Archive of Asiaweek article, “Showing ‘Greater Humanity’ Family values trump a tough stand on HIV” (9 June 2000)

June 9, 2000 VOL. 29 NO. 22

Showing ‘Greater Humanity’ Family values trump a tough stand on HIV
By ALEJANDRO REYES

In Singapore, swift reversals of policy are rare. So it was noteworthy when
the Home Affairs Ministry announced on May 27 that 12 foreign spouses of
Singaporeans, who have been or were about to be repatriated because they
have the AIDS virus, would be allowed to return or stay in the country. The
11 women and one man had been asked to leave under laws that prohibit
HIV-positive immigrants. The cases came to light recently when the local
Straits Times newspaper reported how some of the expulsions had separated
children from parents. The story sparked public support for the families
and opposition against tough application of the rules.

Singapore’s leaders took notice. “The law cannot just apply without
thinking of the consequences to the family,” Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong
declared publicly. Within hours, the Home Ministry made known its decision.
Later, in a letter to the Straits Times, the ministry insisted that there
had been no policy reversal. The law, it explained, was never intended to
affect people with family roots in Singapore.

Still, many Singaporeans saw the move as an about-face that underscored the
government’s more open attitude — even on an AIDS-related issue. It “shows
a greater sensitivity and humanity than expected and also accords with
public sentiment,” says legislator and lawyer Simon Tay. But he quickly
adds that authorities remain firm that HIV-positive visitors be kept out.
In no way does the u-turn signal any softening of Singapore’s hardline HIV
policy, says gay-rights activist Alex Au Wai Ping. The initial decision
indicated how “the bureaucracy seems to be completely out of step with
public opinion.”

Au says that a similar gap exists between bureaucrats and citizens on the
treatment of homosexuals. On May 23, the police refused to approve an
application by Au to hold a public forum on gay and lesbian issues. The
reason, said the rejection letter, was that such a meeting would “advance
and legitimize the cause of homosexuals in Singapore. The mainstream moral
values of Singaporeans are conservative, and the Penal Code has provisions
against certain homosexual practices. It will therefore be contrary to the
public interest to grant a license.” In late 1996, Au and others applied to
register an informal group called “People Like Us” so it could meet to
discuss gay and lesbian issues and circulate a newsletter. The application
was denied. Three appeals, including one to Goh, were turned down. In April
this year, authorities explained that the law indicated refusal if a group
“is likely to be used for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to
public peace, welfare or good order.”

Au and his colleagues say that getting the government to cite reasons for
the rejection is a tiny step forward. But they remain perplexed. The
treatment of gays, they argue, is a litmus test of the authenticity of the
official drive toward a more open society. To promote civil society, the
government is, for example, launching a “speaker’s corner” in a local park.
There, Singaporeans will be allowed to speak their minds without having to
register beforehand.

While the authorities say that citizens aren’t yet willing to accept
homosexuals, Au and his colleagues counter that attitudes have changed.
They recently released a survey which they say shows that citizens — even
in the supposedly more conservative housing-estate heartland — are more
tolerant toward gay activity than expected. For example, 46% of streetside
respondents and 74% of those replying on the Internet said they could
accept a gay sibling. “It’s an indication that Singapore is not the
monolithic, anti-gay society the government says it is,” Au concludes.

Yet in recent years, authorities have softened their stand on gays — at
least unofficially. “We leave people to live their own lives so long as
they don’t impinge on others,” said Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1998.
“We don’t harass anybody.” Indeed, Singapore has several widely
acknowledged gay hangouts, and local homosexuals are especially active on
the Internet. Police have largely discontinued their sting operations to
flush out gays. And officials consult more with groups with homosexual
members, such as Action for AIDS. Gay themes are often tackled in plays,
while movies with homosexual scenes are permitted. In a recent
breakthrough, the debut show of a Chinese-language TV drama serial had a
gay storyline.

Such loosening is one thing, says Tay, but granting a license to a
homosexual group is another. “To allow a society or a public meeting can be
likened to ending the ban on Playboy,” he notes. “It’s a question of
symbols, of what is officially allowed. Singapore society has a strong
conservative streak that will back the government decision on this issue.”
In other words, don’t expect a major shift on this hot-button topic anytime
soon.

Write to Asiaweek at mail@…

……………………………………

Acknowledgements

This article was first archived by Alex Au on SiGNeL:

http://groups.yahoo.com/group/signel/message/789

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About groyn88

Ultraliberal advocate of universal human rights, justice and fair play.
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