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Pre-British era (before 1819)[]

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Cover of a novel telling the ancient story of a sexually fluid Javanese princess, Galuh Candra Kirana, who cross-dresses to become the warrior prince, Panji Semirang.

There exist no known written records of same-sex love in the Malay community in pre-colonial Singapore and, as a corollary, of any "movement" in reaction to perceived or real oppression of such activity. However, if one considers ancient Singapore as part of the wider Malay archipelago, one of the earliest accounts of non-heteronormative sex is found in the ancient Javanese text called the Nagarakretagama, which was written in 1365. This manuscript mentions a king named Kertanegara, who ruled the Singhasari kingdom in East Java from 1268 to 1292. The text describes him as having a male lover named Sanggramawijaya, who later became his successor. The text also implies that Kertanegara had sexual relations with other men, such as his ministers and generals.

In the case of Malaysian history, there are some indications of non-heteronormative sex among the indigenous peoples, such as the Mah Meri, the Semai, and the Temiar, who inhabit the Malay Peninsula. According to anthropologist Michael Peletz, these groups have a concept of gender fluidity and multiple genders, which allows for the possibility of same-sex relations and transgender expressions. Peletz also notes that some of these groups practice ritual cross-dressing and role reversal as part of their religious ceremonies.

Another source of evidence for non-heteronormative sex in Malaysian history is the literary tradition of the Malay world, which includes present-day Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, Singapore, and parts of Thailand and the Philippines. Some of the classical Malay texts, such as the Hikayat Hang Tuah (Epic of Hang Tuah), the Sejarah Melayu (Malay Annals), and the Hikayat Panji Semirang (Tale of Prince Semirang), contain references to same-sex love, homoeroticism, and gender ambiguity among the characters. For example, in the Hikayat Hang Tuah, the legendary hero Hang Tuah falls in love with his male companion Hang Jebat, who later rebels against the sultan and is killed by Hang Tuah in a tragic duel. In the Sejarah Melayu, there is a story of a king who disguises himself as a woman and marries another king, only to be exposed by a jealous concubine. The Hikayat Panji Semirang, an epic poem which dates from the 14th century, tells of the adventures of a sexually fluid hero, Panji Semirang and narrates several instances of cross-dressing, gender swapping, and bisexual attraction among the protagonists. It was well known and beloved throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. Another traditional Javanese literary work, Serat Centhini, written in 1814, is the Southeast Asian version of India's famed Kama Sutra. This stylised sex manual has detailed descriptions of sodomy, fellatio, mutual masturbation and transvestism. The poem shows that male homosexuality was an unproblematic, everyday part of a highly varied traditional Javanese sexual culture. These literary examples suggest that non-heteronormative sex was not entirely taboo or invisible in the pre-colonial Malay society, but rather a part of its cultural diversity and complexity. However, it is important to note that these texts are not necessarily historical records, but rather fictional narratives that may reflect the authors' imagination, ideology, or artistic expression.

Other salient examples of the traditional tolerance for gender diversity in neighbouring Malaysia have been quoted by academic Julian CH Lee in his book, "Policing Sexuality", published by Zed Books Ltd in August 2012[1]. There are records from as early as the 15th century of gender fluid Malay priests or courtesans called sida-sida, who served in the palaces of Malay sultans. These people were typically “male-bodied priests or courtiers” who undertook “androgynous behavior” such as wearing women’s clothes and likely “engaged in sexual relationships with individuals of the same sex” or “both sexes.” In the 19th century, the manang bali were gender fluid Iban shamans of Sarawak. They were assigned male at birth individuals who adopted the mannerisms, clothing and lifestyle of women, even taking on men as husbands. This was undertaken in order for them to become healers, mediators between spirits and people, village leaders and intermediaries. Not only were they tolerated but even celebrated and looked upon with great esteem because of their contribution to society. So accepted was gender diversity in Malaysia that as late as the 1960s, known "specialised homosexual villages" existed in Kelantan, with one even abutting on the Sultan's palace.

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At least one Malaysian monarch was known to be openly homosexual. Captain Alexander Hamilton, an English sailor who visited Old Johor in 1695, wrote about the behaviour of Sultan Mahmud Shah II. His accounts were corroborated by the Dutch delegate to Johor in 1699. They noted that the Sultan was partial to handsome men. Hamilton in his book, A New Account of the East Indies[2] published in Edinburgh in 1727, recounted the following story:

"In anno 1695, their King was a youth of twenty years of age, and being vitiously inclined, was so corrupted by adulation and flagitious company, that he became intolerable. I went to Johor Lama at that time, to traffic with his subjects...

