Singapore's first Prime Minister, Senior Minister and Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew publicly expounded his views regarding homosexuality on several occasions. His opinions were relatively liberal ones and in keeping with mainstream scientific opinion.

CNN International interview, 1998[edit | edit source]

CNN news anchorman Riz Khan.

On the evening of Friday, 11 December 1998, the then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew was a guest on a CNN International radio programme hosted by Riz Khan fielding questions by callers when a gay question came in via telephone from an unnamed caller[1]:

"I am a gay man in Singapore. I do not feel that my country has acknowledged my presence. As we move into a more tolerant millennium, what do you think is the future for gay people in Singapore, if there is a future at all?"

Lee replied:

"Well, it's not a matter which I can decide or any government can decide. It's a question of what a society considers acceptable. And as you know, Singaporeans are by and large a very conservative, orthodox society, a very, I would say, completely different from, say, the United States and I don't think an aggressive gay rights movement would help. But what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on other people. I mean, we don't harass anybody."

These momentous words would set the tenor for official policy on homosexuality for many years to come and may be regarded as the most significant event, as far as gay rights in Singapore are concerned, of the decade, if not of the century.

US National Public Radio interview, 2000[edit | edit source]


On 24 October 2000, Lee was interviewed by female news anchor Terry Gross of the US' National Public Radio:

Gross: ...I want to just get back to something we were talking about earlier, which is certain things that are illegal in Singapore. What are the laws against homosexuality in Singapore?

Lee: Well, we are with British 19th centuries law on homosexuality which is on the statute book. But we have not prosecuted anybody for homosexuality for the last 40, 50 years. What is on the statute book, and if you molest somebody and try and make him a homosexual, particularly if he's a minor, then the law will be enforced. It's a question of judgment. Once we conclude that homosexuality is also a DNA problem, then you've got to approach the punishment in a different way. And if you have consenting adults, well, God bless both of them. But let's...

Gross: God bless both of them only if you find DNA evidence, or...

Lee: No, no. Only if they do not inveigle and draw in innocent, young boys who are not with that inclination.

Contradictory events on the ground[edit | edit source]

In refutation of Lee's pronouncements about not prosecuting consenting adults for homosexual sex, on 23 July 2001, two undercover policemen infiltrated gay sauna Club One-Seven and arrested two men for having consensual oral sex in a locked cubicle (see main article: Police raids at Club One-Seven). They were originally charged under Section 377A of the Penal Code which carried a maximum punishment of 2 years in prison.

Only after their defence counsels fought against this, perhaps by pointing out Lee's statements, was the charge amended to one under Section 20 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act for which the maximum punishment was much less severe - a fine not exceeding $1,000 or a jail term not exceeding one month for an initial offence. The 2 men were eventually fined $600 each. This was probably a landmark ruling which set an important legal precedent.

This case eminently demonstrated that verbal assurances from the Government were no guarantee that the police and the courts would not continue to use Section 377A and that it was perfectly legal for them to do so since the law still remained on the statute books. It was only when the accused's lawyers reminded the judges of politicians' oral statements that the charge was amended to a lesser one. Should the defence lawyers themselves have been unaware that such a promise was made and if no publicity was given to the case, the defendants may very well have been charged under the archaic law.

Response to Loretta Chen's question, 2007[edit | edit source]

Young PAP member Loretta Chen.

During a weekend meeting with the youth wing of the People's Action Party in April 2007, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew was quoted by The Straits Times as saying:

"If in fact it is true, and I have asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual - because that's the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes - you can't help it. So why should we criminalise it?"[2],[3]

He was replying to a question from Young PAP activist Loretta Chen, who felt that current censorship guidelines were ambiguous and had asked where censorship was headed in the next two decades. The theatre director referenced her recent controversial play 251 about Singaporean porn actress Annabel Chong which dealt with pornography, performance art and alternative sexualities.

Referring to homosexuality, Minister Mentor Lee said that it was an issue that "raises tempers all over the world, and even in America," further noting that there is a "strong inhibition" in all societies - be they Christian, Islamic, Hindu or Chinese.

"And we are now confronted "with a persisting aberration."

"But is it an aberration?" he asked.

"It's a genetic variation.

"So what do we do? I think we pragmatically adjust, carry our people...don't upset them and suddenly upset their sense of propriety and right and wrong.

