Singapore creeps towards more acceptance of gay people


In the bad old days, whenever a mainstream newspaper had any report about homosexuality in Singapore, reporters would be obliged by their editors to run to the nearest self-appointed guardians of ‘morality’ for some choice quotes about how terrible the ‘affliction’ was. Some such guardians could be relied on to say that all these ‘perverts’ should go for counselling and be cured. Those bad old days weren’t so long ago. I remember a case from May 2000 and from the ‘gay civil servants’ controversy of 2003.

Editors were afraid of accusations that they weren’t doing ‘balanced journalism’ if they didn’t send their reporters on this quest for quotes. It’s as if for every story about rape, they had to run to a self-styled guru whose predictable view was that women were responsible for their own rapes. You must carry both sides of opinion, you understand.

In 13 years, we’ve come quite a distance, at least on the LGBT issue. Yesterday saw stories in the Straits Times and Today that simply carried the results of a study, with no quotes from prophets of fire and brimstone. Today newspaper’s story was a simple redaction of a press release from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at the Nanyang Technological University which carried out the survey:

In 2010, 64.5 per cent of respondents held negative attitudes towards homosexuals – lower than the 68.6 per cent in 2005. The number of those who had positive attitudes rose – from 22.9 per cent in 2005 to 25.3 per cent in 2010.

More respondents took a neutral stand – 14.7 per cent were neutral in 2010, compared with 8.5 per cent in 2005.


The study found that older people tend to have more negative attitudes towards lesbians and gays, as do those with lower levels of education and income.

On the other hand, people who feel it is less important to conform to social norms and those with a more Western cultural orientation tend to have less negative attitudes and be more accepting of homosexuals. It found that people with higher levels of education and freethinkers tend to have more positive attitudes.

Those who had higher interpersonal contact with gay men and lesbians, and watched more films and television shows with homosexual characters were also likely to express more positive attitudes and to show greater acceptance.

— Today, 9 January 2013, S’poreans becoming more tolerant of gays, lesbians: NTU study

The study

Although conducted in 2010, the findings of this study were only published in the Asian Journal of Social Psychology last December. It was based on responses from 959 Singaporeans and permanent residents aged 18 or older. This study followed an earlier one in 2005, based on a very similar methodology, and which polled 1,004 adult respondents.

Six questions to assess attitudes (Strongly agree to strongly disagree):

  1. Sex between two men is just plain wrong.
  2. You think male homosexuals are disgusting.
  3. Male homosexuality is a natural expression of sexuality in men.
  4. Sex between two women is just plain wrong.
  5. You think lesbians are disgusting.
  6. Female homosexuality is a natural expression of sexuality in women.

However, it is important to add that the study is actually a lot more complicated than a Yes/No poll. In fact, six questions were used to assess attitude. The method is so technical, I am not even sure I fully understand it myself. You can get an idea of the Herek ATLG framework that the Wee Kim Wee School used from this webpage.

I remember distinctly being told several years ago by one of the researchers involved that the headline figure of how many percent were “for” or “against” could be misleading. The “against” mostly held soft negatives (as opposed to the ‘dig your heals in’ type, I suppose).

In addition to the six questions used to measure attitudes, the survey asked a series of other questions, such as on age, religion or educational level, each permitting a range of responses. These answers were then numerically coded and tested for correlations. The thing to bear in mind is that the study was more interested in discovering factors that predicted a person’s attitude rather than being just an opinion survey.

* Do not take a simplistic reading of this. Someone can be intrinsically religious, but based on his understanding of his faith can be very gay-accepting. What the study shows is merely that MOST of those who are intrinsically religious are not.

In both the 2005 and the 2010 versions of the study, it found that high intrinsic religiosity was the best predictor of negative attitudes*. Extrinsic religiosity does not much correlate.

What do the terms mean? The study explains:

Extrinsic religiosity has been conceptualized as the extent to which one sees religion as a means of fulfilling one’s interests and forging social ties. However, intrinsic religiosity is defined as the degree to which people regard religion as the key motivator in their lives. People who are intrinsically religious use their religious belief systems as a guiding principle in their lives (i.e., they live their religion). By contrast, people who are extrinsically motivated use their religion primarily to enjoy camaraderie with other like-minded believers and to expand their social networks.

— Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2012, Influence of value predispositions, interpersonal contact, and mediated exposure on public attitudes toward homosexuals
in Singapore, by Benjamin H Detenber et al

Conversely, those who know one or more gay or lesbian persons tend to have more positive attitudes. To summarise the correlations from the study:


A talk was presented a little while back giving the results of the 2005 and 2010 studies and the slides from it can be seen here.

These findings echo results from similar surveys in many other countries. The same dynamic is at work. The more respondents interacted with gay people, the more gay-friendly they were.

