Circus bears and other thoughts from Hard Truths

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.

7 Responses to “Circus bears and other thoughts from Hard Truths”

  1. 1 Thom 5 March 2011 at 04:25

    “There is no place in that scheme of things for dignity, equality, liberty, beauty and other higher-order ideals.”

    Very good insight, Alex. This is a man who got so aggravated when an NMP dared to take the National Pledge seriously that he made a rare appearance in Parliament to dismiss and reject such dangerous idealism.

  2. 2 laïcité 5 March 2011 at 06:22

    I agree with you that LKY’s pragmatic outlook towards homosexuals does come across as resignation rather than any sort of support for homosexual rights, but I guess it’s better than nothing. I can’t imagine someone like LKY supporting gay rights (or any form of human rights, for that matter) based on the inherent value of civil liberties, and even if he did, I can’t imagine anyone in Singapore’s ruling elite taking that as a valid reason to repeal 377a.

    Pragmatism is an attribute valued by Singapore and Singaporeans and even though it has resulted in quite a few nasty policies (like the absence of a minimum wage or the mandatory death penalty for drug offences), but it has been good for countering arguments based on religion or conservative values, such as the Christians who argued against the introduction of casinos in Singapore. Crudely put, perhaps the only way we can start to accept “sins” is if they are justified by “pragmatism”.

    I would be ecstatic if Singapore were to take the pragmatic approach when it comes to sex education in schools rather than its value-based abstinence-only education.

  3. 3 leewatch 5 March 2011 at 07:55

    What is “surprising” is not Lee’s attitude, but the fact that he tolerates the Singapore government rigidly enforcing policies so at variance with his own views. But presumably this, again, is just pragmatism at work: Lee may feel that at present, the benefits from advancing gay rights would be outweighed by the opposition it would engender from some segments of the population.


  4. 4 Amos 5 March 2011 at 09:59

    I remember Josef Ng and when the controversy exploded.. found out later that he was the brother of someone I know. However the sentence you have about the minister who resigned suddenly got me stumped…. hmm…. who was that?

  5. 5 Alan Wong 5 March 2011 at 23:34

    When he wrote that none of his children is gay, I just wondered how did he find that out or rather how sure is he ?

    Can he be mistaken like so many unsuspecting parents ?

  6. 6 UPenn 10 March 2011 at 07:53

    Ask those at UPenn in the last 3 years. The despot’s gay grandson is very open about his sexual orientation and he has a partner at an extremely prestigious campus by the Charles River.

    That may be the most compelling reason for the despot’s “evolved” attitude.

  7. 7 anon 24 August 2011 at 13:53

    “As was evident from his words in the book, he could not conceive of why two men might want to raise a family together.”

    That’s not what he said. He didn’t think that a gay couple would have what it takes to raise a child, although he’s more confident that a lesbian couple would have a better chance. That’s from his own experience. If you read the chapter where he talked about his family, you’d see that Kwa Geok Choo was almost entirely responsible for the upbringing of his three children; he was an absent father. In general, he lacks confidence in the commitment of males, whether gay or straight, in parenting.

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