July 4, 2003
Wayne Arnold/NYT The New York Times
WITH its export-driven economy winding down, Singapore's government has quietly lifted restrictions on hiring homosexuals as part of a broader effort to shake the city-state's repressive reputation and foster the kind of lifestyles common to cities whose entrepreneurial dynamism Singapore would like to emulate.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong initially divulged the policy in an interview with Time magazine's Asia edition, excerpts of which were published this week in the magazine's July 7 issue and carried by news organizations here Friday. "In the past, if we know you're gay, we would not employ you, but we just changed this quietly," Goh told his interviewer, according to a transcript obtained from Singapore authorities.
Singapore has a vibrant gay and lesbian community. But gay sex is illegal and the government has yet to officially recognize any organization for homosexuals. Despite a proliferation of bars and saunas catering to the gay community, therefore, homosexuality still remains largely taboo.
Books and films with homosexual themes are banned. When HBO airs its "Six Feet Under" television series here, most scenes dealing with the homosexuality of one of the main characters are excised.
"It's a good, tiny step forward," said Russell Heng, a fellow at the government-run Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and a co-founder of a local gay support group, People Like Us. "The leaders of this country are very sensible and they are cosmopolitan. And so I think that basically there is an awareness there that you've got to allow for diversity."
Goh said the government's policies reflected the conservatism of the majority of its constituents. In addition to a traditionally Confucian ethnic Chinese minority, Singapore also has a sizable Muslim Malay minority whose religion condemns homosexuality.
Goh said it was because of this remaining conservatism that the government did not amend the law against gay sex.
But he said that attitudes were evolving and that the government was becoming more open to homosexuals.
Gay people have long worked within Singapore's civil service, although apparently not openly.
Goh indicated that the government's new policy was to allow homosexuals to occupy even "sensitive positions" in the civil service provided they disclosed their sexual preference.
"If you're discovered by somebody else, then he can blackmail you," he said. "You have to openly declare and people know you're gay. Then, you can't be blackmailed."
Singapore's openness to homosexuality has been evolving for years, as leaders extolled the virtues of diversity and tolerance. Such rhetoric has become routine in speeches designed to convince the local population of the need for so-called "foreign talent."
Though they may fear that foreigners will take the best jobs, Singaporeans are told that overseas professionals are essential to introducing new skills to Singapore's economy. Economic prosperity has cost Singapore much of the manufacturing competitiveness that was crucial for its success. China's seemingly inexorable rise as a manufacturing base for high-tech goods has further hurt Singapore.
But as Singapore chased the tech boom in the late 1990s and, more recently, biotechnology, it discovered to its dismay that years of authoritarian rule have largely extinguished the average Singaporeans willingness to take risks, to be entrepreneurial.
Official hope that foreign professionals will, in addition to investment, trade and technology, breathe the entrepreneurial spirit back into Singapore.
Recent efforts to reinvent Singapore's economic structure, therefore, have also included an emphasis on making Singapore a lifestyle capital.
Censorship rules have been eased, if not eliminated. The same government that banned the importation of chewing gum and Cosmopolitan magazine has become a booster for such ephemeral civic qualities as courtesy, spontaneity, creativity and fun. Still, as recently as 2000, the government rejected an application by People Like Us to hold a forum on gays in Singapore. And in his interview with Time, Goh said that the government would still not allow a gay parade.
But Goh also seemed to signal that further changes were to come.
"So let it evolve and in time to come, the population will understand that some people are born that way," he said in the Time interview. "We are born this way and they are born that way but they are like you and me."