SSO: When image prevails over equality

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Author: Lyndon Barnett
Posted: Wednesday, 15 October 200

Singapore-raised Saiful, 36 (surname withheld) believes his government is more concerned with upholding a conservative, strict image of Singapore than allowing the population to enjoy equal legislation.

“The Government makes statements for the sake of saying things. Singapore has a reputation that it is strict on everything and that is the impression the Government wants to maintain,” he said.

It is for this reason that Saiful believes the anti-gay legislation will never be overturned.

Singapore is governed by the British colonial remnant of section 377A which prohibits “any act of gross indecency with another male person”. The law is generally interpreted as acts of sodomy or oral sex.

In October 2007, the Government conducted a review of the Penal Code and explored repealing section 377.

Saiful was in Singapore last year and described a mood of extreme optimism.

“People thought this would be a big change. They thought if it does happen it would be really good,” he said.

The review concluded that sodomy and oral sex between consenting heterosexual couples would be legalised, however section 377A would remain in force.

Speaking to the proposed changes, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said, “Singapore is basically a conservative society. By family in Singapore, we mean one man, one woman marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework.” Lee also said that the Government doesn’t “proactively enforce” section 377A.

“This is a clear form of discrimination. I hate that. We were all very disappointed. How can they do that? This is just unfair,” said Saiful.

Despite a government determined to uphold their perceived image, significant cracks are appearing in Singapore’s façade. There is now a handful of gay bars and clubs, together with saunas, in the country.
“The Government is becoming more relaxed about gay people,” Saiful said.

This was evidenced in 2003 when the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong allowed gay individuals to become civil servants. Goh said, when making the announcement, “…the population will understand that some people are born that way.”

In 2001, the first large-scale gay party, Nation Party, was held on Sentosa Island with 1500 local and international visitors attending. By 2004, the annual event had grown to 8000 people, including 3200 tourists, in attendance.

The success of Nation Party had perhaps threatened Singapore’s conservative image. In 2005 the event was prohibited with the authorities claiming it was “contrary to public interest”.

Saiful said the main reason for the ban was a concern about rising HIV infections, with international partygoers being blamed for the increase.

He originally came to Sydney in 1998 to study but now works in the accounting industry.

“I remember when my friend first took me to Oxford Street. It was great, compared to Singapore. I can just be myself here without having to worry about what people are thinking,” he said. “I have freedom and I don’t feel guilty.”

Saiful also made comparisons between Singapore and neighbouring Malaysia.

“I thought Malaysia, being a Muslim country, would be more strict than Singapore. But it’s not. Singapore is much more strict and it isn’t a religion-based country.”

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