by Bertha Henson
I GAVE my students an assignment on Hong Lim Park’s Speakers’ Corner recently, and almost all of the 60 undergraduates referred to the restriction on foreign participation laid down last year.
This, they said, was bound to handicap the yearly Pink Dot movement given that most of its sponsors had been foreign Multinational corporations. These companies would now have to apply for a permit to take part or sponsor the Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender (LGBT) movement. They can forget it given what Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam has said: “In general, if it relates to controversial social or political issues, which really are a matter for Singaporeans, then it is unlikely the foreigners will get a permit.”
Many referred to the G’s allergy to foreign involvement in domestic issues and agreed that it was right that non-Singaporeans should keep out of potentially contentious matters that should be for citizens to resolve. But several also saw this as a move to placate the anti-LGBT movement, prevent a different lifestyle from taking root here and keeping the traditional family unit as the basic building block of society.
None thought that local businesses would step up to the plate, even though they noted that unlike foreign companies, these Singapore-owned businesses do not need to apply for a permit.
Why? The usual ideas were thrown up. Chief among them: Local businesses would be too “frightened” to be associated with something the G doesn’t seem in favour of, even if they identified with the LGBT cause. A second one was that local businesses were conservative and did not want to be seen as endorsing an alternative lifestyle.
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But a report in ST over the weekend has overturned the conventional wisdom. Some 50 companies have pledged support and there’s still four months to go before the event takes place. The organisers said that 70 per cent of the target had been met, and they haven’t even started raising funds officially.
One student wondered why local businesses were stepping in only now. Last year, of the 18 sponsors, only five were local. Perhaps, it was because the foreign companies had been in the forefront all along and there was no lack of funds? Some suggested that these sponsors were small, millennial-owned technology and media companies which would be more open-minded about lifestyle choices.
If the G had wished to squeeze the oxygen out of the Pink Dot balloon by the restriction, it has failed. Pink Dot doesn’t look like a foreign adventure anymore and the LGBT community would probably be heartened by local support. One student even thought that it could be a G attempt to gauge the level of local support for the LGBT cause.
It’s not clear if the companies have to make their sponsorship “public” or whether they can go un-named. Just think: 50 banners emblazoned with company name and logo, which is rather more than what a typical charity can muster in terms of support.
A student said that it’s a sign of people becoming more tolerant and accepting of different mores although it’s doubtful that the Wear White contingent would agree. They would point to the 2014 survey in which 78.2 per cent (see chart below) of respondents think that homosexuality is wrong. Now that’s a huge survey with more than 4,000 respondents, although it’s rather odd that while so many are against homosexuality, not as many think that same-sex marriage or a gay couple adopting a child is wrong too.
The Prime Minister himself put forth the G’s position in February in an interview with Stephen Sackur of BBC’s HARDTalk who asked about the possibility of repealing Section 377A which criminalised homosexual acts. Mr Lee Hsien Loong said he didn’t think a conservative Singapore would agree. It is also not the G’s role to lead society in changing social attitudes. He acknowledged that it was a vexed issue which still drew protests even in Western democracies.
What’s the chance that the pro-traditional family movement would react to Pink Dot this year? Given that there is no foreign bogeyman to flog, will we be looking at a culture war? Will it be a row with religious overtones?
Maybe, we shouldn’t be too worried about a potential clash of cultures, so long as it’s done peacefully with neither side presuming to impose its convictions on the other. The trouble with Singapore is that it has never had to grapple with competing, for want of a better word, ideologies – whether politically, socially or culturally. The emphasis is on conformity and moving together harmoniously in lock-step. We see a ripple as a potential tsunami and immediately build dams to prevent flooding.
We don’t see it as civil society in action.
I somehow think that the G should have heeded its own advice and not intervene in the organisation of Pink Dot. (Yes, yes, I know it’s about foreign influence, not Pink Dot per se). It should have let things evolve naturally rather than prompting people (or local companies) to make a stand.
Now, others will too.
Featured image by Sean Chong.
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