The Straits Times #OpinionOfTheDay

When our idea of inclusivity is not that inclusive

by Tee Zhuo
teezhuo@sph.com.sg

The rights of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community have always been a touchy issue in Singapore, where there remains a conservative majority.

Yet despite that, I think most Singaporeans would agree that anyone who is hurt deserves help.

Thus when the Government was asked earlier this month what it was doing for LGBTQ individuals who face violence or need mental healthcare, my interest was piqued.

As there was not enough time in Parliament, written answers were provided. Minister for Social and Family Development Desmond Lee pointed to existing services and institutions that are "provided to anyone in need, without discrimination".

Health Minister Gan Kim Yong similarly said: "Public mental health services are available to all Singaporeans irrespective of gender identity."

The two ministers are not the first politicians to say that there is no discrimination against LGBTQ people. Last September, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung said that there is no discrimination against LGBTQ people "at work, housing (and) education" in Singapore.

And in June this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in response to a forum question: "Whatever your sexual orientation, you are welcome to come and work in Singapore." He added that laws here have not prevented LGBTQ people from living here, or prevented the annual Pink Dot event from taking place.

Yet, LGBTQ people say they continue to face discrimination in a variety of ways.

In May, a qualitative study involving 40 women conducted by Singapore women's group Sayoni found that LGBTQ women had difficulty securing stable employment, were harassed at work, and faced discrimination in both the private and public sectors.

Even if they get jobs, LGBTQ people do not receive legal protections against discrimination at work. Pink Dot, Aware, Oogachaga and other groups have all documented or spoken about instances of workplace discrimination faced by LGBTQ people.

Sure, in a very broad sense, if you are an LGBTQ person, you can still buy a house and sit the PSLE. But these do not give the full picture.

Let's take the first parliamentary question, which asked what is being done to help LGBTQ people facing physical, psychological or sexual violence from family members or intimate partners. Both questions were fielded by Nominated Member of Parliament Walter Theseira.

In his response, Mr Desmond Lee cited social service agencies that provide help without discrimination, and a Break The Silence campaign to educate people about sexual violence.

It seems like a comprehensive and reasonable response at first glance. But take a closer look.

"Anyone can be a victim of sexual abuse, no matter what age they are and regardless of whether they are male or female," says the website for the Break The Silence campaign which Mr Lee mentions.

But does anyone mean, well, anyone?

None of the campaign's videos that urge people to seek help and speak up when they see family violence featured LGBTQ individuals. A quick search for "LGBT" on the site turned up no results.

Associate Professor Theseira argued that this reflects a broader official policy of acknowledging but not normalising LGBTQ or homosexuality.

"Members of the community have told me that it is thus profoundly isolating to grow up as a person of different sexual orientation," he said.

Another example of this would be an incident in June, where Kiss 92FM DJ Joshua Simon was asked to take out material "relating to his sexuality'' which might be "inappropriate for the target audience" for a talk for a TEDxYouth @ SP (Singapore Polytechnic) event.

Mr Simon's case is not isolated. In a remarkably similar incident last year, Ms Rachel Yeo, a member of the Inter-University LGBTQ Network, was pulled from a TEDxYouth @ SJI (St Joseph's Institution) event a day before she was due to speak last July.

Organisers on both occasions had cited Ministry of Education rules. Both times, MOE said it was not informed of the events.

These issues present problems, as Prof Theseira points out.

If you are treated as invisible, how would you know you belong?

If you do not see yourselves represented, how can you trust that you can receive help when you need it?

One answer is to take the Government's word for it.

Mr Desmond Lee, in his reply to Prof Theseira this month, said: "We do not and should not tolerate violence against any person, regardless of gender or sexual orientation."

Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam, in a Facebook post in June, highlighted how a same-sex couple were beaten up in London. "Everyone, regardless of race, religion, sexual orientation, must feel safe in society. And in Singapore, I have said that Government has a duty to ensure that," he said.

While their firm stance against discrimination sends an important signal, it is a fact that the words of politicians do not carry the force of law.

On the other hand, what is in the law raises cause for concern. Mr Desmond Lee noted that the Penal Code criminalises use of force against any person, regardless of their gender or sexual orientation.

The same Penal Code also includes Section 377A, which criminalises sex between men.

Even with changes to the Penal Code, where men can be considered victims of rape, men who have been sexually assaulted by other men may not step forward to report it.

In April, Mr Leow Yangfa, executive director of LGBTQ support group Oogachaga, wrote that people it had counselled were afraid to make police reports, fearing prosecution under Section 377A. In 2016, the Sexual Assault Care Centre at Aware also said it found this to be the case.

Section 377A remains ostensibly because the majority of Singaporeans are conservative.

Yet, an Institute of Policy Studies survey of 4,015 citizens and permanent residents, released in May, showed that over twice the proportion of people - compared with around five years ago - felt that sexual relations between two same-sex adults were not wrong.

But the absolute proportion is still low - just 11.4 per cent. Citing the findings, a Ministry of Social and Family Development spokesman said then: "The prevailing social norm remains that of a man and a woman marrying, having and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit."

The problem is LGBTQ people here are not a "recognised" minority, Prof Theseira told me, even though we take race and religious issues seriously.

We have laws in the Constitution that protect against insulting another's faith or inciting hatred along religious lines. Yet not only do we not have a similar law to protect LGBTQ individuals, but we also have one that discriminates against them.

Our idea of inclusivity is, ironically, not that inclusive.

Discrimination and violence against LGBTQ people are a reality. They do not go away, especially not for those people affected and hurt, simply because we turn a blind eye or we pretend like they don't exist.