Incompetent survey ends up with inconvenient ‘gay lifestyle’ result

The oldest (Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao) and youngest (Theo Chen) speakers at the protest held on 24 August against persecution of LGBT persons in Russia

The oldest (Rev Dr Yap Kim Hao) and youngest (Theo Chen) speakers at the protest held on 24 August against persecution of LGBT persons in Russia

Several people have pointed out by now how unprofessional it was to use the term “gay lifestyle” in a recent survey of public attitudes. The survey was conducted for the Singapore Conversation. For integrity, surveys must take great care to employ only clear and neutral vocabulary. “Gay lifestyle” fails both tests.

What this incident underscores is the extent to which conservative Christian influences have invaded our public bodies. Not only did the survey designers employ this loaded term, no one up and down the oversight chain stopped it. Either everyone thought it perfectly “normal” to use prejudicial language, or if anyone spoke up, he or she was a lonely voice and could not prevail. But it is only “normal” when one lives ensconced in prejudiced circles. Thus, the unthinking use of the term flags the degree by which members of these social circles have come to dominate government and their associated academic bodies.

LGBT news website contacted one of the researchers behind the survey, and reported:

When Fridae contacted Senior Research Fellow Leong Chan Hoong – one of the survey’s researchers from the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) – and explained the controversial phrase, he conceded that on hindsight, the survey could have used a more “nuanced and calibrated” term.

He clarified that the survey did not elaborate on the contentious term and explained that the questions throughout the survey were designed to allow respondents to interpret the question “using a lens they are normally used to.”

No, it is not a lens that people normally use. He’s just digging a deeper hole trying to explain it. Ordinary people speak of gays and lesbians, or perhaps “homosexuals”. “Gay lifestyle” is a term coined by and used as a weapon by anti-gay rightwing campaigners, notably conservative churches. They favour this term because it connotes promiscuity and hedonism, thereby tarring LGBT communities with these brushes. Sotto voce, it also implies that, as a “lifestyle”, it is something people can choose and unchoose, and by extension, homosexual orientation is also something people can choose and unchoose.

The propagation of the term is one big lie.

(If you still need more explanation why it is a prejudicial and offensive term, read Shah Salimat’s  commentary in Yahoo: Why the term ‘gay lifestyle’ offends and is hurtful.)

Admittedly, the term has spread from the political Christians who first came up with it to the wider Christian community, without the latter understanding why the term was coined in the first place. Many of them now use it as a matter of course, but nonetheless, the term remains a tell-tale marker of the speaker’s or user’s social circles.

And since the pejorative term was not rectified before the survey was conducted, it tells us that the problem didn’t lie with just one person, but with a whole bunch of researchers and civil servants. For public bodies and research institutes that are supposed to be rigorously secular and professional, the lapse creates grave doubts on both fronts.

Of course, there is no reason why a deeply religious person can’t be a good scientist. But to be one, he must be acutely aware of his own cognitive biases. So, what does such an obvious and fundamental mistake tell us about the quality of Singapore’s research bodies?

Would you not laugh if a self-proclaimed research institute in a Muslim country conducted a survey with a question like this: “Should infidels enjoy freedom of religion?” Sure, you might argue that using the term “infidels” is to provide respondents with a lens they are normally used to, but you must be blind not to see that the shape of the question signals to the survey participant the desired answer.


In the same way, the “gay lifestyle” question contained its own signalling, creating an inherent bias. Very likely some respondents would have taken the cue to provide an answer they consciously or subconsciously thought the survey wanted. The resulting “rejectionist” numbers may be an overstatement.

* * * * *

Here is the result as provided in the Report of the Singapore Conversation. From page 9:


(Click on it to get a larger image)

Look at the bars at the bottom of the chart, labelled “Overall”. Despite the cue from loaded language, rejectionists fell below 50%. How inconvenient it must have been to Singapore’s rightwing nuts!

Yes, there is a wide band of neutral, but were the neutrals really neutral or were they trying to be polite? In the context of the question that employs a signally biased term, it is not easy telling the interviewer one “accepts” gay lifestyles. Would some have chosen to provide a “neutral” answer instead?

Now look at the bands for younger age groups and the better-educated. The percentage of rejectionists fall quite dramatically. They tell you where we’re heading in the future.

