide-ranging interpretations and implications of [377A], it is not unreasonable to say that every single aspect of a gay person’s life is thereafter affected through and through.

Over the past decade, many activists and academics repeated this clause ad infinitum: Section 377A of the Penal Code stipulates that “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 two years.” Because of the wide-ranging interpretations and implications of this law, which was drafted and introduced to the Straits Settlements in 1938 and subsequently into the Penal Code of Singapore, it is not unreasonable to say that every single aspect of a gay person’s life is thereafter affected through and through.

Activists have tried thrice in the past decade to repeal the law without success. The first time was in October 2007 when Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong put forth a petition to amend the law through parliamentary action. A counter-petition and rebuttals from other members of parliament ensued. Consequently, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared for the status quo to remain on the grounds of a heteronormative society and the assurance not to actively enforce the law.[1]

The parliamentary promise failed to effect changes in the law enforcers’ operations. At least twice in 2010, culprits accused under Section 377A given amended charges. This time, one of the criminals, Tan Eng Hong, decided to raise a constitutional challenge that triggered a furore in traditional and social media. These public and private debates were sustained by a subsequent challenge from a gay couple, Lim Meng Suang and Kenneth Chee Mun-Leon in November 2012.[2] While both cases were unsuccessful, they surfaced in the media and over conversations multiple aspects of being gay. They revealed the multifaceted nature of being gay: like everyone else, some gay men have sex in public, and some in private; some are monogamous and others promiscuous; some are rich and powerful, but many are poor and powerless. More than anything else, they revealed both how banal and typical the lives of gay men are.

These national events aggrandize the influence of gay people. In fact, gay men bear little hope of the law changing towards their favor. Unless they are themselves lawyers, the legal jargon and cost of proceedings are major obstacles. As for garnering social acceptance, long-term sociological surveys over the past decade continue to affirm the conservative tenor of the population. One such survey argues that conformity to norms, intrinsic religiosity, Western orientation, interpersonal contact, mediated exposure and perception of homosexuality as a choice are all factors salient in forming and changing attitudes towards gays and lesbians.[3]

Tan Eng Hong was one among the scores of men charged under the colonial and unamended law of “gross indecency” between men in the Singapore Constitution. His long drawn court battle between 2010 and 2014 towards the repeal of Section 377A although unsuccessful left a major legacy in the history of homosexuality in Singapore. He was subsequently given a fine under a different law. Tan Eng Hong

 

Military

…the Armed Forces believes that there is something wrong with gay men merely because they are gay.

While the ban on gays serving in the Singapore Armed Forces was only lifted in 2000, the Armed Forces adapted the Category of 302 from the International Classification of Diseases (9th revision) and continued to inquire into the sexual orientation of all prospective enlistees.[4] The specific clause considers the “exclusive or predominant sexual attraction for persons of the same sex with or without physical relationship” as a sexual deviance or disorder. In other words, the Armed Forces believes that there is something wrong with gay men merely because they are gay.

During the pre-enlistment health assessment, new recruits are asked about their sexual orientation. Upon the declaration of oneself as a homosexual or transgender, the personnel undergo a round of psychological inquiry and are classified under the category of “302”. The classification of the conscripts determines their vocation and reporting hours. Soldiers labelled “302” are given non-commissioned positions and are not allowed to stay overnight. Regardless of fitness condition, they are excused from two out of five physical test stations.

The military community behaves similarly to most other civil communities, such as corporate organizations and factory assembly lines, in the prevalence of how certain characteristics are considered desirable or objectionable, and those who display them are picked out to be admired and/or bullied. As social attitudes toward sexual orientation change, lines between homosexuality and homosociality are blurred within the armed forces. Here after all is where the principles of social bonding and national cohesiveness are supposed to be inculcated.[5] Discounting the self-declaration, the military is perhaps the best equalizer of all Singaporean men, regardless of sexual orientation.

As a gay person, Lawrence Wee experienced workplace discrimination and was forced to resign as a result of his company’s breach of contract. However, the High Court in 2014 rejected his court application of constructive dismissal against his former employer, Robinson and Company. The decision signals a leeway for workplace homophobia and an employer-friendly jurisdiction. Lawrence Wee

 

Housing and Space

…urban planning and housing policies aim for an idealized form of society, as envisioned by the state, and hence discriminate against gays and lesbians, who are excluded from this ideal vision.

