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24 Apr 2007

reading the tea leaves: MM lee kuan yew on homosexuality in singapore

Was MM Lee Kuan Yew asking a rhetorical question when he said, "Why should we criminalise it [homosexuality]?" Singapore's pioneer gay activist and Fridae columnist Alex Au picks his remarks and related media reports apart.

View video and/or read news report "Singapore's Lee Kuan Yew questions gay sex law" here.

Speaking in riddles - that's what sages are supposed to do. Singapore's former prime minister, 83-year-old Lee Kuan Yew, who is still in the cabinet as Minister Mentor, seemed to have done just that last Saturday night.

In fact, I can see two riddles. The first arises from the differences in the Straits Times' reporting of his words. There was a noticeable change in emphasis from the Sunday report to Monday's. Why?

The second was, of course, what exactly did Lee mean when he said what he said. Careful analysis of his words indicate a few knowns, but leave just as many unknowns.

The newspaper riddle
What did he say? To some extent, that depends on whether one is relying on the Sunday or Monday story in the Straits Times.

The Sunday version couched Lee's words in terms of how Singapore's handling of censorship would evolve as the world changes. First, Lee talked about Crazy Horse, the nude girlie revue that recently folded for lack of business, but nonetheless whose official permission marked a milestone of sorts for the government.

This was how the Straits Times' Internet edition on Sunday (22 April 2007) reported it:

'I said you either go with the world and be part of the world or you will find that you become a quaint, a quixoted, esoteric appendage of the world,' Mr Lee said.

But does that mean everything gets the go-ahead?

Not quite.

The newspaper then said the gay issue was one instance of a "not quite."

Mr Lee gave the example of how Singapore has dealt with the homosexuality issue.

'You take this business of homosexuality. It raises tempers all over the world and even in America! If in fact it is true - and I've asked doctors this - that you are genetically born a homosexual, because that's the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes, you can't help it.

'So why should we criminalise it? But there's such a strong inhibition in all societies - Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Chinese societies and we are now confronted with a persisting aberration. But is it an aberration? It is a genetic variation. So what do we do? I think we pragmatically adjust,' he said.

So what did he mean by "pragmatically adjust" in the light of "strong inhibitions"? How much adjustment did he envisage?

Nonetheless, you would have noticed that the report indicated that while the government would be "pragmatic," there was still reason to criminalise it. There were objections from many quarters, he said.

However, in Monday's edition of the Straits Times, the angle was quite different. Lee's words were re-paragraphed thus:

'If in fact it is true, and I have asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual - because that's the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes - you can't help it. So why should we criminalise it?'

You'd notice that the sentence "Why should we criminalise it" got transplanted from the second paragraph to the first, where it now sounded like a rhetorical question.

The headline too emphasised the new angle. "Govt not moral police" it said.

It's hard to say what happened between Sunday and Monday. Perhaps the editors themselves reviewed the transcript and felt that overall, Lee was being more positive than negative, or, Lee's office could have telephoned the editors to tell them their (Sunday) reading of his words were off the mark.

Either way, it does seem to suggest two things:

Firstly, the question of homosexuality preoccupies the government's mind to some extent. Of countless things that Lee could have spoken about to illustrate necessary change in the years ahead, he chose to talk about homosexuality. For decades, the knee-jerk reaction used to be that the status quo was fine and gay rights was a non-issue. In this sense, to have forced our way into the cabinet's consciousness could be read as a positive development.

Secondly, the thrust of what he was saying was that the government "have to take a practical, pragmatic approach to what I see is an inevitable force of time and circumstance."

He was acknowledging an end-point - "an inevitable force..."

Two certainties?
This brings us to two things that we can read with some certainty from Lee's words. The first is that the government now seems to acknowledge that eventually, Singapore needs to bring itself abreast of social trends.

Secondly, Lee himself appears to be increasingly persuaded that homosexual orientation is innate. Notice his words about "genetically born a homosexual." My own reading of the scientific literature is that it is more complex than that. Genes do play a role, but so do other biological factors. However, as far as I can see, no reputable study has shown a significant role for social factors, despite the best efforts of the religious rightwing to promote such a notion.

