“Do growing tensions over ideology and values mark the start of culture wars here”, The Straits Times asked (June 28). A war between ‘the pink’ and ‘the white’. In one corner ‘the (liberal, secular) pink’ champions lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) rights, while in the other ‘the (conservative, religious) white’ defends traditional family values.
Conflict therefore seems inevitable. We are reminded by ST that the two parties in parliament have not taken “a strong pro-gay or pro-traditional family stand”. That ‘the pink’ and ‘the white’ are fighting at the fringes “to win the hearts and minds of a placid middle ground”. That there are gaps between Singapore’s conservative majority and liberal minority, while acknowledging divisions between “religious conservatives and religious liberals” at the same time. After all what is more sensationalist than two factions jostling for space and attention?
We then indulge in these generalisations. We assume that an individual, group, organisation, or movement is necessarily representative of a collective whole.
It may be in the media’s interest to dichotomise, but the diversity of human experiences and perspectives – be it sexual orientation, gender identity, and religiosity – is consequently ignored. For instance, while it has been the most visible in recent years, the Pink Dot movement is just one of many LGBT events and groups in Singapore. In fact Pink Dot has been challenged for its comparative silence over transgenderism, for neglecting those who identify as queer, questioning, intersex, or asexual, and for the perceived obsession over turnout. Perhaps the very use of labels like LGBT and QUILTBAG is problematic too.
The religious do not always sing the same tune. Among the 4,131 Singaporean residents who were surveyed for the 2013 Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) Survey on Race, Religion, and Language , 72.9 and 78.2 per cent of the religious disapproved of gay marriage and same-sex relations respectively. Yet 56.3 and 56.6 per cent of Buddhists and Hindus respectively thought the adoption of children by a gay couple was almost always or always wrong, compared to 74.0 and 74.9 per cent of Muslims and Protestants. Furthermore the religious groups do not share the same opinions on pre-marital sex, divorce, and gambling.
Underlying these figures are justifications worth exploring. What accounts for differences across the religious groups? Why did 64.9 per cent of respondents with no religion disapprove of same-sex relations, and 60.2 per cent disapprove of gay marriage? Notwithstanding the careless reference to ‘gay lifestyles’, how do the results compare with the Our Singapore Conversation survey results from last year, with 47 per cent of Singaporeans strongly disagreeing or disagreeing with ‘gay lifestyles’?
These results will nevertheless reaffirm political convictions to preserve the status quo.
Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam’s argument that Singapore has to be “a society where you [do not] go pushing your own beliefs and preferences, especially when it comes to matters that have to do with religion and personal preferences” appears reasonable. As a consequence of the dichotomy between ‘the pink’ and ‘the white’ convenient calls for balance have also emerged. However, what and where is this balance we speak of? How do we make sense of growing diversity in an increasingly messy environment?
And for that purpose there are now (more) calls for dialogue and conversation. From inter-faith discussions to meetings between representatives of ‘the pink’ and ‘the white’ people are advocating for an elusive middle ground. These proposals may be well-intentioned, but it is naïve to think that Singaporeans – within legal boundaries – will not push their beliefs and preferences. Rather than rejecting disagreements, should we not learn to embrace them?
Diversity creates dissonance. In response to different campaigns, movements, and beliefs within the public sphere the individual should no longer keep silent or simply take a stand per se, and has to engage others. The risks and costs of such discourse, which broadens our empathy and comprehension, have gone down. Constructive change will not come if we are perpetually worried about stepping on toes, and choose instead to linger in echo chambers.
As a straight, Chinese man with no religious affiliations I could do a lot more. I believe that Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, is discriminatory and should be repealed. I believe in human agency, even if the choices are inconsistent with my worldview, insofar as no harm is caused. I do not believe that a person’s religious belief should determine how others live their life, or dictate the rights they are entitled to. I cannot assume to fully understand how it is like to live in the shoes of another. Similarly I cannot dismiss, reduce – or worse, ridicule – the lived, religious experience of another.
My views are not set in stone. I have been unkind before, and I have a lot more to learn.
Insofar as I am healthily sceptical of opposing perspectives, interactions challenge me to question my own beliefs. I used to treat church invitations with aversion. Now they are opportunities to comprehend spirituality, to hear how congregations interpret teachings dissimilarly. Chats with my religious friends do not end in consensus – unless agree-to-disagree qualifies – but we go away more enriched. I used to let constructed stereotypes and labels of sexual orientation slide by, and was careless with gender identities and the use of pronouns. Now I check that I do not reproduce offensive narratives.
The individual matters. Us straight folks, when rallying against heteronormativity, can sometimes be too eager to declare ourselves as allies. We forget that our day-to-day words and deeds matter much more. “Conservative is when our friends, family, and allies say they support LGBT people, but do not stand up in the small instances when it really counts”, Melissa said at this year’s Pink Dot. “Solidarity … is a constant process of education and interaction, because [while] good intentions are nice [they] have done fuck-all for anybody”.
It was for me the best speech of the evening.
Towards the end of the IPS questionnaire respondents were asked what it mean to be a good person. Across all groups “actively seek equality for all human beings” out-scored “teach others your morals” and “convert others to your religious faith”. All groups – except the Protestants – believed that “virtuous and good people (regardless of religious beliefs)” were more likely to go to heaven than their personal friends, family members, and followers.
Perhaps if we all practised what we preached – to be virtuous and good people, to be kinder to one another, to embrace diversity and disagreements – and not get caught up with the narrative of conflict, progress will slowly and surely be made.