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How have OB markers surrounding the topic of homosexuality shifted over time?
Out-of-bound markers, or OB markers, will be defined in this essay as an arbitrary framework that denotes what is permissible for public discussion in the Singapore context. Rather than what is stipulated in black and white on what is acceptable or not, crossing an OB marker is measured according to the degree of offense that is taken by the state or society, which is something that cannot be determined until after such offense is expressed. OB markers are often crossed when an unpopular opinion is aired on public grounds and is viewed to disturb the integrity of the national consensus on the issue. Therefore, it can be implied that a lack of dialogue on the elephant-in-the-room-issue can suggest its sensitive and consequently divisive nature. After all, discussion is almost always expected to end with a definitive conclusion or compromise, something that the state or society at large may wish to avoid or delay.
Homosexuality has been and still is one of these issues in Singapore. This essay’s stance is that OB markers surrounding homosexuality in post-colonial Singapore was narrow to begin with, indicating similarly narrow and unsubstantial discussion on the subject, which can be gleaned in superficial media reporting or the lack of conversation at all. Later on in the late 1990s and early 2000s, OB markers were made more discernible with publicised government stance, meaning that even though the elephant in the room has been addressed, discussion does not necessarily extend to the public, and the state’s words seem to be golden. In more recent years however, several factors contribute to OB markers widening, such as the advent of the internet, a growing community of pro-LGBT groups, external influences from overseas, or even prominent local figures who have spoken up. This means that debate on homosexuality in Singapore has gained traction, and OB markers are widening to accommodate the discussion. Post-colonial Singapore society, underexposed or unexposed to the topic of homosexuality, had a limited view on the notion of being gay.
Homosexuality, viewed as a distant, unnatural sexual lifestyle, was reported on but articles did not extend to civic debate on the rights of a gay individual. The first ever considerable mention of Singapore’s LGBT community in the news was by a tabloid paper called The New Nation. Its title, “They Are Different…” with bait-like subheadings like “Who are Singapore’s homosexuals? Our investigating team reveals their lives, problems and attitudes after a 4-month inquiry” reveal a tendency of news agents to mystify the topic of homosexuality (Singapore’s first newspaper artiles on the LGBT community, n.d.). Given the implicit consensus that homosexuality was unnatural and against the nature of things, homosexuals themselves preferred to keep to themselves and there was no notable advocacy group demanding debate or recognition, which meant that there was no push for conversation to begin with. OB markers hence remained narrow along the lines of conservatism for society at large, and secrecy within the gay community.
However, after years passed, homosexuals became more aware of their lack of rights and recognition within society, and put to question such discrimination in increasingly public platforms. This prompted discussion on homosexuality that even the government had a stake in. For example, in a 1998 CNN International Interview with then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, an anonymous caller questioned about his lack of rights in the country as a homosexual and a possible future for people such as him, to which Lee replied that Singaporeans are “by and large a very conservative, orthodox society”, and speaking for the government: “leaves people to live their own lives so long as they don’t impinge on other people. I mean, we don’t harass anybody.” (Lee, K.Y, 1998).
The government’s stance is more obvious in a 2007 Parliamentary speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addressing the maintenance of section 377A in the Penal Code, which criminalises anal sex between two consenting males. He asserts that “discussion and debate are not going to bring (polar groups arguing for opposite causes) closer together. And instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and polarise our society”, suggesting that any further pressure to openly debate about homosexuality rights in the law would be counter-effective on the nation’s stability and peace. He acknowledges that the party has been “right to adapt, to accommodate homosexuals in our society, but not to allow or encourage activists to champion any gay rights (as) they do in the West.” (Lee H.L, 2007).
The parliamentary speech arguably had the effect of setting a clear standard on the approach to the topic of homosexuality: as mentioned by Lee Kuan Yew, the government does not “harass” anyone as the law was made non-enforceable, and this becomes something like a one-sided compromise asserted by the government. By setting a certain tone on what can be tolerated by legislation, Singaporean attitudes toward the issue are influenced to accept the status quo, marking OB markers quite narrowly even though there is a veneer of discussion. In reality, OB markers surrounding homosexuality do not go wider than the stance of the government then.
