Mr Lee Kuan Yew was never one to shy away from the most controversial of topics or issues. Indeed, he is just about the only politician in Singapore who could speak his mind frankly on these issues, be they issues which have to do with the different racial groups in Singapore, or language policies, or religious practices.
Or on homosexuality.
And in somewhat surprising – and some say, refreshing – views on the topic, Mr Lee was of the opinion that we should accept homosexuality. In fact, he said it was only a matter of time before we did.
Mr Lee’s remarks, expressed in different recent years, sparked widespread debate both within and without the gay community, including the religious communities as well.
Some were surprised that for someone who is seen to be a champion of conservative “Asian values”, Mr Lee would express a rather contrarian view to his colleagues in Government, calling homosexuality “a genetic variation”.
Here are some of Mr Lee’s views on the topic.
“This business of homosexuality. It raises tempers all over the world, and even in America.
“If in fact it is true, and I’ve asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual, because that is the nature of genetic random transmission of genes. You can’t help it.
“So why should we criminalise it?
“But there is such a strong inhibition in all societies – Christianity, Islam, even the Hindu, Chinese societies. And we’re now confronted with a persisiting aberration, but is it an aberration?
“It’s a genetic variation.
“So what do we do?
“I think we pragmatically adjust…”
“They’re modern-thinking people. This is a separate part of their lives, this is the reality of their society. We decide what is in our interest, how will the people react if.. if.. look, homosexuality will eventually be accepted.
“It’s already been accepted in China.
“It’s only a matter of time before it is accepted here.
“If we get a Cabinet full of Christians, we’re going to get an intolerant Cabinet.
“We’re not going to allow that.”
In his book, “Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going”, released in 2011, Mr Lee delved more deeply into what he thought of homosexuality.
Here are the transcripts from an interview he granted to journalists for the book.
Q: What is your personal view on being gay? Do you think it’s a lifestyle or is it genetic?
A: No, it’s not a lifestyle. You can read the books all you want, all the articles. There’s a genetic difference, so it’s not a matter of choice. They are born that way and that’s that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone. Whether they should be given rights of adoption is another matter because who’s going to look after the child? Those are complications that arise once you recognise that you could actually legally marry, then you say I want to adopt. Vivian Balakrishnan says it’s not decisively proven. Well, I believe it is. There’s enough evidence that some people are that way and just leave them be.
Q: This is more of a personal question, but how would you feel if one of your grandchildren were to say to you that he or she is gay?
A: That’s life. They’re born with that genetic code, that’s that. Dick Cheney didn’t like gays but his daughter was born like that. He says, “I still love her, full stop.” It’s happened to his family. So on principle he’s against it, but it’s his daughter. Do you throw the daughter out? That’s life. I mean none of my children is gay, but if they were, well that’s that.
Q: So what do you see is an obstacle to gay couples adopting children? You said, who’s going to look after the child?
A: Who is going to bring them up? Two men looking after a child? Two women looking after a child, maybe. But I’m not so sure because it’s not their own child. Unless you have artificial insemination and it’s their own child, then you have a certain maternal instinct immediately aroused by the process of pregnancy. But two men adopting a boy or a girl, what’s the point of it? These are consequential problems, we cross the bridge when we come to it. We haven’t come to that bridge yet. The people are not ready for it. In fact, some ministers are not ready for it. I take a practical view. I said this is happening and there’s nothing we can do about it. Life’s like that. People are born like that. It’s not new, it goes back to ancient times. So I think there’s something in the genetic makeup.
Q: It took time for Singaporeans to be able to accept single women MPs. Do you see Singaporeans being able to accept a gay MP? It’s already happening in a fairly widespread fashion in Europe.
A: As far as I’m concerned, if she does her work as an MP, she looks after her constituents, she makes sensible speeches, she’s making a contribution, her private life is her life, that’s that. There was a British minister, I shouldn’t name him, a Conservative. He was out of office but he was hoping to become the leader of the party and we had dinner with a few friends. He thought he had to come out upfront that when he was at university at Oxford, he did get involved in same-sex activities. But he’s married now with children, he’s quite happy. So he came out with it. He didn’t become leader of the party and that’s Britain. He thought he had come out upfront and it’d protect him from investigative reporting. It did not help him. But had he kept quiet they would have dug it out, then it’s worse for him. So there you are. You know, there are two standards. It’s one thing the people at large, it’s another thing, your minister or your prime minister being such a person. I mean Ted Heath was not married. I shouldn’t say who the ministers were who said he’s a suppressed homosexual. So the opposition party leaders were telling me because it’s very strange. Here’s a man in the prime of his life and getting on, 40, 50 still not married, and he was that way at Oxford. So they said, suppressed homosexual. That’s the opposition talk by very reputable leaders who tell me that seriously. So? And with it of course is disapprobation, that he’s unworthy to be a leader. But that was in the early 1970s.
Q: Did you come to this view on homosexuality just through scientific reasoning alone?
A: No, by my observation and historical data. I mean, in the Ottoman empire, they had a lot of it. And there was one story that D. H. Lawrence was captured in Arabia and they sodomised him. The Ottomans had their share of homosexuals and I’m sure there were also women in the harems. So? So be it.
Q: What about your acquaintances or your friends rowing up throughout life, were any of them gay as well?
A: I’m not sure about acquaintances, but not my friends. I mean, they were all married. But I’m sure there must have been. This is not something which is recent, it goes back into historic times. And you have animals sometimes acting that way. So it’s not just human beings, there’s something in the genetic code.
Q: So this is one aspect where the conservative views of society are diametrically opposed to your own practical views?
A: I’m not the prime minister, I told you that before I started. If I were the prime minister I would hesitate to push it through against the prevailing sentiment, against the prevailing values of society. You’re going against the current of the people, the underlying feeling. What’s the point of that, you know, breaking new ground and taking unnecessary risk? It will evolve over time, as so many things have, because after a while my own sort of maturing process will take place with other people. You don’t just live and then you cut off your ideas after a certain time. You keep on living and you watch people and you say, ‘Oh that’s the way life is.’
Q: But are you, personally speaking, frustrated by this conservatism?
A: No, I take a purely practical view.
Q: But are you frustrated by how this conservatism is perhaps opposed to the practical view?
A: No, that is life. I cannot change them overnight. I think society, their own experiences, their own reading, their own observations, will bring about the change despite their innate biases.
Excerpt from page 247:
Q: Within the Singapore Cabinet, when there are discussion on issues, to what extent do ministers’ religious beliefs influence the positions they take, for example, on moral issues — casinos, homosexuality and so on. Does that ever come up?
A: They’re modern thinking people. This is the reality of the society, we decide what is in our interest and how the people will react. Homosexuality will eventually be accepted. It’s already accepted in China. It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.
I don’t see the grassroots being converted to Christianity. If the grassroots are converted, and it’s total, then we become a different society.