Stephanie Geng (C’24) is a junior in the College studying biology of global health with minors in statistics and sociology. She’s studying abroad during the fall 2022 semester at the National University of Singapore. Some of her favorite things about the country are the public transportation system, plant biodiversity, and, of course, the food!
One of the biggest themes I noticed participating in the Doyle Global Dialogue is how religion emerges in politics in almost every country, even if its government identifies as secular. Coming from the United States and studying in Singapore, I was exposed to two government systems that are supposedly secular but often influenced by religion. This is more obvious in the United States government, where politicians often use religion as a method for gaining support or establishing an ethos. Many also use religion as a way to justify their stances on certain issues like abortion or gay marriage. Since I was exposed to this form of government for my entire life, I was quite used to the intermingling of religion and politics. Going to Singapore, however, I knew that the government would be quite different.
I had heard about the diversity and strong governmental regulations in Singapore before I arrived there, and I wondered how these differences manifested in society and public behavior. Even though Singapore is home to many religions, including Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism, the government itself is secular and the country does not have any official religion. When I first arrived in Singapore, I was impressed with how well the government seemed to maintain its secularity. I did not see any mention of religion in politics or hear of any politicians using religion to appeal to the public, like many American politicians do, and I believed that Singapore had succeeded in achieving 100% secularity.
About a month into my study abroad experience, however, the government made a major amendment to the constitution that legalized gay sex between men. While I initially had believed that this was a step in the right direction for the homosexual community in Singapore, I quickly learned why this was such a controversial decision. After speaking to some of my Singaporean friends, I realized that the issue of homosexuality in Singapore had been an ongoing debate. Both gay marriage and gay sex were illegal according to the constitution, but the penal code that barred sex between two men was largely “ceremonial” and was not actually enforced. Many believed that the government kept it to simply appease the older, more conservative generation.
Even though the government decriminalized gay sex in the constitution, it conversely passed another amendment to prevent court challenges that in other countries have led to the legalization of same-sex marriage—a decision that contradicted the seemingly progressive changes that were taking place. Many of my Singaporean classmates said that the amendment to the penal code regarding gay sex was simply a way to distract the public from the changes they were making surrounding gay marriage.
Living in Singapore while this controversial change was taking place truly opened my eyes to how Singapore society differs from American society. Singapore may seem to be a secular state at first glance, but I started noticing the influence of religion in the country more and more as I lived there for longer. The government strategically uses different policies to enforce religious ideals of heteronormativity and the “nuclear family” (a family consisting of heterosexual parents and one or more children). One example of this is the housing policy in Singapore. The country is currently experiencing an extreme housing crisis, and many people are not able to purchase housing unless it is through the government’s public housing, which are called Housing and Development Board (HDB) flats.
Singaporeans who are single are not able to purchase HDB flats until they are 35 years old, but married couples may purchase a flat at any age. This policy has led many Singaporeans to get married right after university graduation just to be able to move out and become homeowners, and it is one of the biggest ways that the government encourages the nuclear family while discouraging homosexuality. Due to the continued restrictions on gay marriage, it is nearly impossible for a gay couple to purchase a home together until they are 35 years old and even more unrealistic for them to form a family, as adoption is illegal for gay couples. Heterosexual couples, on the other hand, are able to buy houses and have children freely and with the aid of the government.
Learning about these governmental policies was shocking because not only did I realize how much influence religion truly had in Singaporean government and society, I also came to understand just how powerful a government can be in regulating its people. It was amazing to see how the government used housing policy to further restrict homosexual couples—not only are they not permitted to form a legal marriage, they cannot build families or homes like heterosexual couples in Singapore.
My study abroad experience has taught me to be more curious when traveling to other countries, especially about modern political issues in the countries I am visiting and how they shape the life experiences of everyday citizens. I always hear about certain unusual or interesting customs and norms in other countries, but before studying abroad, I never really thought about the reasoning behind them. I am now much more interested in learning about other countries’ societies and histories, and I am grateful for how my study abroad experience in Singapore has exposed me to so many new ideas and perspectives.