While surfing around other blogs a few days ago, I came across a link to my earlier post Homosexuality excerpts from Hard Truths that was accompanied by a remark saying “read Lee Kuan Yew’s surprising views” or something to that effect.
It was interesting to me that others thought Lee’s views were surprising. To me, they are not news. Lee said essentially the same thing in 2007, and anyway, they’re in keeping with the nature of the man as I understand him.
We all know that Lee has an authoritarian streak (actually, ‘streak’ may be understating it; it’s more like a river in full flood), but there are authoritarians and there are authoritarians. We are perhaps more familiar with those who seek to impose an utopian ideology. Lee is quite a different kind. His starting point is pragmatism. If anything, his authoritarianism is one that insists on the supremacy of the pragmatic over everything else. He is a realist and an uber-pragmatist. It has resulted in a place we call soulless and a population of economic rats.
His views on homosexuality are entirely in keeping with that personality (or personality defect, if you will). This is not to say they have not evolved. I’m sure they have, though as to why he felt interested enough in the subject to find out more in the first place and thereafter alter his views is as yet unknown. I suspect the repeated raising of the “gay issue” since he was ambushed by a gay question in December 1998 during a live televised CNN interview was the main impetus. Even before that, in the earlier 1990s, the issue had been bubbling under the surface, notably with the 1994 Josef Ng affair and with the cabinet minister who had to resign hastily after word about his new boyfriend spread like wildfire.
Lee accepts the fact that some people are homosexual by nature; it is not a matter of choice. I think mostly it has come from observation over a long life, but he himself has said he’s read up and asked “doctors” about it. He repeatedly uses the term “genetic” — which in my opinion oversimplifies the aetiology. But then I will allow for the fact that he is not an expert in neurobiology, nor is he himself gay so the need to really understand the matter in depth is not pressing. I am not sure what to make of his using the term “genetic” so casually. Either he really does believe it is caused by genetic variation alone (in which he is wrong), or he is using the term as a shorthand to mean it is not a matter of choice (in which he is right).
It may surprise you, but coming to this conclusion would have been the easiest thing in the world for him. He has a deterministic view of human nature, a facet you can see again and again in his utterings throughout his life. He thinks Malays are a certain way and there’s nothing one can do about it. He thinks Indians are a certain way and once again, there’s nothing you can do about it. He thinks Chinese are inveterate gamblers; likewise not much anyone can do to change that.
As you can see even among the excerpts I have archived in the earlier post, he also has a deterministic view of women: They are vastly different from men, nurturers with deep parental instincts where men are not and have little of the same. As was evident from his words in the book, he could not conceive of why two men might want to raise a family together. Such an idea was too far out for him or it totally conflicted with his ingrained view of gender difference.
It is a very, very short hop from those deterministic views about Malays, Indians, Chinese and women to the view that gay people are gay and there’s nothing you can do about it. Don’t waste your time fighting genes, he might say.
Once he arrived at this recognition that it is not a matter of choice, then like all intelligent people, the thinking process led him to some degree of acceptance, whether grudgingly or not. He looks around and he sees it affirmed by various governments. Almost certainly he would be aware that same-sex marriage is on the march throughout the developed world, that the Delhi High Court read down India’s Section 377 of the Penal Code in July 2009 and that China has no law directed at homosexual persons. “It’s already accepted in China,” he was quoted on page 247 of the book to have said.
The realist in him then says, “It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.”
The problem with cast-away statements like those is that “accepted” can mean different things. There is still huge social pressure and widespread homophobia in China and India despite the withdrawal of the state. And that’s where you notice that he has no further views on what acceptance should mean. He does not process the thought further with respect to social and legal implications even after recognising that sexual orientation is an inherent attribute of one’s personhood. What are the social and legal structures that conflict with that newfound recognition? What are the do-ables that, in good conscience, then need to be done?
And this is where the pragmatist and uber-realist falls short. That lack of idealism, that distinct absence of any belief in the perfectibility of humankind, fails to propel him to the consequential thought processes that one might expect. He shrugs his shoulders too easily — discrimination? that’s the way life is, he will repeat — and finds no motivation to do more.
I wouldn’t be surprised if he believes that people who are homophobic and nasty are so because their genes. And it’s no use fighting genes, right?
This is not to say he was a hands-off prime minister through his 31 years in that job. While he did not believe we can change human nature, he most assuredly believed that with carrots and sticks (mostly big sticks) humans can be made to do law-abiding and useful things. If circus bears can be trained or conditioned to start dancing once they hear a certain tune, Singaporeans can be made rodentus economici par excellence.
There is no place in that scheme of things for dignity, equality, liberty, beauty and other higher-order ideals.
And so, one sits back quite depressed, wondering which is worse: Those who are idealistic (like oneself), with faith in the perfectibility of man and society, but whose starting point is a non-recognition of reality; who continue to assert against all evidence that homosexuality is an ill-chosen “lifestyle” contrary to the word of some deity, and in the name of this deity we shall create heaven on earth, purging society of these ills along the way, or those who do recognise facts but have no ideals.