March 1999

Book: The Rainbow Connection
The internet & the Singapore gay community
by Ng King Kang, 1999.




This book was launched this month, marking a kind of collective coming out of gay netizens here. I knew about the work in progress some months back when the author, Kang, approached me about the mention of Yawning Bread in the book. As it turned out, he had a few nice words to say about my site, which I shan't hold against him.

This is not a book review, but some random thoughts as I went through it.

Ng King Kang, the author, is a journalist with one of the leading newspapers in Singapore, and has previously published some books, in Chinese. The Rainbow Connection, however, came out of his master's thesis for mass communication and is in English. It retains the form of a thesis, which in my opinion, tends to mean a bit too much structure, too little flow. However, this is balanced by eight personal testimonies, ad verbatim transcripts of what eight gay men told him about their lives and the impact of the internet on them. They are the most engrossing sections of the book.

Basically, The Rainbow Connection is a descriptive piece, mapping out the ways the internet is used by "gays", and their reasons for doing so. It should hardly be any surprise that the internet is extremely useful to gay persons. Gay people are scattered and hidden. Pre-internet, the cost of communicating and meeting up with others are primarily those of distance and disclosure. The internet ignores distances and allows anonymity. With the official encouragement of internet usage in Singapore, the use of this medium by gay persons to communicate among themselves has exploded.

The IRC channels

The IRC channels are the favoured means of communication. Kang found from his survey that the top five reasons gay men use the IRC are (1) "to know more gay friends", (2) "boredom", (3) "to know what is happening in the gay community", (4) "to share experiences with other gays" and (5) "to find a lover (long term relationship)".

It appears from the author's research, though he doesn't stress the point himself, that despite the openness of the internet, where distance and borders are no barriers, gay Singaporeans tend to stay in IRC channels frequented by other Singaporeans. This says a lot about the importance and limits of social and cultural affinity, despite unlimited technology.

Web sites

Gay web sites are also very popular. The top five reasons gay men visit these web sites are (1) "to get more information on homosexuality", (2) "to know what is happening in the gay community", (3) "curiosity" -- which in my opinion is shorthand for interest in pornographic sites, (4) "to keep up to date in gay scene", and (5) "release of sexual tension".

Kang did not probe further what each of these reasons really meant. He merely listed the responses as given. This reticence from probing much further is a weakness that runs throughout the book. I suspect that a bit of searching might have revealed that reasons (2) and (4) were probably the same, as might have been (3) and (5).

Regardless, the most striking thing about the interest in gay web sites is that all five reasons boil down to getting around censorship in Singapore; both official censorship that cuts out pornography, and the more subtle bias that limits the availability of gay-related information in other media in our society. This raises the question then of what the internet portends for the future of censorship in this country, and the future of booksellers, cinema operators, TV stations or magazine publishers who continue to resist catering to the gay community. Alas, the book does not explore these issues. Partly, one can understand why. Kang wrote it as a thesis in mass communication, not a thesis in sociology or politics, but then again, that is precisely why politics and sociology are more engaging subjects than mass communication, simply because they go deeper.

Press and TV editors

For Yawning Bread, the interviews that Kang conducted with leading newspaper editors and an Assistant Vice-President of the Television Corporation of Singapore, were particularly insightful, especially as Yawning Bread has been commenting every now and then about media coverage of gay issues.

Kang reported that the editor of Lianhe Zaobao (the leading Chinese-language daily), Mr Lim Jim Koon, said that 'the newspaper always handles certain sensitive issues with extra care by adopting a neutral standpoint because the freedom of media is restricted by social norms'.

The editor was quoted as saying, "We recognised the fact that there are homosexual activities going on in the country, but there is no need to highlight such activities as it would most probably generate negative social response rather than gain acceptance from the general public as the majority still cannot accept homosexuality as a normal social behaviour."

Kang described Mr Lim as saying that 'since public ignorance is bliss to gays, and public wisdom is threatening to gays, the standpoint of the newspaper is to be neutral. "We do not wish to disturb this group of minority, just like the majority does not wish to be disturbed by them." '

I am somewhat floored by his comments. In effect Mr Lim said that Lianhe Zaobao self-censors itself to comply with what it believes are the prevailing social norms. Since the newspaper believes that the majority do not even want to hear about homosexuality, it shall say as little as possible. The excuse is that ignorance is bliss. Not a squeak about the social responsibility of a newspaper to educate and to set leading standards for society.

It was also depressing to see that the editor equated gay issues and gay people with "homosexual activities" as if that is all there is. In his mind, reporting and discussing gay issues is equivalent to "highlight[ing] such activities".

