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social sciences

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The Republic of Singapore, a tiny island nation located in Southeast Asia between Malaysia and Indonesia, is today one of the world's most prosperous and cosmopolitan countries, on the cutting edge of economic development. At the same time, Singapore is steeped in traditional, conservative Asian values.

The interchange between old and new has greatly affected Singaporeans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or , as discrimination and oppression are slowly giving way to more relaxed attitudes and greater personal freedom, though the pace of change is frustratingly slow.

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Cultural Issues

Bought by Sir Stamford Raffles in 1819 and developed into a bustling British trading colony in the nineteenth century, Singapore became independent in 1965. Led by Lee Kuan Yew, who served as Prime Minister from 1959 until 1990, Singapore focused on electronics and manufacturing, and emerged as an economic powerhouse by the 1980s. A controversial leader, Lee enforced strict governmental social controls and espoused the virtues of hard work and discipline, while disdaining as "Western" the idea of human rights.

Today, Singapore has a population of over four and a half million people. Chinese make up the dominant ethnic group, followed by sizable minorities of Malays and Indians. Public policy and law, as well as a vocal Anglican clergy, continue to reflect the island's colonial British legacy. However, traditional Confucian, and, to a lesser extent, Muslim ideals also highly influence people's attitudes and social mores.

Singaporean expressions of sexuality and gender have, until recently, been shaped and constrained by values common to much of Asia. These include the expectation (and in a sense, demand) that people marry; the imperative to bear children, who in turn assume the vital social role of tending to older family members, living and dead; and the privileging of group cohesion and family harmony at the expense of individual interests and personal rights. These values are created and maintained by a Confucian ethic that demands obedience and submission to higher authority (whether children to parents, wife to husband, or citizen to ruler) for the sake of social stability.

However, beginning in the 1990s, traditional ways of thinking and behaving were increasingly subject to challenge, not only in Singapore but throughout Asia. In Singapore, this cultural shift gained momentum with the emergence of a prosperous middle class. Newly acquired financial power; increased exposure to Western and Asian ideas and images via films, television, and the internet; travel abroad; and educating offspring at Western universities: all these factors have led more and more (particularly younger) Singaporeans to question the status quo.

For those who identify as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgendered, this questioning has resulted in a push for community organization, a desire for greater individual rights, and the proliferation of glbtq-friendly public venues. At the same time, these developments have been tempered by a recognition of the need to tread carefully under the watch of a repressive government that is notoriously suspicious of change.

In the Life on the Island

Homosexual relations between men are illegal in Singapore. Section 377 (A) of the Penal Code states that sexual relations (termed "gross indecency") between men, even if consensual and in private, are punishable by up to two years in prison. (The code does not mention sexual contact between women.) Court cases are decided not by juries, but by judges. Accordingly, the government possesses a great amount of legal power.

Traditionally, because of the emphasis on filial piety and the importance of producing offspring, people interested in same-sex relations had to look for them as a supplement to their marriages. Today, due to increased economic opportunity and freedom, more and more men and women are forgoing marriage and living independently. However, those who decide not to marry must cope within a society that, to a large extent, still follows and endorses conservative values.

The "gay scene" has long been centered around Chinatown. However, since the mid-1990s entrepreneurs have realized that gay men, who are believed to have a large amount of disposable income, represent a lucrative market. Hence, the gay scene continues to grow, and the establishment of gay and gay-friendly businesses and venues shows no signs of slowing down.

However, it is vital to stress that the discretion of such businesses is what allows the government to "tolerate" them. Businesses typically do not openly advertise that they are gay-owned or gay-friendly. The government seems to prefer that these businesses be located in a discrete area, a gay ghetto, rather than be integrated throughout the city. In order not to provoke governmental interference or crackdowns, members of the gay and lesbian community have themselves practiced a great deal of discretion. There is little open celebration of homosexuality or confrontation with authorities.

Indeed, the government keeps a close rein on gay activism on the island. For example, it denied recognition as an official organization to the gay rights group People Like Us, whose goal is to raise Singaporean awareness concerning gay and bisexual issues, when it was created in 1993 and when it re-applied for recognition in 1997 and 2004.

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