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The Myth of ‘Asian Values’, and Why Being Asian is Being Inclusive

The Myth of ‘Asian Values’, and Why Being Asian is Being Inclusive

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Top image: Quartz / A same-sex couple being blessed whilst undertaking marriage rituals in a Balinese Hindu ceremony, 2008. Same-sex marriages are occasionally officiated in Cambodian and Balinese temples.

In Part 1, we explained how some elements in Singapore seek to foist a unipolar moral framework over diverse groups of Singaporeans. We also provided examples of red lines being crossed.

In the 2nd instalment of this 3-part series, we will now fill a missing piece of the puzzle by discussing Hindu-Buddhist precepts that concern LGBT people. The aim is to widen the scope of moral discourse in our society by accounting for views that do not fall within the Christian-secular binary.

In Singaporean discourse, the term ‘Asian values’ is often bandied about in order to muzzle people who support the right of LGBT Singaporeans to live and love freely. The proponents of this obscure term argue that homosexuality is a devious Western aberration that has no place in Singaporean (or Asian) society.

In reality, homophobia and transphobia are alien biases, and have nothing to do with Asia.

It is indeed true that in the contemporary age, LGBT rights have been pioneered by the nations that comprise the West. What many have failed to realise is that several Asian civilisations were pro-LGBT before the West had its own revolution in this field.

The colonial rule that our ancestors experienced in the 19th and 20th centuries has resulted in the distancing of today’s generation of Asians, specifically Hindus and Buddhists, from their indigenous value systems. Many of the laws in Asia that criminalise homosexuality are vestiges of the colonial era: inertial laws that mirror the value system of a bygone Victorian age.

Given the advances that have since been made in our neighbouring countries, it would appear that this inertia is particularly stubborn in Singapore.

“The Buddha has taught us that everyone, regardless of his or her sexual orientation, can attain perfect enlightenment. Sexual minorities must not be discriminated against.” — Hyo Rok, a senior nun and professor at the Seoul University of Buddhism.

On the 8th of January, 2018, the Supreme Court of India announced a review of Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, thus paving the way for its abolition.

“Discrimination against an individual on the basis of sexual orientation is deeply offensive to the dignity and self-worth of the individual. Equality demands that the sexual orientation of each individual in society must be protected on an even platform. The right to privacy and the protection of sexual orientation lie at the core of the fundamental rights guaranteed by Articles 14, 15 and 21 of the Constitution.” — Indian Supreme Court

India has not been alone in making such momentous strides towards ending discrimination against LGBT people. Another Hindu-majority country, Nepal, emulated India’s pro-LGBT passport reforms by issuing its first passport marked with the gender ‘O’ — standing for ‘Other’ — to a Nepali trans woman. One month later, the Nepali Parliament ratified the country’s new constitution, which had several pro-LGBT provisions that effectively criminalised the discrimination of LGBT Nepalis, thus affording them state protection from harassment and abuse.

The constitutional provisions for LGBT Nepalis were so impressive that some Indian media outlets remarked that Nepal had left both India and the Western world in the dust.

Manoj Shahi, the first Nepali to be issued a passport with the option for a third gender (‘O’). In Indian passports and ID cards, the third gender is demarcated with an ‘X’.
Not to be outdone by their Hindu counterparts, Southeast Asia’s Buddhist-majority nations have made several strides towards ending the disenfranchisement of their LGBT citizens.

In January 2015, Vietnam abolished state regulations prohibiting same-sex marriage. In September 2015, politicians and monks in Cambodia expressed support for same-sex marriage. In March 2017, Sapporo, the capital of the Japanese prefecture of Hokkaido, recognised same-sex partnerships. In late 2017, Taiwan became the first Asian country to fully legalise same-sex marriage. In the same year, representatives of the Jogye Order of Korean Buddhism came out in support of LGBT rights in South Korea.

Same-sex sexual activity has been decriminalised, or is in the process of being decriminalised, in every major nation in Asia, including China (incl. Hong Kong, Macau), Japan, Mongolia, North Korea, South Korea, Taiwan, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, the Philippines, Thailand, Vietnam, Nepal, India, and Sri Lanka. Same-sex civil partnerships, or marriages, have either been approved — or are currently being considered at the state level — in Taiwan, Vietnam, Thailand, India, the Philippines, and in some Japanese prefectures.

In Cambodia, Nepal, India, and Bali (Indonesia), same-sex and trans marriage ceremonies have been officiated in several Hindu and Buddhist temples. Comprehensive protections against the discrimination and harassment of the LGBT community have been enacted in more than half of the above countries.

The stark contrast between Singapore and its neighbours has grown more acute as of late. Singapore stands completely alone in its puritanical stance towards its LGBT citizens. Singapore’s position towards its LGBT citizens is unbecoming of a secular nation, and is perhaps more in line with the positions held by the world’s theocratic states.

