27 May 2000
Do gays have a place in Singapore?
by Irene Ng
Intro: A forum on gay issues was cancelled when the authorities rejected its application for a permit. But if "Everyone Matters" according to the Singapore 21 vision, don’t gays matter too? Can community concerns and gay expression be reconciled?
(Mr. Alex Au, activist, author and web site owner of Yawning Bread makes interjectory comments (in parentheses) throughout this article.)
Don’t ask, don’t tell–and don’t promote
For a long time, this has been the unwritten code guiding how the homosexual community relates — or should relate — to the mainstream society in Singapore. People are not asked as a matter of course if they are homosexual. Homosexuals do not have to tell and, as long as they do not promote their lifestyle, they can enjoy their pockets of freedom. Underlying this code is the belief that the less said about homosexuals and their activities, the better the rest can live and let live, and the more homosexuals can go about their lives.
Mr Alex Au, 47, a gay man (author of the gay Web site Yawning Bread) had hoped to ask, tell and promote at a function tomorrow. He had planned to hold a forum at the Substation to ask where gay and lesbian Singaporeans stand in relation to the Singapore 21 vision. It would tell of perceived discriminations against the gay minority, and promote the idea that homosexuality and its activities should not be stigmatised, criminalised or censored.
(Alex Au: Don’t jump at the word "promote". Read on, and you’ll see that the journalist satirises the word. Bigots use the word "promote" to mean inducing people to become homosexual. The journalist subverts that belief, as seen from the second set of red words.)
No such luck. On Tuesday, the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit of the Home Affairs Ministry rejected his application for a permit to hold the forum.  In the clearest terms yet, the authorities said the forum would advance and legitimise the cause of homosexuals in Singapore. As the mainstream moral values of Singaporeans are conservative and homosexual acts are unlawful, it would be contrary to the public interest to allow the forum, the police said. So, for now at least, the status quo is protected. But can it be maintained?
Statue quo re-examined
Whether society likes it or not, there is now a thriving gay scene with gay bars and clubs. Nothing hush-hush about it, too. Impressive guide-lists are available on various websites, such as the Utopia Homo Page. Films with gay themes, such as the ‘Wedding Banquet ‘and ‘The Birdcage’, have been shown at cinemas. At the recent film festival, four such films were screened to full houses. Artistic experimentation has also become bolder. Some local plays have fleshed out gay-related dilemmas. Bookstores, which used to carry one or two gay-related books, now have four to five shelves dedicated to them.
(Alex Au: These aren’t the best examples of gay-positive films. The Wedding Banquet ultimately preaches the idea of a sham marriage "to save face", and The Birdcage has been rubbished by gay people as stereotypical. Better examples are The Sum of Us and The Opposite of Sex.)
In a typical view, Nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin, a member of the policy-discussion group The Roundtable, notes that society is already very tolerant of homosexuals, despite its conservative tenor.
(Alex Au: This is a whitewash. When same-sex relationships are criminalised, something very fundamental to gay people is proscribed. It’s like saying to black people, you can do whatever you want so long as you obey the law that requires you to powder your skin white all the time.)
Says Tanjong Pagar GRC MP S. Vasoo, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee on Community Development "As I see it, anyone in Singapore can have his private interests and everyone can do anything he wants in his life, so long as it does not violate the laws of our society." Therein lies the rub. Many homosexuals interviewed point out that rules and institutions still discriminate against them. They chafe at censorship rules which block out material "advocating" homosexuality. Popular TV episodes of Felicity and Ally McBeal with gay themes, for example, have been canned. The Singapore Broadcasting Authority Act prohibits material which "advocates homosexuality or lesbianism, or depicts incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia".
Song-writer and Lianhe Zaobao columnist Ng King Kang is aghast that homosexuality and lesbianism are lumped together with "incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia". "Is this being conservative or plain ignorant?" he asks rhetorically, wondering if this law could withstand scrutiny.
Another source of grievance is the mainstream media, which many homosexuals tend to view as an adversary. According to sociologist Leong Wai Teng, in his article on Singapore in a 1997 book, Sociolegal Control Of Homosexuality "The media treats gays as criminals, perverts and subjects for gossip and scandal."
He also referred to two government ministries "known to have employment policies tied to sexual orientation". "In the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, self-acknowledged homosexuals are barred from appointments involving access to classified information, while "outed" homosexuals are dismissed or exiled to another ministry," he wrote. Homosexuals are "outed" when people force them out of the closet by making their sexual orientation known.
(Alex Au: In other words, deep-closetted homosexuals–precisely the ones with deep dark secrets–can have access to classified information. See my article on Security Clearance.)
According to homosexuals interviewed, the status quo flies in the face of equality and the Singapore 21 dictum that "Everyone Matters". All they want, they assert, is nothing more than the rights enjoyed by other citizens. These include the right to form associations and to have sexual relations without the Penal Code calling it "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" or an act of "gross indecency". In a sense, the gay community has used these laws and guidelines as a kind of mirror, observing their reflection in the statutes criminalising their activities.
Nominated MP Claire Chiang says she has asked several gay activists what they want to do that they cannot already do discreetly. Why, a few years back, she was even invited to a gay "wedding" here. Their common response, she says, was that they crave social acceptance and affection. The homosexuals, being a fringe minority, lack the political clout to affect change. They do not enjoy widespread grassroots support, but have won a growing group of sympathisers from the ranks of the secular elite.
Then came the Internet
In recent years, a series of catalysing events have served as an ongoing impetus for the more vocal homosexuals to act on their unhappiness. One is the Government’s rejection of their application to form a society called People Like Us (PLU) in 1997. Its stated mission: To promote awareness and understanding of the issues and problems concerning gay, lesbian and bisexual persons. Its application was rejected without official explanation in 1997, despite appeals right up to the Prime Minister.
Feeling even more alienated, gays have banded more closely together, where once their community was diffused and lacking in direction. The HIV scare has bonded them further.
Then came the Internet. It opened the floodgates of communication, spawning chat forums, e-mail lists and Web personals. A vibrant virtual gay community was born.
(Alex Au: I don’t know where Irene Ng got this information. As always, people like to mention gayness in association with HIV. It reveals the lingering and prejudicial association in their minds, and it reinforces this same prejudicial association in readers But writer omits the fact that in the Singapore context, HIV primarily strikes heterosexuals. This kind of omission is not blameless.)
Furthermore, as Mr Ng documents in his 1999 book, ‘The Rainbow Connection The Internet And The Singapore Gay Community’, the wealth of information available online on gay-related issues has the effect of personal empowerment. According to Mr Au, websites reporting the strides made by gay movements elsewhere have also emboldened the gay community here to step out. So galvanised, gay activists here latched on to the Government’s promise of opening up. After all, they recall, in an S21 forum early this year, Deputy Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said "There is no policy too sensitive to question, and no subject so taboo that you cannot even mention it."
Indeed, it was mentioned–and loudly–during a live CNN interview with Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew in 1998. A gay man phoned to ask if gay people have a place in Singapore "as we move into a more tolerant millennium". Mr Lee’s reply, in a nutshell It is a question of what a society considers acceptable, and Singaporeans are still largely very conservative.
Different, Not Deviant
Public attitudes towards homosexuality are varied and uneven across different groups. They are tied up closely with community norms and religious values in this multi-racial and multi-religious society. Mr Murat Mohd Aris, manager of the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore’s Office of Mufti, tells Insight categorically that homosexuality is forbidden in Islam. "Islam views homosexual behaviour as a sinful act, which is a symptom of the decadence of society. It is a perverted means of satisfying natural urges. Homosexuality degrades a person and is a most unnatural way of life." He adds "Individuals with homosexual behaviour require psychological or medical treatment."
(Alex Au: I heard from two straight persons within a space of 24 hours, this view: that of all the quotes in this article, his statement sounded the most primitive.)
Then there is the Catholic stand, as expounded by Father Bernard Teo, Major-Superior of the Redemptorist Order in Singapore and Malaysia. "The Church makes a distinction between a person with a homosexual orientation and one who seeks homosexual activity," says the Novena Church priest, who has a PhD in moral theology and Christian ethics.
"The Catholic Church doesn’t accept homosexual activities as a right because sexual activity has a special procreative meaning attached to it. But people with gay orientation are to be respected as persons in their own right." So, it is all right to have a homosexual orientation as long as the homosexuals are chaste.
(Alex Au: At least this Church is consistent. They forbid contraceptive pills and condoms (population explosion and AIDS notwithstanding) for the same reason. Even so, they recognise the difference between orientation and sex, and they try to accord gay people due respect, though how that can be reconciled with not accepting "homosexual activities" is a matter they don’t seem to have sorted out.)
On the other end is Venerable Shi Ming Yi, secretary-general of Singapore Buddhist Federation. Asked about the Buddhist stand on homosexuality, he appears stumped. "We have never discussed this. There is nothing on the matter under the five Buddhist precepts," he mumbles. Faced with such a mixed reception, gays have erected their own altars on the Internet, publicising groups such as Gay Christian Fellowship and Gay Buddhist Fellowship.