He was a great sodomite, and had taken many of his orang kaya or nobles' sons, by force into his palace for that abominable service. A Moorish merchant, who was a freighter on board my ship, had a handsome boy to his son, whom the King one day saw, and would needs have him for a catamite. He threatened the father, that if he did not send him with good will, he would have him by force. The poor man had taken a house close by our ship, and immediately came with his son on board, imploring my protection, which I promised him."

"He continued his insupportable tyranny and brutality for a year or two after I was gone, and his mother, to try if he could be broke off that unnatural custom of converse with males, persuaded a beautiful young woman to visit him, when he was a bed, which she did, and allured him with her embraces, but he was so far from being pleased with her conversation, that he called his black guard, and made them break both her arms, for offering to embrace his royal person. She cried, and said it was by his mother’s order she came, but that was no excuse."

Up to as late as the 1980s, the Malaysian government offered gender-affirming surgeries — the only country in Southeast Asia to provide such operations apart from Thailand and Singapore. Transgender health was so widely embraced that even the government contributed funds towards the Mak Nyah Association. Unfortunately, everything changed in 1983 when a fatwa was issued by the Conference of Rulers banning such surgeries and the hospital that undertook it was shut down, marking the beginning of a repressive, anti-LGBT chapter in Malaysia’s history.

Michael Peletz notes that between the 15th and 18th centuries, Southeast Asia was characterised by gender fluidity, egalitarianism and considerable female autonomy. Furthermore, there were culturally sanctioned positions for transgender individuals all across the region where one finds a tradition of cross-dressing and other forms of gender-transgressive behaviour. Associated with these is a rich local lexicon and a variety of rituals. A vast corpus of works by colonial civil servants, missionaries and travellers in the 19th and early 20th centuries yielded accounts of the natives' sexuality, which in many instances shocked the Judeo-Christian morality of their Western colonial masters.

The Dutch observed that Dyaks, Acehnese, Bugis, Balinese, Javanese, Batak, Minangkabau and Chinese in the vast Malay archipelago shared a passionate addiction to vices such as pederasty and homosexual sodomy. The following is a description from physician Julius Jacobs after his visit to Bali in the early 1880s[3],[4] where he observed many dance performances by young boys dressed up like women:

"One knows that they are boys, and it is sickening to see men from all strata of Balinese society proffering their kepengs (Chinese coins) to have the chance to dance with these children, sometimes in the queerest postures; one is still more revolted to discover that these children, sometimes after exercising for hours in a perpendicular position, are compelled, utterly exhausted though they may be, to carry out horizontal maneuvers with the highest bidders, after being fondled by this man and kissed by that."

Prior to the arrival of British traders and colonists in 1819, Singapore was largely populated by small, dispersed settlements of Orang Asli (aborigines) and Malays of the Johor-Riau archipelago who engaged mainly in subsistence farming, fishery and trade. These people and the island came under the jurisdiction of the Sultanate of Johor which was the successor of the Malacca Sultanate, both of which had their own codes of law but no formal legal system. It is also possible that adat law, often inadequately translated as "customary law", governed the island's inhabitants. The highest authority lay in the hands of the Yang di-Pertuan of Johor who was also known as the Sultan of Johor. He was advised by the Majlis Orang Kaya (Council of Rich Men). Amongst the council members was the Temenggong of Johor who lived in Telok Blangah, Singapore and who administered the island based on the level of authority bestowed upon him by the Sultan of Johor[5]. However, little is known about the laws that were actually applicable and the British have always assumed that no law prevailed on the island when it was acquired.

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A modern-day Singaporean mak nyah.

We can retropolate from the culture of contemporary Malays that there was probably much tolerance towards men who indulged in surreptitious homosexual activity, as evidenced by the absence of any vocal or physical violence against such people, outside of the framework of the imported Islamic sociopolitical system. Neither did non-heteronormative Malay men have to band together to form a movement because it was never warranted in the absence of overt oppression.

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Singapore and Malaysia lie within the Austronesian region where gender diversity was traditionally well accepted before the advent of European colonialism.

Effeminate men and male-to-female cross-dressers were traditionally and derisively called bapok (spelt "bapuk" in Standard Malay) or pondan in Malaysia, and banci or bencong in Indonesia (see main article: Singapore gay terminology). However, apart from being teased and regarded ceteris paribus as having a lower status than their more masculine counterparts, there is no hatred directed against them, as is so often the situation in the West. In the 1980s, the more respectful and politically correct terms of mak nyah in Malaysia and waria in Indonesia were coined to replace the age-old slurs. These communities are regarded as the third gender and have their own niche in traditional society which acknowledged the existence of alternatives to heterosexual practices. They were recognised, tolerated and even incorporated into community life, occupying a stable, albeit marginalised position within society. This situation is similar to the traditional cultures of the larger Malayo-Polynesian and Austronesian regions, as well as throughout Southeast Asia. Such traditions were a function of age-old indigenous belief systems that portrayed some gods as androgynous or hermaphroditic (possessing the characteristics of both sexes). Given this view of divinity, people who embodied both masculinity and femininity in their gender and/or sexuality were believed to be closer to the divine and uniquely capable of mediating between the spirits and humans.

