SINGAPORE - "Mr. Tony Velasquez!", cheerfully exclaimed the official of Singapore's Ministry of Communications and Information (MCI). "Your question to the PM is making headline news in Singapore!"
Shermaine Ang, an assistant manager at the MCI's Media and Research Division, was seated in front of me in the press bus carrying ASEAN journalists visiting Singapore in the first week of June. We were riding back to our media hotel after attending the opening ceremony of the 28th SEA Games, when Shermaine excitedly told me how the local press had picked up the reply of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong to a question I posed to him during a group interview held at the Istana the previous day.
The interview with the Prime Minister was the highlight of a 5-day visit by ASEAN journalists who were invited to see firsthand the progress Singapore has achieved in its 50 years as an independent nation. Weeks before the visit, the Singapore Embassy in Manila had requested that I email the questions I planned to ask PM Lee. I researched topics that could be relevant to Singapore's celebration of its Golden Jubilee, and its role in the creation of an integrated ASEAN economy. But as the day of the interview itself arrived, I found myself struggling to focus on any topic that I hoped would be relevant to Singapore and the rest of ASEAN.
While waiting for the PM to enter the Istana's Yusof Room where the interview was to be held, the journalists were told that it would be a casual interaction, and that we could feel free to ask any question to the Prime Minister. I sensed an opening there, thinking there could be at least one topic which PM Lee had never been asked yet. As the interview got underway, the PM's Press Secretary, Chang Li Lin, nodded in my direction, and invited me to ask my first question. But I declined, preferring to hear first what the other journalists wanted PM Lee to discuss.
Finally, when I felt PM Lee had answered enough questions related to Singapore democracy, taxes, housing, anti-corruption measures, and the like, I spoke into my microphone, prefacing my query with the advice we were given before the interview began. "I was told this would be very informal, very casual." The PM smiled encouragingly as I said this. I went on to say, "So when we were thinking about questions to ask you, I thought, is it all right to ask the PM about his views...on gay marriage?"
I paused for a second, waiting to see if the PM's face would signal his disapproval of the topic. Sensing none, I pressed on. "Same sex marriage seems to be taking off in other more developed countries. Is Singapore ready to take that issue as well?"
PM Lee replied quickly and firmly. "No, I do not think Singapore is ready."
"In Singapore, there is a range of views," he went on to explain. "There are gay groups in Singapore. There are gay people in Singapore. And they have a place to stay here, and we let them live their own lives. And we do not harass them, or discriminate against them."
And then he emphasized, "But neither, I think, if you ask most Singaporeans, do we want the LGBT community to set the tone for Singapore society. The society is basically a conservative one. It is changing, but it is changing gradually. And there are different views, including views especially from the religious groups who push back. And it is completely understandable."
PM Lee wrapped up his reply in a forceful tone. "There is space for the gay community, but they should not push the agenda too hard. Because if they push the agenda too hard, there will be a very strong pushback. And this is not an issue where there is a possibility that the two sides can discuss, and eventually come to a consensus. Now these are very entrenched views, and the more you discuss, the angrier people get.”
The Prime Minister finished his sentence with a smile, before quickly prompting another ASEAN journalist to ask a question. I was scribbling notes all the while as he spoke, as did other Singaporean journalists who were invited to sit in and listen during the interview. Little did I know that I had touched what may have been a raw nerve in Singapore's society, and consequently made it to the top stories of the local online publications the next day. Gay sex is a crime in Singapore, which the nation's Supreme Court affirmed in 2014.
I was told by MCI staff that my question had been timely, as Singapore's LGBT community would be celebrating a week later, their Pink Dot event, an annual assembly to promote inclusivity, diversity and LGBT rights. As it turned out, this year's Pink Dot was the biggest since it started in 2009, drawing more than 28,000 people to a gathering in Singapore's Hong Lim Park.
I look back now at the interview with the Singapore Prime Minister, in light of the landmark decision of the US Supreme Court to legalize same-sex marriages across all 50 American states. PM Lee had also said, "In America, they have gay marriage. It is state by state. Not all states have agreed... But even in America, there is a very strong pushback from conservative groups against the idea."
Perhaps the ruling by America's highest tribunal would take PM Lee by surprise, as it likely has for many societies around the world. The US Supreme Court apparently has seen past the pushback, and has pushed forward what President Obama referred to as the "march toward equality." No doubt this milestone in US judicial history will send ripples of change across the world, brushing ever so lightly for now, on the shores of the Lion City.