Throughout, you may have a nagging question: What on earth did respondents understand the question to mean? What did they think “gay lifestyle” was? There is no easy way to figure this out now. But the very fact that this nagging question remains clouds the value of the exercise.

* * * * *

The relative diversity of opinion did not stop our mainstream media choosing headlines that hail our continuing (and supposed) conservatism, e.g. “Liberal attitudes on gay lifestyles not prevalent here” (Today newspaper, 26 August 2013) — never mind if the evidence is ambiguous at the very least. It is precisely this kind of contortion that teaches Singaporeans what answers are expected of them in surveys. See my point above about inherent bias.

Yahoo headlined its story “Singaporeans split over gay, censorship, social support issues: OSC survey” which gave a better reflection of the findings.

The Straits Times picked up comments from those who seem peculiarly keen on spinning the line that the numbers don’t necessarily mean what they mean. Silly young Singaporeans with liberal views will grow up eventually, they try to suggest:

What jumped out to researchers was the generational disparity in respondents’ picks. On gay lifestyles especially, the younger the respondent, the more likely he was to signal acceptance.

Among those aged 50 to 69 years old, for example, the scales were tipped 56 per cent to 20 per cent with the majority rejecting gay lifestyles. This balanced out among those aged 20 to 34: the proportion of those who accepted and rejected gay lifestyles was even at 35 per cent each.

A similar trend was observed in respondents’ picks on censorship and freedom of expression

But National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said that the trend did not mean Singapore will inevitably liberalise over time. “There are two theories among researchers on social values… One is the life-cycle theory, that people change from being liberal to conservative as they grow older.”

For instance, one’s answer to whether those below age 21 should be allowed to watch R(A) films would likely change from when one is 18, to when one is the parent of an 18-year-old, he said.

But the other theory is that social values tend to conform to the era where one is born, and then remain more or less fixed throughout one’s life. To tell which theory pans out in Singapore, these questions would have to be repeated in surveys in the future.

Chua Chu Kang GRC MP Zaqy Mohamad said the Internet has been a game-changer in exposing the younger generation to broader influences than their parents.

But signalling acceptance of gay lifestyles on an abstract level when one is young does not rule out a different reaction should, for example, one’s children in the future come out as gay. “Society is changing, but we are not quite sure how much and how far.”

— Straits Times, 26 August 2013, More remain socially conservative, by Rachel Chang

Whilst in matters of financial planning, choice of home and risk-taking, people may indeed change their attitudes as they grow older, in terms of social attitudes, people tend to keep their attitudes throughout their lives. Racially blind young people don’t become racist bigots as they grow older, for example. Ditto with attitudes towards lesbian and gay friends and family. What we have quoted in the Straits Times is not informed insight, but something more akin to frozen-smile denial.

* * * * *

The survey also asked a question about same-sex marriage.


I’m of the view that this question is somewhat premature for Singapore; we’ve have hardly had this topic in public discourse, and I can’t imagine that many people are informed about the issue. Nevertheless, I shall leave the chart here for future reference as a kind of baseline.

30 Responses to “Incompetent survey ends up with inconvenient ‘gay lifestyle’ result”

  1. 1 andyxianwong 31 August 2013 at 11:57

    Singapore’s “brain drain” has been mentioned in the past, many people leave and seek a new life overseas. I wonder to what extent “liberal attitudes” are more or less common in those who have departed and whether that skews the numbers. Probably there are two factors – liberally minded people probably are not so keen on life under the PAP and would therefore prefer to leave. Also – from the survey – liberally minded people tend to be better educated, and those who manage to leave Singapore are presumably more likely to be better educated – so as to find a job as an immigrant elsewhere.