Kang found similar views from Mr Leslie Fong, the editor of the Straits Times and Mr P N Balji, the editor of The New Paper. The opinions of these editors seem to be that Singapore is very conservative, or traditional, and that no newspaper can risk alienating the great majority. What basis there is for thinking that Singapore is so conservative is never elucidated, or as Kang said in the case of Leslie Fong, "while his assertion on the majority's conservative tendencies is a commonly held one, the level of conservatism stated is not a clear one, and it thus be safer on the part of the Times House editors to err on the side of caution."

Why do newspapers in Singapore need to play so safe? Why must they err on the side of the conservatives? Why not err on the side of the liberals? Strictly speaking, the risk should be symmetrical. You take a liberal stance and you annoy the conservatives. You take a conservative stance and you annoy the liberals. Whichever side is annoyed may write in and vent their feelings. The newspaper anyway reserves the right to edit or bar any letter meant for their letters page, to moderate the resulting contention. And at the end of the day, without competing alternatives (thanks to our government policy on ownership of newspapers), people will still buy your newspaper.

So why always err on the side of the conservatives?

It doesn't take a genius to figure that the one 'conservative' that no newspaper can afford to annoy is the government. So all those answers by the editors about what they 'believe' is the majority view in our society sound like red herrings. It is not even possible to admit that ultimately the government is what they fear. Freedom of the press is a long, long way away.

I won't detail here what Kang recorded of these other editors' responses. I really should leave you some incentive to go buy his book.

The newspaper editors told Kang that they have no written directives from the government, but Mr Dominic Ang from the Television Corporation of Singapore ("TCS") admitted that they have a written regulatory code with regard to broadcasting of gay-related issues. He said that the code is confidential. No prizes for guessing what it says.

But why should the written code be confidential and thus kept out of public debate? What sort of State do we run here?

Who's gay, what's coming out and why are we paranoid?

There are four other fascinating observations I made from The Rainbow Connection. The first is the use of the word 'gay'. Kang uses it as a noun. For example, he talks of "a gay who is connected ...", and how "many closeted gays are able to interact with other gays ..."

I think it is a very ugly use of the word that makes many sentences indigestible in his book. The English language has not evolved to accept this usage. In Yawning Bread, I only use the word 'gay' as an adjective, e.g. "gay men's spending power", or "the place of gay persons within our families".

Furthermore, Kang's "gay" is always male. Anything that is gay is necessarily male-oriented. This struck me from virtually the first page. I agree that in common usage, "gay" has a strong male bias, but it isn't exclusively so. By failing to define the term, in fact, by saying "Singapore gay community" on the cover rather than "Singapore gay male community", the book opens in the reader an expectation gap that is never fulfilled; it never deals with lesbian involvement in the internet.

This is a very common oversight among gay men. It only indicates that females rarely enter their consciousness; their world is an exclusively male place, because their interest is so. Far from being half-men half-women, as homophobes would like to think of us, gay males are probably more androcentric than straight males.

My third observation is in the way Kang's interviewees use the phrase 'coming out'. All too often, they tend to talk about coming out as a process whereby they acknowledge their own homosexuality to other homosexual persons, through the internet, under cover of a nickname! This struck me as setting extremely unambitious standards for oneself.

To me, and to most people who using the English language, this is NOT what is meant by 'coming out'. Just to make it clear, when I say 'coming out' in Yawning Bread, I mean revealing one's own homosexuality to straight persons who know you by face and name, e.g. friends, colleagues and family.

Kang unfortunately does not explore this timid use of the term. If would have been interesting had he done so, for it would pose the question whether the internet truly encourages coming out. Or does it merely satisfy gay men in terms of their freedom to communicate within their niche, so that the need to deal with, to confront, society at large is actually reduced? Does the internet encourage escape rather than resolution? Does the compartmentalisation the internet enables augur well for the integration of gay people in society?

Fourthly, Kang noted that he had considerable difficulty getting many gay men to respond to his questionnaire. There seems to be a current of paranoia among homosexual persons here. They rumoured that the questionnaire was really an undercover plot by the government to flush them out, and any gay person responding to it would be at severe risk!

The vast majority of homosexual men in Singapore are highly suspicious of any kind of publicity, even a research project by a well-meaning writer. The irony is that in their own way, they agree with the newspaper editors that public ignorance is better than awareness, because with awareness will come homophobic reaction. They prefer the life of rats scurrying in the shadows.

Like it or not, this book throws some light into those shadows of the internet.

Yawning Bread