It was interesting to see earlier this week that Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding prime minister and still seen as its de facto leader (the current prime minister is his son), has conceded that it’s time for his country’s ban on homos-xual activity to be scrapped.

“Let’s not go around like this moral police… barging into people’s rooms. That’s not our business,” he was quoted as saying.

Singapore is like utopia to certain conservatives – a tightly regulated yet prosperous society that retains the trappings of western democracy and capitalism, while stifling any real dissent. So it’s a real milestone if even Lee accepts that the battle to put people in jail for what they do in their bedrooms has been lost.

It certainly doesn’t seem that Singapore is liberalising in any more general fashion: just two weeks ago, a visiting EU delegation was banned from speaking at a public meeting on the topic of pay rises for Singapore’s ministers.

In Australia as in most western countries, the anti-gay lobby now says publicly that it has no desire to re-criminalise homos-xuality; its agenda is about denying gays the normal benefits of citizenship such as marriage and welfare benefits.

But it’s less than 15 years since many of the same people doggedly defended the state’s right to jail people for private s-xual activity, in the controversy over Tasmania’s “sodomy” laws, so observers are entitled to doubt the sincerity of their conversion.

And those who now say that is only about “special privileges” for gays, not basic human rights, are still conspicuously silent when it comes to laws like those in Singapore – or the recent proposal in Nigeria, which would impose up to five years imprisonment for any activity even vaguely connected with being gay.

Persecution doesn’t stop because persecutors suddenly see the light: it stops when they can’t get away with it any longer. Gay rights today, maybe free speech tomorrow.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey