Singapore Press Holdings recently launched a book containing interviews with Lee Kuan Yew titled Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. In there are several references to homosexuality — an issue that has become a staple in our socio-political discourse and in fact a litmus test of Singapore’s maturity and secularism.

For the record, archived here are the passages touching on sexual orientation.


The excerpt from pages 225 and 362 are editorials, while those from pages 247 and 377 are (almost surely redacted) excerpts from interviews with Lee.

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Page 224 - 225:

In more recent years, Christians have begun to make their voice heard in public policy debates over issues ranging from casinos to homosexuality. In the debate over whether Singapore should have casinos, Christian groups organised online petitions. Similarly, during the debate on whether the ban against homosexuality should remain in the law books, Christian groups made their disapproval of any lifting of the ban clear. The authors’ two interviews with Lee on race and religion took place in the midst of public concern that a group of Christian women had taken over women’s group Aware, a well-established secular non-government organisation. The group of Christian women at the centre of the controversy denied they had deliberately moved in to take over a secular organisation. They said their involvement was due to concern over Aware’s promotion of a homosexual agenda in its sex education programme for schools.

National concern grew that religious leaders were mixing religion with politics. That happened after a pastor at the church which many of these women belonged to, said in a Sunday sermon that the homosexual issue was a “line that God has drawn for us, and we don’t want our nation crossing the line”. At that point, the national leaders of Singapore’s largest religious groups stepped in to warn against the use of the pulpit in such matters, a move welcomed by the government. Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng also underlined the secular nature of Singapore’s political arena, on behalf of a government that keeps a close eye on such potentially discomfiting developments.

“Our laws and policies do not derive from religious authority, but reflect the judgments and decisions of the secular government and Parliament to serve the national interest and collective good. These laws and public policies apply equally to all, regardless of one’s race, religion or social status. This gives confidence that the system will give equal treatment and protection for all, regardless of which group one happens to belong to,” he said.

Nevertheless, Lee was more sanguine when asked if he shared the non-Christians’ concern that Christians were seeking greater influence in society and within government. The ability of any religious group, including Christians, to influence public policy would remain limited, he said, as long as the government remains secular and Singapore continues to be a multireligious society where no single religion is dominant.

Still, those unmoved by the wave of rising religiosity wonder whether religious groups will seek to influence, or worse, pressure government into taking their side in policy-making. Will there be forces that ride on religious sentiment to get into Parliament? Can the government continue to be the dispassionate arbiter? These are questions they — and others — must surely ponder over, whatever their religious persuasion.

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Page 247:

Q: Within the Singapore Cabinet, when there are discussion on issues, to what extent do ministers’ religious beliefs influence the positions they take, for example, on moral issues — casinos, homosexuality and so on. Does that ever come up?

A: They’re modern thinking people. This is the reality of the society, we decide what is in our interest and how the people will react. Homosexuality will eventually be accepted. It’s already accepted in China. It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.

I don’t see the grassroots being converted to Christianity. If the grassroots are converted, and it’s total, then we become a different society.

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Page 361 - 362:

But he was not hidebound by that generation’s conservatism — or even the conservatism of society today, for that matter. “I’m not liberal and I’m not conservative,” he said. “I’m a practical, pragmatic person, always have been and I take things as they are.” Of course, the label of pragmatism can often conceal ideological biases. When Lee’s particular brand of pragmatism was applied to the issues raised by young Singaporeans, however, the results were a mix of the traditional and the progressive.

He believed that women, for example, had a different biological makeup that gave them a special role as mothers. “Women become mothers, women have responsibility to bring up their children. Men will have to share a part of that responsibility but they’re not women, they haven’t borne the child,” he said.

Thus he could see a lesbian couple as effective parents, for example, but not gay men. “Two men looking after a child? Two women looking after a child, maybe, but I’m not so sure, because it’s not their own child. Unless you have artificial insemination and it’s their own child, then you have a certain maternal instinct immediately aroused by the process of pregnancy. But two men adopting a boy or a girl, what’s the point of it?”

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Page 377 - 380
Homosexuality — It’s in the genes

As in many societies, the issue of homosexuality is controversial in Singapore. From the heated parliamentary debates in 2007 over whether to retain or repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which prohibits sex between men (it was eventually retained), to the unease over homosexual content in student sex education manuals, the subject polarises the public. It was no surprise then that we received questions on this topic from both sides of the conservative-liberal divide, including one that asked how Lee would feel if one of his grandchildren were gay.

Q: What is your personal view on being gay? Do you think it’s a lifestyle or is it genetic?