Space, according to the official narrative, is scarce. Living spaces are planned and constructed skyward and underground. With sand from neighboring countries such as Cambodia and Indonesia, reclamation has steadily expanded Singapore’s land area. Existing areas are frequently redeveloped. National planners distribute this space among the population  according to discrete demographics – e.g. race, marital status, household income, and citizenship status. These urban planning and housing policies aim for an idealized form of society, as envisioned by the state, and hence discriminate against gays and lesbians, who are excluded from this ideal vision.

Same-sex partnerships are not recognized by the state. The permission to acquire public housing, subsidized or otherwise, is granted almost exclusively to married heterosexual couples with or without children. Before the introduction of the Singles Scheme (which permits unmarried individuals above the age of 35 to purchase a two-room flat), gays who could not afford properties available on the private market either remained in their parents’ apartments or rented rooms from others. Thus, real estate privileges accorded to married couples are denied to same-sex or unmarried cohabitants. In this vein, families with homosexual children have less access to state resources, financial or otherwise. Furthermore, gays face the frequent closing and depopulation of heterotopia, that is, differentiated spaces patronized not by the mainstream but mostly by homosexuals – “safer spaces” where gays can socialize without fear.[6] These include bars, clubs, saunas and cruising grounds. The common notion of the public display of affection and intimacy – a basic right that is taken for granted by many people – are, for gay people, relegated to other secretive spaces, such as motels and private residences.

Ditto with everyday expression of intimacy. Physical gestures, such as kissing, hugging, and the holding of hands, are perceived as awkward when performed in view of the public. The fashion and actions that gay and gay couples can do in public belongs to a limited vocabulary. In general, contemporary Singaporean society implicitly dictates a certain conservative form of dressing and acting; gays have overtime toned down the colors and tightness of their clothes and reduced the amount of bodily accessories lest being discriminated at work or in public. This personal negotiation between the political distribution of space and the communal management of the body represents a psychological and social translation from real homophobia to imagined homophobia.

Gays are resigned to little public space carved out for them so much so that they eventually adapt their behavior to suit the environment. Gays understand they have drawn the short straw with respect to their habitation and mobility; they recognize that some places accommodate them better than the others. As the city constructs more shopping malls and park grounds, gays are secretly gentrifying suburban locales beyond the public gaze. Led by their inner yearnings for safer spaces, they have, through their instincts, identified certain quiet spots conducive for making contact and hanging out. Some venture onto these places for a quick thrill, but most frequent these locations in search of like-minded individuals for friendship or relationship.

As a victim of bullying, forced conversion and death threats, Faliqh’s biggest fear is judgement. Although he is relatively open to his immediate family and friends, he still has reservations about opening up, especially at work. Being a minority, he is first judged on his behaviour instead of his capabilities. Faliqh continues to face subtle and at times outright bigotry. He hopes that, with inclusive policies, people who identify as LGBTQ will be able to live and work freely without fear of harassment or discrimination. Muhammad Faliqh Abdul Rahman

 

Education and Culture

Gay people are rendered invisible within the education curriculum… Growing up in such a heteronormative environment, the young gay person has no role model to emulate or reflect upon.

Gay people are rendered invisible within the education curriculum: gay people or topics related to them are almost completely absent from school textbooks. Except for the definition and legal provisions regarding homosexuality, other important issues such as attachments and abuses, coming out to family and friends, and sexual health are not included in the sexuality education programs. In 2009, a moral panic broke out between the Ministry of Education and various communal vendors of Sexuality Education programs. After an internal review, the “abstinence” version substituted the “comprehensive” one.[7]

Otto Fong came out publicly in a blog post while he was still a teacher at Raffles Institution, triggering front page news reports and angry letters calling for his resignation. Although the school stood by him, Fong had to take down his blog post two days later, following pressure from the Ministry of Education. Otto Fong

Growing up in such a heteronormative environment, the young gay person has no role model to emulate or reflect upon. On mainstream media, positive portrayal of gay men, lesbian and transgender characters are heavily censored. Films and plays with homosexual and transgender themes are automatically classified unsuitable for patrons aged under 21 years-old; and such television programs are aired during later slots with a “Parental Guidance” warning on the corner of the screen. The Media Development Authority upholds the ambiguous guideline where “alternative lifestyles” must not be glamorized or promoted on print, radio and screen.

The modern gay man is forced to be adroit to locate the relevant entertainment for his own pleasure on a daily basis. Social media, web chatrooms and video-sharing portals have satisfied the leisure and education of the gays (as they have been for everyone else). Gays have set up their own versions of most media and digital applications, encompassing the entire spectrum from Christian cell groups to pornographic group chats. Gays also benefit from international exchanges with foreigners in multinational companies and global conglomerates, such as Huawei and Facebook, some of which are equally active in sponsoring local activist events. The increasing geographical mobility of local and foreign gays inevitably generates vast opportunities for cross-cultural interactions.