"But at the same time let's not go around like this moral police...barging into people's rooms. That's not our business.

"So you have to take a practical, pragmatic approach to what I see is an inevitable force of time and circumstance."[4]

International Herald Tribune interview, 2007[edit | edit source]

Lee was interviewed at the Istana on 24 August 2007 by Leonard M. Apcar, deputy managing editor of the International Herald Tribune (IHT), Wayne Arnold, a Singapore correspondent, and Seth Mydans, Southeast Asia bureau chief[5]. The following were his responses touching on homosexuality:

Lee: Like gays, we take an ambiguous position. We say, O.K., leave them alone but let's leave the law as it is for the time being and let's have no gay parades.

IHT: Don't ask, don't tell?

Lee: Yes, we've got to go the way the world is going. China has already allowed and recognized gays, so have Hong Kong and Taiwan.

It's a matter of time. But we have a part Muslim population, another part conservative older Chinese and Indians. So, let's go slowly. It's a pragmatic approach to maintain social cohesion.

Denial of censorship of gay-themed art, 2007[edit | edit source]

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew listening to questions from the floor during a forum at NTU.

On 4 October 2007, during Nanyang Technological University's ministerial forum, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew, in response to a query from an English language undergraduate, replied that there was no censorship of art depicting homosexuality in Singapore.

He was obviously unaware of the numerous instances of censorship by the Media Development Authority of IndigNation 2007's gay-themed exhibitions and readings such as Alex Au's (same-sex) "Kissing" exhibition: [6] and Ng Yi-Sheng's short story "Lee Low Tar":[7],[8]

Comments in book "Hard truths to keep Singapore going", 2011[edit | edit source]

This book, the last in an autobiographical trilogy, was launched on 22 Jan 2011.

Front cover of the book "Hard truths to keep Singapore going".

The following text is excerpted from page 377 :

Page title: "Homosexuality - It's in the genes"

Preamble from the editors: "As in many societies, the issue of homosexuality is controversial in Singapore. From the heated parliamentary debates in 2007 over whether to retain or repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which prohibits sex between men (it was eventually retained), to the unease over homosexual content in student sex education manuals, the subject polarises the public. It was no surprise then that we received questions on this topic from both sides of the conservative-liberal divide, including one that asked how Lee would feel if one of his grandchildren were gay."

Q: What is your personal view on being gay? Do you think it's a lifestyle or is it genetic?

A: No, it's not a lifestyle. You can read the books all you want, all the articles. There's a genetic difference, so it's not a matter of choice. They are born that way and that's that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone. Whether they should be given rights of adoption is another matter because who's going to look after the child? Those are complications that arise once you recognise that you could actually legally marry, then you say I want to adopt. Vivian Balakrishnan says it's not decisively proven. Well, I believe it is. There's enough evidence that some people are that way and just leave them be.

Q: This is more of a personal question, but how would you feel if one of your grandchildren were to say to you that he or she is gay?

A: That's life. They're born with that genetic code, that's that. Dick Cheney didn't like gays but his daughter was born like that. He says, "I still love her, full stop." It's happened to his family. So on principle he's against it, but it's his daughter. Do you throw the daughter out? That's life. I mean none of my children is gay, but if they were, well that's that.

Q: So what do you see is an obstacle to gay couples adopting children? You said, who's going to look after the child?

A: Who is going to bring them up? Two men looking after a child? Two women looking after a child, maybe. But I'm not so sure because it's not their own child. Unless you have artificial insemination and it's their own child, then you have a certain maternal instinct immediately aroused by the process of pregnancy. But two men adopting a boy or a girl, what's the point of it? These are consequential problems, we cross the bridge when we come to it. We haven't come to that bridge yet. The people are not ready for it. In fact, some ministers are not ready for it. I take a practical view. I said this is happening and there's nothing we can do about it. Life's like that. People are born like that. It's not new, it goes back to ancient times. So I think there's something in the genetic makeup.

Q: It took time for Singaporeans to be able to accept single women MPs. Do you see Singaporeans being able to accept a gay MP? It's already happening in a fairly widespread fashion in Europe.

