Homophobia Part 1: The MDA censors the family

Ng Yi-Sheng

Homophobia is against Singaporean values. If I learned anything from all those years of National Day Parades and Hao Gong Ming textbooks, it’s that we’re supposed to value diversity, to respect each other’s differences.

The fact that we’ve managed to do this is what’s made me proud to be from this country: because no matter what our flaws are, we’ve got this important ideal of a workable multiculturalism that’s accommodated and continues to accommodate communities both old and new.

But it’s true, what Alfian Sa’at said. Love this country too much, and it’ll break your heart. Over the past week, two bigoted cases of state-sanctioned homophobia have left me shocked, disillusioned and angry. As they’re of pretty different natures, I’ll address them in separate articles.

The first case is the Media Development Authority’s levy of a $15,000 fine on Mediacorp. Their crime? They’d allowed Channel Five to screen an episode of a home and décor programme named Find and Design that happened to feature two men in a loving relationship, converting their game room into a nursery for their new adopted baby. There was no nudity, no kissing, nothing that could’ve been interpreted as sexual. MDA was basically flashing its third finger at the concept of the gay family.

Here’s a basic breakdown of events. Find and Design aired on Channel Five on Sunday, 13 January 2008 at 7.30am. It got a complaint in the Straits Times Online Forum pages on 17 January from someone called Bennie Cheok, who’d tuned in to see the two dads rifling through a garage sale for extra furniture. Scandalous.

In his/her letter, Cheok explained how “[she] was concerned because the show depicted a gay married couple with their young adopted son. The absence of the opposite gender in the family nucleus will, no doubt, leave young viewers bewildered.” (For your information, Mr/Ms Cheok, there’s a word to describe that experience of “bewilderment” at the unfamiliar. It’s called “learning”. Try it sometime.)

Cheok’s letter got the attention of Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Dr Thio Li-Ann, who’s been a consistent voice in parliament against the furthering of gay rights and recognition. She had raised the matter in parliament in March, claiming that the show violated MDA’s ruling that the theme of homosexuality should be “cautiously treated and not glamorised and endorsed”. To his credit, Senior Minister of State for Information, Communication and the Arts Dr Balaji Sadasivan rebutted her, saying that homosexuality was an “incidental feature” of the show, and viewers would “need to take a balanced view”.

Tough titty. On 24 April, MDA issued its press release announcing the fine, re-affirming the Programme Advisory Committee for English Programmes’ (PACE’s) view that “a gay relationship should not be presented as an acceptable family unit”. Due to the fact that it was Mediacorp’s second offence, and that the show was screened during family time on a Sunday morning (do kids actually watch cartoons before 9.00 am these days?), it’d get an especially stiff fine.

What’s a “Gay Lifestyle”?

Now, I could go ballistic over here on the grounds of censorship alone, but the truth is that positive gay representation gets censored from local TV with mind-numbing consistency. When Mediacorp edits out lesbian references in Melissa Etheridge’s Oscar speech or Ellen Degeneres’s interview with Sharon Stone, that’s not news, it’s just policy. In fact, just two weeks ago, MDA fined SCV $10,000 for showing an ad with a staged lesbian kiss on Mandarin MTV.

This time, however, the censorship’s especially hurtful. The offensive scenes MDA cited were those in which the gay couple was shown with their baby and “the presenter’s congratulations and acknowledgement of them as a family unit…normalises their gay lifestyle and unconventional family setup”.

To begin with, what is a “gay lifestyle”? What is a “conventional family setup”?

These are two men pursuing the most wholesome, humdrum, suburban lifestyle possible – having a kid and redecorating. It’s not a gay lifestyle; it’s the kind of lifestyle that the SDU’s been trying to push people into for the last twenty years. Now, just because a same-sex couple’s doing it, it’s suddenly “unconventional”?

We’ve known for ages that our censors are creeped out by same-sex eroticism. We’ve also known that they’re wary of gay rights events, because they’re scared any kind of human rights dialogue might be politically subversive.

