March 1999

Foam party in Parliament


    

 

 

On Friday, 12 March 199, during the "debate" in Parliament about the budget allocation for the Ministry of Home Affairs, a Member of Parliament, Mr Peh Chin Hua, said,

 

". Furthermore, in November last year, a disco in Singapore specially organised for-women-only type wild parties every Thursday night. Patrons were normally young girls aged 18 or 19. One half dresses as they are -- as women, while the other half dress up as men. They bind their breasts, wear T-shirts, slacks, men's shoes and very short hair with glossy hairgel - just like young boys. If they don't open their mouths to speak, bystanders would even think they were real boys. Even worse, the girls would hug each other and kiss; or one "type" would sit on the lap of the other 'type'."

"One cannot believe that these kinds of things happen on the tiny island of Singapore. How can this phenomenon not worry parents and teachers? If this goes on, I believe Education Minister Teo Chee Hean, principals and teachers would feel that their hard work in the past at educating the young have gone to waste and would feel sad about this. To prevent our young from going astray, I sincerely hope the Home Affairs Ministry would -- just as in the past -- come down hard on discos and bars that do these 'strange' things, so that parents and teachers can feel reassured."

[the above was translated from the original Chinese]

I was out of Singapore at the time, so only portions of the MP's statement, and even less of the Minister's reply, came to me, through email. The emails carried the header, "Homophobic asshole in Parliament". Stirred by that, I began to sharpen my knives in preparation for writing a defence as soon as I got back to Singapore.

On return, I got hold of the Straits Times report (13 March edition), and managed to read the gist of the Ministry's response. I found the Ministry's reply even more curious than the MP's "question". What had been emailed to me as a gay issue rapidly became, as I thought further about it, a broader one. This episode, in my opinion, was symbolic of all the things that are wrong with Singapore's politics and civil liberties, gay and straight.

From the Straits Times, I gather that Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ho Peng Kee, said this in reply:

 

In reply, Prof Ho said discos and lounges are subject to licensing conditions which aim to prevent law and order problems such as fights, over-crowding, immoral and indecent activities an underage drinking.

He said the police conduct regular and random spot checks and if the operator is found to have violated the licensing conditions, his licence can be suspended and even forfeited. The operating hours can also be curtailed. If there is any serious breach of the law, the licensee would face a fine of up to $5,000.

He said foam parties have toned down since police started monitoring such events closely. They have advised the organisers against violating the law or allowing immoral or offensive activities on their premises.


At some point in his reply, the Minister of State also said that,

 

A disco operator who staged a dance performance by transvestites was charged in court for infringing his licensing conditions and fined $2,000.

His closing time was curtailed from 3 a.m. to 1 a.m. and the disco closed last October.


The Straits Times said that the Minister of State " assured Mr Peh Chin Hua (Jalan Besar GRC) that the police monitor nightspots closely to ensure that illegal or immoral activities do not take place at such places."

* * * * * * * * * *

I have so many broadsides to fire, I don't know where to begin. But let's start with Mr Peh's "question" to the Minister.

What, in effect, the Member of Parliament wanted was for the police to pressure nightspot operators, so that nightspot operators would be compelled to enforce Mr Peh's idea of moral dress and hairstyles on their women patrons. The poor businessmen would be made into moral vigilantes (on pain of having their businesses shut down) to stop the women from binding their breasts, wearing men's shoes and sitting on each other's laps.

Mr Peh offered no justification in law for such action. He merely said he could not "believe that these kinds of things happen on the tiny island of Singapore" (what has the size of our island got to do with it?), and that "principals and teachers would feel sad about this". To win his argument, he invoked phases like "going astray". As if outrage alone is sufficient to override the rule, and the protection, of law.

It's not a gay and lesbian issue. It's an issue of civil liberties. Do we let MPs and the police trample on our freedoms as they see fit, even when there is no justification in law?

The principle is the same: if women cannot bind their breasts, then perhaps men should be prevented by the police (or bouncers at doorways) from wearing overly tight underwear. Perhaps glossy hairgel and men's shoes should only be sold by prescription to persons whom doctors have certified to be biologically male. And police should feel free to butt in and stop women from (a) wearing T-shirts and (b) hugging each other -- both, as you would note, specifically mentioned by Mr Peh as among the horrors of last November.

I think it is damaging for what little democracy we have that Members of Parliament can say such things that are so in disregard of the law and liberties of citizens. Mr Peh obviously belongs to the school of thought that says people's lives are meant to be lived within prescribed social roles. Women must be "women" (i.e. a certain type of women, dressed in a certain way, behaving in a certain way) and men must be "men". By the same token, the same school of thought easily extends to saying that Chinese must be Chinese (e.g. must speak Mandarin), low-caste must be low-caste (i.e. never touch a Brahmin), girls cannot aspire to be engineers (a very unfeminine profession), and so on and that the "community" can enforce the prescribed role upon you.

If anyone of us cares about retaining some control over our own lives, we must reject such tyrannical ideas.

* * * * * * * * * *

What was even more disappointing was the Minister of State's response. The Minister tacitly agreed with the thrust of the MP's argument, when he "assured Mr Peh Chin Hua that the police monitor nightspots closely to ensure that illegal or immoral activities do not take place at such places." The minister should have confined himself to "illegal" activities, not "immoral", because the powers given to him and the police are powers in law. Morality or immorality is beside the point.