A: As far as I'm concerned, if she does her work as an MP, she looks after her constituents, she makes sensible speeches, she's making a contribution, her private life is her life, that's that. There was a British minister, I shouldn't name him, a Conservative. He was out of office but he was hoping to become the leader of the party and we had dinner with a few friends. He thought he had to come out upfront that when he was at university at Oxford, he did get involved in same-sex activities. But he's married now with children, he's quite happy. So he came out with it. He didn't become leader of the party and that's Britain. He thought he had come out upfront and it'd protect him from investigative reporting. It did not help him. But had he kept quiet they would have dug it out, then it's worse for him. So there you are. You know, there are two standards. It's one thing the people at large, it's another thing, your minister or your prime minister being such a person. I mean Ted Heath was not married. I shouldn't say who the ministers were who said he's a suppressed homosexual. So the opposition party leaders were telling me because it's very strange. Here's a man in the prime of his life and getting on, 40, 50 still not married, and he was that way at Oxford. So they said, suppressed homosexual. That's the opposition talk by very reputable leaders who tell me that seriously. So? And with it of course is disapprobation, that he's unworthy to be a leader. But that was in the early 1970s.

Q: Did you come to this view on homosexuality just through scientific reasoning alone?

A: No, by my observation and historical data. I mean, in the Ottoman empire, they had a lot of it. And there was one story that D. H. Lawrence was captured in Arabia and they sodomised him. The Ottomans had their share of homosexuals and I'm sure there were also women in the harems. So? So be it.

Q: What about your acquaintances or your friends rowing up throughout life, were any of them gay as well?

A: I'm not sure about acquaintances, but not my friends. I mean, they were all married. But I'm sure there must have been. This is not something which is recent, it goes back into historic times. And you have animals sometimes acting that way. So it's not just human beings, there's something in the genetic code.

Q: So this is one aspect where the conservative views of society are diametrically opposed to your own practical views?

A: I'm not the prime minister, I told you that before I started. If I were the prime minister I would hesitate to push it through against the prevailing sentiment, against the prevailing values of society. You're going against the current of the people, the underlying feeling. What's the point of that, you know, breaking new ground and taking unnecessary risk? It will evolve over time, as so many things have, because after a while my own sort of maturing process will take place with other people. You don't just live and then you cut off your ideas after a certain time. You keep on living and you watch people and you say, 'Oh that's the way life is.'

Q: But are you, personally speaking, frustrated by this conservatism?

A: No, I take a purely practical view.

Q: But are you frustrated by how this conservatism is perhaps opposed to the practical view?

A: No, that is life. I cannot change them overnight. I think society, their own experiences, their own reading, their own observations, will bring about the change despite their innate biases.

Excerpt from page 247:

Q: Within the Singapore Cabinet, when there are discussion on issues, to what extent do ministers’ religious beliefs influence the positions they take, for example, on moral issues — casinos, homosexuality and so on. Does that ever come up?

A: They’re modern thinking people. This is the reality of the society, we decide what is in our interest and how the people will react. Homosexuality will eventually be accepted. It’s already accepted in China. It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.

I don’t see the grassroots being converted to Christianity. If the grassroots are converted, and it’s total, then we become a different society.

Sunday Times feature article on 23 January 2011[edit | edit source]

Front page of the 23 January 11 edition of The Sunday Times.

Page 3 of the 23 Jan 11 edition of The Sunday Times.

Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew's comments on homosexuality made in his book and the buzz it generated prompted journalist Elgin Toh to write a feature article in The Sunday Times[9]. However, the final version which appeared in print was subjected to editorial censorship of some of the comments which advocated gay equality made by the members of the LGBT community interviewed.

Editable text of the article[edit | edit source]

Jan 23, 2011

Gay MP? 'Her private life is her private life'

But society is not ready for such openness in Parliament: MM Lee

By Elgin Toh

Social mores at one time kept single women out of Parliament. The likes of Ms Penny Low and Ms Indranee Rajah, both sitting MPs and unmarried, prove that frontier has been breached.

Might gay people one day follow in their footsteps? Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew has revealed that he has no problems with having homosexuals in Parliament.

The surprising comment came in an interview in which Mr Lee makes his most comprehensive statement on homosexuality to date. It was published in a new book about his beliefs, Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going. It is available at bookstores with DVD for $39.90.

Photo of Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew in The Sunday Times, 23 Jan 11"

Asked about the possibility of gay MPs, he said: 'As far as I'm concerned, if she does her work as an MP, she looks after her constituents, she makes sensible speeches, she's making a contribution, her private life is her life, that's that.'

