Progress in Singapore?

A story in this morning’s paper rang a bell. It’s by Eileen Ng in the Age, via AP, reporting that “Singapore has announced it will decriminalise sex between men by repealing a colonial-era law while protecting the city-state’s traditional norms and its definition of marriage.” Other outlets also have the story – here’s the BBC’s report.

The country’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, announced in a speech yesterday that Singapore would make the concession to modernity, saying that “There is no justification to prosecute people” for “[p]rivate sexual behaviour between consenting adults.”

But it’s taken a while. A couple of minutes research produced this Reuters story from 15 years ago, reporting that the then Singaporean leader, Lee Kuan Yew (father of the current prime minister), had called for revision of the law: “Let’s not go around like this moral police … barging into people’s rooms. That’s not our business.” It was widely covered in Australia at the time (here’s the Age’s report); I wrote about it myself in Crikey.

It’s not really surprising that Channel Nine didn’t bother to check its archive before publishing a new story, but it does raise the question of what the Singaporean government has been doing on the issue for the last 15 years, and how long it might still take to get from (repeat) announcement to actual legislative change.

Clearly Lee has not suddenly become a convert to gay rights as most of us would understand the term. He promised to reinforce the ban on same-sex marriage and to protect traditional norms in such areas as “what children are taught in schools, what is shown on television and general public conduct.” But his tone was much more inclusive and sympathetic to gay people than that adopted by his father.

What I said in 2007 is still relevant: that although in western countries “the anti-gay lobby now says publicly that it has no desire to re-criminalise homosexuality,” it remains “conspicuously silent when it comes to laws like those in Singapore.” The current crisis of reproductive freedom in America should remind us that social progress is never guaranteed. Rights won by one generation can always be lost by another.

Perhaps the biggest change in the last 15 years in the battle for gay rights is the shift in its geographical focus. Persecution is no longer seen to be the preserve of benighted Asians and Africans (a narrative that usually left out the fact that they had inherited their anti-gay laws from the British); instead, Russia and its supporters are the ones on the front line.

Western conservatives who once adopted Singapore as their model are now more likely to worship at the altar of Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński*, where demonisation of gay people is just one element in an overall authoritarian package. Like the Jews, with whom they are often paired, gays can be easily stigmatised as representatives of liberal western decadence.

Although Singapore remains politically an authoritarian state, with its openness to trade and cosmopolitan culture it no longer speaks as much to the conservative imagination. If Lee follows through on yesterday’s announcement it will probably reinforce that trend. And as I remarked a couple of years back, despite its democratic shortcomings, “By comparison with the way much of the rest of the world is going, Singapore no longer looks so bad.”

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* Kaczyński’s Poland is anti-Russian for geopolitical reasons, but in social and political terms is otherwise close kin to Putinism.

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