REACH, a department of the Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI), recently conducted a survey on attitudes towards lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender, etc. (LGBT+) issues and Section 377A of the Penal Code.
The Regardless Team became aware of the survey at 5pm on 22 March 2022. However, it was abruptly closed at 12 noon on 23 March 2022, because of “an overwhelming response that far exceeds the usual number of responses”. By the time the survey closed, there were reportedly more than 30,000 responses.
What was the Purpose of the Survey?
According to the preamble of the now-closed survey, its purpose was to “hear your thoughts about the LGBT+ community in Singapore.” It was “open to everyone regardless of your sexual orientation and/or gender identity”.
The survey cited the comments of Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam in Parliament that the Government is considering “the best way forward” on Section 377A, and will “respect the different viewpoints, consider them carefully, talk to the different groups”. The REACH survey further added that the feedback from the survey “will be shared with relevant agencies and could be used within the Government for policy updates and changes”.
After the survey closed, a REACH spokesman told the media that the survey “is one of many that REACH pushes out frequently to Singaporeans to gather feedback on issues they are concerned with.”
Carrying on the work of the Feedback Unit (Est. 1985), REACH has served Singapore as a ‘telephone line’ between the people and the government for the last 15 years. It is but one of the ways the government is able to get direct input from the people. Among the others are state-commissioned surveys, Meet the People Sessions, periodic listening exercises such as the Our Singapore Conversation (2012) and the Emerging Stronger Conversations (2021), and issue-specific consultations such as the Conversations on Singapore Women’s Development.
Suggestions of a limited reach?
There have been suggestions that the survey was not meant to gain widespread publicity.
First, the survey could not be found on the REACH website during the time it was open. There was also no clear start and end date unlike the other recent surveys on their website.
Later in the day, the survey was shared by the following Instagram channels.
Statements from multiple sources suggest that the survey was initially released to, or picked up by a few groups only. These groups had only called for circulation in closed networks, and not on social media.
On Wake Up Singapore’s post calling for participation in the survey, Instagram user “upperchewngi” commented: “can you please take this down? the people who received the survey were advised not to spread it on social media so that conservatives don’t take over the form and skew the answers”.
Another Instagram user “_popickdra_” said, “I was strictly following the message not to spread,” and alluded to efforts to keep the survey “internalised.” This further implies that there was an “out group,” such as conservative group “We Are Against PinkDot.”
In reply, Wake Up Singapore said: “Suppression is neither strategic nor wise. We will not take it down. The conservatives are free to participate in (or even flood) the survey, and so are we. The solution here isn’t to try and hide the survey so that only select networks can access it. Chances are that the same groups you are trying to “hide” the survey from will access it anyway. Rather, we must ensure that as many people as possible have the opportunity to participate in this process.”
It is unclear where the survey was first publicised and whom it was first given to.
This lack of publicity limits the quality and representation of the survey. Had it continued on closed networks, it might be arguable that despite REACH being open to public participation, the respondents would have been self-selecting. If the survey had not gone beyond these closed networks (which seem to view ‘conservatives’ as an enemy) that had both knowledge of the survey and incentive to participate, ‘conservatives’ or the ‘silent majority’ had no such access and would have continued to be silent.
The counterfactual is also interesting. Had conservatives been the one trying to keep it “internalised,” what would the reaction be?
Rallying Interest Groups to Participate
The Government is well aware of the polarising nature of matters relating to LGBT+. Yet there is nothing to stop groups on one end or the other in relation to LGBT+ causes from rallying their followers to participate in the survey.
For example, pro-LGBT+ individuals like Kirsten Han have said on Twitter: “I’m only filling this ‘cos I think the survey will hit conservative Christian circles, they will reply en masse, and next thing you know the results are used by the government to justify policy.”
Wake Up Singapore similarly called on followers to go and do the survey, “before conservatives flood the survey en masse”, and the survey’s results are used to justify the retention of “archaic and discriminatory laws”.
Activist media like TheHomeGround Asia was quick to point fingers, suggesting that the survey “might have been compromised by groups termed as “right wingers” or “zealots”.”
Indeed, a post in the Facebook group “We Are Against Pinkdot in Singapore” also called on members to participate in the survey, stating: “Let’s make our perspective heard.”
