Tiptoe out of the closet:
Gay Scene - Its Beginnings
If one were to ask a socially active gay person today about his earliest memory of something related to homosexual life in Singapore, he is more than likely to recall Bugis Street. This was a road in the heart of the city where transvestite/transsexual prostitutes used to gather every evening to ply their trade and it became an international icon of the exotic Far East. But most Singaporeans would be hard put to put an exact date or even the year when this street became a gathering point for the cross-dressing community. According to popular memory, the location became what it was sometime in the 1950s . Anything before that was a blank although it is likely that a more rigorous search of archival sources would be able to trace the development of homosexual life in Singapore further back into the islandís history. This paper however is only meant to be a record based on the writer's memory and experience beginning in the 1960s.
Within Singapore, the cross-dressers on Bugis Street came to be known as "ah qua" - a Chinese Fujian dialect term particular to Singapore - which became a widely used pejorative term for all gay men. Egregious as it may seem, this is the first known instance of homosexuality finding expression as a local idiom. By the end of the 1960s, the gay scene had expanded from the sex-trade of Bugis Street, to include what was possibly Singapore's first gay bar, Le Bistro . Its significance lay in providing gay men who did not cross-dress a place to meet and socialize without being treated as objects of curiosity. During the 1970s, the number of gay bars grew to three with the Treetops in what is currently the Royal Holiday Inn and Pebble Bar in what was then the Forum Hotel. All these outlets were part of the cosmopolitan tourist-oriented night life in the Orchard Road area which began around this time. Homosexuality had made a territorial claim on the social landscape.
But it was a fragile claim. The homosexual venues still held trappings of the closet. In the Pebble Bar, the only one of the three places with a dance floor, dancing was not allowed among same-sex partners. So gay people sat in one half of the bar drinking and listening to the music, while watching the straight couples dance in the other half. A gay venue could also stop being gay because the proprietor decided it was not good for its image, as was the case with Treetops. Foreigners, largely Caucasian residents and tourists, were a major feature of this gay scene which was dominated by a very set and dichotomized "local-foreign/Asian-Caucasian/dominated-dominating/bitch-butch" pattern of sexual pairing. This was limiting in some ways but it also contributed to an awareness that living together with a man was not all that inconceivable even if it meant having to migrate out of the Singapore closet to a more liberal foreign country. The Singaporeans who could pursue this option were usually the Westernized English-speaking breed known as the "Orchard Road queens" but the great imbalance in numbers between the foreigners and Singaporeans limited this option. Thus the restrictions were more than just the lack of gay places to go to; they also included a mindset about clearly demarcated roles in gay sexual relations.
The late '60s and early '70s was a time when the gay
liberation movement erupted in the West and information about gay people getting
together to affirm their identity, support each other, and struggle for their
rights became available to Singapore homosexuals. However the idea of activism
in pursuit of such larger social and political goals was then unthinkable to
them, and the interaction of gay people in those years amounted to no more than
individuals seeking a network of friends. As such, it would be more appropriate
to say Singapore in the 1970s had a gay "scene" but not a gay
"community". That gay scene provided only two lifestyle options: the
"Bugis Street ah qua" and the "Orchard Road queen".
1980s - The Critical Decade
A sense of "community" started to take shape in the 1980s and this must be seen in the broader context of how that decade was critical for Singapore society as a whole. It was a time of significant political and socio-economic changes. In politics, the 1980s saw a swing of 10 per cent of the popular votes against the ruling People's Action Party (PAP) and, with that, a breaking of the party's monopoly of Parliamentary representation. One explanation for this shift was that a new generation of better educated voters were coming onto the electoral roll, people who were less willing to stomach the authoritarian ways of the PAP. At the same time, economic growth by the 1980s had generated sufficiently broad-based affluence to create a middle class with yearnings for a more consultatory form of government. An indication of this was the beginning of non-governmental organizations pushing more forcefully their agendas on women's rights and environmental conservation. In a less obvious way, gay people also started to organize themselves. These movements were possible because the government realized it had to be seen to be less authoritarian and accommodate a greater diversity of opinions that came with a higher standard of living.
As the social climate became more relaxed, gay people were also more ready to test the waters and sometimes got away with it. A benchmark event for gay life in Singapore was the opening of a disco called Niche in April 1983 where same-sex dancing was allowed. The gay scene also expanded from the elegant confines of the tourist belt to include cruising in public toilets, parks and the beach. Cruising in public places has probably always been around but it was only the 1980s that saw the emergence of well-known places where there were extensive cruising. Examples would be Hong Lim Park near the financial district of the city and a stretch of beach along the East Coast Parkway. Essentially, this was a trend that had taken place in many Western countries being replicated in a small way in Singapore. But more substantive changes were taking place at other levels. With economic development came more professions in which gay people felt comfortable, e.g., fashion and advertising. As the decade developed, the typecasting of gays in certain jobs gave way to the liberating notion that gay Singaporeans could be found in almost any walk of life. You could start thinking in terms of a gay policeman or truck-driver. In this, homosexuality was making yet another claim on Singapore society: it was breaking down class divisions thereby expanding possibilities beyond the oppressive mindset that being gay had to mean being an "Orchard Road queen" or a "Bugis Street ah qua". An important corollary of this development was also the demise of the entrenched mentality of Asian-Caucasian/dominated-dominating relationship. Role demarcations were no longer central in a relationship. Here again, Singapore was probably experiencing a trend that was taking place in gay communities elsewhere.
