IPS Singapore Perspectives 2024: What’s all the fuss really about?



A week ago, The Institute of Policy Studies had barely wrapped up its annual flagship conference, Singapore Perspectives, on 29th January before it was mired in controversy because of something seemingly innocuous, said by Senior Minister of State, Dr Janil Puthucheary.

Today was all too happy to rush the story about how SMS Janil encouraged more LGBTQ activism in Singapore.

Funny how the headline omits some keywords huh?

Naturally, Pink Dot was all too happy to milk the airtime too.

Why All the Fuss?

Here’s what happened.

SMS Janil was asked to give a message to the LGBT community, because as we all know, public Q&As are less about resolving quandaries and more about making political points.

Here’s the brief exchange.

SMS Janil: ”My message is stay, fight, stand up for what you believe in, in a way that brings in inclusion and brings every Singaporean with you on that journey, and make our society better from your point of view.

The problem we have is that not all of us agree on what better is. But we do need to have the discussions around that. We do need to have the discourse and that engagement about how we go forward.

If you leave, you take your ideas and your views with you, and that’s not going to help your cause.

When your mom took you aside and told you that, neither you, nor her, nor me or many other people would imagine that last year we would have repealed 377a.
Our society changes just as our aspirations change, our view on how we might deal with people in society who have a different view from us also changes, and if you want to make a difference leaving isn’t going to help.

I’ve had the privilege of studying and working overseas, and some of that has been with youth who have had challenges and some of those challenges in adolescence have been with LGBTQ-related issues. We shouldn’t have a rose-tinted view that in societies where perhaps the social mores are different, or the legal structures are different, or the espoused “centrist standard view” is different, that young people are not facing challenges or being discriminated against.

The grass isn’t always automatically greener on the other side, but that’s not my central point. My central point is, you’re Singaporean. You care about Singapore. You want Singapore to be inclusive in a certain way. Not everybody will agree with you, but you’re not going to engage with the matter and make things better from your point of view unless you stay, stand up and speak up, which you and your colleagues have done.”

A Poor Choice of Words?

There has been some chatter as to how his words should have been interpreted.

Was he simply stating the obvious—that Singaporeans should not leave just because things don’t go their way? Or was he carelessly encouraging LGBT activism? Or perhaps he was making a more nuanced point about how Singapore is a country where people are free to advocate for what they believe in without being divisive about it?

Whatever the case, using martial language when he said, “stay, fight, stand up for what you believe in” was not the best choice of words for a politician tasked with harmonising the country as the Chairperson of OnePeople.SG.

This wasn’t lost on Protect Singapore which first released a piece questioning SMS Janil’s poor choice in using martial language.

Jason Wong, founder of Dads for Life and The Yellow Ribbon Project also picked up on this and wrote a compelling analysis of the forum. Going beyond the SMS’s use of martial language, Wong pointed out that IPS has taken a pro-LGBTQ+ shift and that, on account of SMS Janil’s encouragements to “fight,” the Singapore government was speaking out of both sides of its mouth.

Given Wong’s highlighting of the contradiction between Puthucheary’s encouragements and recent government assurances such as Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong’s commitment to preserving the traditional definition of marriage, it is no surprise then that this perceived inconsistency has left Singapore’s conservatives feeling betrayed.

The Gay Backlash and Its Underlying Authoritarianism

The conservatives weren’t the only ones peeved.

One would think that an encouragement to “fight” by the PAP Party Whip would have been celebrated by Singapore’s homosexuals and the sympathisers of their cause. But no.

Both on Singapore’s gay socials as well as on reddit (which is essentially a gay social), SMS Janil’s remarks were met with virtually universal contempt. Many felt that his words of resistance and revolution rang hollow since he is part of the party that has committed to retaining the pro-family status quo.

One may instinctively empathise with their cynicism. But it doesn’t take much to see that if one’s perspective of equal treatment is actually about receiving special treatment, then of course actual equality looks like discrimination.

It doesn’t take much to see that if one’s perspective of equal treatment is actually about receiving special treatment, then of course actual equality looks like discrimination

The truth of the matter is that Singapore currently treats all its citizens the same, regardless of sexual orientation. Under the prevailing conditions of actual equality, all have the opportunity to persuade their fellow citizens of the validity of their cause.

