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10 Apr 2006

just asking is a step forward

As Singapore is gearing up for a general election, several new candidates were queried on their stance on homosexuality, the ban on gay events and if the country is ready for a gay MP.

Singapore is gearing up for a general election though nobody expects the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) to be thrown out of office. As in elections past, the only suspense lies in whether the opposition parties win a seat at all and what percentage of the votes the PAP eventually gets.

Images from www.pap.org.sg. Click for bios of new candidates.
But this is not to say that nothing changes. The PAP has sensed that the electorate wants to see a more level playing field and a less obsequious media. Coupled with the long-term trend where the gay question has come to the forefront of issues, a funny thing has happened this time around.

As each new batch of candidates was introduced by the PAP, the English-language The New Paper put questions to them that were much less stage-managed than in previous elections. Some of these questions were in fact proposed by the newspaper's readers, and among them, were questions close to gay hearts.

The first three PAP candidates were asked, "Last year, the application to hold Nation.05, a National Day party for gay people, was rejected as contrary to public interests. Do you think it was a right decision?

Mr Zaqy Mohamed replied, "From a religious standpoint, I believe it was a right decision. But I do have acquaintances who are gay."

Ms Denise Phua avoided a direct answer on the party ban, but said, "I am not in favour of homosexuality but sexual orientation is an individual decision."

Dr Lim Wee Kiak waved his medical credentials. "I'm a doctor and I do not think that homosexuality is natural. If my son told me one day he is gay, I will honestly be upset. But I won't condemn it. We need to study the deeper underlying issues involved."

Basically, they all said they were anti-gay though they'll take your help and your money, thank you very much.

Keep your religion to yourself, I said.
Mr Zaqy Mohamed's mixing religion with politics (as did Ms Denise Phua in a reply to a separate question) stuck me as dangerous. It's something that Singapore's first Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew had always warned would be extremely damaging to the social fabric. I wrote a commentary within 24 hours for my own website taking them to task for doing that. It was interesting then to see that the next three PAP candidates carefully avoided mentioning religion when they were given their "gay" question by The New Paper.

They were asked, "Do you know any gays? How would you include them in your politics?"

Mr Hri Kumar gave the most considered answer: "I have gay acquaintances. It is easy to say that gay people are discriminated against, but when you take a close look at policies and facts, the discrimination is not as stark as people think. Gay people have very similar aspirations as heterosexuals. The choice of their sexuality is just one aspect of who they are."

You may or may not agree with him, but at least he sounds as if he's given thought to the matter, and not try to run away from the subject.

Ms Ellen Lee's reply was, "I have a handful of gay friends. I do not think there is a special need for me to represent them because many of them are already very articulate and can do it themselves. But if they want to help me in my election campaign, I would not have objections. Their private lives will not be an issue."

Mr Seah Kian Peng revealed that he was a man of calculation, not conviction. "I do have friends who are gay. But I will not go out of my way to lobby for them because there are consequences to cover. I will focus on the bulk of the population first in order to best allocate resources."

The latter two were basically saying, don't expect me to do anything for the gay community.
The next few candidates introduced by the PAP were spared any gay question by The New Paper, but the fifth batch was asked, "Is Singapore ready for a gay MP?

Dr Fatimah Lateef said, "It is up to the people to elect one. That way, we will know if Singaporeans are ready."

Fair enough.

Mr Liang Eng Hwa roared, "Definitely not. We still hold Asian values. I don't think representing the younger generation is just about addressing the gay issue. Personally, I don't think homosexuality is a right value."

Mr Alvin Yeo stuck the pose of a new age man: "The PAP looks for substance but is also sensitive to the feelings of the people."

Did anyone expect any other answers?
Naturally, there is variation in the candidates' views, but they range from nervous attempts to keep a distance to outright homophobia. Generally, the answers are not encouraging at all, but then few Singaporeans expected anything better of the PAP.

This doesn't mean that anyone expects anything of the other parties either, though so far, they have not unveiled as many candidates as the PAP, and the New Paper has not posed any gay-related questions to them.

But as the old Chinese saying goes, a journey of 10,000 miles begins with a single step, and this time, that step has been taken. For the first time in Singapore's elections, the gay question is seen by the media as a legitimate political question, and election candidates are expected to state their positions on the issue.

Homophobia, like racism and many other forms of discrimination, work best when it is unspoken. People just treat others badly, or even do nasty things without declaring why. No one around them even asks for their reasons. People just assume that that is just the way things are.

Just getting people, politicians in this case, to declare their views is a step forward. It allows others to see the illogic of their thinking, or the gaping holes in their knowledge. It makes their actions open to scrutiny and it reminds them that they cannot take gay voters for granted.

Not just in Singapore, but across many countries in Asia, opportunities must be grasped to just ask politicians who want our vote, "So what are you going to do for us?"

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of People Like Us. Readers who have experience with applying for Dependent's Passes for their same-sex spouse to live together in Singapore could write to him so that that gay activists in Singapore can have some facts to go on. He can be contacted at yawning@geocities.com.


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