  2. 2 yuen 31 August 2013 at 15:12

    Isnt “conservative Christian” also a vague, somewhat derogative term like “gay lifestyle”? for now at least, the government feels it is safer to side with former than latter – despite the unscientific nature of these expressions, their political significances are real

    as you say “this question is somewhat premature for Singapore”; since most people have not looked deeply into the issue, such vague definitions of sides for people to take would seem just appropriate for the situation

  3. 3 Chris 31 August 2013 at 15:53

    In a previous life I worked for the Harris Poll in the United States (not as a professional researcher, but one picks up the lingo and the method in any function). It is very easy to front-load a question in such a way that the response is the one that the client wants. You point that out very well in your post above. While I at first thought that perhaps funding another poll which used more neutral language might be a good idea, it struck me that the religious camp might try to apply the same yardstick to any poll funded by pro-lesbian-and-gay groups or individuals. So a tit-for-tat response might not work so well. Neutral language (from our point of view) might seem to the religious camp to be loaded. Perverse, yes, but inevitable.

    I am certain that the weight of history is on the side of greater acceptance of everyone, no matter what religion, sex, or sexuality. And as the older generation dies off, the younger generation is showing that it is unconcerned about such things. Poll or not, things are moving; not as fast as we would wish, but they are moving. The change in Singapore in the 18 years in which I’ve been involved and interested in Singapore is very great and continuing.

    As for polls, the only one that could be resistant to accusations of leading questions would be one conducted on behalf of an outside group or institution that held no idealogical position on the matter one way or another. This would not necessarily be a polling company: the Gallup Poll in the US, begun by a conservative Episcopalian after the Second World War, is widely held to be biassed toward the right, while the Harris Poll, established by Lou Harris (still with us, in his 90’s), began life as John F. Kennedy’s political pollster. They moved away from working for candidates many years ago, but still retain a tinge of Democratic leaning.

    There may be existing polls that have been taken in Singapore by outside bodies that touch on LGBT issues. A search for such might bear some fruit.

  4. 4 Sandy 31 August 2013 at 20:07

    This whole survey is loaded. The government is trying to influence the respondents to answer in favour of the government’s own views. In many of the questions, the option that is not favoured by the government contains trade-offs whereas the opposite option don’t. A clear example is the survey on letting in more foreigners. Ditto others. Just take a look.

  5. 5 ybin 31 August 2013 at 22:10

    Singaporeans are largely not very PC (politically correct) as compared to North America and Europe. There is a lack of awareness amongst Singaporeans in general when it comes to use of neutral language. Just look at the way people and the press here use such terms as “PRC” (as opposed to “Chinese citizen”) “China woman”, (as opposed to “woman from China”), “third-word country” (as opposed to “developing country”), and many others.

    The term “gay lifestyle” is particularly abhorrent for the very reasons that you pointed out. It suggests promiscuity and volition (in “choosing” to be gay).

    It’s not uncommon that language is sometimes used to obfuscate rather than to illuminate. The term “ex-gay” for example gives the innocent public the (mis)impression that sexual attraction can be changed. The reality is that even those practicing the (harmful) reparative therapy concede that an “ex-gay” merely denotes someone who has forced himself not to engage in same-sex acts, but who nonetheless (most certainly likely) has attraction towards the same sex. However, this important explanation is only made when such conversion therapy advocates are being pressed. Oftentimes, the audience are allowed to be misled by the apparent connotations of the term “ex-gay”.

    The trend in the world is to use terms that are as neutral/general as possible in reference to potentially controversial topics. Do you know that there is a term “androphilic” describing people who are sexually attracted to men. This would include straight women, gay men, and transgender women (who are attracted to men). This way, one avoids making reference to the person’s sexual orientation and gender identity. A wonderful term.

    People need to develop sensitivity and empathy. That’s called evolution.

    • 6 anakin mcfly (@anivad42) 2 September 2013 at 22:27

      “This would include straight women, gay men, and transgender women (who are attracted to men)” – why the redundant addition of straight transgender women? Transgender women who are attracted to men are also straight women. That’s like saying: “This would include straight women, gay men, and Chinese women (who are attracted to men). If the intention was to be redundant, when why leave out transgender men who are attracted to men? :/ (or bisexuals, for that matter?)

      • 7 ybin 3 September 2013 at 10:56

        Actually, it was not redundant. There ARE biological men who feel like they are lesbians inside. That is, they are sexually attracted to women, but AS WOMEN. So, they would transition to become a woman (hence transgengered women) to enter into a lesbian relationship.

        You are right that I forgot another group for the category of androphiles : gay transmen (that is, biological women who transition to become a man, to enter into a gay relationship). Yes, they DO exist!