While there is nothing intrinsically wrong with activism or the use of surveys or polls, results may be compromised when activists begin to fill polls out of fear of the “other side.” The results will reflect reactionary sentiments and produce disproportionately high numbers relative to other surveys, as seen from this episode.
Moreover, this has also revealed a massive trust deficit between communities and may have gone some way to undermining trust towards the government as well. There was backlash from multiple sides, demonstrating the complex nature of the issue and how even innocuous attempts at data collection can deepen divisiveness in society.
Being Charitable with REACH
How then should we think of the strange genesis and abrupt closure of the survey? Should we expect REACH to be comprehensive in its data-gathering process and produce strong quantitative data? Considering its role as a ‘listening post,’ perhaps not. Moreover, while it has been excellent for gathering feedback on less-contested issues, it may not have been the most suitable tool deployed for this issue. Not because it is inept, but rather because the sensitivity of the issue requires a much more cautious and calibrated approach.
Where Singaporeans feel that issues of civil rights and irrevocable threats to the cultural and social fabric are afoot, a simple survey may not have been the most appropriate release valve for pent-up frustrations. While the government likely has more scheduled nuanced consultation and listening sessions with the community and stakeholders in the pipeline, the online furore around this is yet another reminder that the contestation around LGBT issues is a different animal altogether, requiring a different method of citizen engagement.
It is also apparent that REACH’s goal was not in fact to produce a quantitatively rigorous and granular study on the proportions of people in favour of and in opposition to LGBT issues. It was not a numbers game, and never about a rush to shore up representativeness though it seems to have been treated as such by interest groups.
One could reasonably presume that the anonymity and possibility of multiple responses was not a methodological oversight but rather reflective of REACH’s mission as a general listening post. This helps establish the broad categories of issues that need to be addressed and identifies the arms of government that need to be tasked with the work.
Even so, there are concerns to be raised about who in particular was speaking while the government was listening and if they were even Singaporean at all. The only personal details sought are one’s gender, nationality, race, year of birth, occupation, and current personal monthly income (before deducting CPF contributions).
As Facebook user Edric Sng wrote: “How do we know if people are submitting multiple entries? How do we know they are responding from Singapore? How can we verify any of the demographic details (race, citizenship, etc)?”
Finally, the survey included a “non-binary” option to the respondent’s list, presumably a nod to the self-identification of persons they hoped to hear from (and not offend). This is notable since one’s experience of being “non-binary” is entirely subjective and not a hard scientific category in differentiating between men and women. It is interesting that the government gave credence to this constructed category of persons. It further raises questions on whether the Singapore government is able to justify the grounds of this category’s inclusion in the survey which introduces a contested understanding of human anthropology itself.
There have also been criticisms about the methodological weaknesses of the survey. If anything, this shows that LGBT issues are multi-faceted and highly nuanced. It is apparent from the public reaction to the survey that it was written and approved by individuals who might be unfamiliar with the complexity of the issue and naive to the reaction that this survey would elicit.
1. Unclear or Undefined Terminologies
Not to sound like a survey nazi, but perhaps the most obvious basic issue was that the survey repeatedly used abbreviations like “LGBT+” without specifically spelling out what this means. Inevitably, only those people who know what “LGBT+” stands for, or are able and willing to find out what the term refers to, would have been able to answer the survey in a meaningful manner. Digital natives may have taken this for granted, but for a survey that purports to be open to “everyone”, it wasn’t particularly accommodating.
Throughout the survey, terms such as “accept” and “support” for the “LGBT+ community” or “LGBT+ causes” were used. There are also questions about whether LGBT+ people are “treated differently because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity” which could have been read in two opposing ways; a person can be treated “differently” because that person is treated better and with more social sensitivity, or be treated “differently” because that person is treated worse and discriminated against.
Dealing with an issue as complex as this one, many would have answered questions with nuance. If an average score was sought at the end to represent the views collected, much of this nuance might indeed be lost. For example,
Q7. “I feel that the LGBT+ Community is accepted in Singapore.”
This simple question seems to have encountered some consternation from both sides.
