At a recent Singapore Tech Forum, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong lauded LGBT individuals as “valued members of society”. PM Lee’s comments quickly drew the ire of the local LGBT community across social media (see Kyle Malinda-White’s commentary here) for an obvious reason: the Singapore government’s attitude towards gay and lesbian people has always been one of reluctance. At best, moderated acceptance. As reported in Bloomberg:
“These things shift, but we have to give them time,” Lee said during a question-and-answer session at the Singapore Tech Forum, where he used a keynote address to promote the country to the industry. “I think it is unwise to force it, because there will be a push back and you’ll end up with polarization and be in a worse place than we are.”
Consider the similarity in tone to Lee Kuan Yew’s remarks from a 1998 CNN interview:
“It’s not a matter which I can decide or any government can decide,” said Lee. “It’s a question of what a society considers acceptable. 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.”
Yet, there’s no question that Singapore’s laws treat heterosexuality and homosexuality differently.
Perhaps the most tangible form of institutional discrimination against LGBT individuals lies in housing. Singapore’s housing policy indirectly discriminates against the LGBT community (singles too) since they cannot purchase readily affordable public housing that is availed only to legally recognised married couples. When they can finally do so at 35, choices are limited (2-room or a resale flat), not to mention having suffered an indirect loss in capital investment. To make it worse, an LGBT couple’s combined earning power by the age of 35 might exceed the price ceiling of $9,000, thereby disqualifying them from the purchase entirely. Unless they’re millionaires in their 20s, there is very little scope for alternatives. Elsewhere, they are also unable to access spousal visas to bring in their partners like straight couples can, or legally adopt children.
LGBT individuals can also be said to suffer from more intangible forms of discrimination from other laws, by the way it influences societal attitudes to think of them as “lesser people”. The notorious anti-LGBT law 377A remains on the legislative books, albeit unenforced. A state-controlled media has been able to constrict one dominant avenue by which public perception would change, by subtly defining the boundaries of “acceptable” lifestyles and influence societal attitudes towards homosexuality through decades of approved broadcast programming.
Suffice to say, if the standards used to judge how LGBT-friendly Singapore is are the same legal frameworks in developed Western countries adhere to, Singapore falls drastically short. Formally institutionalised discrimination against LGBT individuals exists, and to deny this institutional injustice is patently dishonest.
Yet, it is undeniable that a moderate degree of LGBT freedom exists in Singapore. We can agree that Singapore is no Canada or Sweden. But it is also certainly no Russia where a recently passed law punishes the transmission of LGBT materials, or anything close to our Southeast-Asian neighbours like Indonesia and Malaysia (let alone many other Middle-Eastern countries where homosexuality is legally punishable by death).
The LGBT community in Singapore does not face the same kind of blatantly vicious, homophobic persecution elsewhere. The government does not enforce anti-LGBT laws, it tolerates gay pride events, and has allowed LGBT nightlife establishments and activities to operate freely since the 1960s. Outside of the aforementioned legal instances, gay people in Singapore are are not structurally marginalised in the education system or private sector, and are afforded all legal protections as do straight people. As recent as 2019, amendments were made to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act that explicitly afforded protection against hate violence to the LGBT community.
The fundamental question that I am interested in, and that confronts the social scientist is this: What are the institutional factors that drove LGBT liberalisation in Singapore, and continues to do so? What incentivises a higher degree of state tolerance for homosexuality in Singapore?
My hunch: Free market capitalist institutions and its high economic freedoms has led to greater LGBT freedoms in Singapore overtime.
How capitalism thwarts bigotry
Nothing breaks down discriminatory barriers and attitudes like free markets. Capitalism is an economic system embedded in a rule of law, that incentivises voluntary trade and social interaction through the lure of profits.
At the microeconomic level, it’s easy to see how markets punish discrimination. A capitalist system may allow a businessperson the right to be racist or sexist, but it costs him. By refusing to hire minority workers or to serve gay customers, it merely means that talent or business is lost to a socially tolerant competitor. Moreover, as societal attitudes become more progressive, the reputational costs of being a bigot increase. We can think of it as a societal “tax” on bigotry, which works to disincentivises and deter these attitudes overtime.
The same is true at the macroeconomic level. Politicians who desire economic growth will find it increasingly harder to maintain socially regressive policies for the obvious reason that it deters potential investors and foreign talent. Not only does this deter the attraction of the best talents, it contributes to unwanted brain drain among the young (whom tend to be socially progressive). According to a 2010 Institute of Policy Studies poll, 42% of young Singaporeans passively think of emigration, while 26% actively seek avenues to emigrate. A 2017 Randstad study finds that the threat of brain drain is particularly high in Singapore. Six in ten employees in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia are willing to emigrate for a job that is not available in their home country. This puts the rate at 61%, far higher than the global average of 50%.
Official government statistics show that the overseas Singaporean population in 2019 has steadily increased to 217,200 from 157,800 in 2004, prompting ex-Prime-Minister Goh Chok Tong to have once snarkily referred to such Singaporeans as “fair-weather Singaporeans” and “quitters” at one point.
Since emigrants tend to be educated university graduates, this is a problem for Singapore’s policymakers. Coupled with perennial labour shortages and a rapidly aging population, this greatly hurts Singapore’s bottom line, whose human capital is its greatest resource. What makes this doubly worse is that in a post-COVID-19 world where digitization is rampant, young talent in tech that the city-state can scarce afford to lose also tend to be the ones whom are most socially progressive, and in favour of LGBT legalisation and acceptance.