Bangkok is one such destination frequented by gays. The anonymity of being in a foreign land allowed gays to escape the prying gaze of an erstwhile homophobic nation-state.[8] Bars, clubs, strip-shows, go-go boys, cheap hotels: all of these provide the freedom that gay men so crave for. They can also find affordable apparel, undergarments, erotic literature, pornographic videos, and sex toys. With the introduction of budget air travel, Bangkok became and remains the liberal haven for gays to be emancipated from their everyday repressions. Equally accepting of gay people and behavior, the other city that attracts countless gays is Taipei. Chinese Singaporeans share cultural similarities with the Taiwanese and feel very much at home in the city. With heavy influence from the USA, the gay culture there is diverse and vibrant. In addition to the mainstream tourist attractions in the food and scenery, gays are drawn to the city for the local boys (who also undergo military conscription) and the many gay-friendly amenities and large-scale themed events.

 

Health

Despite paying the same level of taxes, gay men receive only minuscule amount of the state benefits in comparison to those doled out to married heterosexual couples with children. … life expectancy for homosexuals is very much shorter than that of heterosexuals.

Like everyone else, gays fall sick and grow old. Despite paying the same level of taxes, gay men receive only minuscule amount of the state benefits in comparison to those doled out to married heterosexual couples with children. In terms of integrated healthcare, gays receive far less support. Unless bestowed with inheritance, neither can gays rely on the savings (via the Central Provident Fund) from his partner nor distant relatives. Almost all of their medical expenses have to be borne by themselves, without which an early demise could be inevitable. Some international studies in developed countries have shown that the life expectancy for homosexuals is very much shorter than that of heterosexuals.[9] Judging from the lack of communal visibility of older gay men, it is most likely to be the case in Singapore as well. A lamentable point to be raised within an Asian cultural tradition is that very few of the gay man’s descendants will pay respect at his grave or tomb after his decease.

In the past, gays with potential health risks and symptoms would hesitate before visiting their General Practitioners for fear of being reported to the medical or criminal authorities. Sexually-related diseases also received little specialist intervention up until the early 2000s, when the DSC (Department of Sexually Transmitted Infections Control) Clinic was the only clinic dealing with heterosexual and later to include homosexual clients. Subsequently, Action For AIDS (a Singaporean charity) began anonymous services thrice a week for men who have sex with men and that saw an increase in testing and correspondingly HIV-positive numbers. Today, more private clinics are offering the most up-to-date testing technology and medicine for HIV and STI. Costs are also substantially subsidized by the state accordingly to the household income of the patient. That said, the social stigma attached with people living with HIV remains strong. Attitudes towards belittling and rejection, say, in the contexts of employment or friendship, are two of the most severe discriminations that continue to trouble HIV-positive gays today.

Like within the medical sector, social workers have in the past decade been adapting their profession with the counselling of gay clients. The understanding of the basic life courses of the gay person living and working in Singapore is essential to the successful management of the clients’ social and psychological issues whether they are related to his sexual orientation or otherwise. Growing up and being discriminated at every stage in one’s life can bear a heavy emotional strain on the mental well-being of a person. The multiple façades that gays have to put on to pass off as heterosexual in the military, the workplace and, most crucially, at home with the family, create complicated emotional vicissitudes, often resulting in internalized homophobic feelings. As with other cultural differences, counsellors and social workers would have to gradually address these psychosocial phenomena as a fundamental part of their practice.

 

Intersectional Futures

The greatest irony is the unconscious internalization of pragmatism for a majority of the gay men. By accepting (and even embracing) the status quo, gay men have given implicit consent to state control and discrimination from cradle to grave, thereby contributing to their own suffering and deprecation.

As society progresses and diversifies with the influx of international migrants, figures and voices previously not seen or heard become more visible and audible within enclaves of the gay communities. Rather than belonging to the more apparent demographics of a middle class, English-speaking ethnic-Chinese Singaporean, the “new gays”, who have “come out” as poor, physically challenged, or an ethnic minority, have thwarted the conventional stereotype of the liberal-minded, high-maintenance dandy. Gays with hearing impairment want to be seen attending public gay events, such as the Pink Dot protests and outdoor gay parties on Sentosa island; as do some Malay men who like men, positioning themselves at the forefront of youth, health and international community activism. Gay residents from international corporations as well as other Southeast Asian countries, such as Malaysia, Myanmar, and the Philippines, have also made their presence felt, participating in cultural and social activities and volunteering their expertise in business and legal matters.

