Roy Tan is one of Singapore’s great eccentrics – a sixty-year-old medical doctor and digital artist, who almost always totes a video camera and tripod in his attempt to document all local queer activity.
Few remember that he is also the founder of Pink Dot, the country’s most high-profile LGBT event. Back in 2008, when the government created a space for legal political protest at Hong Lim Park, it was he who seized the opportunity to register for a pride parade.
‘We must set a precedent as soon as possible and organise a parade, no matter how small or no matter how little support it receives from the generally apathetic gay community,’ he wrote on SiGNeL, the Singapore Gay News List. ‘I’m looking forward to the next six years when [Singapore’s anti-sodomy law] Section 377A is finally repealed, gay marriage becomes a reality and married homosexuals can legally adopt children. Total equality or bust!’
The response from other activists was mixed. Some applauded his intentions; others worried about respectability politics – wouldn’t straight cisgender people and conservative queers be alienated from a gathering loaded with strident sexuality? A meeting was called, after which Tan retreated somewhat: ‘We shall try to craft a more well-supported and inclusive event that the LGBT community can be proud of,’ he wrote.
Ultimately, what the group created was the non-confrontational, family-friendly ‘Pink Dot’. First held in 2009, the event was framed not as a protest against bigotry, but as a celebration of ‘the freedom to love’. Three straight celebrities were recruited as ambassadors, and all participants were asked to come dressed in pink, not simply as a show of solidarity, but also as a means of obscuring the difference between straight people and LGBT folk.
With estimated attendance ranging between 1000 (local media) and 2500 (organisers), the first Pink Dot was a massive success by Singaporean standards – the largest turnout for Hong Lim Park. Since then, it’s become an annual occasion, with balloon arches, NGO booths and live musical performances. The event is backed by corporate sponsors, such as Google and Barclays, and is regularly denounced by religious groups, such as the National Council of Churches. While it lacks the dykes on bikes and fetish gear of other pride marches – even topless men are a rarity – the event is still attended by tens of thousands of people (other rallies at the park, protesting issues like immigration or retirement funds, command only a fraction of that number). The movement has actually spread beyond Singapore’s borders: Pink Dot events have since been organised independently in Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, Canada and the USA.
As for Tan, he feels no rancour towards other activists for taming his vision. ‘I’m quite happy. Pink Dot has its own niche: a festival for mainstream gay Singaporeans,’ he says.
Amid the revelry and spectacle, it’s worth remembering that Pink Dot is a product of compromise, just like so many other forms of LGBT activism in this country.
I’m thirty-seven this year – irrefutably old by gay standards. However, age has its benefits. As much as I grumble about how homophobic and transphobic this country is, I’m also able to appreciate how much easier it is to lead a queer life now.
Growing up in the 1980s and 1990s, I felt utterly alone. Singapore was more repressed then, both in terms of freedom of speech and expression. Founding prime minister Lee Kuan Yew, who governed from 1959 until 1990, had severely limited press freedoms and political discourse, shutting down newspapers and suing politicians who criticised him. He also claimed pornography and stripping were part of a postcolonial ‘anti-yellow culture campaign’, and banned them too. He eschewed Western liberalism in favour of ‘Asian values’, prioritising the needs of the majority over the desires of the individual. (He even pretended that he and his wife had met through an arranged marriage, when in truth they had fallen in love and wed secretly as university students in the UK.)
It seemed to me that the only mentions of LGBT folks within earshot involved scandal: the transgender sex workers of Bugis Street, the global HIV/AIDS epidemic, police raids of gay nightspots, police entrapment exercises in known cruising areas.
What I didn’t realise was that each of these crises had yielded early activist initiatives. The trans community had experienced a wave of change beginning in 1971, when Singapore became the first country in Asia to carry out gender-affirming operations. Within the decade, lawmakers had discreetly made it possible for post-op trans folks to change their gender on government documents.
In 1985, when Singapore’s first case of AIDS was diagnosed, gay men and trans people became the scapegoats. Yet that very year a coalition of ten men and women came together – queer and straight, religious and non-religious – to form the committee of what would later become Action for AIDS, the country’s first such organisation, spreading the gospel of safe sex through lectures, concerts, exhibitions and tea parties.
As for the police raids, they could be said to have spawned the modern LGBT movement. In May 1993, when I was twelve, police descended upon Rascals disco. The lights went up and patrons were told to produce their identification cards; those who could not were taken to the Beach Road police station until morning, when they were released without charges.