Prime examples are seen in Indonesia's South Sulawesi province. When the Europeans first visited the region in the 16th century, they were shocked by what they saw. Portuguese Jesuit missionary Antonio de Paiva wrote a scandalising letter to his Catholic bishop in 1544 about his observations of the Bugis people[6],[7]:

“Your Lordship will know that the priests of these kings are generally called bissus. They grow no hair on their beards, dress in a womanly fashion, and grow their hair long and braided; they imitate [women’s] speech because they adopt all of the female gestures and inclinations. They marry and are received, according to the custom of the land, with other common men, and they live indoors, uniting carnally in their secret places with the men whom they have for husbands...”

He concluded the letter with his amazement that the Christian god, who had destroyed "three cities of Sodom for the same sin," had not yet smited such "wanton people" who were "encircled by evil." The European colonial powers mocked Southeast Asia's tolerance for gender and sexual diversity, perceiving their attitudes as evidence the region needed “redemptive civilisation. The bissu tradition, which considers these individuals as neither male nor female, dates back to the 13th century. They are a “fifth gender” within the Bugis' gender system, which comprises also male men (oroané), female women (makkunrai), male women (calabai) and female men (calalai). A similar culture is shared by the to burake of the Torajan people from the same region of Indonesia's South Sulawesi province[8]. In the past, these transgender individuals were religious leaders who played important roles in their communities. Bissu and to burake led spiritual ceremonies or harvest rituals in villages. The people would admire and honour a village in which a to burake lived.

Elsewhere in Austronesia, one finds the palopa and intersex kwolu-aatmwol of Papua New Guinea, the sistergirls of the Tiwi Islands, the palao'ana of the Northern Mariana Islands including Guam, the fa'afafine of Samoa, American Samoa and Tokelau, the fakafefine or fakaleiti/leiti of Tonga, the whakawahine of the Maoris, the takataapui of Aotearoa New Zealand, the akava'ine of the Cook Islands Maoris, the fakafifine of Niue, the mahu of Hawaii and the mahu vahine of Tahiti.

Some tribes in the southeast of Papua, similar to tribes in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, practised “ritualised homosexuality”. This practice required young men to perform oral sex on elder males as part of their rite of passage into manhood. They believed that semen was the source of life and the essence of masculinity, important for boys to become real men.

In East Java, the traditional dance performance Reog Ponorogo depicts intimate relationships between two characters, warok and gemblak. The main male dancer, or warok, has to follow strict physical and spiritual rules and rituals. Under these rules, a warok was prohibited from engaging in a sexual relationship with a woman. But he was allowed to have intimate relationships with young boys’ characters, or gemblak, in the performance. Although warok and gemblak were engaged in same-sex acts, they did not identify themselves as homosexuals. In other Javanese traditional drama performances like ludruk and wayang orang, a man playing a woman's character or vice versa is not unusual.

In the Philippines, pre-colonial communities were religiously led by babaylan who were women healers and shamans responsible for mediating between the gods and people. These roles were also open to assigned male at birth individuals (asog, bayog) so long as they comported themselves like women. A 16th century Spanish manuscript described asog thus: “Ordinarily they dress as women, act like prudes, and are so effeminate that one does not know them would believe they are women... they marry other males and sleep with them as man and wife and have carnal knowledge.”

In adjoining Indochina, for example, in Vietnam, there are similar records kept by European priests of “men” who acted as spirit mediums and who wore “women’s clothing and completely pull out their beards.” Even today, the tradition of feminine, assigned male at birth mediums who channel feminine spirits lives on in Đạo Mẫu temples that worship the Mother Goddess belonging to an indigenous religion of the country.

Myanmar has a rich pre-Buddhist tradition of “nat kadaw,” literally translated as “wife of a spirit.” While there are historical records of outwardly masculine assigned male at birth nat kadaws, some of whom resisted the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War, today nat kadaws are known as assigned male at birth individuals who dress as women during the ceremonies and perform important blessings. They typically have sex with men, and some also identify as women outside of a ceremonial context.

The kathoey or ladyboys of Thailand are internationally renowned, contribute significantly to the Thai tourist economy and are well integrated into society.

"Detik" documentary on gay Malay Singaporean, 2003[]

See also: Translation of "Detik" episode on homosexuality, 30 July 2003

On 30 July 2003 at 8:30pm, the Malay-language channel Suria aired a documentary on homosexuality in its Detik (meaning "a second in time") series. The particular episode was entitled "Haruskah golongan Homoseksual diterima?" (Should Homosexuals be accepted?)