This map, which represents the progress that these countries have made with regards to LGBT rights, was created using Singapore as a benchmark. The countries that are highlighted in blue have either marginally or vastly better attitudes towards their LGBT citizenry — when compared to Singapore. The countries highlighted in red either perceive and treat their LGBT citizenry in ways that parallel their experience in Singapore, or are downright oppressive to them.
One could be forgiven for thinking that Singapore’s neighbours in Asia are becoming more ‘progressive’ with time, or that they have been influenced by the West. This could not be further from the truth.

What these countries are really doing is accelerating a process that Singapore has yet to begin: casting off the shackles of colonialist dogma.

These countries are distancing themselves from the West by re-embracing their own all-encompassing civilisational values. ‘Progressiveness’ is thus a misnomer, as these countries are not reforming, or even Westernising. Instead, they are shifting their moral compasses back to their pre-colonial states, characterised by a lack of homophobic and transphobic sentiment. Our neighbours are decolonising themselves.

The Origins of Section 377

In the first law commission of British India, held in 1834, the groundwork for the Indian Penal Code, from which Singapore’s Penal Code was derived, was laid by Thomas Babington Macaulay, a British politician actively involved in colonial affairs. As an avowed white Anglo-Saxon Protestant supremacist, Macaulay was notorious for his disdain of non-white civilisations, and bore the insidious aim of deracinating large numbers of Indians as systematically as possible.

By removing Indian people from their Indic sensibilities, and therefore assimilating them into a Judeo-Christian civilisational framework, Macaulay succeeded in raising a breed of ideological sepoys, or minions, who would then go on to be servile towards the occupying European powers in India.

Macaulay accomplished this by single-handedly controlling the narratives that went into crafting colonial India’s legal system and English-medium education curriculum.

Thomas Macaulay went on to model Section 377 after the Buggery Act of 1533, which was a statute drafted during the reign of the 16th century British monarch, Henry VIII. The 1533 act, which sanctioned execution for ‘sodomites’, stemmed from the ecclesiastical jurisprudence of Britain —which in turn, derived its authority from the Bible.

Thomas Macaulay, 1800–1859.

“We must at present do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indian in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals, and in intellect.” — Thomas Macaulay

For the first time in India’s vast history, and as a direct consequence of Britain’s quest to Evangelise India, homophobia and transphobia were codified and enacted into law. This was a shocking development in a civilisation that had historically held mostly ambivalent, often positive, or rarely negative views towards its LGBT populace, with ambivalence being the predominant position held in Ancient India.

These views are reflected in a wide range of socio-political, and metaphysical Hindu and Buddhist literary works that continue to remain central tenets of contemporary religious and philosophical practice.

“Dharmic religions are religions that originate from India. These include Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism, and Jainism. Abrahamic religions originate from the Arabian peninsula. These are Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Over 40% of Singaporeans follow a Dharmic religion.”— (2010 statistics)

Southeast Asian polities, which were firmly a part of the Indosphere, unsurprisingly expounded views on LGBT issues that were aligned with that of their parent civilisation. The spread of Dharmic religion, culture, and the language of Sanskrit to Southeast Asia is a well-documented phenomenon that accelerated during the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka’s reign. This eastwards expansion resulted in the diffusion of the predominant Indian sociocultural norms of the time into Southeast Asian cultures, resulting in the eventual establishment of several Indianised kingdoms and empires throughout the region.

These Indianised kingdoms often drew their authority directly from the legal, political, and religious texts codified in India .

One of these texts, the Arthaśāstra, which was one of the world’s earliest political treatises, contained a series of Ancient Indian statutes that had an anti-discrimination clause specific to the Tṛtīyā-Prakṛti (Third Gender) citizens of the Maurya Empire—the dominant Indian polity at the time of the text’s creation.

The Arthaśāstra legally mandated that parents of Third Gender children provide their offspring with basic necessities, like food and a roof over their heads. The Arthaśāstra then went on to state that in the absence of immediate relatives, the well-being of Third Gender citizens must be overseen by the ruling monarch. The Arthaśāstra criminalised the abandonment and the vilification of the Third Gender, and advocated punishments, mostly fines, for miscreants.

The Arthaśāstra eventually found its way to Indochina and the Malay archipelago, where it became an extremely influential document on statecraft, eventually influencing two major Nusantaran Hindu empires, the Srivijayas and the Majapahits. An example of sociocultural diffusion that may have been a direct derivation of these Indian texts can be found in the pre-Islamic Bugis interpretation of gender and sexuality. When the Bugis practised Hinduism, they recognised not two, not three, but five separate genders, uncannily in line with the multifold interpretation of gender and sexuality in India.

The Indian civilisational sphere.
The Arthaśāstra’s moral doctrine and the concept of a Third Gender had its precursors. The Kāma Sūtra, now a globally famous text, states that humanity is comprised of three genders: Male (Puṃs-Prakṛti), Female (Strī-Prakṛti), and the Third Gender (Tṛtīyā-Prakṛti).

