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Easier times for gays (Today [Singapore])
20 Aug, 2003

But some are still worried about the law

The past two months have been the most momentous in history for the gay community in Singapore.

It began when Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told Time magazine that the Singapore Government allows gay people to take up sensitive positions in the civil service.

The reaction was, in many ways, mild. Though there was a flurry of letters to the press, only a few were angry.

The issue was brought up again at PM Goh's National Day Rally speech where he said he neither encourages nor endorses the lifestyle, but gay people, too, need to make a living, earning much applause from the audience.

It was no coincidence that this was happening.

Speaking at a panel discussion at the National University of Singapore's 3rd International Convention of Asia Scholars yesterday, academic and gay activist Russell Heng said: "The interview with Time was a long-ranging one about how Singapore needs to re-invent itself and bring itself out of the economic downturn…

"Why did PM have to pick up on the gay issue? My take is that he wanted to address an international audience and he wanted to make this point."

With the Government working hard to project the image of a country which is pro-diversity and space, the gay community has seen some signs of a loosening up.

Most recently, Nation, a party organised by gay and lesbian website Fridae.com, was held on Sentosa on National Day, and drew a crowd of 5,000. That this event was granted a licence on a date as symbolic as National Day marks significant progress, he said.

The local media, which used to portray homosexuality as "deviant behaviour" 10 years ago, has made a 180-degree turn in its recent coverage of gay issues - newspapers carries pro-gay articles and television talk-show programmes discuss homosexuality openly.

"As one of my gay activist friends put it, 'I love it when the propaganda machine is on our side!'," said Dr Heng.

However, some gays are still concerned about the laws on homosexual acts.

Dr Heng cited an incident that occurred three years ago, when two men were arrested for having sex in a sauna. They were charged under Section 377A of the Criminal Procedure Code, which specifically outlaws sex between men. They could have been jailed for up to two years.

The charges were reduced after gay activists pointed out to lawyers and the police that Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew had said in an interview on American radio that no one has been prosecuted for homosexuality for the past 50 years and are not likely to be if they are willing parties.

The men were fined $600 each for indecent behaviour.

In the interview, SM Lee had said: "If you have two consenting adults, God bless both of them." But if a man tries to turn a minor into a homosexual, the law will be enforced, he said.

This is not to say that law enforcers are turning a blind eye to places where there are homosexual activities. But these days, the spot-checks are handled with some sensitivity.

For instance, in June, there were three raids on two gay clubs. Calling the operation "surgical", Dr Heng said: "The police are very polite. They will come in and say, 'We've got a complaint that you are playing music from pirated CDs', or 'we're checking for drugs'. They make it very clear they are not there to disrupt, and it is over very quickly."

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