But I won't get into that here. It is enough to note that effectively, Lee dismissed the religious construction of homosexuality. He said, " But is it an aberration? It is a genetic variation. So what do we do?"

The time frame riddle
Lee spoke about adjustment and being pragmatic. However, let's not assume that the end-point is anytime soon. He didn't say that the change we would like to see would come tomorrow. It could be 20 years hence. That's the next riddle.

One theory is that he was merely trying to counter demands from the religious rightwing to actively prosecute gay people. Some churches had recently called on the government to criminalise lesbian sex. And recently, church newsletters have been running articles reiterating their ideological positions on the "sin" of homosexuality.

Lee's words, "let's not go around like this moral police... barging into people's rooms. That's not our business," should, according to this theory, be read in this light.

The other, more optimistic, theory is that the government is indeed considering further moves. The Law Society, after all, has recently recommended complete repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which makes sex between men an offence punishable by up to two years' imprisonment.

There are many ways to read the tea leaves. We'll just have to keep up the pressure and see. Our work is not yet done.

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of gay advocacy group People Like Us. Alex is also the author of the well-known Yawning Bread web site.


1. 2007-04-24 01:27  
Our work has not yet done. --- Good saying. =)

Keep up the work... and we as persons with pride and dignity.

3. 2007-04-24 01:53  
Perhaps by year 2020, Singapore government will abolish Section 377A of Penal Code.

As long as it's consensual acts taking place in private then it isn't a crime.

For BIG picture, check out this website: http://www.sodomylaws.org
5. 2007-04-24 02:06  
The certainty is that Singapore has a very LARGE gay population, whether the prudish st8 population wants to acknowledge it or not. It does not have to be 80% to be large.

Gays are kinda like Jews. They are everywhere and no where, occupying the highest positions of any professions to the lowest. Or maybe we are like cockroaches;... lol...can't get rid of us and we keep coming back. Maybe that's why Hitler gassed the Jews like cockroaches. And see how well the Jews have progressed? :P

When the venerable M&M chocolate speaks, u can expect some changes. After all, it's all done for in the name of elective politics, a dirty game. And when it comes down to it, we all know how dirty we all like it...yeah ...lower, lower...lol.
6. 2007-04-24 05:06  
There seems to be some hope for people like us. At least, things are beginning to look more and more positive esp. as far as the government is concerned.

However, the bigotry and self righteousness amongst the conservative esp. among the religious seem to be getting stronger and stronger. I can understand the feelings and reactions of parents who when all is said and done still love us, but I cannot accept those who use the name of God to persecute and condemn those who have done nothing to them and who only want to be left alone to live their own lives.

7. 2007-04-24 05:33  
I can only repost my reaction to the previous article, because Alex Au does not address this issue.

This responds to jammyboi's post too. Btw, I am Jewish as well.


Genetic origin... Our likely next French president, Sarkozy, believes that paedophilia, suicide and criminality have genetic origins. If you liked this, you'll love the sequel: he laments that one has not found a cure for them yet. Did you say eugenism? Some gay activists in the US have campaigned for the genetic origin of homosexuality (activism is not a very scientific approach). Their reasoning is that people will react like Lee Kwan Yew. But they also got another result: that some people from the Christian right are now talking of curing homosexuality by genetic engineering.

Personally I think this is all scrap. But eugenism has some history. Some 80 years ago it was very much en vogue in progressive European circles, who wanted to "improve" humankind. Then it was taken up by the fascists (Mussolini and especially Hitler) with this twist: cleanse the "bad specimens". He implemented it thorougly and there were pink triangles.

The genetic temptation is double-edged. Let's never forget it.
8. 2007-04-24 10:29  
I do entirely agree with drelin
Lee Kwan Yew says "Genetic variation" ????
Singapore and The US are similar police states and they both go against homosexuality. This is very dangerous grounds we're getting into, here.
If the (corrupted) international medical establishment succeds (with the help of the state) in asserting we are a "genetic variation" , they will probably pass laws to exterminate us because we are "genetically defficient". Long live eugenism! ( in preparation????)
12. 2007-04-24 11:19  
to drelin and disundi -

There is a distinction between saying something is a genetic variation and that it is a genetic aberration (or deficiency as disundi puts it).