In secular society, however, sociologist Tan Ern Ser senses that social opinion on the gay issue has changed over the years, viewing gays as different rather than deviant. This intuitive view seems to be backed by a recent survey by Mr Au and his friends, who polled about 500 Singaporeans on the streets and via the Internet. Among other things, it found that of the 240 polled on the Internet, 74 per cent felt they would be able to accept a gay sibling, if not immediately then after a while. In contrast, of the 251 polled on the streets, including HDB neighbourhoods, 46 per cent said the same. This suggests that the Internet-savvy elite might be more open to the matter.
(Alex Au: A week before this feature article, another Straits Times journalist wrote up a news article about my survey and its results. This article was stopped from publication by the editors. Hence the mention of the survey in this feature article floats in a vacuum. It would have been mitigated if the article at least gave the URL where the survey results could be found, but as you can see, no leads were given.)
Among them is Ms Dana Lam, president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), who asserts "As a heterosexual parent, I would not like my children to add to the unhappiness in our society by discriminating against difference." But she alone cannot teach them this, she intones. "They need to be supported by society in their learning." Chinese intellectual Lau Wai Har, a veteran educationist, does not think society is ready for this. "Homosexuality is not acceptable practice here."
In stronger terms, Mr Masagos Zulkifli, the president of the association of adult Islamic religious students, Perdaus, says Singapore should not be seen to promote social practices that are not acceptable by the religious groups here.
(Alex Au:People who are "anti" always speak of gayness as "practice". Bigotry arises from ignorance and a refusal to see facts. The reality is that gayness is not just a choice, or a practice that one decides to engage in. It is as deep to a person as his race, his native tongue, his culture and identity. Could one label the Arab race, Vietnamese language, Japanese culture or grandmother-identity as "unacceptable practices" without sounding stupid?)
The two largest religious groups in Singapore — the Taoism and Buddhism — have no proscription against homosexuality. As far as I know, nor does Hinduism. Only the religions from the Middle East are obsessed with homosexuality, and even the Christian Churches are reexamining their positions. In any case, Singapore is a secular state, and large numbers of Singaporeans declare themselves "free thinkers", so why should the state take instruction
from a few religious theorists?
He adds "It is certainly a real issue that must be addressed, but not by way of officially recognising that to lead a homosexual life is acceptable." Perdaus does not think that homosexuality and lesbianism are consistent with the S21 vision, which aims to strengthen the family institution. "In fact, it destroys the traditional family unit. It also goes against the policy to encourage Singaporeans to have more children." So, while some community norms may evolve, one remains rock solid–The Family–as the basic building block, with the responsibility of carrying this unit into the next generation.
Against such a background, acceptance of a community of homosexual people seems difficult. Opponents are thus inclined to link gay people’s defiance of conservative sexual morality with an "anything goes" lifestyle that undermines the structure of society.
(Alex Au: The "traditional family unit" is a common, thoughtless phrase. It is nothing but bigotry under the guise of nice words. To put the "traditional family unit" on the pedestal is to treat people in other households structures, e.g. headed by a grandmother, or single divorced father, as somehow less worthy. To this criticism, the"traditionalists" tend to say these are "also" good and worthy families. When one drills them further, it becomes apparent that the only bad people are the homosexual ones and their families! What does that tell you? Second, even if a family fits the bill of having a "traditional"structure, it doesn’t tell you whether it’s a happy or unhappy one. Why the stress on form rather than substance? What gay people say instead is that whatever the form, the important thing is to have love, understanding and acceptance. It is hate and ostracism that destroys a family, not whether it’s "traditional" in form or not. Third, on the matter of having more children, here again, the "anti" argument rests on the assumption that people choose to be homosexual. This is simply not true. Homosexual people by their very nature, have no interest in the opposite sex and for millenia, have not been engines of reproduction. That doesn’t mean they haven’t contributed to society in many other ways. Encouraging homophobia isn’t going to make them procreate. Finally, an accusation that is again based on the wrong premise that people can be "converted" to be homosexual. In any case, so what if people "try"? Why the great fear? Do Chinese condemn thoseamong them who try Greek food? The whole thing is extremely irrational. Irene Ng should have mentioned, for accuracy, that the law is being repealed in Britain.)
To compound matters, an accusation often levelled against gays is that they can influence the impressionable young to try out homosexuality. Similar concerns prompted the authorities in Britain to ban in 1988 "the teaching in any maintained school of the acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship".
But one should not over-simplify or over-generalise.
Father Teo says that he knows many homosexuals who make great contributions to the church and community and lead respectable lives. "We need to respect them as persons and to educate people that these people have rights to their dignity," says the priest. The issue needs to be addressed "because a lot of people suffer when things are not clarified". But how to address it without being accused of "promoting" homosexuality? asks academic researcher Russell Heng. "There are some real hurdles — psychological, emotional, social, economic — which gay people must face in many areas of their personal life and they want to talk about these issues."
So too heterosexuals who have a gay relative but who are unsure of how to deal with it because of the taboo nature of the subject, he says. It seems then, that Nominated Member of Parliament Claire Chiang thought the authorities were wrong in denying the forum a permit.
(Alex Au: On that point, Ms Chiang, too, agrees. She also believes that there is room for freeing up the intellectual perspective on this issue. Social stigma can be moderated "by discussing it openly and raising our tolerance thresholds by signalling tothe gay and lesbian community that it matters".)
Cautions Mr Zulkifli, "this is all very well, but if the matter is opened up for discussion, be prepared for some serious conflict and a hardening of conservative views." Science cannot yet produce unequivocal answers to many of the questions regarding homosexuality that vex politicians or stir the "moral" community.
(Alex Au: Beware, the reverse also applies. A hardline position by the State and religious groups tends to increase militancy by the marginalised, precisely the outcome the State does not want to see happen.)
One factor, however, has become clear. Anyone who expects to make sense of Singapore society must accept that gay activities have become a more visible part of the social landscape. No doubt, this will include the upcoming Speakers’ Corner. There, speakers require no police permit, but only this: A Singaporean identity and the courage to face the crowd.
June 2, 2000
More youths going public, seeking help
Intro: young people in Singapore are "coming out" into the open about their homosexual orientation, and a steady stream is seeking help on coping with it.
(Alex Au: The headline deserves a rap on the knuckles. Itsuggests that "going public" is closely associated with needing help. )
Singapore Planned Parenthood Association’s president, Mr John Vijayan, believes this is because "more are looking for support from others with similar experiences and struggles", and that the younger generation is more accepting of gay persons. In the last three years, the SPPA, which advocates family-life education programmes and offers advice on sexual matters, has counselled about 40 people each year. Their ages ranged between 13 and 30, and their concerns included fear of their own inclinations and confusion about their feelings.
(Alex Au: Look at the number carefully. 40 persons per year out of the tens of thousands of homosexual or bisexual persons (between 13 and 30). By failing to put it in perspective, the article creates the misleading impression that being gay necessitates counselling.)
Some grappled with self-hatred and anger at their parents and society, while others fought depression and suicidal tendencies, says Mr Vijayan.
Tanjong Pagar GRC MP S. Vasoo, who heads the Government Parliamentary Committee on Community Development, notes "Singapore is globalising and one cannot but be confronted with various social changes which are brought about by human interaction and IT [internet technology?]). "Some of these can affect our social values and, in turn, our life courses and choices." The young must be taught, he adds, "how to live their lives at their best, with due concern for others". Father Bernard Teo of the Novena Church says his staff members working among youth have reported that many are going through the phase of sexual confusion and talking about it.
(Alex Au: Again, the implication that homosexuality is a choice, and the more general implication that our "values" would be affected — and usually people take it to mean that it’s for the worse. See the strenuous attempts to paint homosexuality as something immature? It’s the result of "peer pressure to come out", implying that closetted is preferred, or better yet, if people were not gay at all. Or that it is possible to "grow out of it" as some have. If they were really gay, they can’t grow out of it. At most they go into denial and destructive self-hate.)
It may be due to peer pressure to come out, he says. "Some go along with the flow, some grow out of it, while others affirm it." Finding out their child is gay "comes as a shock to some parents. They don’t know how to handle it", adds the Catholic priest. This does not mean, of course, that the number of gay people in Singapore has shot up. No official data is available, but, going by the average in most countries, the homosexual community here should make up no more than about 5 per cent of the population. In the United States, about 4 per cent of men and 2.3 per cent of women are exclusively homosexual. In China, surveys have found that about 5 per cent are homosexual.
(Alex Au: Slanted phrasing. Irene Ng has quoted the low end of estimates from the US. Other data suggest about 6% exclusively homosexual men or more. In addition, she has omitted to mention bisexual persons who, while more difficult to define andcount, are generally estimated to number another 5-8%. See The Calgary Study.)
In any case, when it comes to human rights, numbers do not settle the question. The Indian community in Singapore is also about 5%, the Eurasian, Baba or Sinhalese, much, much less. For that matter, the ballroom dancing, golfing or cricket enthusiasts too. Would we be justified in criminalising them, denying them their public forums, societies, films or reading material because they are not numerous?
