Quietly, Singapore Lifts Its Ban on Hiring Gays
Herald Tribune, July 4, 2003
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By Wayne Arnold, The New York Times
SINGAPORE—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
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
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
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
“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.”
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