To be fair, he took care to make reference to the scope of the law when he said, "discos and lounges are subject to licensing conditions which aim to prevent law and order problems such as fights, over-crowding, immoral and indecent activities an underage drinking." But nowhere did he rebut Mr Peh's presumption that binding breasts and cutting one's hair short were things that the State should act against. This is a serious failing on the part of our government. They shy away from standing on principle and saying, hey look, our citizens have rights and liberties, and it is the constitutional duty of the government to protect them.

The Minister of State should have said categorically that binding breasts, cross-dressing and sitting on others' laps are not at all against the law, and that it would be oppressive of any government in today's Singapore, to try to make them so, or worse, to take action against such personal decisions without sanction of law.

So, the Minister's reply was at its core, hollow. It did not express clearly the obligation of the government to act lawfully and constitutionally, and it did not hew to any sound principle of fair and liberal governance. It did not rebut the attempt by the MP to push it into trampling on our freedoms.

More sadly, the Minister of State gave examples of how the Ministry has acted recently, against the foam parties [1], and against a venue that held a transvestite show. The minister's examples went along the same grain as the MP's "question", in trying to show that the ministry does indeed act against "immorality" in a rather heavy-handed way.

Its lever of control is the "licence" and its conditions. As one can see from the reply, the licence conditions govern the entertainment provided, the opening hours and other aspects. Businessmen have long complained about silly conditions that ban entertainers from mixing with the audience (so audience participation is largely ruled out), and until recently, how at pop concerts, the audience must SIT DOWN.

This is a very petty way of governing. The police attach conditions as they see fit, and there is very little a businessman can do to change them. If the police say you have violated the conditions, and wish to penalise you for it (e.g. insisting you close at 1 a.m.), you have very little recourse. For a "business-friendly" country like Singapore, this is intolerable interference. If the problem is one of customers getting rowdy, then deal with the rowdy guests. What has earlier closing hours got to do with it?

More alarmingly, as the Minister pointed out, one of the violations of the licence would be "immoral activities" -- a broad term which can mean anything, and therefore can be abused by the authorities to mean anything.

In his reply, the Minister cited the example of the transvestite show which was found to have violated licence conditions, but gave no details why cross-dressing would be a violation [2]. He gave another example of how through the threat of licence action -- in other words, intimidation -- the foam parties have been "toned down".

Frankly, there was nothing wrong with the foam parties. The customers were enjoying themselves. They chose to come. They chose to participate. So what if it was slightly lewd to outside eyes? Outside eyes didn't have to look. The customers either didn't think it was lewd, or else, they wanted it to be lewd. It was fun to be lewd. What business is it of the State to say its citizens cannot make personal decisions to be lewd?

The Minister's reply and examples were, in the final analysis, frothy asides that, instead of rebutting the illiberal demands of Mr Peh, only buttressed the commonly-held view that what we have is an instinctively intrusive government.

* * * * * * * * * *

It is not that our ministers are incapable of rigorous replies, arguing for principle and rebutting questions, but in this instance, we have to bear in mind that Mr Peh was an MP from the ruling People's Action Party ("PAP"). No minister can afford to be seen to demolish the views of his own backbencher. So the reply must be crafted in such a way as to agree, more or less, with the MP's "question".

This happens all too often, since 81 of the 83 elected MPs in Parliament belong to the PAP. Parliamentary debate suffers when so many are trying to be gentle with each other, nobody cutting to the issue. MP offers foamy question. Minister offers foamy reply. Nobody defends the principle of civil liberties for our citizens. Everybody in Parliament is happy.

But this does not mean that people are convinced or happy. Take the foam parties episode of last year (I think it was August). The New Paper and the Straits Times interviewed a number of people for their views. It was far from unanimous that the government should interfere with the events. Lots of Singaporeans felt it was a private matter, and that it was heavyhanded of the government to shut them down.

The government's reiteration of its illiberal position may have pleased backbenchers like Mr Peh, but it risks alienating a whole generation of Singaporeans, to its future electoral peril.

Yawning Bread 


 

Footnotes

  1. Foam parties: In 1998, a few beachside bars filled inflatable swimming pools with bathfoam. Their customers were invited to get into their swimming costumes and dance within the pools. The events were very popular, and the pools got rather crowded, facilitating body contact. Everyone had great fun until someone complained to the press.
    Return to where you left off
  2. Transvestite show: After this article was written, this issue of a transvestite show at a disco came up briefly in the press. John Chang, Head of Media Relations, Singapore Police Force, wrote to the Straits Times on 29 March 1999 saying, "There are no double standards. The disco operator did not have a public entertainment licence to stage a dance performance, hence we took action against him ... Since the relaxation of licensing conditions on Oct 1 last year, we have allowed transvestite performances only in selected places like pubs and nightclubs, provided they, like all other performances, do not offend the audience by the exposure of the groin, buttocks or female breasts..."

    From this letter, it appeared that the nature of the show had little to do with it. Yet the minister took pains in Parliament to mention that it was a transvestite show, and to imply that the nature of the show was the reason why action was taken against it.
    Return to where you left off

 

Addenda

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