June 3, 2000
Singapore is not ready to accept homosexuality
(Alex Au: The selection here is blatantly biased; all the letters voice homophobic comments that reflect various levels of ingnorance and discrimination.)
What Readers Say
More than 80 readers gave their responses to last week’s feature which discussed if gays should be given more space in Singapore. Here is a summary of their opposing views.
"Make no mistake, society is not ready to accept homosexuality in Singapore." Mr Richard Chiang believes that homosexuality is morally wrong. "I think I represent quite a percentage of Singaporeans when I say that we tolerate homosexuality, but do not respect it at all.” But, like several others, he adds: "It is not a matter of whether homosexuality will ever be recognised, but a matter of when. Homosexuals may get a more understanding and tolerant audience in probably the next generation or two.”
Agreeing, reader Anthony Koh notes that gays are already enjoying freedom here. He asks: "What more do gays want? A gay marriage certificate? Or the right to apply for HDB flats as gay married couples?” Reader Raymond Ng describes Singapore as a modern society rooted in traditional values. "Do I hate homosexuals? Not the person, but I shun the act, and I am appalled by the gross misrepresentation in terms of political power which they enjoy in the United States. "I hope that will never come to pass in Singapore,” he says. Ms Eugenia Ho applauds the Government’s decision to reject an application
by gay activist Alex Au to hold a public forum on gay issues. Decision-makers must be responsible to the larger society, she says.
In Ms Anna Chew’s view, homosexuality is unnatural and can cause "many social problems if allowed to flourish”. These problems include the rise of Aids and sexually-transmitted diseases, she says. "I do not deny that homosexuals may contribute a lot to society. "However, I believe that, with proper help given to them so that they may revert to heterosexuality, they can contribute even more and also prevent social problems from escalating,” adds Ms Chew
July 1, 2001
Singapore gays find tacit acceptance, some seek more
by Amy Tan
"Homosexuals can change," a banner proclaimed from the side of a Singapore church that runs counselling sessions to steer gay people back onto the straight and narrow. Gay activists protested and the banner was removed. Judging by the scope of the not-so-underground gay scene, the strait-laced city state is slowly moving towards quiet acceptance of its gay community. A hip dance club in the heart of town is packed with hundreds of muscular, sweaty men gyrating to pumping music.
Elsewhere on the island, other gay-friendly watering holes see a steady stream of customers. Shelves at major bookstores are stacked with a wide range of books on homosexuality ranging from gay history to romance. Local gay and lesbian Internet groups, some with several hundred members, have mushroomed. "I can’t imagine these things that have gone on for so long escape the attention of the authorities," Alex Au, head of the informal gay and lesbian activist group People Like Us (PLU), told Reuters.
It is not illegal to be gay or lesbian in Singapore, but homosexual sex acts are illegal and can land people in jail — even if they take place in private. Gays and lesbians have no legal protection against employment discrimination on grounds of their sexuality. Self-declared gay men in the military are relegated to administrative or logistics work. Other former British colonies sharing similar laws, such as Australia and Hong Kong, have long decriminalised homosexuality.
Family And Birth Rate
In Singapore, the government constantly harps on the need for traditional family units as the population ages and birth rates fall, but life for gays and lesbians appears little affected. "We actually lead very normal lives," says Wee Han, a 23-year-old writer. "I think there is always a discrepancy between the way we are ruled and governed and the way we live." Violent gay bashing is unheard of in Singapore, which generally boasts low crime rates. "Some people in Singapore really object to it but they still keep mum about it," says 19-year-old beauty consultant Celyn Png. "I can even kiss in public. People just stare."
But while commercial ventures catering to gays exist, the government has been less accommodating to homosexuals trying to raise their profile. "The further away you move from money towards speech, the more defined the restrictions coming your way," PLU’s Au says. PLU, which started off as a gay social group, applied to the government to form a society to promote the understanding of homosexual issues in 1996 but was rejected after lengthy appeals. PLU plans for a public forum on gay issues in May 2000 was also scrapped after it failed to get the nod from authorities. The hit Broadway musical "Rent," which features two gay couples as central characters and on-stage kissing, made its local debut in February with a rating which barred under-18s.
"Five years ago they would have banned the play," says Gaurav Kripalani, artistic director of the Singapore Repertory Theatre which staged "Rent." "They are letting adults judge for themselves what they want to see and what they don’t."
Others in the gay community sense a growing acceptance. "They’re beginning to realise that maybe it is not such a major issue," says a 37-year-old banker, who asked not to be identified. "Singaporean morals aren’t going to get destroyed overnight just because gay people begin to live as gay people."
But Au does not see the government moving "inexorably towards liberalisation" and says anti-gay sex laws look set to stay. "I think the fundamental reason is not wanting to provoke the fundamentalists," he says. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, renowned for his no-nonsense approach as Singapore’s first prime minister, clarified the official stand on gays in a 1998 television interview. "It’s not a matter which I can decide or any government can decide. It’s a question of what a society considers acceptable," Lee said. "But what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don’t impinge on other people. I mean, we don’t harass anybody."
Despite the quiet acquiescence towards gays and lesbians, there is room for more openess, Au says. "There’s always underground freedom. The point must be what happens overground," he adds. "The issue is why aren’t we given our due — given legal equality, political recognition and social recognition above ground."
After the Church of Our Saviour put up the banner last year to promote its counselling sessions, the gay community quickly rallied online to gather signatures for a petition. The church still conducts the sessions but the banner has come down. In a written reply to the petition, the church said homosexuals did not have to change their orientation to join the church. They just had to moderate their behaviour.
"There has been much hospitality and grace extended by the church to people steeped in the homosexual lifestyle," it wrote. The ,Straits Times newspaper has cited three new lobbies jostling for the government’s attention — the ageing population, environmentalists and the gay community. "For now, the gay lobby is most marked in its ability to purvey cultural norms because of the preponderance of homosexual themes in Singapore’s art and entertainment scene," it wrote. "Whether it will turn out a socio-political force remains to be seen. But if the trend in other industrialised countries is any guide, the tide is towards acceptance of homosexuals, not criminalisation."
Au, a 48-year-old businessman who has been the single most outspoken member of the gay community, is confident there are now others to take up the cause. "It’s reached the point where I’m not the only one who’s active," he says."
January 4, 2002
Gay and lesbian teen life (personal essays)
In our third and last instalment, a lesbian from Hong Kong and a gay man from Singapore share their experiences about their teenage years–a 28-year-old lesbian student from Hong Kong and a 22-year-old gay student from Singapore talk about self-discovery, school, first loves and more.
Name: Vicky Yau
Sexual orientation: Lesbian
City/Country of Residence: Hong Kong
City/Country where you attended school: Hong Kong/Florida, US
Being gay in school:
Being gay in school wasn’t that hard for me. I first realized I was different when I was in Primary 4, when all I could think of doing during recess was to get the attention of the girls that were the most feminine and cute. I told them jokes, and I helped them get their lunchboxes from the canteen. They thought I was a nice girl and well, I had been one of the popular ones in school all my life. I got along with my male classmates just fine but it wasn’t particularly enjoyable or exciting or, even now, special. I was considered as a tomboy then, though no one ever called me any funny names. I was lucky to be in a school where no one believed anyone could be a homosexual. Even teachers thought that all the tomboys or "sissies" were going through a phase. Perhaps it was lucky for us gay teenagers that we were safe from harassment; perhaps it was pathetic for the society to ignore such an issue and gay teenagers had to go through the pain of finding out the truth about themselves alone.
Coming out to yourself:
To be honest, I had thought it was a phase too. It wasn’t until I was in Form 3 (about 15 years old) did I realize that my feeling towards this one girl was "something else." I had heard of "homosexuality," it was a term to be whispered but not to be said out loud. I knew the chance of finding someone like me was zilch. However, I had no problem accepting that fact that I was a "homo". I was just very depressed that I was one. I remember I was lying in bed one night, bracing myself against the inevitable future of being alone for the rest of my life.
Coming out to friends:
The first person I ever came out to was the girl whom I had a crush on since Form 2. I told her in a long letter after we both went to college in the US, though at different schools. She replied my letter by saying that she wasn’t a lesbian and that we were never such good friends to begin with, and we should keep it that way. That hurt. The second semester during my freshmen year I joined the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual Student Union (LGBSU) on campus and since then, most of my friends during my college life were gay (both men and women).
I only told one of my good friends from high school about my sexuality when I came back to Hong Kong 4 years ago. She was very supportive and nice about it. I don’t really have a problem with coming out to my friends since I haven’t kept in touch with my high school friends during the years I was away and now most of my friends are gay like me anyway.
Coming out to family:
My mom was the Head Nurse in the hospital before she retired. When I was 16 and was so infatuated with this girl I told you about earlier that I couldn’t even study at all, I decided to tell my mom. I thought my mom would be disappointed for a few days, the way she would when I got a Fail in my report card, and afterwards, she would love me just the same. I even thought that she would give me some medication from the hospital this time to "cure" me. Well, surprise, surprise. She was cooking then – chopping something like ribs in the kitchen.
