S'poreans becoming more accepting of gays and lesbians

SINGAPORE - Attitudes of Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) toward gays and lesbians have shifted slightly over a five-year span to become a little more favourable.

This was found by a research team from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) in a study conducted in 2010.

A nationally representative survey of 959 people found that people with higher levels of education and freethinkers tend to have more positive attitudes, and older people tend to have more negative attitudes towards lesbians and gays.

Those who had higher interpersonal contact with gay men and lesbians and watched more films and television shows with homosexual characters were also likely to express more positive attitudes and to show greater acceptance.

People who feel it is less important to conform to social norms and those with a more Western cultural orientation showed a tendency to be more accepting of homosexuals.

Similar to studies conducted elsewhere, the survey found that Singapore citizens and PRs who have a gay or lesbian family member or know someone who is homosexual are less likely to have negative attitudes.

Interpersonal contact appeared to be a bigger influence in shaping attitudes towards homosexuals than exposure to homosexual characters - for example, seeing gays and lesbians in films and television programmes.

However, in contrast to previous studies, the 2010 study found that viewing gays and lesbians in the media has the strongest effect on the attitudes of people with many personal contacts with gay men and lesbians.

Previous studies have showed that exposure to gay characters in the media has the most effect on the attitudes of people with little or no interpersonal contact with gay men and lesbians. 

The researchers suggested this could be because of the positive correlation between interpersonal contact and media exposure to homosexuals in this sample of Singaporean adults. Alternatively, it could be due to the way in which exposure to homosexuals in the media has been measured.

"As more Singaporeans come into contact with gay people and with the rising availability of films and television programmes with gay characters via cable television, local cinemas and the Internet, it seems possible that there will be a more significant shift in attitudes towards gays and lesbians over time," said co-investigator, Dr Shirley Ho.

The study also found that it is possible for people to hold negative attitudes towards homosexuals but accept gay men and lesbians on a more personal level - as co-workers or friends - regardless of whether they perceive homosexuality to be a choice. The researchers suggested that the reasons for this could be the subject of future research.

Professor Benjamin Detenber, Chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information and lead researcher, said, "It is important to bear in mind that the findings are correlational and probabilistic - that is, the results refer to trends in associations among variables (e.g. demographics, value predispositions, attitudes, etc), and do not identify causal relationships. While some of these associations are rather modest, they are statistically significant and meaningful."

The study was published in the Asian Journal of Social Psychology at the end of last month, and it is a follow-up to an earlier one, which sampled 1,004 adult Singapore citizens and PRs in January 2005.

In 2005, 68.6 per cent of respondents expressed negative attitudes, 22.9 per cent had positive attitudes and 8.5 per cent were neutral. In 2010, 64.5 per cent of those surveyed held negative attitudes towards homosexuals, while 25.3 per cent expressed positive attitudes and 14.7 per cent were neutral.

The study said that although sharply polarised and predominantly negative, the slight change in attitudes between 2005 and 2010 is significant as it suggests a temporal shift in Singaporeans' values and views about homosexuals.

"Taken together, the results show a small but significant trend toward greater tolerance of homosexuals," said Prof Detenber.

"Clearly, public opinion is still highly polarised on this issue, but slightly more people are sharing the middle ground in 2010 compared to 2005," he added.

The team is planning to conduct a similar survey in 2015 to better understand public opinion of homosexuality and to track changes over time.

"By investigating some of the predictors of attitudes towards lesbians and gay men, it can help to inform public debate and guide future policy recommendations," said Prof Detenber.