On 14 June, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam attended a discussion with representatives from several Singapore lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) organisations to talk about anti-drug outreach efforts. Some of the organisations included Pink Dot SG, Oogachaga, The T Project, Free Community Church, CNB Drug Free SG, The Greenhouse SG, and Lifeline SG.
Sharing about the discussion on his Facebook page (19 June), Mr Shanmugam said “I told them that drug abuse is not just anyone community’s problem, or a specific problem relating to the LGBTQ+ community. MHA has reached out to different communities to come forward, and help in the fight against drugs. Likewise, MHA has reached out to the LGBTQ+ community, to help in the fight against drugs.”
During the discussion, he said participants also shared challenges they’ve faced as members of the marginalised community.
While the effort by the Minister in engaging with the LGBT community is commendable, it drew criticism from activists who pointed out that constantly linking the community to problems like drugs and HIV/AIDS does more harm than good.
In a comment on Mr Shanmugam’s post, activist Jolovan Wham asks: “First of all, how serious is the drug abuse problem among LGBT individuals? Are there any statistics?”
He pointed out that no public data is available to inform those queries. As such, he notes his skepticism of the tendency to associate drug abuse with the LGBT community, adding that a distinction also needs to be made between those who use drugs recreational versus those who are addicted to it and abuse it.
He continued, “If drug abuse is indeed a serious problem among the community, it’s important to understand that abuse is often linked to poverty, stigma and discrimination. We should work towards addressing these root causes, instead of narrowly focusing on anti-drug outreach efforts.”
The root of the problem, he proposes, is Section 377A of the Penal code which criminalises sex between men. Repealing that will be “an important first step in reducing stigma and should be seen as part of the battle against drug abuse among the community,” said Mr Wham.
Another person to point out this tendency to link LGBT people with drug abuse is Managing Editor of Shanghaiist Kenneth Tan who echoed Mr Wham’s critique.
Mr Tan said on his own Facebook page that while there is a need to address the problems faced by this community, the constant linking of the community to “nothing but problems” such as drug abuse and HIV is “an insidious, malicious form of defamation that feeds into continued discrimination against the community within the wider society”
He laments that Singapore’s leaders are unable to see how their own policies are affecting real people.
“It’s not rocket science. Remove the oppressive policies towards the LGBT community and watch problems related to drugs, mental health, suicide, etc. go down,” urged Mr Tan.
These criticisms are not new
Back in 2015, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) invited LGBT groups including Oogachaga, Pink Dot SG and Sayoni to participate in a Universal Periodic Review by the UN Human Rights Council on the state of human rights in Singapore.
Focusing on the LGBT community, Sayoni released a statement detailing the systematic discrimination that people in this community continue to face in Singapore, first and foremost being the criminalisation of sex between men in the Penal Code.
In the statement by Sayoni on behalf of the LGBT communities in Singapore, Section 377A is described as a violation of a number of rights under international human rights law including the right to privacy and the right to equality and non-discrimination.
Sayoni said that while the government insists that 377A will not be enforced, gay men continue to live under the threat of harassment and enforcement of this law which also influences the formation of public policy that discriminates against the entire LGBT community.
Another point of contention was the right to freedom of expression or lack thereof. The Media Development Authority Act, the Films Act and the Broadcasting Act empower the Media Development Authority (now IMDA) to ban, classify, and restrict the content of various media. The MDA, in turn, has strict ‘guidelines’ which includes prohibition and restrictions on material with LGBT characters and themes, said Sayoni.
There is a lack of positive representation of LGBT characters in media while any speech that advocates for their dignity and rights are routinely cut out or barred, the organisation added.
These censorship policies contribute to the loss of positive role models for the LGBT community which reinforces low self-esteem which in turns makes them more accepting of discrimination and rights abuses.
This relates to the points raised by Mr Tan and Mr Wham that there is this perception of a negative image of the LGBT community that the government perpetuates.
Sayoni also noted that LGBT organisations have regularly been denied registration by the Registrar of Societies for reasons such as them being ‘contrary to the national interest’; same-sex marriage is still illegal; that there is a lack of protection and rights for transgender people; and that the law does not specifically prevent workplace discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation.
These factors are some of the main points that lead to the perpetuation of strong stigma against the entire LGBT community which effectively pushes them to the fringes of society without proper support and legal protection.
As Jolovan Wham and Kenneth Tan said, you need to tackle the root of the problem for any effort to be effective. After all, the root causes have already been identified.