The unwillingness to undergo this process, illustrated by all the whining and whinging, seems to indicate that these individuals believe that their demands for “equality” ought to be exempt from this process and veto the very democratic nature of Singapore.

Reminiscent of a testy teenager’s tantrum, perhaps “If you don’t give me what I want, I’m going to leave” should become the threat du jour of any advocacy group wanting some sayang from the government.

The echoes of authoritarianism ring loud and will ring louder still if this group captures greater mindshare and power. When in the minority, authoritarian ideologies plead for inclusion and compromise. When possessing power, they demand compliance and conformity.

While Pink Dot, after 15 years of campaigning, has persuaded Singapore’s legislators that men can have penetrative anal sex with one another, they have not yet persuaded the public or legislators that marriage can also be a homosexual institution, among the many other demands they have fielded, like same-sex parenting, bans on non-affirming therapy, and even ”gender affirmation” medical protocols.

If anything, the fiasco highlights the pitfalls of PAP’s political pandering, of their sticking to rehearsed placeholder lines, and of not substantively leading on this issue despite the terrible public cost that is to come should this ideology succeed in Singapore.

Candid, Careless or Clueless

When in the minority, authoritarian ideologies plead for inclusion and compromise. When possessing power, they demand compliance and conformity.

Some may argue that SMS Janil’s reply seemed candid. And yes, in the context of the political tightrope walk he was performing, it was, to a degree.

First, he needed to display some empathy for the emotional trap story that the Pink Dot representative presented him with. (Sigh, when will politicians ever learn that activists’ “questions” are always traps?)

Second, his replies to several questions on polarisation and divisive politics consistently struck the same note, in that while people should debate the issues, all parties should work towards moving Singapore forward with unity rather than division.

So, when asked for his message to disenchanted LGBT youth who were inclined to leave Singapore, what else was he supposed to say other than encourage LGBT Singaporeans to stay in the country? Although his encouragement to “fight” (or struggle, 奋斗 as interpreted by Lianhe Zhaobao), was a poor choice of words unbefitting of a senior politician, it was in line with how he was answering the other questions about how Singapore should move forward in a climate of polarisation and divisiveness.

To his credit, he also acknowledged the idea that there are a diversity of views at play, and spoke about the need for inclusiveness around these views and a consultative community-wide approach to these social disagreements.

Indeed, if he, as a representative of the ruling party had said anything else, he would’ve been branded a homophobe, caused an uproar for insinuating that Singapore does not accept LGBT members of the community, and set the party back in what could turn out to be an election year.

However, it should also be said that Dr. Puthucheary has carelessly fumbled this issue before by failing to strike a reasonable balance between encouraging civic contributions by all Singaporeans, and preserving a stable environment for families in Singapore. Even if one were to charitably conclude that Dr. Puthucheary didn’t drop the ball entirely, it’s hard to see how he didn’t at least fumble it again.

After all, SMS Janil is a relatively experienced media personality who isn’t clueless about how mainstream media, which has become more activistic, would have been eager to extract a sensationalised headline from ill-chosen words. Telling Pink Dot to “fight, [and] stand up for what you believe in” was frankly unfortunate when reporters were around and is tantamount to encouraging pernicious LGBT activism in Singapore.

Or was that exactly what he intended to do? It is consistent with how the CNA Documentary turned out after all.

How Else Might He Have Handled the Question?

Perhaps there was another way that particular conversation could have transpired.

Instead of recommending they continue to push for their demands which inadvertently undermine the safe environment families enjoy today, he may have instead used a more nuanced approach such as…

“LGBTQ individuals are free to live their private lives as everyone else does. With the removal of 377A their actions are not criminalised anymore. While we empathise with them, we must respect the prevailing societal values and the common space, and build consensus and unity among Singaporeans. So stay, live your lives and find your home among our diverse society, just as everyone else does, even when compromises need to be made.”

This would have been more in line with the tone and spirit of PM’s NDR message two years ago, where he explicitly warned against divisive identity politics and avoided using fighting words or martial analogies.

