Blaming the usual suspects

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 14 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 14 December, 2004, 12:00am

Since the summer of last year, when then prime minister Goh Chok Tong said that the civil service was now hiring gays, the international media has made much of comments about the apparent opening of society here, especially towards homosexuals. Gay plays, parties, bars and saunas; we have it all. The current prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, called for a more tolerant and inclusive society. Yet, over the past month, a backlash of sorts seems to have taken place, with the health ministry warning that Singapore was facing an alarming Aids epidemic, laying much of the blame on homosexuals.

One minister talked about the 'promiscuous and unsafe lifestyle advocated and practised by some gays', criticised the many saunas advertised on a gay website, and the gay community's education efforts by the non-governmental organisation, Action for Aids. As the gay community points out, given that homosexuality is outlawed in Singapore as 'an act of gross indecency' and punishable with two years in jail, how can you actively promote safe sex between men without being complicit in abetting an illegal activity?

Mind you, the minister's ire was also targeted at Singaporean males who have casual sex outside Singapore. One suggestion, he said, would be to screen high-risk Singaporeans at the borders when they return 'to protect Singapore women from catching Aids from them'.

Only half of Singaporean men use condoms when they have sex with prostitutes abroad, putting their wives and girlfriends at risk of contracting Aids when they return, a study has revealed. But how do you define high-risk?

And does this mean that the Aids carrier will be put in quarantine, and maybe even tattooed? The authorities did not say, but the news has rattled more than a few people, especially as the government announced a few days later that pregnant women would automatically be tested for Aids, unless they go private, and that it was also considering pre-marital HIV testing.

These two policies are not revolutionary. France, for one, already enforces a similar policy. After all, if you are getting married or could pass the virus on to your baby, wouldn't you want to know? Furthermore, if a woman tests positive, there are drugs that can be given to greatly reduce the risk of transmission to her unborn child.

Yet, surprisingly, one obvious policy used to great effect elsewhere - encouraging protected sex - is not considered here. Apparently, a campaign to use a condom would be too disturbing to the conservative majority and an 'in your face' drive would not work. In some cases, prudishness might not always be a virtue.