A: No, it’s not a lifestyle. You can read the books you want, all the articles. There’s a genetic difference, so it’s not a matter of choice. They are born that way and that’s that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone. Whether they should be given rights of adoption is another matter because who’s going to look after the child? Those are complications that arise once you recognise that you could actually legally marry, then you say I want to adopt. Vivian Balakrishnan says it’s not decisively proven. Well, I believe it is. There’s enough evidence that some people are that way and just leave them be.

Q: This is more of a personal question, but how would you feel if one of your grandchildren were to say to you that he or she is gay?

A: That’s life. They’re born with that genetic code, that’s that. Dick Cheney didn’t like gays but his daughter was born like that [14]. He says, “I still love here, full-stop.” It’s happened to his family. So on principle he’s against it but it’s his daughter. Do you throw the daughter out? That’s life. I mean none of my children is gay, but if they were, well, that’s that.

Q: So what do you see is an obstacle to gay couples adopting children? You said, who’s going to look after the child?

A: Who’s going to bring them up? Two men looking after a child? Two women looking after a child, maybe. But I’m not so sure because it’s not their own child. Unless you have artificial insemination and it’s their own child, then you have a certain maternal instinct immediately aroused by the process of pregnancy. But two men adopting a boy or a girl, what’s the point of it? These are consequential problems, we cross the bridge when we come to it. We haven’t come to that bridge yet. The people are not ready for it. In fact, some ministers are not ready for it. I take a practical view. I said this is happening and there’s nothing we can do about it. Life’s like that. People are born like that. It’s not new, it goes back to ancient times. So I think there’s something in the genetic code.

Q: It took time for Singaporeans to be able to accept single women MPs. Do you see Singaporeans being able to accept a gay MP? It’s already happening in a fairly widespread fashion in Europe.

A: As far as I am concerned, if she does her work as an MP, she looks after her constituents, she makes sensible speeches, she’s making a contribution, her private life is her life, that’s that. There was a British minister, I shouldn’t name him, a Conservative. He was out of office but he was hoping to become the leader of the party and we had dinner with a few friends [15]. He thought he had to come out upfront that when he was at university at Oxford, he did get involved in same-sex activities. But he’s married now with children, he’s quite happy. So he came out with it. He didn’t become leader of the party, and that’s Britain. He thought he had come out upfront and it’d protect him him from investigative reporting. It did not help him. But had he kept quiet they would have dug it out, then it’s worse for him. So there you are. You know, there are two standards. It’s one thing the people at large, it’s another thing your minister or your prime minister being such a person. I mean Ted Heath [16] was not married. I shouldn’t say who the ministers were who said he’s a suppressed homosexual. So the opposition party leaders were telling me because it’s very strange. Here’s a man in the prime of life and getting on, 40, 50, still not married, single, and he was that way at Oxford. So they said, suppressed homosexual. That’s the opposition talk by very reputable leaders who tell me that seriously. So? And with it of course is disapprobation, that he’s unworthy to be a leader. But that was in the early 1970s.

Q: Did you come to this view on homosexuality just through scientific reasoning alone?

A: No, by my observation and historical data. I mean, in the Ottoman empire, they had a lot of it. And there was one story that D. H. Lawrence was captured in Arabia and they sodomised him. The Ottomans had their share of homosexuals and I’m sure there were also women in the harems. So? So be it.

Q: What about your acquaintances or your friends growing up throughout life, were any of them gay as well?

A: I’m not sure about acquaintances, but not my friends. I mean, they were all married. But I’m sure there must have been. This is not something which is recent, it goes back into historic times. And you have animals sometimes acting that way. So it’s not just human beings, there’s something in the genetic code.

Q: So is this one aspect where the conservative views of society are diametrically to your own practical view?

A: I’m not the prime minister, I told you that before I started. If I were the prime minister I would hesitate to push it through against the prevailing sentiment, against the prevailing values of society. You’re going against the current of the people, the underlying feeling. What’s the point of that, you know, breaking new ground and taking unnecessary risk? It will evolve over time, as so many things have, because after a while my own sort of maturing process will take place with other people. You don’t just live and then you cut off your ideas after a certain time. You keep on living and you watch people and you say, “Oh that’s the way life is”.

Q: But are you, personally speaking, frustrated by this conservatism?

A: No. I take a purely practical view.

Q: But are you frustrated by how this conservatism is perhaps opposed to the practical view?

A: No, that is life. I can’t change them overnight. I think society , their own experiences, their own reading, their own observations will bring about change despite their innate biases.

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Endnotes:

[14] Former US Vice-President Dick Cheney’s second daughter, Mary Cheney, is lesbian.

[15] Lee is referring to Michael Portillo, who was secretary of state for employment 1994 - 1995 and for defence 1995 - 1997.

[16] Prime Minister of Britain from 1970 to 1974.




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