March 2005

How entrapment ended




I have verbally told parts of this history on and off over the last few years, and at each telling, I have been surprised to notice that to most listeners under the age of 30, sometimes even those under 40, it seemed to them a completely fresh tale.

Yet, the events here are only 12 years old. How is it that so many gay men in Singapore are not aware of these watershed events? Does this speak of the political apathy of Singaporeans in general, when people are blind to the political significance of major events, and see no point in retaining memory of them?

And more... 12 years after these events which led to the de facto ending of police entrapment of gay men cruising for sex, a large number of them still think that entrapment is an on-going policy.

So maybe it's time to document the tale.

There are four parts of this history, all within the period September 1993 to April 1994. 

Police decoys

In 1993, the primary cruising ground for homosexual encounters was the expanse of land reclaimed from the sea at the end of Fort Road, in the Tanjong Rhu district. After reclamation, the soil had been left to settle, and over time, a secondary forest took root. With the thick foliage as cover, and the beach almost inaccessible except via a long hike through the bush, and thus relatively secluded, the area became a perfect place for cruising and sex in the afternoons and evenings. 

Naturally, the police knew of the place's reputation and they repeatedly sent constables into the area to pose as decoys and arrest men who approached them.

One victim was Tan Boon Hock, who on the afternoon of 19 September 1993, was arrested. He had approached and struck up a conversation with a constable decoy, but no explicit agreement was made. Nonetheless, given the circumstances and location, Tan assumed that the other party was a willing party. However, as soon as Tan unzipped the other guy's fly and touched his cock, the decoy identified himself and Tan was arrested.

Tan was charged under Section 354 of the Penal Code (outrage of modesty) [1]. It's quite odd that he was not charged under Section 377A (gross indecency between males), perhaps because Section 354 permitted caning, and the government wanted caning as part of the penalty.

Tan pleaded guilty, probably hoping to be let off lightly, but was shocked to receive a sentence of 4 month's imprisonment and 3 strokes of the cane. He appealed against the sentence.

Media exposure

Meanwhile entrapment continued. In November 1993, a major raid took place, but this time, the press was used to expose and shame those caught.

William Peterson, in his essay, The Queer Stage in Singapore [2], recorded what happened:   

... in November 1993, ... 12 men were nabbed in an anti-gay operation in Tanjong Rhu, a known gay cruising area. Good-looking, young police officers from the Geylang Police Division Headquarters, locally known as ‘pretty police’ were used to entrap the men. The names, ages and occupations of the arrested men were reported in the press, along with descriptions of the encounter. According to the Straits Times, in one instance, the accused was said to have "chatted up a special constable, before proceeding to caress his buttocks and chest." Another man who stood accused stated that "the guy [an officer] had approached me and smiled, so I walked over to chit-chat with him." He maintained that the officer then suggested that they go into the undergrowth to have sex. Once physical contact was made, each man was arrested and charged with "outraging their victim’s modesty." (Straits Times, 23 November 1993:19). The occupations of the arrested men ranged from butcher to (then) Singapore Broadcasting Corporation producer. Of the 12 arrested, 6 pleaded guilty immediately, receiving sentences ranging from two to six months in jail. All were given three strokes of the rotan cane, a beating that results in permanent scarring of the buttocks.   

The Josef Ng case

Many gay men were doubly horrified by the police and media campaigns. Most drew the conclusion that they had to be extra careful and keep the lowest of low profiles.

A few others decided they have had enough. In particular, a performance artist, Josef Ng, decided to protest such totalitarian methods with a performance of his own.

In William Peterson's words,

In response to both the entrapment exercise and the sensationalistic treatment of this and other gay-related news stories by the press, two performers, Josef Ng and Shannon Tham, created performance pieces that the government clearly found threatening to the dominant order. Ng and Tham’s works were presented in the context of a 12-hour New Year’s Eve event which included numerous other performances, literary readings and live music …. on 31 December 1993.   

Ng’s performance featured 12 tiles on each of which was a block of tofu and a packet of red paint. He recited random sentences from press reports of the entrapment and arrests. Then he picked up a cane (three strips tied into one) and performed a dance, at the end of which he whipped each of the 12 installations. Red paint and soft white tofu splattered violently. 