The state-sanctioned Singapore Media Development Authority (MDA) prohibits the “promotion or glamorisation of the homosexual lifestyle”, which see the legislative restriction of content on homosexuality to be circulating on media platforms, by extension restricting conversation as well. Consider even Pink Dot SG, a high key event that occurs every year almost symbolically at the Speaker’s Corner at Hong Lim Park since 2009. The event has amassed heavy support both locally and from foreign corporations excited to play a potential part in breaking Singapore’s stubborn stance on homosexuality. The event may promote the right to freedom of love, but this is arguably euphemistic, considering how the event is state-sanctioned after all. Granted, the event promotes conversation on same-sex love, prompting the community to confront the topic of homosexuality.
However, another way to see it would be the event is another way of compromise between the state and the gay community—the event is not so much a trigger for conversation, but a recess area where the gay community is allowed to safely carry out the symbolic celebration of their existence in society, just like how ethnic groups are granted public holidays to celebrate their respective cultures. It does not necessarily mean that society is keen to celebrate with. Most recent years see the progressive widening of OB markers as there is a general willingness to report on or talk about homosexuality in Singapore.
External influences have contributed to this, such as the US Supreme Court legalising same-sex marriage in all fifty states in 2015, and more recently, in early September this year (2018), India’s Supreme Court unaminously coming to a decision to strike down the ban on gay sex, the same section of the Penal Code that Singapore retains from colonial legacy. Pro-LGBT groups, fired by this encouraging turn of events, harnessed their growing influence and voice to demand the same for Singapore’s legislation. This came in the form of petitions, a freshly launched constitutional case against 377A by a disc jockey Mr Johnson Ong and a slew of independent opinion pieces on social media, such as from Swing Mag, an online gay magazine on Instagram. The nation then rocked with debate on the issue of the repeal, signaling that OB markers have seriously widened to accommodate such fiery debate. Certainly, certain groups, primarily religious and pro-family groups, have fought back, indicating the crossing of a certain OB marker. For example, the anti-LGBT Facebook group Singaporeans Defending Marriage and Family (SDMF) have fiercely rejected the repeal on social media platforms and does so the most viciously amongst other groups against homosexuality.
However, other organisations, such as the Catholic Church in Singapore, have taken a more nuanced stand that accommodates further discussion: Archbishop William Goh has stated that Section 377A “should not be repealed under present circumstances”, referring to the family unit as the bedrock of society (Goh, 2018). This suggests acknowledgement of present debate and does not seem to take heavy offense at the possibility of repeal, but a participation in the ongoing debate. This willingness to participate is also another strong indicator of OB markers expanding, as groups are not afraid to speak out on homosexuality. Moreover, the initiative of prominent and respectable academic figures coming out to speak formally on homosexuality has effectively reinforced the relevance of the issue at hand, situating OB markers even wider. Veteran diplomat and professor Tommy Koh posits in an opinion piece that there is a “difference between a sin and a crime”, and as a secular nation, “it is not the business of the state to enforce the dogmas of those religions.
In Singapore, there is a separation between religion and the state. Church leaders and Islamic leaders should respect that separation.” (Koh, 2018). The respect conferred on Koh has its benefits– his words are considered logical, even academic, and contribute to the debate without crossing any OB boundaries, even though the content of his opinion piece could very well offend religious groups in Singapore in a different context i.e. being muttered by a less respected person). When judging the issue of homosexuality and its sensitivity in Singapore, we may look to the slew of memes poking fun at the debacle that come to no consequence: satire is allowed by both state and society to flourish, strongly indicating that the scope of OB markers have truly dilated since conversation about it first began.
Therefore, this essay posits that OB markers have significantly widened to accommodate debate on homosexuality in Singapore society. While there are minority groups that fiercely reject even the notion of discussion, they do not carry the onus of deciding for the whole of society what is acceptable to say and what is not. Once Singaporeans have thrown off the blanket phrase of “conservatism”, or just a general shying away from what is perceived to potentially be sensitive, discussion on homosexuality is in reality nuanced, sincere and real.
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