Although the term ‘Third Gender’ is now used to refer to transgender people in a contemporary sense, in the context of the Kāma Sūtra and the Arthaśāstra, the term Tṛtīyā-Prakṛti is an umbrella term, split into other sub-identities that include homosexual men (Napuṃsaka) and women (Svairiṇi), bisexuals (Kāmiṇī), transgenders (Ṣaṇḍa), and asexuals (Klība). Thus, the term ‘Third Gender’ covered all of the above identities; practically everything under the modern ‘LGBT’ umbrella.

“Unlike the West, Hindu society does not have the concept of ‘sexual orientation’ that classifies males on the basis of who they desire. However, there is a strong, ancient concept of a Third Gender, which is for individuals who have strong elements of both male and female in them. According to Sanskrit texts such as the Narada Smriti and the Sushruta Samhita, this Third Sex or Gender includes people who have conventionally been called homosexuals, bisexuals, transgender people and intersex people (LGBTI).” Source

The Kāma Sūtra also goes on to detail long-term same-sex unions between two men, or what is today termed ‘gay marriage’, although the Sūtra stops short of referring to these unions as traditional ‘marriage’ — which would make its closest modern equivalent a ‘civil partnership’.

“There are also third-sexed citizens, sometimes greatly attached to each other and with complete faith in one another, who get married together.” — Kāma Sūtra

The Suśruta Saṃhitā and Caraka Saṃhitā, influential Sanskrit treatises on medicine and surgery, echo the same viewpoint by stating that the sex — out of all three demarcated genders — is determined at the point of conception, and that it is innate and unchangeable.

In the metaphysical sense, some Hindu astrological treatises, such as the Bṛhaj Jātakam and the Bṛhaj Samhitā , confer a great sense of admiration upon the Third Gender. Both treatises state that planetary positions wholly determine whether a child will be born Third Gender, and that individuals of the Third Gender are associated with very high intelligence, an excellent grasp of the arts and sciences, and even the powers of clairvoyance.

Simply put: The presence of LGBT people in Hindu and Buddhist societies was widely acknowledged, and non-binary sexualities and gender identities were accepted as a natural manifestation of the diverse spectrum of human realities. This means that LGBT people in not just India, but in the larger Indosphere, which is virtually all of modern-day ASEAN, were treated with respect, compassion, and were accorded their due rights. LGBT people were considered fellow sojourners on the road towards Mokṣa or Nirvāṇa, not deviants or sinners.

Aya Kamikawa, Japan’s first transgender municipal official.
Madhu Kinnar, India’s fifth trans woman mayor.
Geraldine Roman, the first transgender Filipina politician.
Reverend Esther Bharathi of Tamil Nadu; India’s first transwoman Christian pastor. She is pictured with Raymond Lee (right), a participant at the International Consultation on Church and Homophobia (ICCH) in November 2014 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
Dr Manabi Bandopadhyay, M.A., Ph.D., a mother of one, and India’s first transgender professor and school principal. This would never happen in Singapore, because institutional and societal discrimination means that transgender Singaporeans cannot avail of these career trajectories.
It thus comes as no surprise that the same ambivalence is generally shown towards LGBT people in mainland Southeast Asia. Even in the Islamicate parts of maritime Southeast Asia (barring Brunei), Malaysia , and to a greater extent, Indonesia, are relatively bereft of the severe strain of anti-LGBT sentiment that can be found in the Arabian peninsula. This is precisely because the two nations, to varying extents, remain grounded in their syncretic cultural sensibilities, even in the face of Arabisation by Saudi-backed clerics.

Singapore, on the other hand, continues to stick out like a sore thumb in its own neighbourhood.

Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, one of the most famous Hindu gurus in the world, expressed support for LGBT rights in 2013, and condemned the criminalisation of homosexuality in Section 377.
The lack of LGBT rights in Singapore is but a microcosm of a larger cultural issue. We are the most civilisationally aloof nation in Southeast Asia. We seek to politically and economically integrate ourselves with the rest of ASEAN, yet we have effectively wiped our country’s indigenous cultural slate clean.

We seek deeper economic integration with ASEAN, and spare no expense when it comes to forging stronger bonds with our Southeast Asian neighbours. Our cultural and civilisational links are an enduring legacy that  could serve as a basis for us to build better ties.

Yet, our society has long pulled up the cultural drawbridge by casting aside our multifaceted Asian identities for an anachronistic patchwork of colonial mores. The ‘Asian values’ debacle, with respect to LGBT rights, is just one facet of the cultural disconnect between us and our neighbours.

If our neighbours are able to accord their LGBT citizenry the respect they deserve, should we not ask ourselves how these countries, despite being Asian, have vastly different interpretations of what their values should entail? Could these values be a part of our own historical frameworks, as well, and could we leverage them to our own benefit?

These are the questions we need to be asking ourselves.

This is Part 2 in a 3-part series. ICYMI, Part 1 can be found here.

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Siddhanth Melwani Contributor