A young law graduate named Wilfred Ong was present that night. The following day he composed a letter of complaint to the police and the Ministry of Home Affairs, pointing out that the authorities had no legal right to have detained his friends. Although most club patrons were terrified of the risk of exposure, twenty of them co-signed the complaint.
The letter didn’t bring an immediate end to the raids – the police tried to justify the operation by claiming it was a response to overcrowding. But, astonishingly, the police apologised, and the raids did decline in the years that followed. Older activists christened the event ‘Singapore’s Stonewall’, given that it inspired people to form the first official LGBT group, People Like Us (PLU).
Not all activist initiatives were as successful. On New Year’s Day 1994, a young artist named Josef Ng staged a performance work called Brother Cane – a conceptual response to a recent police raid that featured tiles, red paint, blocks of tofu and a knotted cloth whip. The piece ended with Ng, back to the audience, clad only in underpants half pulled down, cutting his pubic hair onto the stage, before asking for a cigarette from the audience. ‘Sometimes silent protest is not enough,’ he finished. The backlash was swift: his work was derided by the press as obscene, he was charged in court for performing an indecent act and authorities banned him from creating any further artworks in Singapore. To further drive home the government’s disapproval, all state funding of performance art was cut for the next ten years.
The incident sent a very clear message to LGBT Singaporeans and their allies: dialogue with authorities might yield some benefits, but overt protest comes at a heavy cost. In her book Mobilizing Gay Singapore, Lynette Chua describes the attitude of ‘pragmatic resistance’ that activists have adopted, ‘a strategy that seeks to advance the movement while ensuring that it survives the scrutiny and potential retaliation of authoritarian rulers’.
For the past two decades, queer Singaporeans have looked towards the Rascals incident as an exemplary form of activism. Not a riot, but a bureaucratic exchange of letters. Not civil disobedience, but sanctioned resistance. Not a revolution, but a quiet sort of progress.
Some idealists might sneer at the idea of pragmatic resistance – cowardly tactics for middle-class folks afraid of jail time, a classic case of attempting to use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house.
In some respects, this critique is valid – LGBT legal rights in Singapore have not improved in the last two decades; arguably, they have become more unjust. For years, all oral and anal sex was technically illegal under Section 377, which criminalised ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature’. Then, in 2007, the government reformed the penal code, scrapping the original wording of 377 but adding Section 377A, which explicitly criminalises sex between men.
However, I’ve personally witnessed progress of a different sort: the increasing emergence of queer and queer-friendly spaces. The most obvious manifestation of this is the gay nightlife district of Tanjong Pagar, a cluster of bars, clubs and saunas that sprung up in renovated colonial shophouses in the late 1990s.
But an even greater blessing for LGBT Singaporeans was the rise of the internet. This new technology afforded an unprecedented number of people an unprecedented degree of freedom. PLU, fearing the scrutiny of the police and the press, shifted its operations online; following this, numerous other groups emerged, such as the email lists SiGNeL and RedQuEEn!, the online transgender portal SgButterfly, the counselling group Oogachaga, the religious groups Safehaven (Christian), Heartland (Buddhist) and Al-Fatiha (Muslim), and the commercial networking and news sites SgBoy (now Trevvy) and Fridae.
Sylvia Tan served as a journalist and later as editor of Fridae from 2000 to 2013. ‘The news section of the website was conceived because at the time, mainstream media in Singapore did not cover LGBT news at all,’ she explains. ‘We won’t count guys being arrested for public sex – there was nothing positive, nothing about community, just crimes.’ She takes pride in the fact that some of her articles were taken up by other newspapers outlets, generating discussion and even action. Notably, her 2012 report on transgender activist Leona Lo being harassed by a bus driver led to the company taking disciplinary action.
Online connections empowered people to pursue offline activities, such as organising parties, gatherings, discussions and even entire festivals. One might call this community-building rather than activism per se, yet there were political activities too. For example, the government’s penal code reforms of 2007 inspired people to launch the Repeal 377A Campaign, involving an online petition, a star-studded YouTube video and impassioned speeches in parliament. Though the campaign ultimately failed, it galvanised activists to create further initiatives, such as Pink Dot.
