On Wednesday night, along with thousands of other Singaporeans, I lined up to pay my respects to Lee Kuan Yew. I was a little surprised at myself for doing this – after all, I’ve been involved in countless activist events over the years, few of which the man would have approved of: Against censorship, against the Internal Security Act, against the death penalty and the general whitewashing of national history.
Still, I did have something quite specific to be grateful for. Pictured above is what I wrote as a condolence message for the wall outside Parliament House: “Thank you for speaking up for the gay and lesbian community.”
I’m referring to the fact that Lee Kuan Yew consistently stated in interviews that he believes homosexuality is natural and should not be persecuted. His statements on this issue have been documented and praised on SG Wiki, as well as the Chiongs’ blog (a same-sex parenting site run by two of my friends) and this very news site.
He was the first Singaporean politician to say anything supportive about gay people, beginning with a CNN interview in 1998 where he replied to a gay caller’s concerns about his future in the country with an assurance that “we don’t harass people”.
In 2007, he reiterated these views at a PAP Youth Wing event: “[Y]ou are genetically born a homosexual… So why should we criminalise it?” The same year, he denied that there was any censorship of art depicting homosexuality in Singapore. In his infamous 2011 book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, he went so far as to say he’d be OK with a lesbian daughter or MP.
These statements mattered a hell of a lot to us LGBT activists. We’ve been trying for years to improve Singapore’s laws and social attitudes, against a tide of religious opposition and rhetoric about “Asian values”.
But whenever things seemed hopeless, we were able to hearken back to those words and remember that the most conservative, curmudgeonly, establishment figure in the Singapore government was OK with our existence. And that meant that maybe, just maybe things might just turn out all right.
Given these facts, you might be wondering why a number of Singapore’s queer intellectuals – Alfian Sa’at, myself, and others – have mostly been sharing articles critical of Lee Kuan Yew on social media.
The biggest reason, of course, is that we’re not single-issue activists. We also care about the fact that he sued opposition politicians into bankruptcy, made offensive statements about Malays, Muslims and women, and caused the destruction of much of our pre-independence architecture and culture. These things matter, and we don’t want people to forget this, even in the midst of mourning.
But then there’s the fact that, deep down, we don’t feel like we were been handed a fair deal by the government while Lee was alive. While I wouldn’t say he was homophobic, he certainly had a hand in creating the culture of homophobia that exists in Singapore today.
From the very beginnings of his rule as Prime Minister in 1959, he was determined to police the morals of his citizens. That very year, he launched his attack on “yellow culture”, placing a ban on jukeboxes and pinball machines. By the 1980s, he was espousing the idea of “Asian values”, claiming that male-dominated nuclear families were the basic unit of our society.
All this emphasis on a singular vision of morality trickled down to create a policy of harassment against LGBT people: the efforts to chase transgender women out of Bugis Street (culminating in its demolition in 1984), the entrapment operations on gay men, the censorship of queer-themed plays and movies, the dismissals of gay teaching staff, the fact that in the late 1990s, the police actually spied on People Like Us, Singapore’s first LGBT organisation. (If you don’t believe that last point, check out Lynette Chua, Mobilizing Gay Singapore, p 55-56.)
Mind you, there’s no evidence that Lee Kuan Yew directly ordered any of these actions. There’s no evidence he held any animosity towards us, ever. But because he was so central to the creation of modern Singapore, it’s hard not to feel that most of our current problems are traceable back to him.
And there’s a further charge I want to lay at his feet. In spite of all the gay-affirming things he said, he never did anything for us. He had the power to get rid of Section 377A (our colonial anti-gay sex law) and to retire our anti-gay censorship policies, but he didn’t.
You can’t claim he was ignorant. He knew there were dissatisfied queer Singaporeans – they were the ones who prompted his questions during his CNN interview and his PAP Youth Rally. We know he read the papers, so he would have known about current affairs, and in Hard Truths, he reveals that he had researched homosexuality and found it natural. But when we urged him to do something about the censorship of gay art, his response was to claim it didn’t exist.
This is why I am supremely skeptical of Trevvy.com’s tribute to him, which claims, that the “repeal of Section 377A would probably had been a success had he been the Prime Minister then.” If he had wanted to, Lee could have chucked out this law at any of a number of moments in the past, simply by slipping a note into his now-fabled red briefcase.
But he didn’t. Perhaps he didn’t think we were very important. Perhaps he never felt we were worth the trouble.
This is why, like so many other Singaporeans – members of racial minorities, unmarried women, and many others – we LGBT citizens will always feel like we were among his least favourite children.
Yet at the end of the day, I’m grateful for Lee Kuan Yew’s comments. I know this for a fact, because in the wake of his death, I find I’m worried about the future of Singapore’s LGBT rights.
When gay rights came up for debate over the constitutional challenge to 377A, PM Lee Hsien Loong refused to acknowledge the psychological, institutional and concrete harm that the law perpetuates, blithely telling the world, “Why is that law on the books? Because it’s always been there and it’s best if we just leave it.” Discussing gay rights, he said, “These are not issues that we can settle one way or the other, and it’s really best for us to leave them be, and just agree to disagree.”
Why wouldn’t he stand up for us LGBTs? Regardless of his personal beliefs, he faces a much higher cost to defending our rights. He needs to win the support, not just of his citizens, but also of Parliament, of which a disproportionate 32% are Christian. Nor does he have the authority of a founding father to back up his position.
Beyond the PAP, we have the Workers’ Party, which refused to condemn the retention of 377A during the Penal Code revisions of 377A. It also boasts the only MP to take part in the anti-LGBT Wear White campaign: Muhamad Faisal Abdul Manap.
The National Solidarity Party, the Reform Party and the Singapore Democratic Party have made statements that they believe in equal rights for all, regardless of sexual orientation. But what hopes have they of forming a government? NSP even felt compelled to add, “we do not think Singapore is ready for equal promotion of alternative lifestyle.”
With Lee Kuan Yew gone, there is no mainstream politician we can point to who is willing to even defend our natural right to exist. And with the balance of power shifting, who knows what may happen in the coming elections? Might a specific politician, or even a whole party, use anti-LGBT rhetoric as a means to rally votes? Might we become the new scapegoats for the countries’ woes?
But I have to remind myself: These are things that could have happened even when the old man was alive. Life was pretty bad for us in the days of his administration; growing acceptance amongst the young would suggest it’s going to get better.
For years now, Lee Kuan Yew has been more of a symbol than a man, more of a philosopher than a politician. His death came slowly, with forewarnings. Even without his grudging support – as the song goes – we will survive.
Things are going to change. But then things have always been changing, even before he came along.
He had a few kind words for us. Now comes the time for action.