Will ageing demographics and socioeconomic factors drive reform of Singapore’s LGBT policies?

Rainbow wall.

The December 2017 case of a gay doctor in Singapore unable to adopt his biological son — born in the US through surrogacy — highlights a key element of SIngapore’s population policies that should be reformed if it hopes to ameliorate problems associated with its low fertility rate and demographic problems. Legalising same-sex partnerships, as well as recognising and legitimising the children of such unions, could be one solution to resolving its demographic challenges.

Besides an ageing population, Singapore faces a low fertility rates that place it on the brink of a demographic time bomb; in 2017 it’s statistics department reported a total fertility rate (TFR) of 1.16, while according to information from consumer data provider Statista, the city-state has the lowest TFR in the world at 0.83.

Fertility rates from 1990 to 2015. Source: World Bank

Meanwhile, data from the World Bank indicates that in 2015, Singapore posted a fertility rate of 1.24, while peer nations Hong Kong and Japan reported rates of 1.2 and 1.46 respectively, compared to a global average of 2.45.

2017 saw the legalisation of homosexual marriage in Germany, Australia and the recognition of same-sex unions in Taiwan. Given this trend in developed economies, there are multiple factors that, when combined, make a strong case for Singapore to legitimise same-sex partnerships and review its attitudes to such relationships and move beyond a state The Economist termed a ‘permanent parole’ in 2014.

On 26 June 2015, the US Supreme Court ruled gay marriage as a right protected under its constitution across all states. Prior to this, same-sex marriage was already legal in 37 states and its federal capital, Washington DC, but was banned in the remaining 13.

Other modern nations which have legalised same-sex partnerships include the likes of Austria, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada, Sweden, Spain and Switzerland, among others. Australia — the Western nation geographically closest to Singapore and one with which it has extensive defence, economic and people-to-people links — arguably stands to enjoy economic gains from legalising same-sex unions, which it did in December 2017.

Socioeconomic perspective

In a 2013 Financial Times piece, Paul Donovan, the Global Chief Economist of UBS Wealth Management, argued that from an economic perspective, businesses stood to benefit through the increased productivity, higher talent attraction and a decreased chance of consumer backlash.

Additionally, he cited that such a move could help overcome the social discrimination against the LGBT community, which inhibited their their labour productivity and potential, arguing that such social marginalisation wasted human capital. Donovan observed:

Over fifty years of studies have shown that repeated discrimination changes the way people behave. If a group in society are told again and again that they are less valuable, they are likely to be less ambitious and to underachieve academically or in the workplace. That robs the economy of human capital it would otherwise have had.”

“A 2011 US study suggested that lesbian, bisexual, gay and transgender employees who felt unable to be honest about their sexual orientation were far less likely to reach positions in senior management. Even relatively tolerant Sweden found that homosexual men are 1.5 per cent less likely to hold a professional position when compared to equally qualified heterosexual men.”

Societies that marginalise minority communities also generate human capital disincentives, making it harder to attract and retain talent. Already, Singapore is the oldest society in Southeast Asia, with a median age of the resident population at 40.5 years as of 2017, while Southeast Asia’s will be 29.8 years in 2020.

Per capita carbon footprint from 1990 to 2015. Source: World Bank

When coupled with Singapore’s environmental credit crunch — it consumes natural sources at an unsustainable rate and has a per capita carbon footprint comparable to Japan — as well as it ageing population — no economic argument can support a society inhibiting its citizens from reaching their full abilities and economic potential, as well as the need to generate innovative and sustainable environmental and urban solutions.

Moreover, according to the findings of a report by UOB Research released in December 2017, Singapore will reach a critical demographic crossroads this year, with the percentage of residents above 65 years of old equal to that those below 15 years of old at 14%, according to UOB economist Francis Tan.

Noting that the gap would only widen, Tan commented: “By 2030, we estimate the percentage of below 15 year olds to fall to only 11%, while that of the above 65 year olds will reach 27% of the resident population. That will put us in the similar situation as Japan today. And it is only a short 12 years away.”

LGBT situation in Singapore

Since its independence, Singapore’s government has officially prohibited “obscene acts” between consenting men through Section 377A but does little to enforce this measure.

It does not enforce this measure in any capacity and in fact seemingly tolerates the existence of the Pink Dot SG, a non-profit event that was started in 2009 and arguably promotes the interest of the LGBT community in SIngapore.

However in 2017, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs banned foreign residents and entities from organising and participating in the event, rationalising that such discourse should be limited to its own citizens and permanent residents. This move came in response to pressure from more vocal elements of Singapore’s Christian community, who have opposed the event for a number of years.

