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4 Jan 2013

Singapore: Queer women's group Sayoni meets with Law Minister

Members of queer women's group Sayoni met with Singapore's Law Minister and Foreign Affairs, K Shanmugam who when asked about the cascading effects of laws and censorship in Singapore said that the "majority’s social acceptance" is needed before there can be any changes (in the laws and policies).

The following statement was published on http://sayoni.com on Dec 29, 2011:


From left: Jean Chong, Irene, Law Minister K Shanmugam and Kelly.

It all started on the 6th of October 2012 when, out of sheer frustration about the state of institutionalised discrimination against lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) persons in Singapore, I left a note on the Facebook Page of the Minister for Law and Foreign Affairs, K Shanmugam.

I wrote of friends leaving and the National Conversation making no effort to remember that we are Singaporeans too. I highlighted our trip to the United Nations last year to present our shadow report detailing the kind of discrimination that the government so often denies. As I wrote, I got a little bolder and said that if LGBT citizens are not wanted, please tell us, so that we can all forget this struggle and move on to wherever we need to be.

Minister Shanmugam kindly replied, “There can be no suggestion that LGBT citizens are not wanted.” The bigger question is, with the diverse viewpoints in our society and often held strongly by various groups, the government is often caught in the middle trying to decide what would be acceptable to the majority.

I replied by speaking about retaining laws like 377A, which in turn informs or influences policies, creating a cascading effect felt deeply by every LGBT person in Singapore. The exchange went on a few more times and Minister Shanmugam suggested that we meet for a proper chat for him to hear us more on the issues.

On the 27th of November, Kelly, Irene and I met Minister Shanmugam. We shook hands and introduced ourselves. He is a soft-spoken man with eyes reflecting his intelligence and who listened closely to what was said to him. For privacy, selected parts of the conversation are reported here.

Minister Shanmugam started out by describing what he saw of the diversity of views in our society and how different segments of the population see the LGBT community. This is an issue of personal conduct and different people will have their own take on such conduct. It is not easy for the government to tell citizens what viewpoint to take – many people will have strongly held views based on religious and other beliefs. He went on to say that the debate won’t stop at the repeal of 377A. Debates on same-sex marriage and other issues would follow. All the culture wars which are being fought in the USA might be brought to Singapore. The government has been saying we should leave things be by letting people carry on with their lives and be tolerant. Even though 377A is kept on the books, charges have not been proactively brought on 377A.

Irene asked why a government that has made unpopular decisions when it felt the need to stays ambivalent on this subject.

The Minister replied that the government cares deeply about citizens’ viewpoints and that public opinion does matter very much. Precisely because of its focus on what people need and feel, the government has been successful. He went on to say that the state cannot govern without the consent of the people.

We described to the Minister experiences in the lifespan of an LGBT person and obstacles we faced from young to old age. The Minister paid close attention when we outlined the kinds of discrimination we face in a wide spectrum of areas, from employment, education, housing and social benefits to violence. We linked the cascading effects of laws and censorship that justifies the discriminatory policies and how they translate to simple day-to-day living circumstances.

Minister Shanmugam listened intently to what we explained and said that for there to be change, there has to be a majority’s social acceptance, which we agreed that we are working on. However, we countered that it is difficult with censorship looming over our media, banning neutral or positive portrayals of LGBT persons.

We noted that the LGBT community would prefer not to have an adversarial relationship with the government. If there are no concrete actions taken on these issues, it is very difficult for us with or without our children to justifying staying in Singapore. The practicality of life demands a solution.

When our time was up, we thanked him for hearing us out. The meeting was a good opportunity to establish mutual understanding. He offered to meet again, with a larger group of us.

Jean Chong is a co-founder of Sayoni, a non-profit organisation based in Singapore for lesbian, bisexual and transsexual Asian women.

Singapore

Reader's Comments

1. 2013-01-04 20:45  
Excellent work! :) Keeping fingers crossed
2. 2013-01-04 21:00  
Jean, I am rather disappointed with what transpired between your group and the minister and discussion 377a. They were still using 377a the year before and this is still the law. This affects the Singapore gay men much more that you. It amazes me that you receive his insincerity with open arms.

Some people in Singapore cannot accept casino but its a done deal. People cannot accept the huge influx of foreigners but its also a done deal.

I am a gay man of considerable age and the things that we been through cannot be written off by you. Please don't dance with the wolves and say you represent me.



Comment edited on 2013-01-04 21:04:26
3. 2013-01-05 09:20  
I choose not to mince words: "We won't change the laws until people's attitudes change" is a f*cking cop-out. In the US, racist attitudes toward black Americans didn't change until the law forced white parents to deal with the fact of their white children going to school with black kids. It's tempting to say Minister Shanmugam needs a history lesson, but I think he knows damn well exactly what he's saying.
4. 2013-01-05 17:27  
Same old nonsense from your government, which is, on e again and as always, hiding behind the silly excuse: "We have to do what the majority of the population want".

This blatantly ignores the simple fact that one of the key roles of any modern government is to Promote and drive through Social Campaigns - even campaigns that are at odds with what a significant part of the population disagrees with. This includes its 'dedication to fostering equality, respect and tolerance for all Singaporean citizens', which I'd bet that is often claimed, BUT which, again, it avoids here.

Its also amusing to note that excuse of 'doing what the people want' - is this why Conscription is still on the go in Singapore? Is this why Sinapore remains internationally criticised her Censorship, and for Governmental silencing of dissent? While it's true that Singapore remains internationally respected as a place to do business, and to have financial ties with, it's also true that she remains the subject of a lot of negative attention over the (not That many) Rights of the People there.