The government has however maintained their reservations about repealing the 377A law, most probably to remain in accordance with the intrinsic beliefs of the political elites as well as the constitutions of neighboring India, Indonesia, and Malaysia.[10] The claim that, social values, vis-à-vis the issue of homosexuality, will have to be the final arbitrator of its legitimate status, remained contentious. For a majority to determine the acts and thoughts of the minority already presupposes homosexuality as a deviance, criminological or otherwise. In addition, any gay-friendly speech or identity may jeopardize the reputation and profession of the speakers and place them at significantly personal risk, raising the stake for prospective change-makers. Muslim and civil servants who have come out as gay have experienced death threats and job terminations/career stagnations respectively.

The future for gays will continue to be grim unless they can circumvent the social prescriptions of compulsory heterosexuality and homosexual norms. Many have resigned to placate the demands of the family and society by getting married and having children, while others seek out an alternative of “silent acknowledgement” – that is, keeping one’s sexual orientation and relations as ambiguous as possible giving the allowance for others to make their own conclusions – as a survival tactic against other challenges in life. Among these is the ascendency of the conservative gay – someone who does not counter the discriminations but leads a neoliberal and self-centered lifestyle. The increasing prevalence of this materialistic outlook will inevitably lead to the continued suppression of gays, whether self-imposed or otherwise. As the Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated in the 2007 Parliamentary debates: ‘the [Singaporean] attitude is a pragmatic one – we live and let live.’ However, as I have shown in this essay, such a moral stance has not been put into practice by the various government ministries. Contrary to the Prime Minister’s stated position of “live and let live”, cradle to grave discrimination in Singapore results in gay men being economically poorer and less healthy, and consequently leading shorter and more impoverished lives. Discrimination is, quite literally, killing gay men, both spiritually and physically.

The greatest irony is the unconscious internalization of pragmatism for a majority of the gay men. By accepting (and even embracing) the status quo, gay men have given implicit consent to state control and discrimination from cradle to grave, thereby contributing to their own suffering and deprecation. Any form of personal autonomy is a tall order even in the near future.

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References

[1] Lim Puay Ling, “Penal Code Section 377A”, http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/infopedia/articles/SIP_1639_2010-01-31.html.

[2] George Baylon Radics, “Section 377A in Singapore and the (De)Criminalization of Homosexuality”, Reconstruction 15(2), 2015.

[3] Detenber, B. H., Ho, S. S., Neo, R. L., Malik, S. and Cenite, M., Influence of value predispositions, interpersonal contact, and mediated exposure on public attitudes toward homosexuals in Singapore. Asian Journal of Social Psychology 16, 2013, 181–196.

[4] Sexual and Gender Identity Disorders 302. http://www.icd9data.com/2012/Volume1/290-319/300-316/302/default.htm

[5] Chris K. K. Tan, “Oi Recruit! Wake Up Your Idea!”: Homosexuality and Cultural Citizenship in the Singaporean Military’, in Jun Zubillaga-Pow and Audrey Yue (eds.) Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2012, 71-82.

[6] Jun Zubillaga-Pow, ‘Foucault v. Singapore: Biopolitics and Geopolitics in Contemporary Queer Films’, in Stephen Teo and Liew Kai Khiun (eds.), Singapore Cinema: New Perspectives. London and New York: Routledge, 2017, 129-143.

[7] Warren Mark Liew, ‘Sex (education) in the City: Singapore’s sexuality education curriculum’, Discourse: Studies in the Cultural Politics of Education, 2014, 705-717.

[8] Alex Au, ‘Speaking of Bangkok: Thailand in the History of Gay Singapore’, in Peter A. Jackson (ed.) Queer Bangkok: 21st Century Markets, Media, and Rights, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2011, 181-192.

[9] P. Cameon, K. Cameron, W. L. Playfair, ‘Does homosexual activity shorten life?’, Psychological Report 83(3), 1998, 847-66; Marten Frisch and Henrik Bronnum-Hansen, ‘Mortality Among Men and Women in Same-Sex Marriage: A National Cohort Study of 8333 Danes’, American Journal of Public Health 99(1), 2009, 133-37.

[10] Parliamentary Debates Official Reports, Parl. 11, Session 1, Vol. 83, Sitting 15, 23 October 2007, Bills. https://sprs.parl.gov.sg/search/topic.jsp?currentTopicID=00002031-WA&currentPubID=00004748-WA

John Lee

John Lee is the pseudonym of the author, who wishes to remain anonymous. He is an artist and teacher, and has been active in the LGBT community for over a decade. He is interested in human rights and other social issues.

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