It featured interviews with a Malay gay man named Helmi and a Malay lesbian named Zac in which they recounted their self-discovery and personal relationships. People on the street were asked whether they could accept homosexuals and a diverse range of negative to positive opinions were expressed.

It revealed to the Malay community, the presence of websites providing support for Muslim homosexuals. Figures of authority queried for their views included Dr. Francis Ngui (President, Singapore Psychiatric Association) and Ustaz Fatris Bakaram (Assistant Mufti and Head of the Mufti Office, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, MUIS or Singapore Islamic Religious Council).

All in all, the programme tried its best to present a balanced view of homosexuality without moralising or injecting any subliminal message.

Singapore's_first_Malay_documentary_on_homosexuality_(Part_1_of_2)

Singapore's first Malay documentary on homosexuality (Part 1 of 2)

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Singapore's first Malay documentary on homosexuality (Part 2 of 2)


For a Malay to English translated transcript of the documentary, see the main article:Translation of "Detik" episode on homosexuality, 30 July 2003.

Muslim conversion therapy[]

The vast majority in the LGBT community did not know about Muslim conversion therapy or whether it took place at all in Singapore until the late 2010s when a groundbreaking bachelor's thesis published by Nurul Qistina bte Fadhillah on 19 April 2019 dealt with the issue. It was entitled, "(I can't) pray the gay away! Experiences of conversion therapy amongst queer Muslims."[9].

Abstract:

"In Singapore, Conversion Therapy (CT) is an open secret. Christian ministries and psychiatric professionals openly advertise their services to “cure” queer individuals, besides holding public campaigns to lead “wayward” queers back to the right path of God (e.g. Truelove.is slogan: “Don’t come out, come home”). While controversial elsewhere, there is no official condemnation nor criminalisation of CT by public institutions here. What is not well-known or studied is CT for Muslims, especially when its adherents dismiss the existence of the Queer subject. To begin with, neither are well-documented in local literature, if they even are. Using paradigms of Violence and Voice, I attempt to introduce new narratives into discourses surrounding queerness and religion. I frame CT as violence, focusing on the consequences of CT on subjects: how they react to such violence, and heal from it. I argue that violence begins and is reinforced in the invisibilised privacy of the home, with families and communities playing an equal – if not, bigger – role vis-à-vis practitioners in “converting” subjects, causing lasting damage that obliterates the subject’s relationship with religion and God, themselves, and others. Nonetheless, powerful cognitive schemas and discourses that devalue the queer subject shape the thoughts and behaviours of social actors involved, reiterating the connection between socio-legal policies, social institutions, and individual behaviour. In sum, violence towards queers exists on a continuum, beginning with institutionalised prejudice before culminating in one extreme of conversion therapy."

On 16 December 2020, Heckin' Unicorn published an article describing the conversion therapy trauma of Iani, a female Malay-Muslim whose preferred pronoun is "they"[10],[11]. Iani had a history anxiety and depression due to physical abuse by her parents and an episode of sexual assault. At the age of 16, they were outed as lesbian to their parents after which they were soon visited by their grandmother and uncle who was an Ustaz, a male Islamic religious teacher. The Ustaz proclaimed that Iani was possessed by a jinn, an evil spirit in Islamic mythology, which was influencing Iani’s sexuality and needed to be expelled from their body for them to become “normal”. A week later, the Ustaz performed ruqyah (an exorcism) on Iani. He made Iani memorise and recite verses from the Qur’an, and whenever the recital was not to his liking, he would whip Iani with a cane. The Ustaz also made Iani perform sujud (prostration to Allah in the direction of Mecca). He then held a lighter to each of Iani’s feet as he recited Qur’anic verses to cast the jinn away. Iani screamed in pain from the searing heat of the fire, but their parents only saw it as a sign that the exorcism was working. However, the repeated sessions ruqyah failed to change Iani's sexual orientation and caused Iani to suffer a severe psychotic episode which required hospitalisation at the Institute of Mental Health.

Samsung Singapore's video of Muslim mother's support for drag queen son[]

On 22 November 2021, Samsung Singapore uploaded the following video to its YouTube channel[12]:



Singapore Mufti: LGBT issues "not a black-and-white" matter[]

In an interview for a Channel NewsAsia documentary entitled Regardless of Sexuality which was hosted by Dr Janil Puthucheary, chairman of OnePeople.sg, the national body promoting social harmony, and which premiered on Wednesday, 26 April 2023, the Mufti of Singapore, who oversaw religious rulings for Muslims in the country, for the first time publicly set out detailed views on LGBT issues[13]. Noting that LGBT matters were "not black-and-white", Mufti Dr Nazirudin Mohd Nasir said that LGBT individuals had experienced hurt and the role of religious institutions was to find ways for people to heal, adding that the Muslim community was navigating the way forward together. The documentary examined what it took for LGBT individuals in Singapore to reconcile their sexuality with their family and faith even after the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalised sex between men[14].


