Is Singapore ready to accept the LGBTQ+ community?

  • In his speech in November 2021, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said it is legitimate for different groups with different lived realities to organise themselves to promote their own interests.
  • Yet he cautioned against a confrontational approach that seeks maximum entitlements and rights with regards to other groups.
  • Is this the first step to Singapore accepting the LGBTQ+ community as mainstream? TheHomeGround Asia examines the signs.
With talk about building a more inclusive society, is Singapore ready to accept the LGBTQ+ community into the mainstream? (Photo source: Canva)
With talk about building a more inclusive society, is Singapore ready to accept the LGBTQ+ community into the mainstream? (Photo source: Canva)

During a dialogue at the Institute of Policy Studies and S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies’ (IPS-RSIS) conference on identity held in November 2021, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong said the current age has given rise to “new tribalism”— where tribal lines or identity politics was not just drawn across racial lines, but across other markers of identity, such as vaxxers against anti vaxxers, pro-lifers at odds with abortion supporters and homophobic individuals opposing to LGBTQ+.

In his speech, Mr Wong cited the example of Poland, an ethnically homogeneous country, where staunchly homophobic groups designated “LGBT free zones”. This resulted in strong rebukes from LGBTQ+ individuals and allies. Turning to Singapore, Mr Wong said members of the LGBTQ+ community feel that “society does not accept them or even recognise them as (being) different”, which was an important concern to be acknowledged.

Finance Minister Lawrence Wong’s speech has prompted discussion about whether Singapore is ready to repeal the controversial section 377A. (Photo source: Jacky Ho for the Institute of Policy Studies)

One cannot say to any of these groups that their concerns are illegitimate or exaggerated. If we are to live up to the founding ethos of Singapore, every Singaporean deserves a place in our society, regardless of his or her background, status or racial or cultural identity. This is what a fair and just society means,” Mr Wong added.

As identity politics takes root, a well-known manifestation of that is the glaring difference between the “woke” and “non-woke” of society. Singapore needs to grapple with the fact that society is becoming increasingly more diverse as more people are beginning to identify with the cultural war that has established itself in the West.

Co-founder of @/minorityvoices and a member of the LGBTQ+ community Sharvesh Leatchmanan, who is pursuing a Master’s in Gender, Sexuality and Women’s studies in Vancouver, believes that no real changes will be made to foster greater inclusion of LGBT groups in Singapore.

“These are just things the government does to placate people’s feelings on the issue, to show that they are listening to us, but it’s nothing actionable,” says Mr Sharvesh. 

But he understands that it is “quite difficult” for the government to repeal section 377A, a gesture that denotes greater inclusivity and acceptance of the gay community in Singapore. This is because it is a polarising issue among some religious communities, says Mr Sharvesh.

He adds that from his experiences, Singaporeans are also divided over fully accepting the LGBTQ+ community. 

“In Singapore, I am extremely lucky never to have experienced queer discrimination within my circle. But when I see comments online, on Facebook and such, people are so against the LGBTQ+ movement,” he says.

Despite the difficulty of repealing 377A, Mr Sharvesh hopes that Singapore sees more “queer politicians” in Parliament, as this would denote a concrete step towards greater inclusivity of the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore’s political landscape. 

As a queer Singaporean, he wants the government to be inclusive of queer Singaporeans by providing marriage equality for same sex couples as well as allowing them to purchase HDB flats with the same priority as heterosexual couples. 

Dr Tan Ern Ser, sociologist at the National University of Singapore (NUS), adds that until the policy prioritising family units is changed and same-sex marriage is recognised, LGBT couples are not eligible for BTO flats. However, under current policy, they could purchase a resale HDB flat under the Joint Singles Scheme.

But Dr Tan feels a lack of inclusive LGBT policies will not lead to a brain drain or financial exodus of the LGBT community in Singapore, because the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore is not discriminated against in terms of employment and in the social environment. 

“But I do recognise that the LGBTQ community and younger Singaporeans would see current practices (towards the LGBTQ+ community) as not going far enough,” says Dr Tan.

Gay brain drain: A result of stymied aspirations and growing rootlessness

However, Mr Sharvesh believes that dissatisfaction with current practices may lead some members of the LGBTQ+ community to leave Singapore.

“When will that change (towards the LGBTQ+ community) actually happen? I think that’s the major reason why I myself, as a member of the LGBTQ+ community, have tried to leave Singapore for the longest time. I think that a lot of queer people, with the privilege and socio-economic status, have tried to leave Singapore to find some sort of freedom,” says Mr Sharvesh.

He adds that the government should be inclusive of the LGBTQ+ community as “it is the right thing to do.” They also bring economic value to Singapore, Mr Sharvesh says.

The annual Pink Dot event held at Speakers’ Corner before the pandemic denotes a large sect of Singapore society that supports LGBTQ+ rights. (Photo source: Today File Photo)

Dr Tan says that LGBTQ+ Singaporeans contribute to Singapore’s development in their chosen professions, chosen sectors and residential communities, “like all other Singaporeans.”

If the government adopts an inclusive stance of the LGBTQ+ community, it would be seen as “yet another step towards embracing social diversity,” he adds. 

However, Dr Tan recognises that “gay sex is still seen as morally wrong by the more conservative, older generation; and by Christians and Muslims as a sin against their religious convictions.”

“Since they constitute a significant constituency, the Government has decided to take a ‘middle ground’ of retaining the law but not enforcing it,” says Dr Tan. 

Even so, with the need for social diversity and inclusion, Dr Tan believes that the government will repeal 377A “in the not so distant future.”

Mr Sharvesh begs to differ, saying it is very difficult for the government to repeal 377A, but he hopes that the government will still repeal it as a step towards a more inclusive and fair society. 

“In Singapore, the queer community does not have mental freedom. Why am I constantly thinking about my identity, my sexuality and my race? I don’t want to be constantly thinking about all these things”, says Mr Sharvesh. 

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