Whose 'community norms' are policies based on?

Whose 'community norms' are policies based on?
Participants pose for a photo during the 19th annual Gay Pride homosexual, bisexual and transgender visibility march in Lyon, eastern France, on June 14, 2014.

Prevailing community norms have often played a part in defining morality in Singapore and other traditional societies. Even those who may not subscribe to such norms privately may strive for consensus in issues of morality in the public domain.

They may value community ties and accept that community norms should prescribe appropriate and publicly acceptable behaviour.

But traditional notions of sexuality and marriage are shifting on a much larger scale, if we go by the outcome of public opinion surveys routinely conducted in many developed societies. What impact will these changes have on community norms in Singapore?

World Values Survey

The World Values Survey (WVS), which is conducted in nearly 100 countries, provides one such platform to analyse these attitudinal shifts. Two waves of the survey have been done in Singapore - once in 2002 with about 1,500 respondents and the second, a decade later in 2012 with nearly 2,000 respondents.

In each survey, Singaporean respondents were asked, among others, a series of questions about morality, ranging from bribery to homosexuality. Respondents had to choose a number on the scale of one to 10, with one denoting that an act was never justifiable and 10, that it was always justifiable.

Over the course of a decade, scores for several questions both internationally and locally have shifted away from the "never justifiable" spectrum of the scale. For instance, the mean score for divorce in the Singaporean waves of the WVS has moved from 3.4 to 4.4. In the case of homosexuality, the score shifted from 2.4 to 3.6.

This shift might be the result of an increasingly better-educated population uncomfortable with choosing the "never justifiable" stance for issues related to sexual morality.

Education broadens perspectives and leads to a preference for positions which are more nuanced. This was evident in the 2012 wave of the WVS where those who had more education were more likely to justify abortion, divorce, sex before marriage and homosexuality compared to those with less education.

However, the great majority of Singaporean respondents still choose options close to the "never justifiable" position on matters of traditional morality such as divorce, homosexuality and premarital sex when compared to Western societies such as Australia, the United States and the Netherlands.

Among Australians, in the most recent wave of the study, the mean score for the item on whether premarital sex was justifiable was 7.7. It was 6.9 for homosexuality and 7.1 for divorce.

These scores are much closer to the end of the spectrum, indicating that these actions could be "always justified" compared to the Singaporean scores of 3.8 for premarital sex, 3.5 for homosexuality and 4.3 for divorce.

It is fair to say then that Singapore society is still rather conservative compared to many Western societies and in fact, also more conservative compared to a number of developed Asian societies such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea.

Respondents from these East Asia societies were more likely to choose positions closer to the middle of the spectrum. Malaysians were however substantially more conservative than Singaporean respondents.

One question to ask is whether any shift in public attitudes in Singapore about sexual and familial norms is the result of changing attitudes of the younger generation.

A look at the WVS data for Singapore suggests so. The mean scores for those who were younger were clearly closer to the middle of the spectrum - between never justifiable and always justifiable.

For instance the mean scores for those between 18 and 25 years when it came to the justifiability of homosexuality was 4.3, compared to 3.9 for those between 26 and 35 years, 3.4 in the case of those between 46 and 55 years and 3.1 for those above 65 years.

The more liberal views of younger cohorts extend to other areas of sexual and family norms.

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