Transcript:

Janil: When you had to tackle LGBT issues as Mufti, had you been Mufti for very long at that time?

Nazirudin: I became the Mufti in 2020, we had the global pandemic to deal with, a whole host of unprecedented issues, questions and challenges. Thereafter, we had the issue of the Fatwa Tudung for nurses. And then we had LGBT. So very difficult, multi-dimensional issues in a very short span of time.

Janil: Some very hefty things, very early on in your position.

Nazirudin: Yeah. And I think the theme that underpins many of these issues is how do we keep the society and the community together and intact, to keep it cohesive. And I think these are the kind of issues that if we're not dealing with it in the right ways, and with the right mind, society can break up.

Janil: You've said that LGBT issues shouldn't be seen as black and white. What did you mean by that?

Nazirudin: I think the LGBT issue and increasingly a lot of social issues that we deal with are multi-dimensional. There is the social aspect, which I think is a very critical part of the debate and discussion, the impact on individuals, on families, on society as a whole. And also, for communities and between communities, there’s also the legal aspect. And for communities like ours, the Muslim community, there is also the theological aspect, the religious teachings and doctrines, and values. So it's multi-dimensional. And we have to look at all these aspects before coming up with a particular guidance or direction. And I think it's also a very highly emotional issue. It's very highly emotive because we're dealing with people's lives, with people's, you know, values, beliefs, aspirations, struggles. I think, however, and whatever people feel about it, that feeling is quite visceral, it's, it's a very personal view. So, people tend to take very strong positions on this, and you could be on either side of the debate. And I think, a sensible and responsible religious guidance and leadership has to take into account all these nuances, complexities and considerations. So it's not black and white.

Janil: But there are people who say that it is black and white, because they would consider it a sin.

Nazirudin: If we focus on the theological aspect to it, there is the question of sin. But there is also the question of compassion, question of empathy, the values that go along with certain religious positions, how do you balance that? And I think as how it has always been a challenge for us to strike that delicate balance. How do we bring these values, when we also convey the religious doctrines and teachings to the community, as we deal with many other kinds of behaviours and actions, as believers as Muslims.

Janil: Is that balance reflected in the statement that MUIS (the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore) put out in response to the proposed repeal of 377A?

Nazirudin: The position that we put forth, I think it's a first attempt at trying to really grapple with those complexities, trying to put a clear, religious doctrine insofar as what Islam feels about homosexuality. At the same time, recognising there are those other aspects and dimensions of the issue. There are individuals who self-identify as Muslims, but also as part of the LGBT community, who may be conflicted in their sexuality. Who may want to remain as very good Muslims, at the same time, struggling with the sexual identity. So that there is that dimension that needs to be addressed, that needs to be tackled. There is also a society that is beginning to evolve and change, getting very diverse, and also with very strong opinions on this particular issue. How do we, I think as a responsible community, how do we contribute towards keeping our society intact, cohesive, strong together, at the same time, recognising that we have different and strong views on certain positions?

Janil: The statement didn't read like a first draft to me and to I think many members of the public, it seemed to come across as a very considered and mature position.

Nazirudin: It's part of a process and it's actually the first step that we're taking. It took us quite long, several months, because we had to consult quite a wide range of religious teachers, leaders, the asatizah, the religious fraternity, to hear the different voices and opinions on this issue. And a lot of us grapple with the essence of what we're dealing with. It's quite new, especially for our community in dealing with LGBT issues, more openly, talking about it in a more open way. Considering that there are individuals within our community that self-identify, and it wasn't easy, but I think this is just the first step, because we need to think of what is the kind of advice that we could offer. And what is the kind of support that we could offer for individuals who need that support to remain good Muslims, to remain connected with their faith, at the same time, feeling conflicted with their sexuality.

Janil: You had multiple views coming at you?

Nazirudin: What it demonstrates to me personally, is that this is not a black and white. My fellow asatizah religious teachers would have told us it's not difficult. It's not complex. Just put out a position what Islam says on homosexuality, and we move on from there. But it wasn't. And the reason was because they recognise that it is their duty as well, to provide the kind of guidance and in dealing with homosexuality from an Islamic perspective, was recognising that we are in a diverse society, multi-religious, multicultural, and open society as well. There are freedoms in our society, to adopt a particular lifestyle. No one forces us to adopt it, no one stops you from adopting a particular lifestyle, either. But these are the very freedoms that have allowed us to pursue our religious life, to uphold our own religious values and teachings. So I think a lot of people fear the freedom because you're free to choose. And to some people, this freedom can destroy, but it is the very freedom that also allows us to, you know, to practice our religious lives. So I think they recognise this, they recognise this tension. It's a very pleasant, but complex conversation that we're having. And I think that's reflected in the time that we needed to think of the right kind of position to put forth, recognising all these developments around us and within our society.