        The diversity in human sexuality is a wonderful thing.

      • 8 ybin 3 September 2013 at 11:02

        Sorry, I didn’t carefully read your reply before I posted mine. I got too excited about the opportunity to ‘educate’ others on the diversity of human sexuality. I do believe that straight transgender women should eventually simply be included in the category of straight women. But I guess at least for some people in the transgender community, they may wish to have their transgender identity preserved/recognized. I also wanted to highlight the distinction between sexual attraction and gender identity.

  6. 9 1 September 2013 at 01:57

    Reading through the senseless arguments and stupid thoughtless remarks by many fellow Singaporeans on political blogs, forum websites and yahoo forums,one could be mistaken for thinking that the PAP was a very bad government.

    But if you think carefully, you will realize that actually the reverse is true and the PAP is actually one of the best governments in the world.

    My argument in favor of PAP is in my BLOG – because too long to type here in Comment Section.

    • 10 Allen 1 September 2013 at 12:07

      Are you trying to collect ip address of the readers here? If it is too long, it is probably not worth reading. We always write to the point when we make an argument. Those who tend to beat around the bush normally has a hidden agenda to mislead other people. Why not copy and paste a few paragraphs here to let us judge if it is worth visiting your site at all. Cheers.

      [Yawningbread to Allen: Actually, the comment you see from MrStyleKing was substantially edited before I posted it. An extra paragraph was removed, in which he touted his own website. Reason for removal: irrelevant to the article/topic under discussion.]

    • 11 D 1 September 2013 at 12:53

      Ok, I’ve thought about it carefully, but I still think you’re wrong. They’re terrible!

  7. 12 Bukit Timah 1 September 2013 at 04:59

    “The Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) is a Singapore think-tank dedicated to fostering good governance in Singapore through strategic policy research and discussion.” Hence it is used by the government to communicate their viewpoints. When the government wants to do proper market research they go for an open tender and use a respected commercial market research agency. Check the mission statements of the leading market research agencies and you won’t see any pro Singapore government bias. IPS exists to make loaded surveys and to to provide analysis which supports government views. Look at the other loaded questions here about censorship and freedom of speech which have to be weighed against civil unrest in Singapore. Real democracies don’t let their governments censor the news or freedom of speech under the guise of civil unrest. Look at all the other work of IPS. It is taxpayer funded propaganda from the government. They have to set up a research institute because normal market research agencies wouldn’t publish such loaded surveys

  8. 13 Aloysius 1 September 2013 at 05:03

    Please take a look at my critique of the Our Singapore Conversation Final Report and its methodologies.

    You will find some relevant ideas there.

    It can be found at:

  9. 14 Duh 1 September 2013 at 10:48

    A side note, did you notice that in the graphs Alex placed in this post, educational level shows a trend towards more acceptance of LGBT rights? That is very telling – education usually has an effect of making people more reasonable and less of a bigot. Glad to see it having an effect in Singapore.

    That means, sooner or later LBGT rights will be conceded in Singapore.

  10. 15 Tan Tai Wei 1 September 2013 at 19:46

    I would have thought, as I said here before, that it is “gay”, as opposed to being “straight”, that seems perjorative. “Lifestyle”, on the contrary, dignifies it as being worthily called a style. It’s debatable that it connotes free choice of a pattern of living, but why would this matter? Only when it’s concluded that it is wrong and blameworthy (or praiseworthy, but this is irrelevant here) that the issue whether it’s optional matters. If it is all right, then even if one could choose not to be homosexual, why should it matter one way or the other? One should be left free to choose.

  11. 16 Rethink 1 September 2013 at 23:09

    Your well publicised concern for the less fortunate and income inequality is well meaning. But the survey suggests that the interests of these people do not coincide with LGBT interests. If anything, improving the lot of the uneducated is a path to more oppression of LGBT people. I suggest that you need to rethink the coherence of the causes you champion. I say this only because it is something I have only just realized as well. Why would you choose to stand up for those who would not stand up for you? Let them wallow in their own filth.

    • 17 Cedric 1 September 2013 at 23:25

      If anything, improving the lot of the uneducated is a path to more oppression of LGBT people

      What makes you say so? The survey seems to point otherwise.

