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Singapore sex on the straight and narrow

By Alex Au
May 17, 2007

SINGAPORE - Singapore will host its first Formula One motor race in 2008, following the signing of a recent agreement in London between Formula One Management and well-known Singapore tycoon Ong Beng Seng. But is the Singaporean government true to its recent stated drive to allow for a racier, more liberal society?

For decades, it was accepted wisdom in the city-state that car racing was one of the degenerate activities that the former Lee Kuan Yew-led government had swept away, never to return. There had been an annual Grand Prix from 1962 to 1972, but closing roads and ensuring safety for the race was then not considered economically rational, and that glamorizing speed could have negative social effects.

In 2005, Lee, now Minister Mentor in his son Lee Hsien Loong's cabinet, reversed that sentiment when he said he regretted that Singapore didn't host an F1 race. He might not have spelt it out, but everyone knew that Malaysia's tourism receipts from its Sepang race were on his mind. Immediately, government officials began to take a serious interest in the idea, participating in discussions that led up to the recent signing.

So does this represent another step in Singapore's gradual liberalization? On the surface, it does: part of Lee junior's drive to make the city state a more exciting place in which to work and live is a move toward engendering in the population what he once referred to as the "X factor".

Like the earlier decision to allow for the construction of two new mega-casinos, however, the justification was primarily economic rather than a genuine social loosening. And like the casino question, it took some public musings by the Minister Mentor Lee to uncork the stifled public debate.

Now there is a third instance of the senior Lee musing aloud, which if followed up by government would represent a genuine opening of Singapore's highly repressed society. Last month, the Mentor Minister Lee told Reuters that "eventually" the law against homosexual sex would have to be repealed. "If this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world - and I think it is - then I see no option for Singapore but to be part of it," Lee said.

Currently, Singapore has two laws criminalizing homosexuality. Section 377 of the Penal Code makes "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" - usually interpreted to mean oral sex and anal sex - a crime punishable with up to life imprisonment. The law makes no distinction as to whether the parties are heterosexual or homosexual, or whether the act takes place in public or in private. Section 377A, meanwhile, makes undefined acts of so-called "gross indecency" between two consenting men - whether in public or in private - an offence punishable with up to two years in jail. By its wording, it targets only gay males, not females.

While the government has not actively enforced the draconian laws for over a decade, the legislation has created a climate that allows for discriminatory practices in employment and other areas. Singapore has seen a steady brain-drain of gay professionals to more welcoming foreign destinations in the West, and more recently the climate of intolerance has complicated the government's drive to attract more foreign talent.

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