The culture wars in the United States that Singaporeans once observed from afar landed on the island in 2014, which has been a big, noisy year for the LGBT movement in Singapore.
It was discovered on July 8 that Singapore’s National Library Board, or NLB, had withdrawn two children’s books following complaints from conservative parents that they were not “pro-family.” One book, And Tango Makes Three, is about two male Chinstrap penguins in Central Park Zoo who become a couple and were given an egg to hatch and raise. The other, The White Swan Express, is a book on adoption, which includes a lesbian couple and a single mother as adoptive parents.
It later emerged that a third title, Who’s In My Family? All About Our Families, which shows a diverse range of family structures, had also been withdrawn. The state-run library said that the titles were not in line with its “pro-family” stance.
The withdrawal of these books was enough to spark public outrage, but the announcement that the books would be pulped added fuel to the fire. The destruction of books is not standard practice for the library — discarded books are usually resold or donated — but The Straits Times reported that these three titles would be destroyed “because of concerns that they might be unsuitable for young children.”
This episode cannot be seen in isolation; it is simply the latest event in a string of vocal conservative actions aimed at pushing back against the movement for LGBT equality in Singapore.
The issue of gay rights in Singapore is a very controversial one. Section 377A of the Penal Code continues to criminalize sex between two men. The law has been difficult to shift, as politicians are unwilling to take a stand. Although the government has assured Singaporeans that the law will not be enforced, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong commented in 2013 that the law has “always been there” and therefore “we just leave it.” A legal challenge to the law is now awaiting a decision from the Court of Appeal.
Attempts by the LGBT community to push for acceptance and equality in Singapore have been met with backlash from more conservative segments of society, and this year the opposition has been especially loud and strident. In fact, any action or event that might even hint towards “normalizing homosexuality” has attracted objection from religious conservatives.
In February this year a website created by the Health Promotion Board, or HPB, was criticized for “undermining family.” The website, meant as a resource for gay or bisexual teens and their parents, was accused of being “pro-gay.”
“The tone of the [website] gives the impression that HPB condones same-sex relationships and promotes homosexual practice as something normal,” wrote Lawrence Khong, a pastor of the Faith Community Baptist Church and chairman of LoveSingapore, a network of churches that have firmly expressed opposition to the repeal of Section 377A.
In response to complaints from the public the Media Development Authority also withdrew an issue of the Archie comic series for having depicted a same-sex marriage between two characters.
Conservative pushback is not merely the work of a few individuals, but a concerted, organized effort. In fact, the religious conservatives have shown just as much capacity and aptitude for organization as the LGBT community and its allies.
A guide published by LoveSingapore was leaked earlier this year, showing how the network had encouraged its pastors and followers to write letters to their Members of Parliament expressing opposition to “alternative lifestyles” and support for Section 377A. The guide urged people to obscure their religious affiliations and simply portray themselves as concerned members of the public.
The guide was evidence of an organized opposition to the growing LGBT movement in Singapore. And, as seen in the recent cases of withdrawn books, such tactics do work.
More visible actions have also been taken. In June this year, conservative Christians — led once again by Khong — and conservative Muslims joined together in a surprising show of solidarity to take part in the Wear White campaign to support “family.” The campaign had been organized in direct opposition to Pink Dot, an annual celebration of “freedom to love,” and the closest Singapore has ever come to a gay pride rally. More than 6,000 Christians showed up at the Faith Community Baptist Church’s “family worship” session, while Muslim supporters posted photos of themselves in white on the campaign’s Facebook page. Twenty-six thousand people turned up at Pink Dot.
The tug-of-war between the conservative and more progressive sections of Singaporean society highlight the difficulty in pushing for equal rights for the LGBT community. Despite the “pro-family” message of the conservative faction, opposition to the acceptance of gay people has brought grief to some families.
“I know of LGBT people who have come out and reached an equilibrium with their families who are told by their religious leaders gay is a sin,” said Reverend Miak Siew from the LGBT-friendly Free Community Church. “So this sends them back into conflict with their family. This tears families apart and my heart aches.”
But not everyone is disheartened by the struggle. “Change — even for the better — is hard for many,” said Leow Yangfa, deputy director of LGBT counseling and personal development organization Oogachaga and editor of I Will Survive: Personal LGBT Stories in Singapore. “Recent events this year — the HPB saga, the popularity of Pink Dot and now the NLB saga — have shown us that, like elsewhere in the world, we in Singapore too have to go through the painful process of social change, just like those before us lived through the abolition of slavery and the achievement of universal suffrage.”
The pressure applied by conservatives — and the state’s apparent willingness to cave to such pressure — has triggered reactions from without the LGBT community as well. Following the NLB’s withdrawal of the books, around 400 parents gathered with their children in the foyer of the national library building for a “read-in,” with copies of the books and other LGBT-friendly children’s stories made available for all.
“Germaine and I organized the event to make a peaceful statement about the value of children’s books, and the importance of inclusive literature,” said Jolene Tan, who organized the event with Germaine Ong. “As parents, we consider the withdrawn titles beneficial to children. Since the NLB has refused to make them available, we set up a makeshift ‘people’s library’ to remedy that, even if only for one afternoon.”
“As historian Howard Zinn famously said, ‘You can’t be neutral on a moving train,’” she added. “In the face of strong, organized efforts to promote intolerance and exclusion, the rest of us cannot be silent; we have to stand up and be counted.”
Prominent writers in Singapore have also taken action in their own ways. Novelist Christine Suchen Lim loudly criticized the NLB’s decision during her keynote speech at a conference for Asia-Pacific writers and translators on July 17.
“Families do not come in only one shape and one size, and that is true today as it was true for those of my pioneer generation and my mother’s generation,” she said to an assembly of about 100 local and foreign writers and translators. “It saddens me that certain groups continue to impose a one-size-fits-all model on my country’s people and their families.”
Other writers have boycotted NLB activities, withdrawing their support from the organization to take a stand against the library’s destruction of books.
“Nobody with a conscience would be happy with bullying tactics employed by any party. In this case, it was quite clear that anti-LGBT voices were stirring again and messing up yet another secular space,” said poet Gwee Li Sui, who withdrew as the keynote speaker at the National Schools Literature Festival and as a moderator on a panel discussion on humor writing. “But, quite quickly, my displeasure with bullying turned into something else: shock and disappointment with how NLB seemed happily to accede to their request.”
Faced with such vocal backlash, the NLB reconsidered its position, putting both And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express back on the shelves at the end of July. The books were, however, not returned to the children’s section; they are now part of the social sciences collection in the adult section instead.
It’s a compromise that has placated some, but others see it as a Pyrrhic victory, as the assumption that alternative family units are somehow “abnormal” and inappropriate for Singaporean children is still implicit in the action.
Some involved with the campaign towards equality for LGBT people see persistent engagement as the way forward. Campaigners and supporters are aware that it is a struggle that will not be over soon. Change will have to come slowly, depending on the support and contributions of many over years and perhaps even generations.
“We know that social change does not happen overnight, and is never the work of an individual working alone,” said Yangfa, who compared the path forward to a relay race. “Hence, working together purposefully, contributing what we can when we can, passing it on to the next person when we have done our part and need a break, all the while looking out for each other along the way, and with a common purpose in mind, that’s an approach that might help us reach the finishing line.”
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