Mr Lee, however, made it clear that his personal view did not automatically become the policy of the ruling People's Action Party (PAP), which he no longer leads, saying later in the same interview: 'I'm not the prime minister, I told you that before I started. If I were the prime minister I would hesitate to push it through against the prevailing sentiment, against the prevailing values of society.

'You're going against the current of the people, the underlying feeling. What's the point of that, you know, breaking new ground and taking unnecessary risk?'

He said he believed it had been scientifically proven that homosexuals were genetically different from heterosexuals. 'They are born that way and that's that.'

Asked what he would do if he had a grandchild who was gay, he cited the example of former United States vice-president Dick Cheney, who was against homosexuality but whose daughter is gay.

'He says, 'I still love her, full-stop',' noted Mr Lee. 'Do you throw the daughter out? That's life. I mean none of my children is gay, but if they were, well, that's that.' He was more ambiguous about whether same-sex marriages should be allowed or if gays should be given rights of adoption, noting that 'complications' would arise. 'Who is going to bring them up?' he asked.

'Two men looking after a child? Two women looking after a child, maybe. But I'm not so sure because it's not their own child. Unless you have artificial insemination and it's their own child, then you have a certain maternal instinct immediately aroused by the process of pregnancy.'

Calling his view the 'purely practical view', he said 'we cross the bridge when we come to it', adding: 'We haven't come to that bridge yet. The people are not ready for it. In fact, some ministers are not ready for it.'

Political watchers and MPs said Mr Lee's views were more liberal than those of mainstream society, and they did not expect the PAP Government to change its basic stance. 'They'll still be wary about fielding someone who is known to be gay at the next election, because they won't want the election to be sidetracked by the sexual orientation of a candidate,' said Mr Eugene Tan, law lecturer at Singapore Management University.

'But MM is painting the larger picture of how what is acceptable is something that would change and evolve with time.'

Said Mr Charles Chong, an MP for Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC: 'PAP candidates have never been asked to declare our sexual orientation. MM is right in saying an MP should be judged purely on his performance, and not on his sexual orientation.'

Members of the gay community here welcomed some of Mr Lee's remarks.

'Some of what he said was heartening, but I wish he would have extended it to say that decriminalising 377A, legalising same-sex marriage and adoption would therefore make sense,' said communications executive Charmaine Tan, 35, referring to Section 377A of the Penal Code, which makes sex between two men an offence.

Ms Irene Oh, 27, and Ms Olivia Tan, 30, would both like to raise children. One way is to get pregnant through assisted reproduction, such as artificial insemination or in vitro fertilisation (IVF).

'We know some couples who get it done overseas, but that's very expensive,' said Ms Oh, a software developer and administrator of lesbian website

They are also open to adopting children. While welcoming Mr Lee's comments, they disagreed that adopting a child lessened the maternal bond.

Said Ms Oh: 'If MM Lee is right, then even heterosexual couples should not be allowed to adopt, because they, too, have no biological connection with the child. I think adoption is a great act of love, and there is no reason to expect adoptive parents to be any less caring.'

Razor TV interview, 2011[edit | edit source]

Lee also granted a video interview with Straits Times journalist Robin Chan, amongst other young adults, shortly after the publication of the book. Chan asked him about his opinions on homosexuality[10],[11]:


Lee Kuan Yew's views on homosexuality from "Hard truths to keep Singapore going", 2011

Interview with other media representatives, 2011[edit | edit source]

In an interview with other members of the press, Lee also said that homosexuality would eventually be accepted in Singapore and that a cabinet full of Christians would be an intolerant one - something that his government would not allow[12]:

See also[edit | edit source]

References[edit | edit source]

External links[edit | edit source]

  • Video interview entitled "Youthful Concerns" found on the DVD attached to the back cover of the book, "Lee Kuan Yew Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going":[23]
  • Razor TV's interview with Robin Chan, the Straits Times journalist who asked Lee Kuan Yew about his opinion on homosexuality shortly after the publication of the above book:[24].
  • Video of Lee Kuan Yew answering Loretta Chen's question on homosexuality during a weekend meeting with the youth wing of the People's Action Party in April 2007:[25].

Acknowledgements[edit | edit source]

This article was written by Roy Tan.

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