Upon hearing my "confession", she chased me (with the knife still in her hand) from the kitchen to my bedroom, calling me names like "devil’s child" and "Satan girl" and "man-girl" (a derogatory term used to describe a butch). I dared not talk to her for the next few weeks while she pretended nothing had ever happened. I knew she had told my dad about it too.
Nothing about "girls" was ever mentioned until after I came back from the States. I was 24 then. She confronted me about it this time. All I said to her was "love doesn’t hurt, only hate does". She cried, she moaned, she threatened me with her words, but I wasn’t afraid of that anymore. I was big enough to break down the door even if she had to lock me up. I believe she is beginning to accept the fact now. Though this issue has been shut up between us again, she has been urging me to get a life insurance.
"It’s for your own good, since you’re never gonna get married, and if something happens to you and I am not here, at least your best friend could be benefited." I don’t want to pursue the matter with her right then and there, despite it seeming hopeful and encouraging. I will not force my parents to accept my sexuality, but I could tell during these years how much they love me. To put myself in their shoes, their daughter is doing something against their believes and against our so-called culture and tradition, yet I am their daughter and they still choose to "forgive" me for whatever disappointment I force on them.
Since the teenage coming-out episode with my mom, I was never in good terms with my parents. People always say we should love our parents yet I never knew how; never knew why. I never told them I love them because I didn’t think I could. It was like true love, only time could really tell. And I can say I love my parents now, my mom, especially, for it is her who shows me what unconditional and unrequited love (all what I’ve been searching for in relationship after relationship) is, by making me feel loved.
First crushes/love/relationships and sex:
My first crush didn’t land me on a relationship, not even a kiss. My first kiss was with a gay man who is still my best friend. My first sexual encounter wasn’t based on love. I had my first sex experience when I was 17, at college. Her name was Justine and we were watching a baseball match together, held by the LGBSU. She asked if she could go home with me and I said she could. That was it. I didn’t enjoy it, and frankly, I didn’t even find her a bit attractive. I agreed simply because I was excited by the idea of
Looking back, she was rather good in bed but I was too nervous to appreciate it. I faked an orgasm, hoping that I could wash my hands off (literally) as soon as possible. My first girlfriend was a Filipino American whom I met at a Halloween party at 18. She was 26 at the time. It made me felt like I’d suddenly become a real adult – with a girlfriend, a lot of sex and a relationship. That’s what most everybody in both Eastern and Western worlds is talking about, isn’t it?
The relationship ended after a few months when she had to move back to Ohio. That was devastating but it didn’t take me too long to get over her. I was young, and the pain of losing is so insignificant then. As I grow up, I learn that it is becoming harder and harder to get over someone. As each relationship is getting longer, hope and the promise of "together" become what I cling on to. The pain becomes real, and each loss and disappointment becomes a disaster. (I remember I was lying in bed one night at age 15, bracing myself against the inevitable future of being alone for the rest of my life – I wonder where that strength has gone…)
Sexual orientation: Gay, gay and Gay!
City/Country of Residence: Singapore
City/Country where you attended school: London, Singapore
Being gay in school:
I lived in London when I was young and then moved to Singapore way before the awkward stage puberty set in so I honestly cannot say what it was like being gay in school there, thought it would make growing up gay ore interesting! But being gay in Singapore was a whole other story. Basically it was a case of flying under the "radar" while studying in Singapore. When it came to talking about girls and their endowments, or lack thereof, I could throw it out with the best of them. I have to confess I was guilty of the whole "gay bashing" speak, but I was 16! and would do anything to be accepted and popular. I would see those slightly effeminate schoolmates of mine and how ostracized they were in school; it was a nightmare to be in their shoes. I do not think I ever showed a hint of my sexuality while studying form the ages of 16 to 18, hell I was even afraid to look up in the changing room, I was that paranoid!
It helped a lot that I liked the "straight" sports and represented the school teams. Now, coming out to some of my ex-schoolmates. I would get comments like" what? no way" or "what?!? but you played for XXX". Now in University, I am not afraid of coming out to anyone. While I do not scream it at the top of my lungs, neither do I deny it when asked; which makes life a whole lot more interesting, you never know who might be in the same "family". However sometimes one cannot help but come across a less than understanding individual. I do not bother with those – my time is too valuable.
Coming out to yourself:
I was lucky because I never went through the phase of denying my sexuality. While I was afraid of showing it when I was younger, I cannot remember me being any other way. I have NEVER been attracted to girls and during the time of the "awakening", when one discovers that there is an attraction beyond just friends, it has always been guys. You could sum my coming out to myself as always was and not knowing any other way. Something like circumcision, you never know what you have not got. In this case, what I have never got was the attraction to girls.
Coming out to friends:
First time I came out it was hard and for a period I lost my best friend. The first friend I came out to was to my best friend in school when I was 17, she had a hard time accepting that a guy could like/love/have a crush on another guy. But we talked through the issue and she realised that well I have always been gay from way before I came out to her. I was and always will be me, and her knowing or not knowing made no difference to who I am or will be. Now I like to think I am a better judge of a person’s character, if they are able to accept the whole other side of the sexuality issue or not. If I get the vibe they are "cool" with it. I just tell them. My favourite phase would be to say "I can’t do (insert action) cause I am gay!" or I just talk about guys in front of them and they get the hint. Most of my friends are straight, guys and girls and it has not made a difference of me coming out to them. In fact I have been set up once or twice on the same night of me telling them… Bless those kind people!
Coming out to family:
I was tempted to. But telling my family is not something I can take back, so I had to weigh the pros and cons of telling them and anticipation how my family would react especially my parents. After much thinking I came to the conclusion that with the expectations form my parents and the "role" that I have in the family, it would be better off not telling them.
First crushes/love/relationships and sex:
My first love was my first crush and heartache relationship – and the first person I had sex with. Actually it was my first everything. First time I kissed, dated or hugged in that special way. We had met through of the Internet sites. My best friend had set up a short personal ad for me right after the A level examinations and he was the first one to respond. I remember going to the meeting, I was so nervous! Up to the time I actually met him at the train station my feet were literally going in the other direction… towards home! First few minutes it was instant attraction like a gong going off in my head and heart. I was 18 then and I could not stop talking! When I look back I admire him for his patience if nothing else. We dated for about a month and a half, after which he unceremoniously dumped me. And he did not even tell me! It was one of those "I am always busy" things. The hell I went through after that!
Issues of self-esteem and confidence were always around. Looking back it was a good experience. The life lessons that I carry with me till today were learnt because of that. Besides after that, as a physical manifestation of the change in my life I made myself over. Like picking out my clothes more carefully and trying to be "body beautiful".
Though I have to admit, I still do carry a tiny torch for him, and always will, in that small recess of my heart. Its called "The First" And if you are wondering about the sex. He says it was his first time too, so it was a lot of experimenting and a little fumbling. But since it happened when I was totally taken by him, I still count it as one of my best experiences so far.
May 25, 2003
He’s a woman… she’s a man–Leslie Lung wrestled with sexual issues all his life. The ex-transsexual also sold his house and spent $200,000 to produce his own book on sexuality
by Wong Kim Hoh
There is something soft about Mr Leslie Lung. It is evident in the slight sway of his hips as he walks, and the gentle lilt in his voice. ‘A lot of people who see me today will think I am effeminate,’ the 39-year-old says matter-of-factly over coffee in Holland Village. ‘But they should have seen me then.’ Then was more than two decades ago, when he wore more than just the bangs which now frame his youthful face. He had long lustrous locks and a wardrobe full of heels, dresses and accessories. The ex-transsexual has thrown the dresses – together with a few skeletons – out of his closet.
Religion, he says, was his saviour. He has abandoned plans for a sex operation he once almost had. And although he admits to still feeling sexually attracted to men, he claims to have been celibate for the past 19 years. His road to self-acceptance has been rocky, but it culminated in a book, one which cost him two years of his life and more than $200,000 from his savings to write, produce and publish. But more about that later. Nineteen years of celibacy, I suggest as gently as I can, is a notion which beggars belief.
Mr Lung, who runs a creative consultancy company, squirms shyly in his seat and lets out a soft laugh. ‘Well, I’m really not in any physical relationship with anyone,’ he says. ‘Chastity is a word we all hate. But I see it as being responsible to myself. I have made a choice and whether I find women or men attractive is irrelevant.’ He adds, with a shrug: ‘I have a support group to thank. When I get the urge, I talk about it and find resolution and move on.
Sex is so over-rated and yet, the irony is, it is so important.’ He should know. He has been struggling with sexual issues all his life. He was born the only son of a pharmaceutical-company manager and a housewife. He has a 43-year-old sister who is a youth worker in Thailand. ‘My Dad did a lot of travelling and I grew up deprived, not financially but emotionally,’ he says.
In his mellifluously articulated English, he adds that he ‘was not predisposed towards games or rough and tumble play’ and was often bullied by primary-school mates for being soft. In his secondary ‘all-boys missionary school, can guess which one, right?’, he was often hauled up for having ‘long hair and putting on make-up’. He struggled with himself and with his friends. ‘I tried to be more manly, and suppressed my feelings and liking for art, dance – very narrow definitions of what makes a man – but I was miserable. I didn’t feel like a man so how was I going to live as one? ‘I was already considering a sex change when I was 12 or 13. My disciplinary master referred me to professional help and I actually went through all the proper channels. I saw a social worker, a psychologist; I read a lot of magazines.’