Janil: Were you concerned at any stage about how the process was going?

Nazirudin: I think what was most important is that we had the courage to talk about it more openly amongst the community of asatizah religious teachers and leaders, we had never done so in the past. And one of the issues then was, when could we come up with something. There was always that urge of, you know, there is a timeline, at which point, we should come up with a position, I took the personal position that we cannot rush this. And one of the very important principles for me in dealing with a lot of the issues which are very complex, I think, is to give it enough thought, to consult enough people to hear the different voices before we come up with any position. And to me this is an issue that you should not rush because it's a generational challenge. It is for this generation to sort of chart the path ahead in dealing with the shifts in our society. So for us, in particular, how do we uphold our religious traditions and at the same time, being inclusive, creating an inclusive society? How do we convey our religious doctrines and teachings and at the same time being compassionate? So these are not easy questions. These are really difficult questions for us.

Janil: Do you see a generational shift?

Nazirudin: I think it's more of a question of what one's environment is, regardless of age or position in life. And once more, I think there are families who are very open in terms of discussing difficult issues, and are willing to take in very diverse perspectives, from the young, from the old and from other backgrounds. And I think our society has also shifted, it has changed with education, with technology, with empowerment, and all these inform the views that one may have on many issues. So certainly, we begin to see some shifts. And I think the challenge for us is, how do we contribute positively to this change? There is an assumption that religions, in particular, if you look at Islam, is anti-change or anti-modernity. It's always a counter-current, to progress and modernisation. And I think that's a very inaccurate view of Islam as a faith. We have always taken the position that we should contribute to this conversation in a very constructive way. Because modernisation is a process. Being an inclusive society is a process, what form it takes, how it turns out eventually, how our society turns out eventually, is a process of constant negotiations. And we should be part of that process contributing to those conversations. It's not a case where as the Mufti or as a Muslim, you embrace change unquestioningly, or, without kind of a critical thinking as to what, what happens now and in the future. Rather you should contribute to the process by putting forth your values, your principles, and how you think a society can become better in the future. And I think that's also where the statement is coming from.

Janil: Did you personally have an intellectual struggle?

Nazirudin: I do, of course. And my particular struggle is again in trying to place values that are taught in my faith. Compassion, empathy, kindness, charity, in the context of what we're dealing with, with people who hold on to different values, in terms of sexuality, and even the ideas of family and relationships. At the same time to recognise there is a line that has to be drawn at some point between religious authority and individual autonomy. At some point, our authority stops, and the individual’s autonomy takes over. They have the choice to make their own decisions, guided by the moral conscience and compass. Our role is to provide that moral compass from a religious standpoint. How do we do that? How do we balance it very carefully? And this is for the longer term good of society and the community. I think that is a struggle that continues with me. And I think we are just in the process of starting to talk about it more openly and trying to find what are the best directions ahead.

Janil: Have your views and positions changed as a result of the struggle?

Nazirudin: I think it's a cardinal rule, in my job and in in issuance of guidance, religious guidance, to really understand and understand correctly and comprehensively what we're dealing with. And I think that there's a lot to be, still yet to be understood. So we can't pretend that we know everything and I think as we move on, certain things will evolve. And our thoughts on this will also mature accordingly.

Janil: You talked about taking time to consult, to gather views. But society and the world can change quite fast. How do you ensure the relevance of religion to that process then if there's a need to go slow to gather all the views, and yet, the world is changing fast around you?

Nazirudin: If you look at the LGBT issue in other parts of the world, in some countries they are very far ahead on the scale of how they deal with homosexuality and LGBT issues. Some have gone way beyond in terms of gender identity and dealing with those kinds of issues. But at the same time, you also see that in those kinds of societies, the discourse is getting a lot more complicated. In other words, there are counter-movements within the society, because there are new concerns that emerge. So I think, if anything, it tells us that with this kind of very profound social changes, I think it needs time, in as much as there is a very strong desire for things to move quickly and change quickly, I think we need time to process what is going on around us. We’re not speaking of decades of thinking about issues, but at least you need to think of a thorough, robust and comprehensive process of hearing different voices, to first understand the issues accurately, and then look at your traditions, look at the principles and values and how these relate to those kinds of changes. Today, we look at the implications, for example of massive industrialisation and the impact on the climate. So we are beginning to ask ourselves very fundamental questions of our duties and responsibilities to the world, to the climate to the environment. And so there is always a kind of a rethink as to what would have been the better approaches in dealing with progress in that sense. And I think this social challenge that we have, social issue that we're dealing with, it's also an example of why we should spend enough time to think about it and put forth a response that I think, would at least relate to the challenge and resonate with people in dealing with the challenge and not to take a quite a simplistic approach in the interest of, you know, rushing through things. And I could be wrong, but I personally feel that it is my responsibility to exhaust all avenues of thinking about issues, and give the issues due consideration before coming up with any particular position. In particular this involves a very fundamental shift in our society.

