Thousands of Singaporean teens and youths flocked to Hong Lim Park last Saturday (29 Jun) to gather for the 11th anniversary of the Pink Dot movement, which supports the right of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) Singaporeans to love and live freely without discrimination.
TOC had the opportunity to interview more than a handful of such young Singaporeans, many of whom had attended Pink Dot for the first time in their lives.
A 21-year-old Singapore Management University student told TOC that she has been attending Pink Dot since 2006, but was not able to attend last year’s edition.
“I’m dressing up extra this year to make up for it,” she said, followed by a bout of laughter.
When asked if there is anything markedly different from the previous editions, she replied that there appears to be “more and more young people” this year “dressing up” in a more “vibrant” fashion as a means to express themselves more freely than they normally would.
“The millennials are generally more accepting of it [Pink Dot and LGBTQ-related movements] than the older generations,” she added.
The SMU student also raised an issue with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s recent comments regarding Section 377A and the LGBTQ community in Singapore, suggesting that his statement does not explore the full depth and breadth of issues plaguing the community.
Section 377A is applicable to only a subset of the LGBTQ community – that is, against men who engage in sexual relationships with other men.
“Actually, Pink Dot’s message – from what I’ve seen – and also the people who come here, especially straight allies – focus mostly on the ‘love is love’ message, which is, [about] allowing gay marriages and lesbian marriages … But I think there is less focus on trans people and their struggles,” said the SMU student, who is a gay cisgender woman.
“I cannot speak for them, but I have heard from my friend [trans man] that he suffers a lot … He faces a lot more discrimination than we realise, and I feel like with what PM Lee said, I feel that it [his statement] is very ignorant of that struggle.
“Maybe he was referring to the fact that gay and lesbian couples aren’t really discriminated, and even though we do not have [same-sex] marriage, we’re not like outrightly attacked unlike in other countries, which is something that he said … But it’s not just that.
“Pink Dot is not only [about] celebrating love … It is also [about] celebrating acceptance, gender [diversity]. That’s the main reason why [being able to have] Pink Dot [every year] is not enough. It’s not enough that we’re just being “tolerated”, and with the [trans]gender issue being completely ignored as well,” she stressed.
Even non-heterosexual cisgender people are placed in a “grey area” by the government in terms of treatment, she said.
“We’re not being celebrated, but we’re also not being accepted fully,” she said, adding: “So if that is the mildest form [of tolerance], the trans community faces a bigger problem that is rarely addressed or even visible [in the eyes of the Singapore society on a larger scale].”
An 18-year-old student we interviewed said that it was her first time attending Pink Dot.
“The previous years, I was actually really nervous to attend and all, but I guess this year I’m just, like, why not, right? So I decided to come with my friend.”
When asked if she attended the event on anyone’s behalf or to support anyone in particular, she replied: “No, for myself actually [laughs]”.
However, while she was excited about seizing the opportunity to attend Pink Dot for the first time, she was also apprehensive about “people recognising me, because I’m still closeted”, partly because she is a hijab-wearing Malay-Muslim and fears potential backlash from the majority of people in her community.
Similar to the 21-year-old SMU student’s views, the 18-year-old said that PM Lee’s government, in the wake of his comments, “can definitely do more” for the LGBTQ community, as discrimination is still rampant, even if it is not always manifested in overt ways.
“We are the minority in Singapore. I find it really difficult being a minority,” she said, adding: “Even when he says it’s fine, it’s not really fine … There are still people who will give us [disapproving] stares and all. We’re judged on a daily basis.”
TOC also spoke to 20 teens, the majority of whom had agreed that they would cast their votes on a candidate who has made LGBTQ rights a part of their campaign for the General Election.
However, while Singapore’s young generation appears to be comfortable making a change at the ballot box, an overwhelming 16 out of the 20 teens interviewed by TOC will draw the line at the polls in the General Election, as they have indicated that they would not take active steps to advocate for LGBT rights via other means such as joining groups and organisations for such a purpose.
TOC found, based on interviews with the teens, many of whom were first time attendees, that despite a general consensus among them that LGBTQ rights would be the swaying factor between two equal candidates, many of them would not make LGBTQ rights the most crucial factor when casting their vote.
Only a few of the respondents had placed LGBTQ rights on par with other issues affecting Singaporeans in general such as employment, housing and healthcare.
Political parties in Singapore generally reluctant to express outright, unambiguous support for LGBTQ rights through key policies and election manifestos
Political parties in Singapore have been reluctant to express public support for LGBTQ rights, choosing to either opt for a “middle ground” or compromise with a largely conservative Singapore society, or to avoid touching the issue altogether.