Over three years of counselling and professional diagnoses confirmed what he had long known – he was a transsexual, that is, he felt he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. He did not involve his parents at first: ‘They knew, I guess, but they never talked about it. They could see what was happening.’ By the time he enrolled as a business administration student in a local polytechnic, he already had a closet full of dresses. He decided on the inevitable after graduation in 1984 – sex surgery.
But like a dramatic Hollywood script, he claims to have had an epiphany three days before he was due in the operating theatre – on a Good Friday, as it turned out. ‘One of the key thoughts of the Bible is that a man shouldn’t put on woman’s clothes. I’ve always thought that ridiculous but suddenly I saw the principle behind the commandment. God is telling us not to do the opposite. Suddenly I knew that the operation would not be right,’ he says. He decided to fulfil his national service obligations and confront his fears of more taunting and bullying face-on.
‘I could have found a way out of NS because of my circumstances but to do so would be going against every aspect of my decision to be true to myself. I was really trying to discover who I was as a person, and gender was just part of it.’ The next turning point came in 1991 when he met Mr Synclair Rogers, an American pastor who came out of transsexualism to become a husband and a father. The latter also started a ministry called Choices In Singapore to help people with sexual issues.
Mr Lung attended Mr Rogers’ self-help support group. The people he met inspired him to embark on yet another tumultuous chapter in his life – to be author, producer and publisher of a book. ‘The people I met wanted to talk about their sexual issues openly as they found resolution, and I thought it would be timely that such a book – frank, no-holds-barred – be written.’ No publisher would touch the project so he wrote and published Freedom Of Choice, a collection of 20 true accounts of people triumphing over sexual struggles.
The project, which was published in 2000, took over seven years. It was a baptism of fire, one which saw him nearly buried under an avalanche of publishing, legal and distribution problems. He had to give up his lucrative design business to do the project full-time, and even sold his Housing Board flat in Dover Road to finance it. The exercise cost him more than $200,000 and a lot of tears: ‘I was very mindful of the fact that people would say that I am exploiting people’s stories to make a quick buck.’ To silence these detractors, he donated all proceeds, amounting to $70,000, to three social-service agencies, from the sale of 500 hardcover copies of the book.
‘People who were not gay accused me of promoting a gay lifestyle. Militant gays, on the other hand, accused me of being anti-homosexual,’ he says with a sigh. ‘But as the title suggests, the book is about freedom of choice. We’re free to choose, and we can choose to be free from whatever constrains us. ‘And if that means an alternative lifestyle for some people, then power to them,’ says the author, who also gives talks on sexuality in secondary schools here.
There have been uplifting moments though. ‘When I explained what I was doing to many of my clients, they rallied around me. They gave me props, made contributions, provided me with information,’ says Mr Lung who has revived his agency. Its list of clients include Apple Computers, Asia Pacific Breweries and HBO Asia. Ruefully, he admits that he has sold only half of the 7,000 copies of Freedom Of Choice. The lack of publicity did not help; publications avoided reviewing it because of its controversial nature. ‘I was in the PR business, I did press releases for my clients but I couldn’t get any mileage for my own work. I was so frustrated,’ notes Mr Lung, who lives alone in a Normanton Park apartment.
Would he do it all over again? He laughs and says: ‘I hate that question because you can’t know the answer. You can’t live your life again.’ There is a quiet dignity about him. He is obviously religious but he does not proselytise. People who do not know him, he says, ‘don’t know what I am all about. But we need to challenge our notions of sexuality as far as manhood or womanhood is concerned. Are women really from Venus and men from Mars?’ He gives his parting shot: ‘If you ask me, we’re all on Planet Earth. But we are all different, we are who we are. And this is what I am.’
July 5, 2003
About the ‘new’ gay tolerance in Singapore
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong dropped something of a small bombshell this week when he revealed to Time magazine that the Singapore Government had changed its policy on hiring homosexuals in the civil service. ‘In the past, if we know you’re gay, we would not employ you,’ he said. ‘But we just changed this quietly. We know you are. We’ll employ you,’ he revealed.
The Government does not seem to have adopted quite the same policy as the United States military’s ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’, but the effect is analogous. Gay people do not have to declare their sexual orientation – nobody in Singapore is required to, actually – but Mr Goh seemed to suggest it would be best if they did, so as to avoid being blackmailed, especially those in sensitive positions. ‘Disclose, and we won’t bother’ would seem to encapsulate the new policy.
This newspaper welcomes the change. As the Prime Minister explained, broader changes in the laws regarding homosexuality will have to await changes in the beliefs and attitudes of what remains, by and large, a conservative society, but this is a step in the right direction. Homosexual acts will still remain an offence – but as everyone knows, these sections of the Criminal Code are not strictly enforced. Singaporeans are not about to witness gay parades or festivals – but as everyone knows, private gatherings of the gay community are not prohibited. And the Government is not going to institute in the near future a strict anti-discrimination policy towards homosexuals – similar, say to anti-discrimination policies on the grounds of race or religion – but as Mr Goh made clear, the Government itself will not discriminate against gays, and large segments of the private sector have long ceased to make an issue of it.
No homosexual in Singapore is starving because of his or her homosexuality; no homosexual is jobless because of his or her sexual orientation. What Singapore has, de facto if not de jure, is a live-and-let-live attitude towards homosexuality. ‘So let it evolve,’ as Mr Goh put it, ‘and in time, the population will understand that some people are born that way. We are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me.’ Some American studies have suggested that as much as 10 per cent of any population is homosexual. In all probability – the science on this is not settled – homosexuality is as genetically determined as heterosexuality, or one’s height, for that matter.
Ethically and logically, it is as untenable to exclude people on the basis of their sexual orientation as it is to exclude them on the basis of the shape of their noses or the colour of their hair. If it is ‘natural’ to have snub proboscis as it is to have high ones, it is as ‘natural’ to be a heterosexual as it is to be a homosexual. There is no one model of the natural; nature is by definition various. Why should anyone be faulted simply for possessing certain traits – of gender, race, sexual orientation, or inherited disability, or even body type – over which they had no control? ‘Blaming’ someone for being homosexual is equivalent to faulting that person for simply existing. But this is not a position that everyone would agree with. Many religions – or more precisely, segments of many religions – explicitly prohibit homosexuality.
These views are sincerely held, and no society, not even avowedly secular ones like the US, can ignore them. If Western Europe, Canada and Australia are any indication, attitudes towards homosexuality will change in the long term. But the process cannot be forced.
July 4, 2003
Quietly, Singapore lifts its ban on hiring gays
by Wayne Arnold, The New York Times
Singapore – With its export-driven economy winding down, Singapore’s government has quietly lifted restrictions on hiring homosexuals as part of a broader effort to shake the city-state’s repressive reputation and foster the kind of lifestyles common to cities whose entrepreneurial dynamism Singapore would like to emulate.
Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong initially divulged the policy in an interview with Time magazine’s Asia edition, excerpts of which were published this week in the magazine’s July 7 issue and carried by news organizations here Friday. "In the past, if we know you’re gay, we would not employ you, but we just changed this quietly," Goh told his interviewer, according to a transcript obtained from Singapore authorities. Singapore has a vibrant gay and lesbian community.
But gay sex is illegal and the government has yet to officially recognize any organization for homosexuals. Despite a proliferation of bars and saunas catering to the gay community, therefore, homosexuality still remains largely taboo. Books and films with homosexual themes are banned. When HBO airs its "Six Feet Under" television series here, most scenes dealing with the homosexuality of one of the main characters are excised.
"It’s a good, tiny step forward," said Russell Heng, a fellow at the government-run Institute of Southeast Asian Studies and a co-founder of a local gay support group, People Like Us. "The leaders of this country are very sensible and they are cosmopolitan. And so I think that basically there is an awareness there that you’ve got to allow for diversity." Goh said the government’s policies reflected the conservatism of the majority of its constituents.
In addition to a traditionally Confucian ethnic Chinese minority, Singapore also has a sizable Muslim Malay minority whose religion condemns homosexuality. Goh said it was because of this remaining conservatism that the government did not amend the law against gay sex.
But he said that attitudes were evolving and that the government was becoming more open to homosexuals. Gay people have long worked within Singapore’s civil service, although apparently not openly. Goh indicated that the government’s new policy was to allow homosexuals to occupy even "sensitive positions" in the civil service provided they disclosed their sexual preference. "If you’re discovered by somebody else, then he can blackmail you," he said.
"You have to openly declare and people know you’re gay. Then, you can’t be blackmailed." Singapore’s openness to homosexuality has been evolving for years, as leaders extolled the virtues of diversity and tolerance. Such rhetoric has become routine in speeches designed to convince the local population of the need for so-called "foreign talent." Though they may fear that foreigners will take the best jobs, Singaporeans are told that overseas professionals are essential to introducing new skills to Singapore’s economy. Economic prosperity has cost Singapore much of the manufacturing competitiveness that was crucial for its success. China’s seemingly inexorable rise as a manufacturing base for high-tech goods has further hurt Singapore.