Janil: But along the way, there are frictions within the community as these matters remain unresolved. I've met individuals who say they are gay and Muslim. I've met individuals who will say that you can't be both. One of the individuals that I've met says that he's welcome in the mosque, even though he is known as someone who's gay. But his friends wonder why he's allowed in the mosque. How do you deal with and resolve these types of frictions within the community?

Nazirudin: Specifically to the issue of Muslims, I think one of the important aspects of talking about friction is really, what are the sources of friction in these kinds of situations. One of which is that there is still some level of uncertainty for many people on what is the religious attitude towards homosexuals and homosexuality in general. As it relates to religious practice, as it relates to religious spaces. So some may think that you should welcome anyone who comes to the mosque, some others may think that, well, the mosque is not a place for homosexuals, for example. When someone comes to the mosque, what is the first question that we ask and you think of? I think the first question should be that this is a Muslim, who wants to go to the mosque, and get closer to God, have a closer relationship with his or her Creator. As a Muslim, as a believer, whatever the sexual orientation, which, in most cases, would be a private matter for the individual, is something not for us to question, not for us to judge at the point in which someone comes to the mosque. Otherwise, you would need to ask, and it's, it's completely wrong practice. Everyone who comes to the mosque, on their private life, or other aspects of their, of their personal life. And I think that is not the right thing to do as Muslims, and as a religious institution. So one of the sources of friction is really about understanding the religious position and attitude towards such individuals or segments within the community. And this is something we are working on as well. But the other important thing, insofar as the source of friction, I think, is really because for some people, this is a conflict that needs to be resolved with one winner at the end, whether it's mainstream Islam or the majority, and that's almost a kind of a zero-sum game mentality, which I think it's not the right attitude to adopt in dealing with this kind of complex challenges.

Janil: You talked about not wanting a zero-sum game mentality amongst the people who consider this. Why is that important? Is there a danger that you're worried about?

Nazirudin: I think it's because we recognise that for some individuals there have been accounts of their personal struggles of abuse, of ridicule, of rejection, that has led to various types of harm that they have been through and put through.

Janil: Because they're LGBT?

Nazirudin: Because they're LGBT. But there's also the very genuine fear and concern and anxiety within the larger segment of the community insofar as what the future will look like. We share this fear and anxiety. But we are also aware of the hurt and pain that people have gone through, and I don't think, and especially in our religious institutions, that our role, or what we do, should exacerbate that hurt and pain and prolong it. Our role is to find ways for people to heal, that hurt and pain to heal. So, if you have a winner, then you have someone who will basically be happy with an outcome in which LGBT individuals, for example, are not allowed to come to the mosque. But then it destroys their faith, it destroys their identity as Muslims, and vice versa, as well. So I think we need to find ways in which you know, we can meet in between, and recognising that there are aspects of the faith that are very personal and private. There are aspects of the faith that are public. And it's about managing this, which we have to look into very carefully and find ways. And that would be the next steps that we will need to think of.

Janil: In parts of the world, and in other communities, as this matter has been dealt with, one of the concerns is about a backlash from the attempt to be inclusive. Was that a concern that you have?

Nazirudin: I think certainly, again, depending on how people understand these issues, and what opinion they hold and these opinions, I suspect are held very dearly and strongly and deeply by people. I think they would be angry and terrified with a position that is seen, deemed to be very inclusive, very open and tolerant. I've been personally accused of not fulfilling my duty as a Mufti.

Janil: Is that how they see you?

Nazirudin: I've been personally accused by some people in particular online as being derelict in my duty as a Mufti, because I was seen to not have objected very strongly, in very strong terms to the repeal of 377A, for example, from which such people considered that we have taken a very liberal, open view on homosexuality. And I think, again, this is the danger of you know oversimplifying what is, in actual fact, a very profound, a very fundamental challenge in our society. So we have put forth a very nuanced position, and I think it's important that we continue to convey our views in a cool-headed, rational, calm and civil way. To the government, to the rest of society, we’ve put forth our religious position on the matter, which is very clear. But at the same time, we recognise that we have to look at social change, especially in the context of Singapore, a very open, a multicultural diverse society.