And, of course, there was the growth of the arts scene. Since the late 1980s, queer and allied Singaporean artists – including myself – have pushed boundaries in their portrayals of queer life, often delivering devastating critiques of the state and other homophobic institutions. The playwright Alfian Sa’at, for instance, has depicted a fascinating array of queer characters, from working-class Chinese call boys in love, to Malay lesbian politicians who are complicit in institutional oppression. Today, even the most heterosexual of culture vultures would be hard put not to notice the plethora of LGBT-themed art in Singapore.
Creating queer art is still a tricky business, since all performances and exhibitions are supposed to be vetted by government censors. The Public Entertainments and Meetings Act still proscribes ‘anything that promotes any lifestyle or behaviour that is contrary to prevailing social norms, including any alternative sexual lifestyle (such as homosexuality or transgenderism), deviant sexual behaviour or drug abuse.’ Yet norms have shifted enough that censors often allow portrayals of queerness on the stage and screen. And when things are censored, we share our outrage via online and offline media, shaming the government for its conservatism.
Nor are the makers of such works considered part of a lunatic fringe. Local university students now routinely study queer literature by authors such as Eleanor Wong, Ovidia Yu, Cyril Wong, Amanda Lee Koe and the aforementioned Alfian Sa’at. Meanwhile, the government engages the services of openly queer theatre and film directors such as Ivan Heng, Glen Goei, Goh Boon Teck, Boo Junfeng and Brian Gothong Tan to create their National Day Parades.
‘Attitudes have changed, whether the Christian fundamentalists like it or not,’ says Loo Zihan, a visual and performance artist whose works examine Singaporean history through a queer lens. While Zihan still struggles with censors, he has noticed a broader social shift. In workshops with secondary and tertiary students, he has witnessed increased openness to sexual and gender diversity. ‘For the younger generation, it’s no longer such a big issue. Society is evolving.’
It’s tempting to claim that these increased freedoms are thanks to the efforts of LGBT activists. Yet it’s also possible to argue that we have played right into the government’s hands – that our current state of affairs is simply part of their vision of a late capitalist utopia.
Over the last twenty years, Singapore has been trying to make the transition to a post-industrial economy, one that depends more on creativity than vocational skills. The guidebook our leaders chose for this process was Richard Florida’s Rise of the Creative Class, in which he claims the best indicator of an innovative urban centre is the presence of a vibrant gay subculture.
Perhaps this explains the increased tolerance from authorities for the LGBT community since the turn of the millennium. All three prime ministers have affirmed that they believe homosexuality to be natural and acceptable. Even the once ‘Asian values’-obsessed Yew stated in a 2007 interview that ‘Homosexuals are mostly born that way, and no public purpose is served by interfering in their private lives.’
Even as he announced his decision to retain Section 377A, current PM Lee Hsien Loong explained that the law would not be enforced. He also took pains to emphasise his regard for the LGBT community:
They include people who are responsible and valuable, highly respected contributing members of society. And I would add that among them are some of our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters, or some of our children.
Yet at the same time he cautioned us against further activism:
De facto, gays have a lot of space in Singapore … [T]he more the gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push back from conservative forces in our society … [I]t is better to let the situation evolve gradually.
His words proved prophetic. A backlash has indeed ensued, spearheaded by religious conservatives. One of its most dramatic chapters was the AWARE saga of 2009, centred on a multicultural, LGBT-inclusive feminist group. At the group’s annual general meeting, new members turned up en masse and voted out the old committee, installing instead fundamentalist Christians. This act of sabotage caused widespread outrage, even among Singaporeans outside the activist community, and the hijackers were voted out after a month.
Currently, the main focus of homophobes’ wrath is Pink Dot. Fundamentalist Christians and Muslims have set aside their differences to fight against the movement. Their opinions are on full display on the Facebook group ‘We Are against Pink Dot in Singapore’.
In 2013, it was revealed that religious conservatives had been petitioning the National Library Board to ban children’s books on LGBT issues. The incident is now known as Penguingate, due to its focus on Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell’s And Tango Makes Three, which describes a same-sex penguin couple at the Central Park Zoo. Since 2014, they have also held a counter rally on the same date as Pink Dot, called the Wear White Campaign, the brainchild of Islamic teacher Ustaz Noor Deros.
Sa’at has noted how religious conservatives hang around the periphery of Pink Dot, searching for potential legal violations: the presence of foreign participants, overflowing dustbins and so on. ‘Because of the police reports that you keep on filing, the police are again present at the event this year … But they don’t wear their uniforms, they observe and take notes, almost as if they are part of a sting operation,’ he wrote.