But as Singapore chased the tech boom in the late 1990s and, more recently, biotechnology, it discovered to its dismay that years of authoritarian rule have largely extinguished the average Singaporeans willingness to take risks, to be entrepreneurial. Official hope that foreign professionals will, in addition to investment, trade and technology, breathe the entrepreneurial spirit back into Singapore.
Recent efforts to reinvent Singapore’s economic structure, therefore, have also included an emphasis on making Singapore a lifestyle capital. Censorship rules have been eased, if not eliminated. The same government that banned the importation of chewing gum and Cosmopolitan magazine has become a booster for such ephemeral civic qualities as courtesy, spontaneity, creativity and fun.
Still, as recently as 2000, the government rejected an application by People Like Us to hold a forum on gays in Singapore. And in his interview with Time, Goh said that the government would still not allow a gay parade. But Goh also seemed to signal that further changes were to come. "So let it evolve and in time to come, the population will understand that some people are born that way," he said in the Time interview. "We are born this way and they are born that way but they are like you and me."
July 13, 2003
‘Mum asked if I could change …but how to change something as basic as being gay?’
Jim Chow, 32 In the light of the Prime Minister’s revelation that the Government is employing openly homosexual people, one gay Singaporean tells THERESA TAN about his ‘coming out’ experience.
When he was nine, Mr Jim Chow remembers watching Taiwanese movie legends Lin Ching-hsia and Chin Han romance each other on the big screen. Then in Primary 3, he would wonder: Ching-hsia’s pretty, but why do I find Chin Han attractive too? A couple of years later, while still in primary school, he chanced on Oscar Wilde’s The Importance Of Being Earnest. While the play is not about homosexuals, he found the literary classic intriguing enough to want to read up on the author. ‘It was then that I found out Wilde was a homosexual, and I identified my feelings as being homosexual ones.’
Unlike the 19th century Irish wit, who was jailed for being gay, Mr Chow, 32, said he has never felt discriminated against in Singapore, except in one instance ‘some time back’. He was working out in a gym with his partner, when someone called him a ‘faggot’, a derogatory term for homosexual.
He is very thankful for Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong’s recent revelation that the Government is now more open to employing gay people and that with time, more people would accept them. Out and proud of his sexuality, Mr Chow ‘came out’ to his mother when he was 18, in his second year of junior college. That was when he started dating. The late nights and long telephone calls got his Cantonese-speaking mother asking him some rather pointed questions. He said: ‘My mum would ask why I had so many guy friends calling. I said I had many guy friends.
Over time, the questions got more specific. ‘One night, she asked me if I liked guys, and I said yes.’ Mrs Chow, who accepts her son’s sexuality but declined to be interviewed, could not believe what her second youngest child told her at first. His four siblings are straight. A divorcee with five children, the 50-something Chinese-educated beauty salon owner thought homosexuality was something abhorrent and an illness. Mr Chow said: ‘She went through a denial stage, and then there was a ‘let’s fix it’ stage. ‘She asked if I could change. She asked what went wrong. She was worried what people would think of me and also her. ‘I told her I was sure of my sexual orientation and it was here to stay. I rationalised with her. How could you change something so basic?’
It took her a few months but she accepted that fact and, over time, has met some of his boyfriends. In fact, she once went on a holiday with him and a boyfriend. Now, she has meals at least once a week with him and his partner, a 30-year-old information technology professional. During Chinese New Year festivals and other special occasions, his partner is invited home and is treated as part of the family. He has always been very open about his sexuality with relatives, friends and colleagues, he told The Sunday Times. For example, he said, his friends from school and some of his teachers knew he was gay.
He went to a top boys’ school and graduated from university here, but declined to name the schools. He said: ‘I never pretended I was straight. I never pretended to have girlfriends. ‘Once you get to know people, even in working relationships, eventually they will ask the right questions to find out.’ But some of his relatives are too embarrassed to ask him about such matters or broach the subject gingerly. ‘During wedding dinners, some relatives ask: When’s my turn? I tell them I’m never going to marry and they get the picture.’
Mr Chow, who has worked in five different companies in sales and marketing jobs, said that his colleagues have never been bothered by his sexuality. ‘Most people are quite cool about it or they don’t care. As long as you perform in your capacity, I don’t think they are very concerned about your sexuality. ‘And if someone asks point-blank if I’m gay, I tell them point-blank. If they hint at it, I hint right back.’ He has no qualms about reaching for his partner’s hand in public. ‘I’m not very self-conscious in that way,’ he said. ‘I’ve other things to think about, like work, paying bills, health.’
An articulate man who loves to read and exercise, he admits he probably has it easier than most of his gay friends. ‘Coming out is not a bed of roses for most gay men I know but most of their parents never gave them a really rough time either. Although some parents are in perpetual denial about the issue.’ While he feels most straight Singaporeans have been tolerant towards homosexuals, he does not believe the Prime Minister’s revelation in an interview in Time magazine, reported on July 4, would result in a flood of gay people coming out of the closet. ‘People are still fearful of doing so and dealing with the issue. It takes more than one man in the highest office to change that fear overnight.’
September 14, 2003
Singapore is Asia’s new gay capital Singapore
Singapore is slowly emerging as Asia’s gay entertainment hub, with a slew of gay-friendly clubs, saunas, restaurants and fashion outlets appearing in the city state over the past three years. The conservative country, better known for the government’s tight rein on social values, is now the focus of "enormous buzz and excitement" for Asia’s gay community, said Stuart Koe, the chief executive of leading regional gay website Fridae.com.
Koe told AFP Singapore’s reputation as a shopping haven, combined with a burgeoning club scene and the proliferation of entertainment venues catering for gays contributed to the lure of Singapore. "Gays enjoy the entertainment scene of clubbing and shopping, so Singapore has the potential draw for such tourists," Koe said. "Singapore’s previous image was a conservative and strict society where you get caned, you cannot chew gum and jaywalk, but people are now hearing how fun it can be… the momentum is only going to build with positive roll-offs.
"Mainstream tourists will hear about Singapore from gays, and how it is a lot more hip." And although homosexual acts are still outlawed, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong signalled his government’s increasingly tolerant approach to the issue by announcing this year that gays are allowed to work in the civil service.
One event that is fast becoming a signature celebration for gays in Singapore and elsewhere in the region is the Nation party. Held on the eve of the city-state’s national day holiday in August, it is increasingly being regarded as Asia’s answer to the gay Mardi Gras events in Western countries. Only in its third year, Nation03 attracted 5,000 revellers last month, twice as many as Nation02, including 1,200 foreigners who were mostly from Asian countries. "Those that came to Nation had a good time. They were from places like Taiwan, Japan, Korea and knew about the event through word-of-mouth," Koe said. "Travellers are of the same breed, those who are able to travel have a certain level of disposable income… gays tend to spend more money on their travels and appreciate the finer things of life." There are many gay clubs and bars in Singapore, many of which are in the central business district.
The hottest place to be on Fridays and Saturdays is the Taboo bar, while Sundays have traditionally been gay club nights at Centro, a popular nightclub that supermodel Naomi Campbell visited on a tour here last week. Aside from the nightclubs, Koe said there were about 20 karaoke bars and saunas that catered for gays in Singapore.
While there were some places a few years ago, there are many more now and they operate much more openly, he said. Masters graduate Sam Chan, 28, goes to many of the gay clubs and says that while he and his friends are still conscious of the conservative nature of Singapore’s society, they are enjoying the increasing freedom. "Being gay in Singapore is an underground business where things are spread by word of mouth, but with the proliferation of the Internet, you get to know about gay-friendly clubs and restaurants,"
Chan told AFP. He said he has many foreign friends "who think it is getting exciting here" and locals can finally find shops that cater to their needs. "I have (Singaporean) friends who used to have to go to Bangkok to shop for clothes and go clubbing there," Chan said. Koe agreed that Bangkok used to be the undisputed gay capital but said it has lost its shine after Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra clamped down on the entertainment industry with bars being forced to close at 2:00 am. In contrast, the Singapore governnent this year relaxed entertainment laws by expanding the number of bars that are allowed to open 24 hours a day. Koe said mainstream businesses in Singapore were also gradually becoming more open about pitching their products and services to gays, with the pink dollar industry tipped to boom over the next five years. "The pink dollar in Singapore definitely exists. It is not a myth, it is a fact," Koe said, adding there were businesses with 40 percent of clients who were gay.
November 13, 2003
Catering to the trendy, well-heeled– and the gays:
High tea party at Lincoln Modern targeted at gay and lesbian singles and couples a first
by Andrea Tan and Daniel Buenas
Singapore – Simon Cheong’s Lincoln Modern project has broken new ground – for the first time in Singapore, and probably Asia, a property developer is openly targeting its project at the gay community. Mr Cheong’s SC Global and Fridae, which bills itself as Asia’s Gay + Lesbian Network, are jointly organising a ‘special exclusive viewing’ of the Newton condominium for the gay community. Singles and couples in the gay and lesbian community in Asia will be invited to the Sunday high tea party on Nov 23.