Ng then recalled the custom of cutting one’s hair as a sign of silent protest. He then went to the back of the performance space and turned his back to the audience. He took off his robe, leaving his trunks on. What he did with his back turned was not immediately obvious. But when he returned to the center of the space and scattered bits of pubic hair, it became clear. 

On Monday 3 January 1994, the New Paper ran a cover story headlined "Pub(l)ic protest", portraying the event as an extremely obscene performance.   

The government reacted massively. Performance art was banned, a ban was only recently loosened, 10 years later. Josef Ng was charged in court for committing an obscene act in public, which he pleaded guilty to as a course of least resistance. 

However, from inside sources, People Like Us learnt that George Yeo, then the Minister for Information and the Arts, was fuming mad at The New Paper for sensationalising the event and forcing the government's hand. The Goh Chok Tong administration was then trying to brand itself as a listening and compassionate government, and going on a witch-hunt, even one against gays, was contrary to the bigger political strategy.

One can imagine a calling together of editors to make sure they understood that this kind of publicity must never happen again.

The Chief Justice's comments

A few months later, in April 1994, Tan Boon Hock's appeal was heard before the Chief Justice in the High Court.

In his judgment [3], the CJ commented that  the

appellant had not forced his attentions upon an unsuspecting and vulnerable victim ... The complainant in the present case was a young male police officer who had taken active part in a police operation expressly designed to catch out homosexuals engaged in homosexual activity in a secluded area.

He added, 

I found it somewhat disquieting that an accused arrested as a result of such police operations should subsequently be charged with having outraged the modesty of the police officer he came into contact with.... The accused, who is homosexual, meets another man in an area well known for being a homosexual haunt. He strikes up a conversation with this other man and, on finding him responding in a friendly fashion, assumes him to be a fellow homosexual. He then invites this other man to proceed to a more private spot, the intention being to engage in homosexual activity of some sort; and although this may not be explicitly articulated, it must be plain to both parties having regard to the circumstances of their interaction. It is at least arguable that as far as the accused can discern, there would appear to be little question of consent being forthcoming from this other man.

Further on,

I am somewhat bemused that an accused caught in the manner described above should nevertheless be charged with the offence of outraging another’s modesty.

Indeed, how could the constable have been 'outraged' when he was expecting to be touched in the first place?

The CJ allowed Tan's appeal and reduced the sentence to a fine of $2,000. The CJ noted that Tan had pleaded guilty and only appealed against the sentence, suggesting thereby that if Tan had contested the charge in the first instance, he would have been acquitted.

* * * * *

Even though this case concerned someone charged under Section 354 (outrage of modesty) and not Section 377A, the CJ's comments were fundamental enough to make all entrapment cases dubious.

There is a consensus among gay activists that since then, there have been no more entrapment cases in Singapore.

* * * * *

But a mere 6 years later, Lee Kuan Yew, when asked by a radio journalist about the use of the law against homosexuals, replied breezily that "we have not prosecuted anybody for homosexuality for the last 40, 50 years." [4]

So, it's not only gay men's memory that is selective. Lee's is too, but is it excusable that he should give such a reply on record to a worldwide audience?

© Yawning Bread 




  1. Section 354 of the Penal Code reads:

    Assault or use of criminal force to a person with intent to outrage modesty. 
    354. Whoever assaults or uses criminal force to any person, intending to outrage or knowing it to be likely that he will thereby outrage the modesty of that person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years, or with fine, or with caning, or with any two of such punishments.

    Outraging modesty in certain circumstances. 
    354A. ­ (1) Whoever, in order to commit or to facilitate the commission of an offence against any person under section 354, voluntarily causes or attempts to cause to that person death, or hurt, or wrongful restraint, or fear of instant death, instant hurt or instant wrongful restraint, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of not less than 2 years and not more than 10 years and with caning. 

    (2) Whoever commits an offence under subsection (1)
          (a) in a lift in any building; or
         (b) against any person under 14 years of age,
    shall be punished with imprisonment for a term of not less than 3 years and not more than 10 years and with caning.
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  2. Published in the book, People Like Us - sexual minorities in Singapore
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  3. For the full text of the Judgment, see Tan Boon Hock v Public Prosecutor
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  4. See the article Radio journalists ask the gay question.
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