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NTU study looks at national attitudes towards homosexuals

Singapore, 9 January 2013

Attitudes of Singaporeans and permanent residents toward gays and lesbians although sharply polarised and predominantly negative, have shifted slightly over a five-year span to become a little more favourable. This was found by a research team from the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at Nanyang Technological University (NTU).

A nationally representative survey found that people with higher levels of education and freethinkers tend to have more positive attitudes. Those who had higher interpersonal contact with gay men and lesbians and watched more films and television shows with homosexual characters were also likely to express more positive attitudes toward gays and lesbians, and to show greater acceptance.

"This study is a continuation of an earlier one in 2005, which was initiated to provide a nationally representative and objective examination of public attitudes toward homosexuality in Singapore and to contribute to scholarship on homosexuality in Asia. By investigating some of the predictors of attitudes towards lesbians and gay men, it can help to inform public debate and guide future policy recommendations," said Professor Benjamin Detenber, Chair of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, who led a team of researchers to conduct this study in early 2010.

The study of 959 adult Singaporeans and permanent residents (PRs) found that while there has been a slight change in attitudes towards lesbians and gays in Singapore between 2005 and 2010, the change is significant, as it suggests a temporal shift in Singaporeans' values and views about homosexuals.

The study was published in the Asian Journal of Social Psychology at the end of last month, and it is a follow-up to an earlier one, which sampled 1,004 adult Singapore citizens and PRs in January 2005. These studies aim to provide empirically grounded research in gauging and tracking attitudinal changes toward gay men and lesbians in Singapore society over time.

When results from both surveys in 2005 and 2010 were compared, Singaporeans' attitudes towards homosexuals appear to have shifted more positively. "Taken together, the results show a small but significant trend toward greater tolerance of homosexuals," said Prof Detenber.

In 2005, 68.6 percent of respondents expressed negative attitudes, 22.9 percent had positive attitudes and 8.5 percent were neutral. In 2010, 64.5 percent of those surveyed held negative attitudes towards homosexuals, while 25.3 percent expressed positive attitudes and 10.2 percent were neutral.

"Clearly, public opinion is still highly polarised on this issue, but slightly more people are sharing the middle ground in 2010 compared to 2005," Prof Detenber said. The study found that older people tend to have more negative attitudes towards lesbians and gays, as do those with lower levels of education and income. On the other hand, people who feel it is less important to conform to social norms and those with a more Western cultural orientation tend to have less negative attitudes and be more accepting of homosexuals.

Similar to studies conducted elsewhere, the survey found that Singapore citizens and PRs who have a gay or lesbian family member or know someone who is homosexual are less likely to have negative attitudes and be more accepting.

Interpersonal contact also appears to have a bigger influence in shaping attitudes and acceptance of homosexuals than mediated exposure to homosexual characters i.e. seeing gays and lesbians in films and television programmes which also predicted less negative attitudes and greater acceptance.

Previous studies showed that exposure to gay characters in the media has the most effect on the attitudes of people with little or no interpersonal contact with gay men and lesbians. In contrast, the 2010 study found that viewing gays and lesbians in the media has the strongest effect on the attitudes of people with many personal contacts with gay men and lesbians.

The researchers suggested this could be because of the positive correlation between interpersonal contact and media exposure to homosexuals in this sample of Singaporean adults. Alternatively, it could be due to the way in which exposure to homosexuals in the media has been measured. The 2010 study used the total number of films and TV programmes watched, whereas other studies used viewing frequency and scale measurements of para-social relationships between viewers and media characters.

The study also showed that it is possible for people to hold negative attitudes towards homosexuals but accept gay men and lesbians on a more personal level, whether as co-workers or friends, regardless of whether they perceive homosexuality to be a choice. The researchers suggested that the precise reasons for this could be the subject of future research.

"As more Singaporeans come into contact with gay people and with the rising availability of films and television programmes with gay characters via cable television, local cinemas and the Internet, it seems possible that there will be a more significant shift in attitudes towards gays and lesbians over time," said co-investigator, Dr Shirley Ho.

As was the case in 2005, the more recent study found that religion is significantly related to attitudes and acceptance. Among the religious groups, freethinkers were the most positive in their attitudes significantly higher than Christians, Buddhists and Muslims. Irrespective of specific religion, people who are more intrinsically religious i.e. people who say that religion is integral to their lives are more likely to have negative attitudes towards homosexuals and are less accepting of them.

Prof Detenber said, "It is important to bear in mind that the findings are correlational and probabilistic that is, the results refer to trends in associations among variables (e.g. demographics, value predispositions, attitudes, etc), and do not identify causal relationships. While some of these associations are rather modest, they are statistically significant and meaningful."

The team is planning to conduct a similar survey in 2015 to better understand public opinion of homosexuality and to track changes over time.


Contact: Feisal Abdul Rahman
Nanyang Technological University

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