Apart from this, a private viewing can also be arranged through marketing agent Colliers International. Owning a piece of Lincoln Modern does not come cheap. The 30-storey, 56 ‘ultra-modern’ units are designed by Chan Soo Khian of SCDA Architects. The two-bedroom units are priced at $1.3-1.5 million while three bedrooms go for $1.4-1.8 million, or an average price tag of $1,100 per square foot. The project was first released at the end of 2000 at just under $1,200 psf average.
There are 33 units left. Commenting on its marketing tack, an SC Global spokesman told BT: ‘We have a duty to our shareholders to reach out to all segments of the market and to maximise the sales of our development, and it would include this community.’ The Lincoln Modern is targeted at the ‘trendy, glamorous and well-heeled urbanite’. Fridae said on its website that strong interest has been recorded by gay and lesbian individuals, expatriates and affluent Singaporeans.
‘The Lincoln Modern as a product was conceived as a recognition that singles and couples who want housing that is well designed and fits their expectations of quality and lifestyle,’ the SC Global spokesman added. ‘We’re just trying to reach a very specific segment of the market with this product. There’s a very good match here.’
Lincoln Modern is inspired by the late architect Le Corbusier’s signature interlocking system and has a six-metre high loft space in the living areas. Are there plans for such future events for other SC Global developments like The Ladyhill and BLVD at Boulevard? ‘We have no organised marketing programme to target this community specifically,’ the spokesman said. Other developers which have attracted the gay community’s attention have been very discreet about their marketing activities.
‘We don’t particularly target this segment but a lot of the projects that we’ve done appeal to this group,’ said property agent Hampden managing director Michael Ng. ‘We do see quite a lot of alternate lifestyle people coming by. It’s modern city-living in happening locations and near amenities.’
26 January 2004
Gays’ letter on oral sex fails to convince MPs, Legislators advise: Drop emotional approach
by Soh Wen Lin and Sue-Ann Chia
An emotionally charged appeal by a gay-rights group to decriminalise homosexual oral sex, made in an open letter to all MPs, has not swayed the legislators into changing their stance. Several among the nine MPs contacted about last week’s letter from the People Like Us activist group said society may not be ready for the group’s agenda to be pushed, and that using tactics that played on emotions could dilute the issue. ‘Such appeals from special interest groups are no surprise, but… these groups cannot push ahead of what wider society is able to support,’ said Mr Sin Boon Ann (Tampines GRC).
Mr Arthur Fong (West Coast GRC) said that as the Government opens up, individuals and groups may try to raise particular issues. But he added: ‘Those who use this avenue must respect the space of others as well.’ The group sent letters on Jan 21 to all MPs using Parliament as the mailing address. So most of those contacted yesterday had yet to read the mail. But copies were sent to the media and the letter was also posted on the group’s website. In it, the group noted that changes being considered to the law banning oral sex between men and women appear likely to ‘leave oral sex between two persons of the same sex as a criminal offence‘.
In appealing for decriminalising oral sex between gays, the group took the approach of asking MPs to consider gays who might, it suggested, be family members. ‘This does not apply to me or my family – we are all apt to say. We know our children are not gay – parents are apt to say. But the law of probability tells us some of you are going to be proven wrong,’ said the letter.
‘Supporting the continued criminalisation of homosexual sex between consenting adults is a violation of your love for your own children,’ it concluded.
Dr Teo Ho Pin (Holland-Bukit Panjang GRC) said he would regard the letter as feedback which, if constructive, would be discussed. ‘From there, the Government will have to take a position, in the interest of the whole community. As society progresses, new norms will develop. But we will still need to strike a balance and know where to draw the lines.’
But he did not think the reference to children of MPs, even if meant as an illustration, was ‘the right way to do it’. ‘Should we ask for 20 lifeguards for a swimming pool, because children drown and MPs also have children?’ he asked. Said Mr Gan Kim Yong (Holland-Bukit Panjang GRC), who has two daughters, aged 12 and nine: ‘Its main argument is there will be some homosexuals among us and our children, given statistical averages.
‘However, I think the mere statistical presence of homosexuals among us does not make it the right thing to do and certainly does not imply fundamental shifts in societal norms.’ Added Mr S. Iswaran (West Coast GRC): ‘Using statistical probability, why stop at homosexuality? If there is a statistical probability that a certain percentage of people will be pick-pockets, that will include MPs’ children and relatives as well. So then what?’ Mr Gan also said the writers’ personal approach showed they were ‘trying to appeal to the paternal instinct of the reader rather than rational reasoning’. Mr Alex Au, one of the letter’s three signatories, said they adopted the approach as a foil to what he described as the ‘calculative, esoteric and clinical’ arguments usually used in such debates.
‘There are going to be gays in our circle. How do we face these loved ones, and justify ourselves?’ he said. The MPs acknowledged that as social norms evolve, such appeals should be taken in stride. As Minister of State (Community Development and Sports) Chan Soo Sen put it: ‘MPs are quite use to receiving such emotionally charged letters, it is part of democracy. As a policymaker, it is beneficial to listen to all views. It is our aim to cultivate an open political culture. But we cannot rule by consensus.’
February 2, 2004
Finding love on the pink map–Gay Play ‘Landmarks‘
by Clarissa Oon
‘Vampiric’ is an unusual choice of word to describe the profession of a writer, but it suits Alfian Sa’at, who says he had been carrying around the skeleton of his latest play long before he actually wrote it. The heartfelt gay-themed stories in Landmarks, which opens on Wednesday, were drawn from ‘a bit of me, a bit of my friends – men, women, gay, straight as well as asexual people’.
The 25-year-old National University of Singapore undergraduate adds with a grin: ‘I do offer a consoling shoulder to friends who confide in me, but there are also the naughty moments when I do some note-taking at home later.’ Landmarks’ director Ivan Heng thinks far more people than just Alfian’s mates will recognise themselves in the production, billed as a more poignant sequel to the playwright’s burlesque hit from 2000, Asian Boys Vol 1.
Sure, the stories in the upcoming work will take audiences on a journey across Singapore’s pink map, from the gay saunas of Ann Siang Hill to the cruising spots of Raffles City and Fort Road. But Heng, 40, thinks the play ‘will reach out not only to the gay community but to anyone who has been in love, longed for it or got hurt by it’. The artistic director of Wild Rice theatre company had been a fan of Alfian’s work since picking up his maiden poetry collection, One Fierce Hour (1998).
Heng approached the writer two years ago to create a new work together, and the outcome was Landmarks, which first appeared on the director’s table in Feb last year. If Vol 1 attempted to rewrite Singapore history from a gay perspective in camp, tongue-in-cheek fashion, the sequel was inspired by geography, or what Alfian calls ‘private and public spaces charged with encounters’.
Hopes, heartbreak and humiliation emerge from these eight stories, each lasting between eight to 18 minutes. They include the tantalising encounter of a 50-something uncle and a haughty young stud in a bathhouse, and the reflections of a man and woman whose lives are changed by the actual 1993 arrests of 12 gay men cruising off Fort Road.
Veteran actress Nora Samosir, who starred in Vol 1 as the fantasy goddess Agnes, joins the 17-member all-Singaporean cast of the sequel playing a mother trying to come to terms with her son’s sexuality. Another highlight of the production is the use of stills of different locations in Singapore, taken by photographer Chris Yap. Despite ongoing gay-related controversies such as whether Section 377 of the Penal Code and its criminal prohibition of oral sex should be repealed, Alfian says Landmarks is driven by its characters, ‘and if there are issues, they are inextricably a part of the character’s lives’.
Topicality aside, Heng believes there is a universal quality to Alfian’s writing. He says: ‘It’s very easy to say our plays must be ‘global’, but what exactly is that? ‘As the playwright George Bernard Shaw said, ‘The man who writes about himself and his own time, is the only man who writes about all people and all time’.’ . Landmarks is on from Wednesday to Feb 15 at 8pm at the Esplanade’s Theatre Studio. Tickets at $38 each available from Sistic (tel: 6348-5555).
April 7, 2004
Singapore denies association rights to gay support group, orders to cease activities
by Gillian Wong
Singapore – The Singapore government has denied freedom of association to a gay advocacy group and warned it to halt all activities, the group said Tuesday. The organization, People Like Us, has demanded that the government explain why it considers a support and advocacy group for gay people "unlawful, prejudicial to the public peace" and "contrary to the national interest," co-founder Alex Au said. "The world can rightly perceive Singapore to be an intolerant place that’s refusing to move with the times," Au said.
The government warned in its formal rejection notice that the group must cease all activities, warning that members of unregistered societies face heavy punishments under the law, Au said. However, it did not specify the penalties. The Home Affairs Ministry was not immediately available for comment.
The group tried to register as a society in 1997 and was also refused, Au said. The group would follow the government’s instructions and not hold further meetings, but as individuals they will continue to argue for equal rights, he said. The group will also appeal the decision to the home affairs minister, he said. People Like Us – which claims a membership of more than 1,000 – has been using the Internet to push for gay rights in the tightly controlled city-state. Singapore bans gay sex, defining it as "any act of gross indecency" – that is punishable by a maximum two years in jail – but there have been few prosecutions of homosexuals and Singaporeans are largely tolerant of gays.