In this respect, gay Singaporeans are just part of the wider Singaporean population in Not having the same rights, freedoms and equalities that, really, they should have. Sexual equality is just one such failing of the Singapore State - but then, given how quickly and how willing her government is to jail, silence and punish voices of dissent, let alone, say, say, caustically critical journalists, it's no surprise at all to see what a Lovely chat was had with The Man in this article - and how he Won't be trying to face promoting equality any time soon.

Singapore's internationally wary reputation continues...
5. 2013-01-05 23:13  
Sham-ugam just used you ladies for his photo opp - to show to the UN & the rest of the civilized world that its not the govt that's caught in a time warp, but the majority of its electorates. Where leadership is required, they abdicate that responsibility and blame it on the electorate. When it comes to amassing GDP, there is no need to consult its electorate & they bulldoze their way with unpopular policies, telling us 'We know best'. With their Stop At 2 policy, did they waver & defer to the moral compass of their electorate? The simple truth is that the PAP does not think its worth their while to stick their necks out for SG LGBT.

The National Conversation is a sham, and so is this so called engagement with LGBT is no different.

The PAP will not & is unable to change its stripes.
6. 2013-01-06 21:28  
I agree his comments is a lousy excuse -- as it is, Singapore is already way behind our neighbours and even if the government were to repeal 377A today, they aren't being in any way radical.

That said, I can only hope that this highly publicised meeting (the Singapore Straits Times reported on the meeting a day after Fridae published this report: http://sphotos-a.ak.fbcdn.net/hphotos-ak-ash4/400138_10151402710813304_704479953_n.jpg) will set a precedence for other ministers to meet with LGBT groups.
7. 2013-01-07 09:53  
It's heartening that a cabinet member had met up representatives of the lesbian community. Even though nothing concrete materialised from this maiden conversation, the government's gesture is welcome. It should encourage the LGBT community to view our efforts more positively and work harder.
8. 2013-01-07 21:45  
I agree with sunthemoon @7, it is heartening to read of this. Both in the way that these women opened a dialogue, and the way in which the minister responded.

The women articulately and no doubt passionately explained the discrimination suffered, and the minister listened intently.

If this leads to a better understanding and a desire to improve things for gay people, and not simply to use the dialogue to explain an unmoving government policy, it can only be a good thing.

But actions do speak louder than words, and what could be done immediately is either to repeal 377A, or drop any opposition to the Court actions around its unconstitutionality. Another, if they want to see a more educated public opinion on the subject and fewer suicides, is to stop the ban on neutral and positive portrayals of gay people. That would begin to show that they mean it when they say they value gay citizens as much as anyone else.

It serves no one to have a policy that creates misery rather than happiness for a section of the population.
9. 2013-01-07 23:20  
In Sept 2010, 7 members of the LGBT community sent a letter to 6 political parties requesting a clarification of their position on selected issues of interest to LGBT Singaporeans. The PAP did not reply or acknowledge the letter. The WP (largest opposition party in Singapore by MP count) replied that they continue to have NO Position on LGBT issues. (Source : Sg wiki.com. Singapore Political Parties Positions on LGBT concerns - General Elections 2011)

For those who castigate the establishment for not supporting LGBT issues; lets be realistic. Nobody is going to help the LGBT unless the LGBT helps ourselves. We need to demonstrate to our famiies, friends and colleagues that we are decent folks. Its hard work.

And once the various political parties sniff the winds of change,
everyone will be positioning themselves to court the pink vote.

The fact that the tea session transpired already demonstrates that folks are aware that the weathervane is slowly shifting. We've come a pretty long way since 10 years back. Lets continue building on the awesome work that great folks such as the Pink Dot organizers have contributed.
Comment #10 was deleted by its author on 2013-01-08 11:01
11. 2013-01-08 11:53  
To wait for the majority in society to accept gays, is like saying to wait for the majority in society to turn gay!! That we all know will never happen!!

Gays are in the minority, that will always be so! Besides we are not asking for acceptance.....Its tolerance that we seek! Society can be tolerant of gays without accepting. Asking straight homophobes to accept Homosexuals is an impossibility!

The government should show some moral obligation in righting what is wrong! He should understand, being a minority in Singapore! Say if there is a law discriminating Indians minority, but upheld by the Chinese majority, does that makes it OK just because the Chinese majority thinks so??

As someone said, did the majority accept the building of the casinos and the massive importation of foreigners? but yet the government went ahead!! and we have not accepted that.....We put up with them, that is call tolerance. Its really sad that we pride ourselves to be a multi racial and multi religious society, but yet we have not learn to be tolerant!! and worst our leaders shows no tolerance themselves and succumb to some religious influence but yet claim to be secular?
Comment edited on 2013-01-08 13:48:37
12. 2013-01-08 19:19  
The LGBT community should ride on the wave of change that was propelled by the watershed election of 2011. We have seen more ministers availing themselves to the Facebook community and the Cabinet being restructured to place more emphasis on tackling social and community issues. As our society becomes more diverse and integrated with the international community, the government can't run the country without adopting a more consultative style, and, as a society, we can't exist as though we are an isolated island. The process of social change is never easy. Old, thick walls do not collapse overnight after just a few pushes. What we can do is to persevere in our mission. Beside this conversation with the minister, we have seen other commendable achievements in recent years. The Pinkdot event works well on cultural conditioning. The ongoing constitutional challenge to s377a looks promising.

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