Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

To foster a more progressive economic image, Singapore lifted a government ban on hiring lesbian and gay civil servants. However, homosexual acts remain illegal in the socially conservative and tightly controlled republic.

Summary of Event

Singapore is a small island city-state in Southeast Asia. Around three-fourths of the population of approximately four million are Chinese; Muslim Malays make up the largest minority group. A British colony until 1959 and independent since 1963, Singapore inherited much of its political and legal framework from the British, including proscriptions against homosexual Homosexuality;in Singapore[Singapore] conduct. These laws include Section 377 of the penal code, which prohibits “carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals”; Section 377A, which applies only to acts by a man “of gross indecency with another male person”; and sections on outrage of modesty, soliciting, and obscene gestures. [kw]Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees (July, 2003) [kw]Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees, Singapore Lifts (July, 2003) [kw]Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees, Singapore Lifts Ban on (July, 2003) [kw]Lesbian and Gay Employees, Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring (July, 2003) [kw]Gay Employees, Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and (July, 2003) [kw]Employees, Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay (July, 2003) Employment rights;Singapore Civil rights;Singapore [c]Civil rights;July, 2003: Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees[2720] [c]Economics;July, 2003: Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees[2720] [c]Government and politics;July, 2003: Singapore Lifts Ban on Hiring Lesbian and Gay Employees[2720] Tong, Goh Chok

Given both the illegality of homosexual acts and the social stigma attached to nonnormative gender identity and sexual behavior, it has long been assumed that gay or lesbian civil servants (ranging from diplomats to local bureaucrats to teachers) would be at risk of blackmail. Therefore, they were—usually quietly—kept from at least high-level or sensitive positions. While some private sector firms, especially multinational ones, do have policies of nondiscrimination on grounds of sexuality, such provisions are rare in Singapore. Few Singaporeans are “out” as gay, lesbian, bisexual, or transgender, despite the availability of gay bars and other venues since the 1960’s. Nevertheless, especially since the late 1980’s, an increasingly vibrant GLBT community, a lively Internet scene, and a GLBT organization known as People Like Us (PLU), which formed in 1993, have made Singapore more friendly to GLBT persons, if only incrementally.

In July, 2003, Singapore’s prime minister Goh Chok Tong announced in an interview with Simon Elegant of Time magazine that gays and lesbians would henceforth be allowed to serve openly in the civil service, even in sensitive positions. The policy change was not formally codified, and in fact Goh and the Public Service Department (PSD) suggested that administrators had already been quietly turning a blind eye to sexual orientation. In a speech delivered at the National Day Rally on August 17, 2003, he explained that “gays too need to make a living” and suggested that the private sector would likely follow the lead of the public sector.

The motive for the change was economic. Goh and others cited in particular a study by economics and urban planning specialist Richard Florida (The Rise of the Creative Class, 2002), which argues that creativity is key to competitive advantage in the contemporary global economy. A city’s tolerance for gays and lesbians proves a good indicator of the sort of openness and diversity that attract the high-tech workers and other talented people who comprise the “creative class” and spur economic dynamism.

At the time, Singapore was in the midst of an ongoing economic recession and rising unemployment. For Singapore to “move up the value chain into higher-skilled jobs” thus required fostering creativity and taking innovative steps to lure foreign talent and investment. Goh elaborated the following month that his government would “have to cut loose the apron strings” so Singapore could “become a vibrant society with a strong entrepreneurial streak…less strait-laced and Victorian [and more] self-reliant and robust.” At the same time, Goh and other government officials wished both to avoid endorsing homosexuality and to deter vocal gay rights activism in socially conservative Singapore.

Significance

The change in civil service policy seemed to indicate a loosening of Singapore’s “nanny state” mentality (the government’s reputation for meddling) and accelerated a shift toward openness and activism. Goh’s remarks were followed by a spate of positive media attention to GLBT issues and the power of the “pink dollar,” stepped-up relaxation of censorship controls on arts and media, and a newly optimistic effort by PLU to press for official recognition of the group and decriminalization of homosexual activity.

Such trends and initiatives had begun much earlier, but Goh’s imprimatur both forced the issue out into the open and helped legitimate gays’ and lesbians’ claims to equal rights. Within a matter of months, however, the media had retreated from its prolific favorable coverage of GLBT issues, the government had reasserted its determination to sustain the ban on same-gender sexuality, and PLU was officially declared an illegal organization and ordered to cease all public activities.

It is impossible to say what impact, if any, the new civil service policy has had, but many GLBT activists remain pessimistic. The Public Service Department claims not to have received any reports of “blackmail or discrimination against any civil servant due to his or her sexual orientation,” and coming out will not be grounds for prosecution. However, the PSD “does not track the statistics on the sexual orientation of civil servants.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests that there has been some greater openness toward lesbian and gay employees. All the same, as PLU asserts that “It is a glaring contradiction to ask civil servants to declare openly that they are gay and then still to say that it is a crime.” Employment rights;Singapore Civil rights;Singapore

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Au Waipang. “Gay Civil Servants, and What Next?” July, 2003. http://www.yawningbread.org/ index2.htm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Elegant, Simon. “The Lion in Winter.” Time, July 7, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Florida, Richard. The Rise of the Creative Class: And How It’s Transforming Work, Leisure, Community, and Everyday Life. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Heng, Russell Hiang Khng. “Tiptoe Out of the Closet: The Before and After of the Increasingly Visible Gay Community in Singapore.” Journal of Homosexuality 40, nos. 3/4 (2001): 81-97.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lo, Joseph, and Huang Guoqin. People Like Us: Sexual Minorities in Singapore. Singapore: Select Books, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lo, Leona. My Sisters, Their Stories. Singapore: Select Books, 2003.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">People Like Us. “Frequently Asked Questions About People Like Us.” http://www.geocities .com/plusg1/faq_01.htm.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Singapore Penal Code. http://statutes.agc.gov.sg.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Weiss, Meredith L. “Who Sets Social Policy in Metropolis? Economic Positioning and Social Reform in Singapore.” Paper presented at the annual meeting of American Political Science Association, Chicago, September 2-5, 2004.

April 27, 1953: U.S. President Eisenhower Prohibits Federal Employment of Lesbians and Gays

1972-1973: Local Governments Pass Antidiscrimination Laws

June 27, 1974: Abzug and Koch Attempt to Amend the Civil Rights Act of 1964

July 3, 1975: U.S. Civil Service Commission Prohibits Discrimination Against Federal Employees

1978: Lesbian and Gay Workplace Movement Is Founded

June 2, 1980: Canadian Gay Postal Workers Secure Union Protections

December 4, 1984: Berkeley Extends Benefits to Domestic Partners of City Employees

November 8, 1988: Oregon Repeals Ban on Antigay Job Discrimination

May 1, 1989: U.S. Supreme Court Rules Gender-Role Stereotyping Is Discriminatory

September 29, 1991: California Governor Wilson Vetoes Antidiscrimination Bill

September 23, 1992: Massachusetts Grants Family Rights to Gay and Lesbian State Workers

1994: Employment Non-Discrimination Act Is Proposed to U.S. Congress

April 2, 1998: Canadian Supreme Court Reverses Gay Academic’s Firing

July, 2003: Wal-Mart Adds Lesbians and Gays to Its Antidiscrimination Policy

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