30 July 2004
Thai group launches <absurd> bid to stop Singapore from snatching its pink dollars
Bangkok– Thailand’s gay community has launched a political lobby group to try and stop the kingdom’s title as Asia’s pink tourism capital being snatched by Singapore. Thailand boasts Asia’s largest annual Mardi-Gras festival, as well as the most vibrant and open gay club scene and annual gay beauty pageant.
However, wedged between conservative Malaysia and Indonesia, Singapore has been forging a reputation as the new Asian hot spot for gay holiday-makers. The island state has experienced a boom in gay clubs following a change in attitude towards the pink dollar in the late 1990s.
Ms Munthana Adisayathepkul, the head of Thailand’s leading lesbian group and a key member of the Homosexual Political Group of Thailand (HPGT), said Singapore had become a dangerous competitor to Thailand. "Singapore is trying to make itself the centre of gays and lesbians in Asia … and we are trying to get the government to support us fight this shift," she said.
Prominent Thai gay activist, Mr Natee Teerarojjanapongs – the first openly gay Thai to run for a senate seat – said government support would be crucial if Thailand is to remain as Asia’s key holiday destination for homosexuals.
"If we want to be a gay paradise, the government has to support gay groups as it will draw a lot of tourists and income to the country," he said. Mr Natee also said it is the kingdom’s fundamental atmosphere of tolerance, not just mega-events, which still sets it apart from other Asian destinations. "Even though they (Singapore) have strong laws they want to trade on the success that comes with staging a famous gay parade," he said.
The bars and cafes in Bangkok’s bustling and neon-lit gay entertainment area are packed with tourists enjoying the city’s unbridled gay night life, but operators say they are far from complacent."It is possible that Singapore will be the next gay capital as it is more open to gays," said Mr Panuwat Jaykong, the manager of Telephone, one of Bangkok’s best known bars.
"The number of Singaporean and Hong Kong visitors has fallen by 20 to 30 per cent over the past few months after the Thai government said it did not support gays’ activities," he said.
A spokesman for Asia’s largest and oldest gay holiday firm, Utopia Tours, also said it was the lack of government support rather than the allure of Singapore that is the main threat to the industry. But the head of Bangkok’s gay festival, Mr Pakorn Pimton, rejected the need for official support. "They do not have to support us – just don’t ban us," he said. "Singapore as Asia’s gay capital? Forget it. Their parade and other activities are still far behind Thailand," he said.
August 28, 2004
Magazine to tighten access
by M. Nirmala
The publisher of Manazine, a men’s lifestyle magazine, has moved to limit access to the publication following complaints by concerned parents over its content and easy availability. The decision to issue subscribers with cards, which must be shown at selected outlets where the magazine can be picked up, follows talks with the Media Development Authority (MDA), the regulating authority. This ‘controlled distribution’ approach adopted by the publisher will also see copies of the magazine sent by post to subscribers, who pay $25 a year for six issues.
Mr Arjan Nijen Twilhaar, 32, the publisher and chief editor of Manazine, said that previously, the 10,000 printed copies of the magazine were distributed free at a number of locations. These included theatres, bars, art galleries and restaurants. But that changed after an Aug 11 meeting called by the MDA. At the meeting, Mr Arjan was informed that the MDA had received complaints from concerned parents about the magazine’s homosexual content and its easy accessibility at outlets patronised by the general public. The MDA also highlighted some pages and ‘we were also told to be sensitive to society’s reactions to the gay issue. We listened to the advice and made sure that we do not cross the line,’ he told The Straits Times.
Ms Casey Chang, the MDA’s assistant director for corporate and marketing communications, confirmed the meeting and said yesterday that the authority also remindeded Mr Arjan that local magazines should not promote homosexuality as a lifestyle. This is not the first time the magazine, first published last October, has run into problems. It withdrew most of the 10,000 copies of its third issue in March following a public complaint.
But the light touch used by the media regulator appears to be in line with last year’s recommendations by the Censorship Review Committee. In suggesting that a calibrated approach be taken so as to ensure that changes do not move ahead of society’s mainstream values, it recommended that approved adult publications could be sold through controlled channels.
But sexually explicit magazines, such as Playboy, should stay banned, it added. Associate Professor Ang Peng Hwa, dean of the Nanyang Technological University’s School of Communication and Information, noted the light touch taken by the MDA in dealing with the publisher. In this case, instead of having access to the magazine denied altogether, the publisher has been left to ‘self-manage’ access to the publication, he said.
September 26, 2004
Singapore’s first transsexual beauty pageant a sell-out success
Singapore’s first major transsexual beauty pageant was held over the weekend to raise money for the poor, with the event’s organisers hailing it as a ground-breaking, sell-out success. An audience of 1,350 people watched 13 finalists compete for the title of Miss Tiffany Singapore, based on the famous Thai contest of the same name, at the city-state’s biggest in-house restaurant.
Thirty-three Singaporean transsexuals originally entered the contest, including one national serviceman, according to the organiser, Mogan Aruban. Mogan, who is the chairman of non-profit charity organisation Singapore Amalgamated Services Cooperative, told AFP the contest reflected an increasing tolerance in famously conservative Singapore. "This was a ground-breaking event considering the whole family values thing (of Singaporean society)," Mogan said.
"I think it’s acceptable now because the Prime Minister has said we have to liberalise and among the younger generation there are so many gays." Former prime minister Goh Chok Tong said last year that gays would be allowed to work in the civil service as part of the Government’s loosening of social controls, however homosexual acts are still illegal. Mogan said he had been staging more traditional fund-raising events, such as dance competitions and functions featuring international celebrities, over the past 15 years but Miss Tiffany was the most successful.
September 23, 2004
HIV infections climbing among Singapore’s gay men
Government statistics on HIV infections in Singapore show that the number of gay men affected by HIV is rising, Agence France-Presse reports. In 2000, 12 new HIV cases were reported among gay men, but by 2003 that number had jumped to 40 cases. In the first six months of this year, 31 new HIV infections were reported among gay men.
Heterosexual sex still accounts for about 65% of all new HIV infections in Singapore, according to the government statistics. Gay men account for about 23% of new infections, and bisexual men account for about 8%.
September (?) 2004
Singapore signs German TV deal, bans Taiwanese gay movie
Singapore said last week it has stepped closer to its goal of becoming an Asian media and arts hub by signing a TV deal with a German company — but on the same day, said it banned a Taiwanese hit film for its gay content. Authorities nixed “Formula 17,” a Taiwanese movie about two teenage boys falling in love, after the Media Development Authority objected, saying it showed homosexuality as “normal, and a natural progression of society.”
The authority announced July 22 that Singapore’s Oak3films signed a $4.07 million deal with Germany’s FFP media to jointly produce the TV romance drama “House of Harmony.” It will be broadcast in Singapore and on Germany’s ZDF television network, the Media Development Authority said. But the authority, which is sponsoring part of the deal, said Singaporeans weren’t ready for “Formula 17,” and claimed that more than 70 percent of the city-state’s 4 million people reject homosexuality. Singapore law bans gay sex, but gays are seldom prosecuted.
December 21, 2004
Singapore not to allow all-gay public parties
Singapore’s government is not prepared to allow all-gay public parties despite greater acceptance of homosexuals in society, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in remarks published. Revellers at Singapore’s Nation Party in August 2004, billed as Asia’s largest gay and lesbian festival. Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said his government was not prepared to allow all-gay public parties despite greater acceptance of homosexuals in society. [AFP]
Authorities had to turn down an application by Fridae.com, said to be Asia’s largest website for gays, to hold an all-night "Snowball.04 party" on December 25 because "the event is likely to be organised as a gay party which is contrary to public interest," Lee was quoted as saying in the Straits Times. Previous Snowball parties held in 2003 and 2002 were targeted at gays even though the government, when it gave the go-ahead, sought assurances from organisers that the wider community would be included, Lee said. "We allowed it and we made it quite clear that it had to be a party which was not targeted at gays alone…
As the party turned out, our sense of it was that it was beyond what we were prepared to accept. "So we said no." An annual all-night dance party on the resort island Sentosa every August coinciding with Singapore’s National Day, organised also by Fridae.com, draws thousands of gays from the region but is open to everyone. The Sentosa parties have led to Singapore being recognised as one of Asia’s premier gay tourism hubs and the government has also taken a more tolerant approach to the gay community, even though homosexual acts are still outlawed.
Under laws dating back to British colonial days and never applied in modern times, anyone found guilty of voluntarily engaging in "unnatural" sexual acts such as sodomy can be sentenced to life imprisonment in Singapore. "I think it’s a matter of balance… of how we can have space for this group of people who are gays, whom we accept as Singaporeans," Lee said. "But at the same time, it’s about respecting the outlook, values and perspective of the majority of Singaporeans, who know Singapore to be a certain way and do not want to see it changing suddenly, and I think they have a point," he said.