Alternatively, one may “strongly agree” with the question, and subsequently explain that they strongly agree that the LGBT community is accepted are not legally disadvantaged or socially persecuted, and therefore feel the S377A status quo works well to preserve public morality.
However, in the final outcome when scored, the results may be interpreted something like “An average of 4.5/5.0 “strongly agree” that LGBT+ community is accepted, and therefore we should move towards repealing S377A.”
Q11. I have taken part in activities and causes to show support for the LGBT+ community.”
This question does not provide the opportunity to clarify that one can serve the LGBT community while not agreeing with the general tone of Singapore LGBT activism. It further entrenches the for-or-against binary without appreciation for important nuances in-between.
These terms are all open-textured and open to a wide range of interpretations, leaving respondents to their own subjective interpretations of the terms.
2. Only Available Online and in English
Apart from the difficulties with terms, the survey was only available online and in English. This means that the ones who will be able to answer the survey must both have sufficient knowledge of the English language and a certain degree of ability to use the e-listening post.
These tend to exclude those who are not proficient in English, as well as the less tech-savvy in Singapore, such as the elderly, persons with disabilities and less privileged groups.
It is unclear whether there is any effort to ensure the received information is representative of the nation’s general population, for example, to ensure that the demographic of respondents mirrors the demography of Singapore. It therefore remains to be seen if less tech-savvy Singaporeans will be proportionately consulted for their views on public morality or if they will be excluded from government listening exercises, signalling their irrelevance to policymaking.
3. Double-Barrelled Questions
The survey also appears to assume that the LGBT+ community exists only as a political movement to push for LGBT+ causes, and that supporting the LGBT+ community and supporting LGBT+ causes are the same thing, as shown in the questions:
- Question 9: “I am supportive of the LGBT+ community and its causes.”
- Question 11: “I have taken part in activities and causes to show support for the LGBT+ community.”
Respondents are given five options: Strongly Agree, Agree, Neutral, Disagree and Strongly Disagree.
These are double-barrelled questions, which can confuse respondents or obfuscate the results, especially since the “LGBT+ community” and “LGBT+ causes” are distinct matters.
One can indeed be “neutral” or “positive” towards LGBT persons and their community, but unfavourable toward their causes. Unfortunately again, the question does not make that distinction.
Instead, we are left with a situation where a “neutral” or “positive” response to the above questions could eventually be interpreted and reported as, “Locals are either ‘neutral or very supportive of LGBT community AND their causes’ therefore, we will modify our regulations to permit the registration of LGBT+ organisations, to receive funding, and to promote their causes in SG.”
Further, there can be a wide range of responses that differentiate between the “LGBT+ community” and “LGBT+ Causes”. For example:
- What if someone identifies as LGBT+ and meets regularly with the LGBT+ community, participates in their activities, but is uncomfortable with participating in LGBT+ causes like Pink Dot?
- What if someone is not involved with certain LGBT+ causes (e.g. seeking to legalise same-sex marriage), but believes in supporting other causes like shelters for transgendered people?
- What if a religious individual or group spends significant amounts of time with people who identify as LGBT+, supports them in the midst of life’s challenges, but does not agree with causes that seek to repeal Section 377A?
Unfortunately, the questions do not allow for these distinctions either.
Good Intentions, Poor Methods
With all the methodological problems above, how useful are the survey results?
The answer is that the survey results are likely not going to be very useful. The results which are obtained are not likely to be very credible, and not likely to give any meaningful insight into attitudes relating to LGBT+ issues or Section 377A. It is doubtful that any government agencies can or should use the data for any policy updates and changes, if at all.
The intentions of the Government to engage the public in relation to LGBT+ issues and Section 377A are commendable, but the methods (through this survey) are questionable.
During a speech in November 2021, Finance Minister Lawrence Wong spoke on “New Tribalism and Identity Politics”, stating that “we will never let any group feel unheard, ignored or excluded. We will never let any group feel boxed in or ostracised. All must feel that they are part of the Singapore conversation; all must feel they are part of the Singapore family; all must feel there is hope for the future.”
Quality of perspectives matters more than the number of respondents. Closed-door dialogues with experts and stakeholders may be more useful than mile wide inch deep surveys in articulating and addressing concerns, as well as formulating policy in a comprehensive and systematic manner.