What is (still) not at work is good journalism. Look carefully and you will see that while the Today news story mentioned that “older people tend to have more negative attitudes towards lesbians and gays, as do those with lower levels of education and income”, it failed to mention the most important factor of all: intrinsic religiosity. Nor did the Straits Times. We don’t dare to stir up a certain group of people, perhaps?

45% unaccepting; 40% accepting

And then there was the curious result that was downplayed.  NTU’s press release merely hinted at something called “acceptance” that was distinct from attitudes:

The study also showed that it is possible for people to hold negative attitudes towards homosexuals but accept gay men and lesbians on a more personal level, whether as co-workers or friends, regardless of whether they perceive homosexuality to be a choice. The researchers suggested that the precise reasons for this could be the subject of future research.

— Nanyang Technological University, Media release, NTU study looks at national attitudes towards homosexuals. Link.

The press release didn’t give any numbers. For those, one has to look into the academic paper, which speaks about five additional questions used to measure acceptance:

With regard to acceptance of homosexuals, 44.9% of respondents found them unacceptable, 14.7% were neutral, and 40.4% were accepting.

— Asian Journal of Social Psychology, 2012, Influence of value predispositions, interpersonal contact, and mediated exposure on public attitudes toward homosexuals
in Singapore, by Benjamin H Detenber et al

This contrasted strongly with the earlier finding that 64.5% of respondents held negative attitudes, 10.2% were neutral, and 25.3% expressed positive attitudes.

Perhaps because this additional angle was downplayed, Today newspaper didn’t mention it at all. However, Straits Times did, with a pie-chart added, on 10 January. See screen capture.

The academic paper explained the difference between attitudes and acceptance:

Acceptance is conceptually distinct from attitudes. While attitudes can be privately held, degree of acceptance suggests an outward expression of favourable or unfavourable behaviour toward a gay or lesbian personal contact. For example, it is possible for people to hold negative [attitudes] but display willingness to interact with them oraccept them in certain social roles in order to abide by the law or prevailing social norms. Acceptance has been conceptualized to include tolerance, i.e., withstanding or ‘putting up with’ a stimulus (e.g., a member of a group), as well as willingly embracing it or having empathy for it.

— ibid

The much narrower difference in the unaccepting/accepting finding is consistent with what I mentioned earlier — that negative attitudes are much softer than attitudinal percentages may superficially suggest.

Rate of change

I started this essay with a reference to historical journalism for a reason: To remind readers how things have changed within 13 years — in case people are discouraged that negative attitudes are still at 64.5 percent.

The rate of change one adduces from the 2005 and 2010 data is that negative attitudes are declining by slightly less than one percentage point per year. At this rate it will take us to 2027 or 2028 to fall below 50 percent.

pic_201301_17This one-percent rate of change is strikingly similar to observations from other countries too. A January 2010 BBC story tells us that in 1983, 62% of respondents to the British Social Attitudes Survey  said homosexual acts were “always” or “mostly” wrong. 1983 was the first time this question appeared in the survey. The percentage then increased for a few years, reaching around 75% in 1987 before beginning a secular decline.

In the 2008 survey, 36% said homosexual acts were “always” or “mostly” wrong.

The average rate of change from 1983 to 2008 was 1.04 percentage points per year.  That from the high of 1987 to 2008 was 1.86 percentage points per year.

Now look at this report from Gallup, the polling organisation. The question is slightly different, being about gay marriage. In 1996, 68 percent of Americans were against it. Sixteen years later, 48 percent were against, representing a change of 20 percentage points over the period or about 1.25 points a year.

Will Singapore’s rate of change accelerate over the next ten years? Some are hopeful. They cite how external factors such as the relatively rapid adoption of gay marriage in Western countries and the large numbers of Singaporeans going abroad to study are likely to feed into domestic attitudes. I am a little bit less optimistic. I think people tend not to change their attitudes through life; the pace of attitudinal change reflects mainly the rate of population replacement, i.e the younger generation replacing the dying-out old.

But of course, I shall not be unhappy to be proven wrong and see the rate of change accelerate.

The law

Inevitably, the question of Section 377A of our Penal Code will arise. That’s a whole different discussion which I won’t go into here, except to make the point that the right to equality should not depend on popularity. Saying that over 50% of Singaporeans have negative attitudes towards gay people is not a valid argument against equality under the law.

Heck, over 50% of Singaporeans have negative attitudes towards fellow citizens of Indian ancestry too, and an overlapping 50% or more have negative attitudes towards Muslim citizens. Should we criminalise them?

Consider this: In Indonesia, a recent survey — which I wrote about in an earlier article Young Muslim Malaysians want Quran to replace constitution — found that some 99 percent of Indonesian youth said it’s not  “OK to be gay or lesbian”. Even so, Indonesia does not criminalise gay sex the way Singapore does with Section 377A.