Recognising that something is a genetic predisposition is good for us. Why - because it puts being gay beyond the realm of morality. Morality connotes a choice between divergent paths, so if there is no element of choice, morality cannot speak. In the same way if you were born female, or black, etc. it is a genetic inevitability and persecution would be wrong.

Whereas if you say it is a genetic aberration, it is going one extra step. It is no longer value-neutral. It evinces the presumption that there are "desirable" and "undesirable" traits. Therefore being gay is inevitable but undesirable, and should be eliminated. I think there's a serious and very obvious moral boundary to cross from the former pronouncement to the latter; accepting genetic predisposition is not equable, and is in fact diametrically opposed, to endorsing eugenics.

I think we should all be fortified by the fact that conventional morality weighs heavily against genetic selectivity and "cleansing" - the legacy of World War II, no doubt.
13. 2007-04-24 15:35  
Well, Mr Lee is a well-respected statesman and I seriously doubt that any law-maker or politician interested in keeping their career alive (almost everybody, except Mr Chee ?) would propogate any policy contary to what the MM says.

Anyway, things aren't so bad now (yes, I know people in power are reading this, hi, nice to meet you). No more police raids, no secret-police tracking (well, maybe it is not so obvious?).

Things aren't that broken, so why the need to 'fix' it?
15. 2007-04-24 16:31  
LKY said: 'You take this business of homosexuality. It raises tempers all over the world and even in America!

First, it's necessary to clarify that Americans aren't taking issue with homosexuality. The hotly debated matter is whether to grant gays the right to marriage. While most Americans are still uncomfortable with the term "marriage," (with the exception of MA), their feelings about gay civil unions are much more favorable. The act of denying gay marriage is a far cry from what SG govt. is considering -- the criminalization of homosexuality. The two issues are vastly different in my opinion.

As for "But there's such a strong inhibition in all societies - Christianity, Islam, Hindu, Chinese societies and we are now confronted with a persisting aberration."

Taking this statement into local context, we've to ask ourselves how far should SG govt. take into account, religion, as an important factor in legislative decision. In deciding what bills to pass in dealing with issues of homosexuality, should the govt. also consider carefully the difference between the "essence" of religions versus religious "opinions?"

In the pledge of allegiance, it clearly stated that the people's unity is based without regard to one's "race, language, or _religion_, to build a democratic society" and the basis of our belief should be governed by "justice and equality." Is this article of faith simply another piece Singaporeans learned by rote to be recited for yet another national event (i.e. National Day)? Or does it truly mean what it said? Just a thought.
16. 2007-04-24 19:13  
Take a cue from experience of the comfort women of WW2. Now that the government says it is not up to them to the moral police, how about an apology for those who had suffered in the 80's and 90's? Those whose lives were turned upside down by police action? Are they going to deny those didn't happen?

Just like the Japanese government, they are just finding it hard now to realise what wrong they have done to us innocent homosexuals.

May they find their compassion in their hearts to do what is right.
17. 2007-04-25 00:40  
everything he says is based on the assumption (or unproved theory) that being gay is all but merely a 'genetic variation'. even if it was, how could one possibly even change it? current science technology can't even change you hair colour, much less something as complicated as sexual orientation.

My point is - regardless of why gays exist, the growing apparentness and numbers of homosexual citizens (who are respectable; who are our friends, brothers, children and various people in our lives) is more than enough reason for the Goverment to start RECOGNIZING, ACCEPTING and EMBRACING gay people.

I truely believe that it is as simple as that, and that any other reasons against accepting gay people - be it religion, genetics, whatever --- reveals a lack of ability to empathize with people; prejudice in disguise.
18. 2007-04-25 03:27  
But lagomorph -

Being jewish was considered as being part of a different race in the thirties.