      • 18 Rethino 2 September 2013 at 10:47

        Well, I assume that the uneducated are going to remain uneducated until the end of their lives, especially the older generation. And I assume that they are the ones crying out for government handouts. Well educated people on the other hand are more likely to be upper middle class. So it isn’t in the interests of LGBT individuals to care about the fates of these people, who are opposed to the fair and equal treatment of gay people. Cynical and realpolitik as it may be, their interests are not our interests. If anything, the case of Singapore has shown that corporations and corporate interests are our friends. This is why I have come to believe that gay Singaporeans should not support the opposition. At this point, it is primarily the threat of a viable opposition that prevents the govt from taking the unpopular step of decriminalising homosexuality, since homophobia is now unacceptable in all developed societies. The painful lesson gay people need to realise is that democracy is not their friend. They would have had a better friend in an autocratic Singapore that represented corporate interests instead of the interests of the unwashed masses.

      • 19 yawningbread 2 September 2013 at 23:06

        Important though the gay issue is to LGBT persons — and in fact straight people have a hard time understanding why it is so important to us — I’m sure you’re not saying that it should be our ONLY concern. Most people, including LGBT ones, have a variety of interests. It is totally conceivable that an LGBT person would also care about alleviating the plight of the poor and the socio-economic trap that the less educated find themselves in. Indeed it is true that this class of people appear in this survey (and in many other surveys from other countries) to be significantly less accepting of homosexual orientation, but caring and doing good is not a transactional exercise. We do what we do because we want to, because we feel it is nonetheless important to us, not because there is always a quid pro quo.

        As for your point that an authoritarian government is more likely to give LGBT persons what they want on the narrow issue of gay equality, that is debatable. The historical record from around the world does not support this thesis. And anyone who knows how far the Christian rightwing has infiltrated the government will tell you that it is wildly imaginary to think that if there were no threat of electoral opposition, the PAP govt would jettison 377A and all other oppressive measures.

      • 20 Duh 3 September 2013 at 11:29


        Your logic is warped – one would think that the strategy would be to EDUCATE the UNEDUCATED and make them less susceptible to bigotry.

        And just for LGBT rights (assuming your position is right), one votes for an autocratic regime in Singapore. Have you considered what you asking Singaporeans to give up (a whole set of civil liberties) for another (a subset of civil liberty – LGBT rights)?

        Also, the PAP has cemented their position as the ruling party by making it difficult for them to be voted out – hence, they have developed this sense of entitlement to rule and have ignored Singaporeans. The PAP has always acted against LGBT rights and so you think this will change somehow in the future? Unlikely.

        The problem lies with the PAP’s obnoxious and dismissive attitude towards treating the electorate. This has to change in 2016.

      • 21 Rethink 4 September 2013 at 09:47

        I would be prepared to vote for LGBT rights over the rights of civil society. Like I said: corporations are the friends of LGBTs. And corporations are one of the least democratic institutions in the world, but hey they are right at the forefront of LGBT rights. And I think LGBTs in Singapore should reflect carefully about who is on their side and who isn’t – their lukewarm “tolerate the gays but don’t repeal 377a” civil society friends, or corporations who will actually put their money where their mouths are. Like I keep saying. JP Morgan is a better friend to LGBT Singaporeans than the rest of the society could ever be.

      • 22 yawningbread 4 September 2013 at 10:12

        Indeed, many large corporations from the West are at the forefront of diversity and inclusiveness, but we’d be seeing the world through western lenses only if we do not take into account Sinopec, Nippon Telephone and Telegraph, Gazprom, China Construction Bank, Hyundai, Dubai World . . . Where do these stand on the same issues????

  12. 23 Tan Tai Wei 2 September 2013 at 09:50

    I see no point in this sort of survey being made by “the Institute of Policy Studies”. Leaders are elected in order to lead, in economics, morality, etc. So, on economics they are obligated to be as right as can be, and convince us so, or be convinced by other experts amongst us should they be wrong, etc. They don’t and shouldn’t be held back by the wishes of “the conservative majority” in fulfilling their obligations to lead in the right. So also, where moral and social relational issues are concerned. They aren’t doing their duty by just shrugging and claiming most people aren’t ready for change. They have been given the mandate to lead, presumably because they have that special expertise, after cognizing other experts, to discern the truth and then to lead the rest of us in that way. Therefore, that survey can at most tell policy-makers how much leadership people need. It cannot be supportive of their present paralysis about the issue.