Or consider this:  In 1983 or 1987, when the British public held 62% and 75% negative attitudes to homosexual acts, such sexual behaviour was already legal. The law (similar to our Section 377A) had been repealed in the UK twenty years earlier.

The key lies in whether political and civic leaders and judges are enlightened and principled or uninformed and cowardly.

9 Responses to “Singapore creeps towards more acceptance of gay people”

  1. 1 Tan Tai Wei 11 January 2013 at 09:40

    Why, in all your postings for the cause, do you accept and use the surely pejorative term “gay” (opposite the innocent “straight”)? Doesn’t it connote loose, callous gaiety – the very sort of conduct you mean to deny is necessarily characteristic of homosexual relations? Wouldn’t that be reinforcing the very mindset you want to expose as prejudice and irrational?

    • 2 qwertot 11 January 2013 at 11:15

      I don’t think gay means anything like what you mentioned. The relation is to ‘gaiety’ only, which means (or used to, not used often nowadays) ‘happy’. I have no idea where you got ‘loose’ or ‘callous’ from.

      Were you to go some decades back and look at the writings and books, in particular the British ones, you’ll see ‘gay’ being used with a positive connotation, rather than negative.

      If I were to get creative, I could also say ‘straight’ can mean uptight and uppity, but it would really be my interpretation alone.

      In fact, I think it’s better to use gay or straight, rather than homosexual or heterosexual. The latter terms are rather … clinical, and tend to draw one’s attention purely to the sexual aspect, which is unfortunate because sexual orientation involves more than just sex alone.

      • 3 Tan Tai Wei 11 January 2013 at 13:22

        Interesting. But you would probably be right if those terms were coined by homosexuals themselves. For others, with their traditional prejudices, must have meant, by them, to say that, since heteros are “straight”, homos whilst being “gay” are crookedly so.

  2. 4 Anon 7sla 11 January 2013 at 10:03

    The Press seems to be behind the times on this issue. I recently wrote to asking where I can find good gay bars to take two of my gay friends to who are coming to visit me in Singapore. I received back a really informative email listing lots of bars and links to other gay websites. So unlike the press, not all arms of the government are so negative on this issue.

  3. 5 walkie talkie 11 January 2013 at 14:13

    I hope that if u had asked about recommending a few gay saunas to your two gay visitors, they would also be helpful to give u a list of gay saunas and links to those websites too (:

  4. 6 walkie talkie 11 January 2013 at 14:37

    Hi Alex,

    According to the NTU presentation slides available for download at, on slide 15,

    Acceptance of Homosexuals:
    40% : Unacceptable
    45% : Acceptable
    15% : Neutral

    Not sure who has made a mistake on the percentage of respondents that finds homosexuals “Acceptable”?

  5. 7 kampong boy 11 January 2013 at 19:04

    Thai Red Cross is using famous straight actors like Ananda Everingham to promote their activities – providing information, promote safe sex and frequent hiv testing in the gay community,

    Using famous people is to increase the profile and acceptance level. Perhaps we can do something like that here too. Also the number of hiv infection has been increasing due to unsafe sex. How can we promote safe sex to the general and gay community?

  6. 8 Alan 13 January 2013 at 20:45

    It appears one important aspect seems missing from this type of official surveys. Why is the question of bisexuals never seems to be mentioned ? How does our society look at bisexuals ? Is it just because they happened to be married with kids, they are quite acceptable by society ?

    Are there no bisexuals in our society or are they ? It is an open fact that many married husbands do frequent gay saunas and massage parlours in search of gay sex

  7. 9 2ndmaus 16 January 2013 at 00:08

    More acceptance? The margin of error in the survey probably makes the results statistically insignificant.

    This is probably a much more accurate appraisal of the current situation in Singapore:

    There’s no point in being optimistic about Singaporeans and tolerance. I’m in my late 20s and I’m telling you that I don’t expect Singapore to become more accepting of LGBT individuals in my lifetime. I’ve accepted that I will always be a criminal in my own country. Once you accept that, you’ll know what you have to do.

    Yes, I realised back in 2007 that there was no future for me in Singapore. The message was loud and clear – LGBT folk will always be regarded as something subhuman.

    My recommendation: If you are a young gay man or woman stuck in Singapore, start saving up money. Buy a house overseas (it’s much cheaper anyway). If you can’t do what you do now and go to the West, learn to be a hairdresser or a plumber – these jobs actually pay a decent wage in many Western countries. Then emigrate. It’s that simple. You can get married. You can live among people who will treat you with decency and do not secretly suspect that you worship the devil at home.

    There’s no point sticking around waiting for a bunch of people to decide that you shouldn’t be a criminal. You have your life to live – you don’t have to be dog lying upon the filthy floor.

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