I can try to apply your reasoning with genetic variation putting it beyond the realm of morality. But this is not at all the way it worked at the time. Jews were intrinsically evil, misers, cheaters, fucking capitalists and fucking communists at the same time (!), kidnapped children to perform their rites on them... And so on and so forth. Hitler called for the "final solution" which was total eradication of Jews on the planet.

He did the same with homosexuals, with Russians, with handicapped people, and the Japanese fascists went in the same direction with "inferior races" like Chinese and Koreans.

The current discourse "it's your choice and you have to refrain" is a rationalization of an irrational fear. It is very tempting to counter it on rational grounds. But this does not work since the fear is per se irrational. Those who are victims of this fear will find a different rationalisation, maybe the opposite one - to our expense.

The only way is: let's not try to prove that we are gay because this, because that. Let us just be ourselves, and let's convince other people that we have to be accepted as we are, as human beings.
19. 2007-04-25 05:27  
I would like to ask MM Lee Kuan Yew to review his facts about resistance within Chinese and Hindu traditions towards gay culture. If he avails himself further, he will find that chinese tradition has historically shown, at worse, been ambivalent, and at best, celebrated homosexual relationships. It was not until the advent of colonialism, christianity and islam, that we find far east asians mimicking the prejudices as brought over by the west, arabs and christians. The ancients have always understood human nature and set clear society guidelines for behaviour that allows human nature to exist aside society's imperatives (see also ancient Greece).
20. 2007-04-25 05:50  
Look at how my country has interpreted Harry's words:

Minister says gay sex should be legal

21. 2007-04-25 06:18  
The topic of homosexuality seems to be top of LKY's mind: from Channelnewsasia today:

Another question posed to Mr Lee - will the Singapore government eventually decriminalise homosexuality?

Mr Lee said: "Eventually I cannot put a finger on it. But I would say if this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world and I think it is, then I see no option for Singapore but to be part of it.

"They tell me and anyway it is probably half-true that homosexuals are creative writers, dancers, etcetera. If we want creative people, then we got to put up with their idiosyncrasies so long as they don't infect the heartland."

Mr Lee added that Singapore had to respect the views of the people in the heartlands.

He said: "We are not promoters of it (homosexuality) and we are not going to allow Singapore to become the vanguard of Southeast Asia."

Mr Lee said "We would follow the world. A few respectable steps behind."

Yuck. "Infect the heartland." If only Mr Lee knew how many gallons of reproductive materials are spilt each night in Ang Mo Kio, Aljunied and Toa Payoh.
22. 2007-04-25 07:07  
I think what needs to happen is Singapore's homosexual society has to become more visible. There is no law against two guys holding hands in public, there is no law that prevents two guys from kissing or hugging in public. The only way something gets integrated into the more general mainstream society is when it becomes the norm. As long as homosexual's are scared of being themselves in public then why should anyone be surprised if the government say that the public can't except their lifestyle. To thine own self be true ...... after all we are creatures of affection
25. 2007-04-25 08:23  
Post #11 philosophia, hit the nail on the head. We can go on and on like fanatical Christian Scientists and debate over why and how we came about and if a cure is needed, but there will be no answer. So, what's the problem in Singapore then? It's simply, FEAR, INSECURITY and PREJUDICE.

I'm sure Mr. Lee, despite all his pragmatic wisdom, will have a hard time squaring up on these social posers; Let ANAL-lyse them here, shall we?.. :P

1) Say, if Singapore were to legalise (ok, ok, let's not frighten these God fearing citizens), I mean, not criminalize gay sex, does it mean that all the st8 men will clamour to try gay sex and turn gay? Is the male sexuality so fragile that it cannot withstand its own natural orientation?
Well, trust these detractors to probably say; let's not provide our innocent citizens with temptations of evil undesirable influences. We might as well then similarly legalise drugs! How will we then deal with the drug problem? We succeed cos we make it HARD for drug addicts and pushers!
Ahem. Well, drugs are an acquired taste. Being gay is NOT. I will also counter with this. Why then legalise gambling with the 2 casinos, er, I mean, ahem , Integrated Resorts, when the negative social influences is much greater. It sends the message that gambling is a way of life eventually and if one can afford it, by all means.
Again, the detractors will say. Ah, but we have set up a task force & hotline to counsel and prevent abusers and addicts.
Hmm...not a bad idea. How about setting up a task force then if the government feels homosexuality is going to be a big social ill? Like, how to be a good responsible tax paying gay man? But, unfortunately, you see, Mr Lee and his yes men ministers, these are totally different issues,; the former 2 vices are man induced (drugs & gambling) whereas one is genetic. It's as different as Dr Vivian Balakrishnan's take on salary increase for ministers and NOT increasing the expenditure for charities. He insist both are different issues and should not to be compared. Butt where does all the money for salaries and any other expenditures come from?-the national budget right? Duh. So if the budget gets smaller, salary increments will get smaller right? Yawn...zzz