Seven members of the LGBTQ community in Singapore sent a joint letter to six political parties in Sep 2010, the year before the 2011 General Election seeking clarification on the stance of six political parties on the issue, and to learn whether any of them had put in place in their election manifestos policies to safeguard LGBTQ Singaporeans’ rights.
The National Solidarity Party (NSP) responded that while it advocates equal opportunities for all Singaporeans, including those with sexual orientations that are not heterosexual, it maintained the stance that “individuals’ interests and rights should not supercede the core values that the society holds.
“Singapore’s social core values, at this moment, only recognizes family unit with heterosexual relationship. In principle, NSP has to respect such core values held as a society,” said Goh Meng Seng, who was the party’s secretary-general then.
“NSP is made up of a wide spectrum of individuals with different inclinations, from extreme liberal to ultra conservative. However, the mean score index is skewed towards the conservative position.
“We believe that this composition of NSP is more or less representative of the Singapore society at large,” said Goh in the statement.
“However, we do not discount the fact that social mindset may change over time. It will depend very much on the social acceptance of Singaporeans on promotion of alternative lifestyle over the media.
“We do not think Singapore society is ready to legitimize same-sex marriage. Most of the issues raised could be dealt with by other legitimate means like writing a Will or empowering LGBT partners by means of Attorney of Power,” he added.
Consequently, although the party said it “will be fighting for a broader base of equality and rights for Singaporeans in various segments of legislation (eg. equal opportunity in labour law etc), the isolate issue of LGBT rights will not be NSP’s main political campaigning focus for the foreseeable future,” the party’s statement read.
However, it will not bar its members, should they be elected to Parliament, the freedom to vote on Section 377A according to their conscience.
The Workers’ Party (WP), the only opposition party to have representatives in Parliament as of now, has declined to state its position on LGBTQ rights since it clarified its stance during a Penal Code review debate in 2007.
Chairperson Sylvia Lim was quoted as telling one of the surveyors via a phone call in Oct 2010 that the party has “no position” on the matter.
More recently, WP’s secretary-general Pritam Singh told Parliament in Apr this year that the party will not push to repeal Section 377A as a consensus cannot be reached within its leadership committee regarding the issue.
“Even within the party at large, views differ on the matter, a microcosm of Singapore society,” he said.
Consequently, an “uneasy compromise” on the controversial legislation – where the law will be retained but not enforced – had to be made by PM Lee and his government.
Touching on whether WP’s stance will affect its voter base, Singh said: “Electoral support for the WP based on Section 377A does not enter into our decisions to field specific candidates… What matters is their integrity, credibility, ability and the depth of their concern for Singapore and Singaporeans.”
The Singapore Democratic Party, while initially supporting the repeal of 377A in 2010, not only out of the spirit of not only “tolerance but also acceptance of our fellow citizens regardless of their race, religion, sexual orientation, or political persuasion”, appeared to have retracted its pro-LGBTQ stance in 2013.
SDP’s secretary-general Chee Soon Juan, in a statement, said that while the plight of the LGBTQ community must be dealt by the larger part of society with “compassion”, the community “must understand the sensitivities of those – including those who belong to religious faiths – who cannot yet accept an alternative to traditional sexual orientation”.
“Not everyone who cannot accept the homosexual lifestyle is homophobic. These are matters of the heart and of faith especially for our Christian and Muslim friends – matters which run deep into one’s being and cannot be argued away,” the statement read.
“The gay community must also realise that the law is only one aspect of the controversy. Even if Section 377a of the Penal Code is repealed, there is still the outstanding – and I suspect the predominant – issue of acceptance of homosexuality by society at large,” according to Chee.
“I had stated in 2011 during the general elections that the SDP would not pursue a gay agenda. I say again: Neither the Party nor any of our members, including Vincent, will embark on a gay agenda,” Chee said, in reference to SDP’s then-treasurer Vincent Wijeysingha, who resigned from the party two months after coming out publicly as gay.
“The only agenda that we have and will be pursuing is the urgent need to reduce the inflow of foreigners into our country, introduce a universal healthcare system, and make housing prices affordable,” Chee stressed in his statement.
Singapore’s political parties’ reluctance to incorporate the issue of LGBTQ rights into their key policies and their election manifestos may be a source of disappointment for LGBTQ Singaporeans and their allies.
However, it can also be theorised that the reluctance might not only stem from general sentiments from a conservative majority in Singapore – particularly older segments – but also even by the views expressed by young LGBTQ Singaporeans who would similarly place bread and butter issues above all others, even above LGBTQ rights.