Look past flaws to see social trends in OSC survey

SINGAPORE - When the findings from a survey of 4,000 Singaporeans by the Our Singapore Conversation (OSC) exercise were released last week, its questions on gay acceptance elicited a strong and negative reaction from the LGBT community.

They objected to the insidious assumptions in the choices put to respondents, who were asked if they accepted or rejected "gay lifestyles."

In portraying homosexuality as a choice, this reinforced stereotypes that gays can choose a different "lifestyle" if they so pleased, reasoning that leads inexorably to the view that homosexuality can be "cured".

It is indeed regrettable that the OSC researchers did not parse these implications more finely.

In such surveys elsewhere, questions tend to be phrased in a more straightforward manner. Respondents are asked simply about their attitudes towards same-sex relations.

But it is also a shame that reaction to the OSC survey - the largest-scale measure of Singaporean sentiment on gay issues yet- fixated on this issue of phrasing.

Regardless of the implicit value judgment in the question, it is unlikely to have made much of a difference on the outcome. This is an issue over which people do not look to poll questions to form their opinion.

Look past the phrasing and respondents' answers to the question hold interesting and important implications for where gay rights may be headed in Singapore.

Overall, 47 per cent of respondents rejected "gay lifestyles," while 26 per cent accepted them. The rest, 27 per cent, were neutral.

What is of greater significance is the generation gap evident in findings. The younger the age group, the bigger the percentage of those signalling acceptance.

Of those aged 20 to 34 years old, for example, the group that said they rejected "gay lifestyles," shrank, while the group accepting them grew - both were even at 35 per cent each. 30 per cent were neutral.

Compare this to their parents in the 50 to 69 years old age range, who displayed a far greater consensus: 64 per cent rejected "gay lifestyles," while 20 per cent accepted them.

The OSC researchers said that this need not mean that Singapore inevitably liberalises on the issue of gay rights as older generations die off, because of a "life cycle theory" of social values. This is the phenomenon where people become more conservative as they get older.

A popular example is that one's answer to the question of whether those under 18 years old should be allowed to watch R(A) movies would be different at age 17, than when one is the parent to a 17-year-old.

But when it comes to gay acceptance, it has been convincingly proven by researchers in the US - where a General Social Survey has been conducted yearly since the 1970s - that attitudes do not change with age.

Just like with racial relations, someone who accepts inter-racial marriage when younger does not become a racial bigot when they are older.

If there is a life cycle theory at work, then one's social values should evolve towards those of one's parents over time. But what statistics in the US show is that the obverse is taking place.

In 1991, 71 per cent of those born between 1965 and 1973 responded that homosexual relations were always wrong.

By 1993 that number had dropped by to only 60 per cent, and by 2000, to just over 50 per cent. This pattern is repeated in all the age cohorts.

In short, respondents were actually becoming less intolerant as they aged, not more so.

In fact, research has found that the "life cycle theory" of social values only pops up in three areas in the US: attitudes towards income tax, welfare and pre-marital sex. In these cases, the change can be attributed to how people evolve from being recipients to taxpayers over time, or from actors to the parents-of-actors.

Demographic changes in Singapore are also encouraging for those who want to see gay Singaporeans treated equally.

It is possible that younger generations hence may be more conservative - the 2010 census showed that Christians are the fast-growing group in the population, rising from 14.6 per cent in 2000 to 18.3 per cent in 2010.

But the group of Singaporeans who say they have no religion is also growing quickly, from 14.8 per cent in 2000 to 17 per cent in 2010. This group tends to display greater acceptance of gay relations.

And as evidence from the US shows, gay acceptance has a momentum of its own.

In the US, a Pew Research Centre survey on support of gay marriage revealed a stark, quick shift.

In 2003, 58 per cent of Americans opposed it, while 33 per cent supported it. In 2013, the majority flipped: 49 per cent support gay marriage, while 44 per cent opposed it.

Of great significance were those - more than a quarter of proponents of gay marriage - who had changed their minds over time. Asked why, a third said it was because they knew someone, a family member, friend or acquaintance, who is gay.

While many gay Singaporeans may hesitate to come out to their families and friends for fear of being shunned, the act of doing so could also humanise what might hitherto have been a demonised abstraction. This has accounted for a not-insubstantial shift in attitudes in the US.

There are real, valid social trends to be read from the OSC survey, regardless of where on the liberal-conservative spectrum you stand. This should not be obscured by a poorly-chosen phrase.

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