Janil: So it sounds like there are groups that want you to have a very simple guidance, black or white, right or wrong, reduce everything down to a single question. But you don't see that as your duty?

Nazirudin: Because it doesn't help.

Janil: Why not?

Nazirudin: For people who struggle with the religious position and continue to have ambiguities on it. We have an answer for them, we have guidance for them. And we say that, if you're in doubt of whether, as a Muslim, you can practice homosexuality, then our response is no, you can’t. But we're not just dealing with that religious position for individuals who have queries on whether you could practice homosexuality. The issue that we're dealing with is what's happening in society? And how do we then engage with and relate to the diverse type of individuals in our society? And I think that is a lot more complex question to deal with.

Janil: What do you see then as the duty of the Mufti in dealing with this diversity in society and within the community?

Nazirudin: I think the Mufti has to help the community navigate these changes and challenges. And navigating is not a straightforward position. Because our voice is being heard by very different groups of people. There are LGBT individuals, the wider LGBT community, there are LGBT Muslims. There are the Muslims who want to practise their beliefs and principles and values of the faith. And within that large group, you have people with very different opinions and positions on this. So we don't want the community and the society to break up because of these different attitudes towards the LGBT issue. And not especially because of religion and what the faith says. So my duty is to help them see the broader picture to recognise where we are in terms of the religious doctrine and the theological position, but at the same time, bringing in those values, of the faith to help you remain confident as a Muslim in facing these challenges and not to fear the freedom and choices that people may have. Because for us, what is the most instructive thing is that moral compass within, the moral conscience as a Muslim. What are your principles and your values? Even if you're an LGBT individual, and you're Muslim, how does that moral compass work so that you can continue to be faithful, at the same time you're able to deal with the challenge of homosexuality in a more confident way.

Janil: You talked about these lines, this balance between authority and guidance and individual autonomy. So when it comes to an LGBT individual, who decides if they are part of the Muslim community – that individual, the community, you?

Nazirudin: I think faith has two important dimensions – one, personal and second, communal. Personal, it's a very deep belief in the creator, in God, in your faith in Islam. And it's not for anyone to question that, because it's a very unique relationship you have. And it's through your life experience, you know, through the ways in which you make meaning of life around you, that you may continue to maintain that faith. And I suspect for a lot of people, LGBT or not, I think that personal dimension is extremely important to them, and they wish to preserve it that way. But faith also has a communal dimension, a community of believers, and here we speak of the Muslim community in Singapore. And insofar as practices that concern the community, places of communal gathering like the mosque, for example, certainly there are certain expectations of what can be done, what cannot be done, and what can be taught and preached et cetera, that we have to provide the guidelines. And that's where my duty is. So for any such individual, no one stops them from having this personal relationship with God. And it is not for us to comment on that. But where it basically crosses over into our area of interest is when they begin to preach that personal faith, according to how they understand it, in ways that may conflict with how the wider community understands a particular issue, whether it's homosexuality or anything else, I think there are certain sets of teachings and doctrines and principles that we'll live with as Muslims. And we protect as a community, the idea of the family and many other things. So when it comes to that, I think we need to draw the line. And that's where authority comes in, to ensure that the community remains intact, because otherwise you will have a situation of extreme diverse and clashing opinions that may only you know, break up that community that may only create a certain level of chaos, that could lead to a lot of tensions and conflicts and misunderstandings. So, again, striking that balance between personal and communal. And I think a lot of people understand this, what they are appealing to is that do not judge me on my personal belief, and therefore exclude me from a faith of which they strongly identify with. And I think our role is to really help everyone navigate this.

Janil: It sounds to me like your priority in this matter is holding the whole community together with all the diversity of views that may have, that you want to bring everyone together on a journey and you accept that there are going to be differences of opinion within the community.

Nazirudin: Well, I learn from history that there have been so many episodes within Islamic history of the Muslim community breaking up because of differences of opinions. I think in our context, if we don't manage this carefully, I mean, that could happen as well. And looking at, you know, the regional context of very different voices and attitudes and opinions. So I think it's important that we continue to engage the community widely on these issues, and try to have a moderate position, which respects our traditions, our doctrines and teachings, whilst at the same time helping people navigate some of these challenges.

Earlier on in the year, on 1 January 2023, The Straits Times uploaded to its YouTube channel an interview with Nazirudin by Sumiko Tan in the Lunch with Sumiko series[15]. Besides saying that he found the most satisfaction in providing fresh perspectives and getting the Muslim community to think differently, he also remarked that "377A is not about homosexuality, period" at the 6:15 mark and went on to explain why[16]:


Salam Gembira[]


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This article was written by Roy Tan.

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