The points are simple. It's just refusal to acknowledge fact. Fact that not all gays are hair dressers, artists or what Mr Lee says, creatives. Gays are blessed with extra gifts of creativity, but they possess much more in terms of abilities than most st8 people. Who dare say they do not know of high ranking gay professionals. Just toss a bar of soap and it will slide. But most people live and let live, and we dun kiss and we dun tell, unless one is a bitch, but I digress.:p

He says Singapore has to adjust if it wants to join the global league. Please..! The simple fact is that he is aware that many gays exist and inevitably will encroach on its social progress to be considered a truly first world city with draconians laws. He knows one cannot throw out the baby with the bath water.

We already are a laughing stock with the Penal code, legalising ass plugging for st8 people, a domain of the gay world. What's next? Fisting your wife/husband whilst she/he's high on poppers? Dun laugh, this is first world Singapore, it just may pass as law.

So, how do we deal with this? Like one learned reader said, be visible. Respectfully visible. Be yourself, be strong and be united, and most of all, be brave. No revolution in history was ever won without a fight and alot courage. So give it time, it will happen. We will influence a repeal of the stupid Penal code against gay love. Having said that, be fair too. Dun expect any love from mainstream if gay life is seen as drugged up orgies with all unmentionables dragged up its tail. We reap what we sow. So, it's one thing to fight, it's another to play fair.

Meanwhile, enjoy yourselves and practise those fisting. That too may be taken away soon..:P...guess we'll just watch from the sidelines then...yeah.
26. 2007-04-25 10:48  
I don't think MM Lee was saying that homos are flawed. I think he hinted that he believes that we're born this way - which is the truth, isn't it? Either you are, or you are not. There's no 'half-pregnant'.

If it is not genetics, then what is it? A psychological aberration? I don't think so. The medical and psychological society has already come to a firm conclusion that homosexuality is not an illness. And if genetics come into it, then it's not a question of morality nor religion.

In the past, the whole world - not just MM Lee - misunderstood gays, even ourselves. Even now, many of us would rather stay in the closet. If now, we are better understood by society, and by an important member of the government, as NOT being an aberration (and I believe he is saying thus), isn't that a good thing?
27. 2007-04-25 10:59  
now tat mr lee has spoken, i suppose there will b changed down the road..
28. 2007-04-25 13:56  
Seems positive..

If somehow the gvt can make money off gays then that would be an advantage for us. Like Lee kwan Yew said about gays being creative and we need creative talent - that should be enough.

But, I can imagine a likely scenario happening where the next time the gvt speaks they will say. "Yes Singapore needs to change with the rest of the world, but our religious groups are not ready for that change just yet." - which means gays can be creative whether they have sex or not, so we dont need to bother with the paperwork!

29. 2007-04-25 17:03  
and his point is?
32. 2007-05-01 00:16  
yes, i agree. and what is his fucking point?
Oh, i can't read another word from him.
its painful and its poison to my brain.
33. 2007-05-10 10:10  
Well, MM Lee, you're not going to make money off me. I've voted with my feet; I'm not working and living in Singapore and not paying taxes to the government.

Let's put it this way - the more you try to prevent us from "infecting" the heartlands, the more talented people (from all industries and not just dancers and writers, thank you very much) will move away from Singapore. All your hard work to retain the young professionals will fail. Face it. Even my straight friends are moving away.

Be a human first, before being the government. By doing this, you'll have our respect.



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