Encouraging Adversarial Politics

Image: TheBusinessTimes

At the end of the day, we are left with the sobering reality that for all its ambiguity, one message is very clear and was interpreted by LGBT activists, conservative activists and mainstream media activists alike: SMS Janil wants activists to continue pushing hard.

He practically said so himself when he alluded to the fact that it was the persistent advocacy of Singapore’s gay activists that contributed to the repeal of 377a in 2022, as a proof-point of why they should continue to stay and fight. But if the end goal is policy change, what are the goals SMS Janil is urging them toward?

Further, if laws can be repealed by political pressure and lawfare, which laws or policies are amenable to civil society activism, and which are not? Is there a line to be drawn that delineates core matters beyond the reach of activism, or is everything up for grabs, such as the definitions of gender, family, marriage, and parenting?

Arriving at an unstable future because of perpetual contestation is an unusual endpoint given what he had just said earlier. During the Q&A, he was asked what concern about Singapore keeps him up at night. He said, polarisation. Perhaps SMS Janil is keeping himself up at night by fueling the very polarisation that he says keeps him up.

Inspiring The Conservative Pushback

Even when activism does not translate into violence, there is a significant social cost.

Newton’s third law of motion is about actions and reactions. The same will apply in Singapore. If and when LGBT advocates become more vocal in the public space at the encouragement of SMS Janil, the conservatives will feel put on and will in turn organise and push back. In the wise words of PM Lee at the 2022 Rally, “If one side pushes too hard, the other side will push back even harder.”

And all this is fundamentally at odds with the desire for harmony and cohesiveness.

Conservative Singapore is a force to be reckoned with and political parties and their personalities ignore them to their peril.

It may be worth asking if there is a need for the formation of new and credible political parties to signal a growing dissatisfaction with the way Singapore’s current leaders lead.

And on that note, it may be worth asking if there is a need for the formation of new and credible political parties to signal a growing dissatisfaction with the way Singapore’s current leaders lead? And if IPS isn’t going to provide thought leadership, is it time for civil society to organise its own conferences and idea festivals to find real solutions to serious national issues?

The Leaders We Long For

In situations of competing non-trivial interests, Singapore will need to decide on the way forward beyond relying on majoritarian arguments. This is a contest involving individual liberties, long-term communal values around the institution of marriage, and even the rights of women and children.

With so much at stake, Singaporeans deserve more than just leaders who govern in a values-agnostic way with no moral vision for Singapore’s governance while encouraging all kinds of causes.

Besides, values-agnostic governance is not leadership. It’s just mediation.

Not all causes are morally equal and worthy of government promotion. Indeed, there are good causes and bad ones. Consider how the traditional family is fundamental to Singapore’s population and economic growth, its social stability, and total defence. Then contrast this with the myriad examples of social decay, mental illness, and demographic collapse that occur in Western nations that have experimented with legislating aspects of LGBT ideology.

Not all causes are morally equal and worthy of government promotion.

For instance, in a survey released at the end of Jan 2024, it was revealed that 28% of American Gen Z adults now identify as LGBTQ, demonstrating how the widespread propagation of LGBT ideology by a minority of loud activists has pernicious impacts on youth socialisation and identity formation and will subsequently have impacts on family formation and public health if unchecked.

You don’t have to be a statistician to know that this is not normal.

And generational brainwashing like this is just the tip of the iceberg.

Singapore’s politicians ought to be mindful of what they are encouraging when they take a broad-brush “fight for what you believe in” approach to civic participation, lest they risk importing the culture wars from abroad. Singapore can ill afford to have to deal with racial politics, anticolonial activists, and Hamas sympathisers, among many other causes that people are sincerely “fighting for” overseas.

Values-agnostic governance is not leadership. It’s just mediation.

To be fair, one doubts that SMS Janil would have been so magnanimous to causes such as these on account of their obvious disamenities.

If so, then why has he, and many other Singapore politicians applied an uncritical lens to the consequences of LGBT activism? Could it be because those who squawk inclusivity rhetoric have not thought of the consequences?

In truth, the issue here is not that SMS Janil was encouraging civic participation. It’s that he had such weak moral fibre that he thought it right to encourage an ideology which has proven to be authoritarian, censorious, and aggressive in its civic takeover in the West.

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