But this act of censorship really strikes home with the fact that the censors just hate gay people, full stop. They’re not just scared because we like clubbing and have a higher incidence of HIV infection. Even if we live exactly as model straight people do, we’re obscene simply for existing. In fact, we may be more obscene when we have kids – because then we’ll influence other people into realising that gay people are human too.

The weird thing is that up to now, I’ve actually had a lot of hope for gay representation in Singapore. One by one, the Minister Mentor, the Senior Minister and the Prime Minister (i.e. the Father, the Son and the Holy Goh) have each conceded that us queers are people too, that scientific research indicates that we’re born gay and it’s impractical to try and force us to be straight.

A lot of the thrust for gay recognition seems to come from MM Lee Kuan Yew himself (whom many of us respect the hell out of, even if we don’t necessarily like him). Last year, in a Reuters interview, he admitted that the country will eventually have no option but to decriminalise gay sex. And just last month, the Straits Times reported how hotshot gay American geology professor Dr Kerry Sieh was moved enough by Lee’s words to agree to relocate here with his long-term partner.

The three most powerful politicians in Singapore and the official state newspaper seem agreed that society should ultimately accept gay people. So why are we still getting calls from the likes of Bennie Cheok and Ms Thio Li-Ann to black out any mention of stable gay couples from public TV?

Because these people – I conclude – do not believe in Singapore values. They do not want multiculturalism or diversity. They want everyone to be exactly like them.

Yes, they may be motivated by religious beliefs. And yes, I believe in freedom and diversity in religion too: a person should have the right to follow a faith that states that homosexuality is sinful. But we’re a secular state – they cannot impose these beliefs on the greater public. Otherwise, we’ll end up with a theocracy, and that won’t be good for any of our freedoms.

We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it.

Mediacorp hardly endorsed the gay family with Find and Design – heaven forbid – they’re not our allies at all. On the same day of the announcement of the ban, they actually deleted a three-minute scene on Ellen in which she spoke out against the homophobic murder of a gay child. (Way to go, Mediacorp. You could’ve been our poster company for free speech, but now it turns out you’re pro-gay murder.)

What the show revealed was that gay families exist, which they patently do: when I went to college in the USA, a number of my classmates were raised by gay parents, and they were as psychologically healthy as the rest of us, while in Singapore I know at least one gay and one lesbian couple who’re raising kids of their own.

For MDA to manically hide such facts from your average viewer is tantamount to fraud: a policy of lying. For its own reasons, the group wants Singapore audiences to be innocent and ignorant – in a word, stupid.

But people won’t stay ignorant forever. Queer people in Singapore form a community, and eventually, this community is going to become more stable, and it’ll create families and living systems the way every other community does. Given time, so many people will be out and proud that everyone – no matter whether they approve of us spiritually – will have to acknowledge us as part of the social fabric.

I believe this. You can censor a show, but it’ll be much harder to censor reality.


Because of this case, I’ve been alerted to the incredible bigotry of MDA’s Free-to-Air Television Programme Code. Below is point 5.2:

“Information, themes or subplots on lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transsexualism, transvestism, paedophilia and incest should be treated with utmost caution. Their treatment should not in any way promote, justify or glamorise such lifestyles. Explicit depictions of the above should not be broadcast.“

That’s right. Aside from the insult of being lumped together with pedophilia and incest, we’re not allowed to justify, to explain our cause – not even in a balanced debate. We can’t defend ourselves, and no-one is allowed to defend us. In other words, we’re not permitted to discuss this rationally.

About the author:

Ng Yi-Sheng is a full-time freelance writer of poetry, drama, fiction, journalism, criticism and corporate hype. He is the author of the best-selling non-fiction book “SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century”, which was the first book of coming out stories in Asia to feature the real names and photographs of ordinary gay, lesbian and bisexual people.


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