I attended the Population Townhall on 9 Oct, a consultation organised by REACH and the National Population and Talent Division as part of public engagement initiatives for our population issues. Citizens who completed the questionnaire posted on www.population.sg were invited to attend the session.
I wanted to contribute more progressive input towards this initiative. The language used on the website and questionnaire was very heterosexual-centric. I kept seeing the phrase "get married and have children", although not everyone will want to get married before having children. This remains true even for heterosexual couples, who may feel that they are ready to be parents but not married couples.
The panel included DPM Teo Chee Hean, Minister Grace Fu, Acting Minister Tan Chuan-Jin and Amy Khor (REACH's chairperson), who was moderating.
Before the Q&A session began, Teo Chee Hean gave a long lecture (transcript) on the ageing population in Singapore and why it was important to have more children and import foreigners at the same time. The main arguments were about economic benefits and how Singapore will not have a big enough workforce if we do not keep the population growing.
When the Q&A began, I made my way to a microphone (there were 3 available to the participants) and waited for my turn to pose my questions.
My questions were (as closely phrased as I remember myself saying):
1) I would like to ask about single mothers and when the government will extend full benefits to them. The reality is there is this group of people and the government needs to address their issues rather than pretending that they don't exist.
2) I would like to ask about second-parent adoption. (That was when all four of them looked extremely confused. Teo Chee Hean even turned to Grace Fu, who was sitting on his right, to try to make sense of this. It was rather amusing.) This means that if a lesbian woman has a baby via artificial insemination, her partner can adopt the child as a legal parent. Family structures are evolving and our policies need to change as well.
It was not a comprehensive explanation for what second-parent adoption is, but I had to keep it simple for the ministers who had zero idea about what it is. A more precise explanation for second-parent adoption is the procedure to adopt a child without taking away parental rights from the current legal parent(s). This is particularly important in states/countries where gay marriage/civil unions are not recognized or give fuzzy legal recognition regarding parenthood. It also means that there is a legal mechanism to address changes in family structure and members.
As I was ready to go back to my seat, Amy Khor asked me to elaborate/introduce myself a bit. I said that I am a lesbian who is expecting to have a baby soon. This is rather ironic as I personally do not even identify as a lesbian but I had to use language that a mainstream crowd can understand.
Teo Chee Hean answered the few questions before mine regarding housing and foreigners. Then Grace Fu took over to answer my questions.
She said that single motherhood is an issue that comes up often and is often emotional. The government knows about single mothers, she said, and there are certain benefits extended to them, like childcare benefits. But the government needs to draw a line at society's values. Most people in society will regard getting married to a different gender and having children as a preferred choice, so the government needs to consider the majority's views. She added that 70% of Singaporeans are not in favour of non-traditional families – where did this data come from?
Following the consultation, Today and Lianhe Zaobao mentioned my questions in their reports on 10 Oct.
Quote from Today:
"One participant, who identified herself as a lesbian, asked about benefits for single mothers and whether her partner will be given the right to adopt a child. In response, Ms Fu acknowledged the difficulties faced by single mothers but she noted that many Singaporeans still stand by the traditional family structure. Policies have to signal what society values but there will be regular reviews to ensure relevance of policies, she said."
There is actually a misquote, as it should be adopt HER child. The question was about the non-biological mother adopting the child as her own and gaining equal parental rights.
Surprisingly, Zaobao had fairly comprehensive coverage of the exchange. The title of the article was "Grace Fu: Singapore's society still cannot accept non-traditional families".
Zaobao journalists mentioned the questions I brought up in the beginning of the article. They also highlighted the exchange in the bold text.
The interesting thing is that while they do not write in English and had to translate everything, they managed to capture what I said and represent my words fairly accurately. I am also heartened that they translated "LGBTs" correctly. (Ed: It was translated as同性恋，双性恋和跨性别者) It is also worth noting that they used the inclusive term for transgendered instead of some derogatory names which are commonly used in local Chinese tabloids.
What is the Majority?
Sitting through the feedback session also made me realise that the top 3 concerns of Singaporeans are foreigners, jobs and HDB flats. It made me wonder that if the topic were "Defending Singapore" or "Challenges of our future", would these still be the top 3 concerns. The majority of Singaporeans are extremely pragmatic, with bread-and-butter issues closest to their hearts. How often do you hear people saying that "I am scared of the gay guy who lives next door" or "My colleague is a single mom and I think the government needs to ban single motherhood"? Sure, there will be some vocal conservative people here and there but I feel that most Singaporeans do not care about LGBTs. If you take a poll, most people will say "no" to marriage equality for all because that is the status quo. But they are responding without examining why. That does not mean they are deeply against equality for LGBTs. This could mean that they think "I don't need to call for a change
because it has nothing to do with me".
However, I am against responding in a way that suggests the majority of Singaporeans are accepting towards LGBT people. That may be true, but it is a dangerous stand to take. The rights of minority groups should not hinge on what the majority thinks. It is time for the community to think about how we can move forward in making Singapore a better place to live in for the next generation, queer or straight.
The values of the majority might be work hard to feed ourselves, feed our families, get shelter over our heads and try hard not to feel like a stranger at home.
Wait. Don't queer folk want that too?