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PE 2023: Singapore must 'be careful' not to rush into changing social norms on LGBTQ issues, says Tharman

SINGAPORE — Singapore's social norms regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) have to evolve gradually as rushing this may cause pushback and strife in society, presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Friday (Aug 25).

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  • Presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam said that Singapore has to “very careful” not to rush into changing its social norms regarding LGBTQ issues
  • Doing so may cause pushback and strife in society
  • He was responding to questions during an election meeting organised by his campaign team on Aug 25 
  • It was attended by 650 public guests at Pasir Panjang Power Station ahead of Polling Day on Sept 1
  • Mr Tharman also spoke about gender equality and how society needs to better support homemakers

SINGAPORE — Singapore's social norms regarding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) have to evolve gradually as rushing this may cause pushback and strife in society, presidential candidate Tharman Shanmugaratnam said on Friday (Aug 25).

“We should not rush this. It is honestly too risky in a multi-religious society,” he said.

However, he said that this does not mean that society “regresses” in the meantime and “look askance at people who are different from the norm.”

“We've got to respect everyone for who they are.”

He acknowledged that his position on why Singapore has to be “very careful” not to rush into changing its social norms “will not satisfy everyone” but it is the “most sensible” one to take so that society does not become more divided. 

“And I'm being quite frank about that."

The former Senior Minister was responding to questions after delivering a 20-minute speech to 650 public guests at an election meeting organised by his campaign team on Friday night (Aug 25) at Pasir Panjang Power Station ahead of Polling Day on Sept 1.

During a question-and answer session that lasted around an hour, Mr Tharman also spoke about gender equality and how society needs to better support homemakers. 

He also spoke about how he will interact with Singapore's next prime minister, whether the nation is ready for a non-Chinese prime minister, and fielded lighter questions on his cats and book recommendations.

His presidential rival Ng Kok Song took part separately in a dialogue organised by the National University of Singapore Society (NUSS) on Friday evening while the third candidate Tan Kin Lian will also attend a similar NUSS dialogue on Saturday. 

NUSS had said in a notice that an invitation was extended to each of the three presidential candidates to interact with the society's members, and the level of their involvement is subject to their personal discretion.


The first few questions that Mr Tharman addressed at Friday's event were pertaining to LGBTQ, such as whether he believes marriage should be between a man and a woman, as well as whether he foresees Singapore changing its position on this in the future.

To this, Mr Tharman said that the Government had extensive consultations and deliberations before it repealed Section 377A — the law that criminalised gay sex — in 2022.

“And we did reiterate a commitment on the part of Government and Parliament to hold to the definition of marriage as between man and woman,” he said.

Speaking now as a private citizen, Mr Tharman said that Singapore is a society with “quite divided views” on this issue due to its multi-faith society. The country also has different generations which hold different views.

“Be very careful in how we evolve our social norms. Because it's not just a matter of our individual views. It's a matter of keeping society together,” he said.

“We should all accept that moving too quickly in shifting social norms is very likely to lead to a pushback, people feeling provoked and leading to more dissension in society,” he added.

“So social norms have to evolve gradually and they have to evolve at a tempo that will be decided by society and future generations. We should not rush this.”


Mr Tharman was also asked about his thoughts on setting women quotas for positions of power in Parliament or on company boards.

In response, he said that Singapore needs to create a more family-friendly environment, as well as have greater respect for homemakers.

He noted that an area Singapore differs from other societies is the fact that girls in Singapore “do well in education and even in the sciences”.

Calling this “quite unusual”, Mr Tharman said that girls in the United States or Europe tend to steer away from the sciences and mathematics due to their culture, unlike Singapore.

He added that women here do very well up to a certain point in working life but they are still underrepresented in leadership positions such as senior executive positions which usually can lead on to board positions.

To address this is “not a matter of capability”. 

“I think we need a much more family-friendly working environment,” he said. 

Noting that the President does not get involved in policymaking and should not be advocating for specific policy changes, Mr Tharman said that he wanted to be careful in making such comments as he is referring to a culture in society. Specifically, there needs to be a culture of respect for family. 

“We’ve got to respect the need for husbands and wives to spend enough time with the family and I believe that will help women in particular,” he said.

He added that it is about flexible working arrangements, as well as a broader culture of helping people take time off from work — sometimes for a few years, and allowing them to return without being at a disadvantage.

Mr Tharman also said that there needs to be more respect for homemaking as a major contribution to not just individual families but to society.

“We have to pay a lot more attention to supporting homemakers and supporting a culture of gender equality at home as well and not just at the workplace,” he said.


Responding to questions on why he chose to run for President instead of taking up international roles such as at the United Nations, Mr Tharman said that he does not want to leave Singapore.

He added that he has been approached by “very senior international peers” asking if he could take on major international leadership roles in the last decade.

“And my answer has been immediate to them — that I’m not interested in leaving Singapore,” he said, to cheers from the audience.  

“At that point, I was elected by the people of Jurong and I wasn’t going to leave Singapore just because someone was asking me to leave and have a prestigious position in an international organisation,” he said.

“There is no greater purpose in life than serving your own country, no matter how small. Because when you serve your own country it’s not just a position you hold, it’s an emotion.”

He did not specify what international organisations he was approached to lead.

At Friday's event, Mr Tharman was also asked when Singaporeans will know that the country is ready for a non-Chinese prime minister.

Taking this question instead, his wife Jane Ittogi said: “The answer to that is before your eyes. When Singaporeans vote a non-Chinese president.”

Mr Tharman then chimed in and said Singapore is “ready anytime” for a non-Chinese prime minister.

He said that race is a factor in politics everywhere but not the only factor.

“I think Singaporeans today, compared to 40 or 50 years ago, look at all the factors. They look at a person’s capabilities, they look at their courage, character and their contributions. They look at people in totality,” he said.

On how his approach and style for working with a new prime minister will differ from working with a seasoned one, Mr Tharman said that he will maintain a relationship of mutual respect with him.

He added that those in the Government and civil service know that he is independent-minded and one who will always seek a consensus with his colleagues on policy changes.

“And I believe whether it is the current prime minister or the future prime minister, I will have a relationship of mutual respect with them as must be the case,” he said.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recently said that political succession plans are “back on track” after Covid-19. He added that recent controversies involving government leaders will not delay his timetable to hand over to the fourth generation leadership led by Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong. 

On a lighter note, Mr Tharman was also asked on Friday if he would turn the Istana into Spongebob’s pineapple house, referencing popular cartoon character Spongebob Squarepants, who lives in a pineapple under the sea.

Mr Tharman's campaign logo is a pineapple.

Responding to the question, he said with a smile: “Well, first I have to admit I don’t know what Spongebob means, embarrassingly enough.”

He then added: “But first I will have to study the Constitution to see if the President has any discretionary powers with regard to what happens in the Istana gardens.”

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Tharman Shanmugaratnam Presidential Election 2023

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