Today, Singapore’s LGBT community feels like it’s in limbo. On one hand, we are exposed to the reforms that have taken place in the West. I know friends who have had gay marriages and gay divorces abroad; same-sex couples who have figured out legal workarounds to have children through adoption, in-vitro fertilisation and surrogate motherhood; comrades who have embraced new identity labels, such as genderqueer, pansexual, asexual and demisexual.
On the other hand, there are no signs that our legal situation will improve anytime soon. In a BBC interview this year, Loong said of Section 377A: ‘I’m prepared to live with it until social attitudes change.’ That change will be a long time coming: according to a 2014 survey by the Institute of Policy Studies, 78.2 per cent of citizens still view same-sex sexual relations as immoral.
But what is shifting in Singapore is the tenor of activism. People are distancing themselves from pragmatic resistance and community-building, and instead embracing a more confrontational, rights-based approach.
In 2010, human rights lawyer M Ravi launched a constitutional challenge against 377A. His defendant was far from a model citizen: Ivan Tan Eng Hong was a middle-aged masseur who had been caught having public sex in a shopping mall toilet. However, the fact that 377A was included on his charge sheet showed that the law was indeed being enforced – the opposite of what the government had promised. Other lawyers joined the case, as well as two more defendants, and a successful online crowd-funding campaign took place, though the final appeal ended in 2014 with the law being upheld.
A similar tactic of engagement has been adopted by Sayoni. This group began in 2005 as an online forum for queer women, but is now the most political of local LGBT organisations. Its members have been conducting research, collaborating with other NGOs and meeting directly with ministers. They have even worked in international forums, challenging Singapore’s human rights record at the United Nations Universal Periodic Review and campaigning for the inclusion of sexual orientation and gender identity issues in the ASEAN Human Rights Declaration.
‘When we do pragmatic resistance, it’s like we are trying to cope with the trends, but we are not trying to be aspirational,’ explains Jean Chong, cofounder of Sayoni. ‘The problem with Singapore is we have no framework around citizen rights. Our framework is about survival. What Lee Hsien Loong is saying is gay people can survive and make money in Singapore, not that we have any rights.’
One of Chong’s most visible actions took place on Human Rights Day 2014, when law professor and anti-gay activist Dr Thio Li-Ann was invited to speak at an EU Seminar. Chong appeared at the event with other activists, mouths taped shut, holding a rainbow flag and placards reading ‘LGBT rights are human rights’. People were shocked by news reports of this action, as such protests are almost unheard of in Singapore. Yet, Chong says, ‘I feel the strategy is quite Singaporean. In the West they would come in and shout slogans. We’re more peaceful: we will let you speak but we will take over the visual space to show that you silence us.’
Meanwhile, another LGBT arena has arisen: the university campus. Traditionally, students have taken pains to be discreet about their LGBT networks, fearing repercussions from family and authorities. Then, in 2013, two groups launched: Kaleidoscope (Nanyang Technological University) and G Spot (Yale-NUS College). At Pink Dot 2015, these groups, together with three other organisations, officially launched the Inter-University LGBT Network.
These students have occasionally astonished us older activists with their daring. In response to a diplomat’s defence of 377A at the UN Human Rights Council, G Spot issued a statement of concern regarding the diplomat’s role on the university’s governing board; others called for her resignation.
A smaller initiative took place in March this year: a one-woman project by twenty-year-old Cassandra Thng, from the Inter-University LGBT Network. In the month leading up to International Transgender Day of Visibility, Thng walked down Singapore’s shopping belt with a placard stating ‘I am trans. Will you take a photo with me?’ Altogether, sixty-five groups of people agreed to take photos with her; the images were shared across the mainstream and alternative press, online and off.
‘It was scary at times, because I didn’t know how the general Singaporean public would react,’ Thng says. ‘But the greatest form of harassment I received was from people in the comments sections, telling me that transgenderism wasn’t the issue – people were looking at me weird because I had a placard.’
While there is still a whiff of pragmatic resistance in the work of these student activists – they are still working within the law, negotiating with authorities and the public – there is a refreshing brazenness to their activities and an energy that plants a tiny seed of optimism in my heart.
They are not scornful of the unfinished, more compromised efforts that characterised the LGBT movement of the past, either. ‘Because of the work previous generations have been doing, there is a base to work on regarding what people know and think,’ Thng says. ‘We can afford to be a bit more fearless.’
If you enjoyed this essay, buy the issue