For a government as obsessed with economic growth as the PAP is, they understood clearly that Singapore could ill-afford to be perceived as a bigoted society. It’s not a surprise that the rhetoric of the government for many years now, has been LGBT-friendly. Yes, it is hollow and not consistent with policy. But it is a step up from the openly LGBT-hostile rhetoric that is commonly made by politicians elsewhere (consider that Mahathir as recent as 2018 said that same sex marriage were not in line with Malaysian culture and values and “only for the West”). Rhetoric matters because policymakers set themselves up with a visible yardstick by which citizens can assess them against.
But here’s the crux: What drives this LGBT-friendly rhetoric, is the pursuit of capitalistic economic growth. The PAP’s goal of economic growth has had an indirect, ameliorating effect on the government’s historically hard-line position of preserving “conservative values” and the heterosexual family nucleus. Insofar as PAP policymakers continue to do so (and all signs continue point this way), it means that the path toward legal and social liberalisation of LGBT attitudes will continually be trodden down upon.
Neither is this a new phenomenon. It goes far back to the government’s Renaissance City Plans since 1999 that sought to spearhead Singapore’s nascent arts and culture sector and usher a transformation into a globalised city-state. Its intended policy goal was to stimulate economic growth by creating a culturally vibrant environment that would attract innovation and creative individuals. As the NUS sociologist Daniel Goh puts it:
The cultural contradiction originated in the politics of the 1980s and early 1990s when the state pitted conservative “Asian values” (generally interpreted to be hard work, deference for authority, and privileging community interests over those of the individual) against liberal “Western” values (generally interpreted to be liberalism, decadence and individualism) to stem the wave of democratization in Asia. This period also saw the rise of fundamentalist religious movements, with the conservative state conditioning their political orientation. However, the developmental state moderated its conservatism and liberalized the public sphere in the late 1990s to 2010s, as it embraced globalization and sought to transform Singapore into a cosmopolitan and inclusive global city.
Against such a backdrop, any anti-LGBT actions by the government would be politically exposed as contradictory, and their hypocrisy intensified and left to fester in the media limelight. Even if that does not push for 377A to be immediately abolished, or gay marriages to be legalised, it does however act as a great disincentive for the state to treat LGBT individuals poorly, because it runs counter to their broader economic policy goals of creating a cultural environment that is open, tolerant and accepting.
Does capitalism trump bigotry?
One counterargument to my thesis would be that it is just because “times are changing”, hence the PAP had to “go along with it”. Yes, the world is getting more progressive, but it fails to explain why numerous countries are still able to continue imposing increasingly harsh and repressive laws against homosexuals.
Economic liberalisation and free markets allows a diversity of values to flourish. It is those economies that open up and depend most heavily on free trade and exchange that soonest usher in social liberalisation. As the British author Matt Ridley puts it, human progress is driven when societies best facilitate “ideas to have sex with each other”. Economic freedoms are one necessary precondition for social and political freedoms, and we see this clearly in the arena of LGBT freedoms in Singapore.
In contrast, authoritarian governments that are not interested in pursuing economic growth, or whom are able to achieve some semblance of growth without opening up their economies (natural-resource-rich countries), tend to be the least socially tolerant countries where minorities are most heavily marginalised.
Look around the world, it’s no secret that the most economically free cities also tend to be the ones whom are most socially progressive and accepting of different ideas. This insight was captured in a famous thesis by the economist Richard Florida, who argued that a crucial driver to economic growth lies in the society’s ability to attract such a “creative class” of individuals. Such societies were knowledge hubs that drew the smartest, most innovative, and diverse populations. Oh, and such cities also had the highest concentrations of gay people.
That economic prosperity correlates with social progressiveness is not a surprising find — this dovetails with research in historical anthropology as well. As the economist Herbert Gintis finds, socially progressive attitudes are most visible in countries with freer market economies:
Movements for religious and lifestyle tolerance, gender equality, and democracy have ﬂourished and triumphed in societies governed by market exchange, and nowhere else. My colleagues and I found dramatic evidence of this positive relationship between markets and morality in our study of fairness in simple societies — hunter-gatherers, horticulturalists, nomadic herders, and small-scale sedentary farmers — in Africa, Latin America, and Asia. Twelve professional anthropologists and economists visited these societies and played standard ultimatum, public goods, and trust games with the locals. As in advanced industrial societies, members of all of these societies exhibited a considerable degree of moral motivation and a willingness to sacriﬁce monetary gain to achieve fairness and reciprocity, even in anonymous one-shot situations. More interesting for our purposes, we measured the degree of market exposure and cooperation in production for each society, and we found that the ones that regularly engage in market exchange with larger surrounding groups have more pronounced fairness motivations. The notion that the market economy makes people greedy, selﬁsh, and amoral is simply fallacious.
There is one way by which my argument fails. Are there examples of countries that has high LGBT freedoms and low economic freedoms? If so, then that would seem to considerably weaken economic freedom (capitalism) as an explanatory factor for what led to or at least improved LGBT freedoms in Singapore.
I’m well aware that this argument is not particularly convincing to many LGBT activists, since they tend to be Left-leaning and somewhat anti-capitalist in their political orientation. Yet, it does not change the fact that free market capitalism is an ally, rather than enemy to LGBT freedoms. Classical liberal philosophy and free market thinkers have a long history of recognising and fighting against the marginalisation of gay people. For more, see this fantastic article by the Libertarian intellectual David Boaz.
Donovan Choy is a Visiting Research Fellow at the Adam Smith Center Singapore. He is co-author of the book Liberalism Unveiled: Forging a New Third Way in Singapore, a classical liberal analysis of Singapore’s policy discourse.