  13. 24 GoonDoo 2 September 2013 at 17:31

    Alex is right.. by using the words ‘gay lifestyle’, its already inherently biased since there is currently studies supporting the genetic predisposition to being homosexual, & the social upbringing contributor to being homosexual. By using ‘gay lifestyle’ the ISP had already decided for its survey respondents on this scientific debate.

    If the survey had started on:

    – do you think homosexual persons are born this way, or are influenced by social upbringing, or individual choice?

    And then build up the questions on ‘acceptance’ based on the choices people choose to this basic question, I’m sure the survey results would have been very interesting…

  14. 25 Rethink 2 September 2013 at 23:53

    @ alex:

    Singapore is a unique case, being one of the few countries in the world where corporate and business interests are paramount (or at least, used to be). I believe that since being rabidly homophobic is considered repugnant in all developed countries and practically all MNCs, the Singapore government would repeal 377a if it could since it is an albatross around its neck. I have no illusions that it would do so out of any love for its gay citizens, but purely in the interest of economics – which is the reason why corporations are all LGBT friendly.

    I have to admit I no longer give a fuck about income inequality, though I was once captivated by the utopian dream of beautiful love and harmony. I certainly have no wish to emulate a certain religious group’s “ethics” and “love my enemy”. My enemy is the uneducated and the ignorant. As is yours. Do not fool yourself into thinking that those whose sufferings you would mitigate will not turn around and s*** all over your face when it comes to giving you your rights.

    Like I said, just think about it a little. I’m sure you will eventually realize that the free market and corporations are your friends. JP Morgan is your friend. Barclays is your friend. Google is your friend. A left-wing redistributive nanny state that bows to the brainless notions and whims of the ignorant unwashed masses, not so.

    • 26 Sophia 3 September 2013 at 12:07

      Are you a hypocrite? PAP doesn’t support LGTB while the left-wing SDP does. You are telling these people to continue to support PAP? Fool me harder. Thanks.

      • 27 Rethink 4 September 2013 at 09:38

        PAP doesn’t support LGBTs because its hands are tied by the majority of Singaporeans who are semi-literate, ignorant and completely unaware of what is going on in the world. These people unfortunately are also the kind of people that will always vote PAP, so it has no choice but to support its “core constituency”. As for the liberals, well, it probably thinks they are a lost vote anyway, so to hell with them. But if it is still concerned with economics and international diplomacy, I very much doubt that it can continue to be homophobic since. Homophobia. Is. Not. Acceptable. In. Any. Developed. Society. Today. It doesn’t make economic sense.

        A little tactical awareness in politics is necessary. Tactical voting is more likely to get you the results you want.

        Finally, my point in the end was simply that I’m surprised at LGBT folks who give a s*** about things like income inequality. LGBTs have literally zero reason to care about those who are poor and uneducated, since they are the ones who are oppressing them. Think about it before simply flocking to the SDP who may have a consistent left-wing ideology but will never be able to implement it, so a vote for them is a lost vote anyway.

  15. 28 The 3 September 2013 at 10:00

    Two conclusions (based on the flawed framing):
    1) The majority of the people accept gay lifestyle.
    2) It is mainly the ignorant and uneducated who are against gay lifestyle.

  16. 29 Erica 5 September 2013 at 00:27

    When reading about this survey in Today Online, I noticed that several of the homophobic comments below the articles came from someone who supported on their Facebook page something called “Liberty League-SG”, an organisation that according to its webpage has as its mission “The pursuit of Love, Life and Liberty for All”.

    This organisation apparently had a conference in July called “Love Gone Wrong…made Right” that listed as speakers what looks like a Who’s Who of pastors and others who have in the past been “robust” in their opposition to repealing 377A, such as Derek Hong and Thio Li-Ann. Ironic, given their mission statement.

    While homosexuality seems to have been just one of a number of issues addressed in the list of talks, it does for me raise concerns. Is this another of those groups with links to certain American organisations that are very homophobic? I have no idea, but I think it may be wise to establish if such is the case.

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