Ironically, the late Lee Kuan Yew (LKY), Singapore’s first prime minister, was known to question his country’s sexuality ban. On the evening of Friday, 11 December 1998, on an interview with CNN International radio programme hosted by Rizwan Khan, when questioned by a gay man in Singapore about the future of homosexual policy in Singapore, 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.”

In 2011, in an excerpt on page 377 of his book Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going — the last of an autobiographical trilogy — Lee opined: “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?”

However, in 2015, Singapore’s current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, restated the government’s position that Singapore’s society was unprepared for such developments, stating: “There is space for the gay community but they should not push the agenda too hard because if they push the agenda too hard, there will be a very strong pushback. And this is not an issue where there is a possibility that the two sides can discuss and eventually come to a consensus. Now, these are very entrenched views and the more you discuss, the angrier people get.”

While public attitudes have remained largely conservative and inimical towards open acceptance of homosexuality and the implications of same-sex partnerships, being highly polarised and being predominantly negative, the results of a survey published in 2013 — the latest research indicated attitudes were slowly shifting to being more favourable of homosexuals in the city-state.

In 2005, an estimated 69% of respondents maintained negative attitudes towards homosexuality while 23% maintained a positive inclinatio. In 2010, this shifted to 65% of survey respondents being negatively inclined to homosexuality while 25% were accepting of it, with religiosity being a major determinant in attitudes to homosexuality.

While older individuals tended to maintain more negative attitudes towards sexual minorities, as did those with lower levels of education and income, those with higher levels of education and freethinkers tended to maintain more positive attitudes, as did those who experienced higher interpersonal contact with sexual minorities and consumed media featuring characters possessed of homosexual orientations.

Associate Professor Benjamin Detenber of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, who led the team that conducted this study in early 2010, noted: “Clearly, public opinion is still highly polarised on this issue, but slightly more people are sharing the middle ground in 2010 compared to 2005.”

Meanwhile, an opinion piece in Singapore’s state media, The Straits Times, which focused on amendments made to the Public Order Act in Q1 2017, cited media reports indicating that attendance at Pink Dot has increased from 2,500 people in 2009 to an estimated 28,000 by 2015. This suggests that gradually, public attitudes are shifting towards a more open acceptance of homosexuality and other seuxal minorities in the city-state.

Conclusion

While those opposed to same-sex partnerships argue against legitimising such unions — opponents argue that such parenting has a direct negative impact on the welfare of children in such a setting — there is scant evidence to suggest this, with a March 2013 report from the American Academy of Paediatrics suggesting otherwise.

In fact, contemporary evidence suggests homosexual parents are arguably on par with traditional heterosexual couples in this domain and has negligible impact on fertility rates or child-rearing. However, it still remains possible that children of same-sex unions may suffer indirectly from social stigmatisation and other effects.

However, according to one Quora post, legitimising same-sex partnerships are unlikely to impact birthrates and overall demographic trends, with Canada being the case in point. Since the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2005, Canada’s fertility rate has been stable, a slight increase being mostly counterbalanced by a slight decline following the 2008 global financial crisis. This also corresponds to fertility rate trends seen in countries which have legalised same-sex partnerships.

Fertility rate of countries where same-sex partnerships are legalised. Source: World Bank

Historically, marriage is an evolving institution and has taken different forms that range from monogamous to polygamous arrangements in different societies. It is likely that moves to institute legitimacy for same-sex partnerships will cause social friction for a brief period, but it would also serve to to foster social integration — the dynamic and principled inclusion of a community’s values and norms into the social mainstream — as a means of eventually legitimising same-sex partnerships in a mainstream context.

While still socially conservative on the whole, Singapore could potentially benefit from reforms legitimising same-sex partnerships. Given the socioeconomic benefits it could reap — particularly in the human capital dimension — this would enable it to enhance its socioeconomic potential and indirectly improve the psychosocial and welfare outcomes of same-sex unions, given the higher levels of psychological distress same-sex couples experience relative to the general population.

With an ageing society and abysmal fertility rates that could impact Singapore’s status as an Indo-APAC commercial centre — the city-state is also grappling with a social class divide and various other socioeconomic pressures — it will have to implement measures that differentiate itself in order to remain economically competitive and relevant.

Seeking to include and integrate traditionally marginalised same-sex couples — and granting them the rights and privileges enjoyed by heteronormative couples — into mainstream society is one method that could aid in differentiating its offerings as a nation, as well as enhancing the diversity of its social milieu and strengthening its ability to attract and retain talent.

While this certainly won’t resolve the problem of its fertility shortfall, inadequate fertility rate, potential models to mitigate this exist in France and other European nations, as well as the more radical solutions that involve changes to its working culture could reverse this trend.

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