Another commonality which Singapore homosexuals share with many of its counterparts in other countries is a representation in the arts out of proportion to their actual numbers in society. By the second half of the 1980s, gay writers started to explore the hitherto taboo area of homosexuality in their works, so much so that in 1988, three plays with gay themes were banned from performing . From that starting point in the late 1980s till the present, homosexuality as a subject has found expression in books, paintings and political essays. Collectively, this was another careful step out of the closet, a public expression of gay-ness outside the realm of the gay scene. These were the first instances of gay people finding a voice to speak about and for them; they marked an important step forward in the passage to a stronger sense of community.
The next step was taken when Singapore homosexuals responded to the challenge of AIDS. Following the first reported case of HIV infection in 1985, a group of people (both gay and straight) set up a non-government organization called Action For Aids (AFA) which provided support and counseling for AIDS victims as well as educate the public on safe sex. AFA is not technically known as a gay movement and has been careful to present itself as an NGO dealing with a public health issue. However a significant portion of the energy and leadership behind it has been provided by gay people and in many practical ways AFA has rallied homosexuals around a cause. The public education campaign on AIDS has so far not taken on a gay-hostile tone. But it should be noted that the Niche disco had its liquor license withdrawn in 1989 and was given only a week to close down; no reason was provided for the police action but a person, personally involved in the running of the disco, believed it was a reaction to the first reported case of an AIDS death in Singapore. Anecdotal evidence also seems to suggest that after 1989 the police intensified surveillance and entrapment of homosexuals in public cruising areas.
Although the signals about officialdom's attitude towards gay
life were mixed, the overall climate was still sufficiently encouraging. To put
a rational construction to it, some gay people felt that the authority sought to
limit the growth of homosexual activities which had steadily increased its
public profile, particularly the less discreet aspects of public cruising, but
was not intent on eradicating all homosexual venues. At many levels, gay life
went on unchecked. Although the Niche was closed, two other Sunday night discos
for gays continued. This was a time when the political climate of Singapore was
taking its most liberal turn in a decade with a new Prime Minister, Goh Chok
Tong, assuming leadership with a promise of a more relaxed and less
authoritarian style of governance than that of his predecessor Lee Kuan Yew. A
significant symbol of this "kinder and gentler Singapore" came with a
gay subtext. The 1990 Singapore International Arts Festival staged a major
production of David Hwang's M Butterfly, which, coming in the wake of the
proscription of three gay plays just two years earlier, was significant. This
theatre piece about a male opera starís seduction of a French male diplomat in
China was a watershed in more ways than one. It marked the first instance of
total nudity in Singapore theatre. The impact was heightened by the local media
which, habitually sensitized to the political climate, highlighted members of
the political elite seated in the front row taking in the spectacle with
The Reversals of the 1990s
A major development for the gay community in this decade was an attempt early in 1993 to start a support group to deal specifically with the issue of homosexuality in Singapore. This could be seen as the first time gay Singaporeans tried to organize. It began informally when three gay men explored casually the possibility of setting up such a gay movement in Singapore. In the months that followed, a few more people came into the discussions which were held in cafes and private homes, less like meetings than friendly chatting over cups of coffee. Two concrete concerns animated their conversations: the decriminalization of homosexuality and the registration of a movement with the Registrar of Societies . This desultory group grew bigger and called itself People Like Us (PLU) and it involved gay men, lesbians and bi-sexuals. An event on 30 May 1993 provided the impetus for more focused organization and activity. That night, the police conducted a raid on Rascals disco in the Pan-Pacific Hotel (gay only on Sunday) and a number of people were taken to the police station because they did not carry identification papers. They were not charged but this was clearly an act of intimidation. Raids on gay places were not new in Singapore but what was different this time was that a group of about 20 gay people sent a letter of complaint to the precinct police station. This must have surprised the police used to gay people being too frightened to protest against harassment, and they sent an apology, albeit only for the rude behaviour of their men that night and not for the nature of the raid . The incident galvanised PLU into action to educate gay Singaporeans about their legal rights. This took the form of a monthly forum held in a public building open to anybody who turned up. At these sessions, a talk and discussion on gay or gay-relevant issues would be held. For the first time, gay Singaporeans had a forum to share their thoughts and raise grievances. The numbers coming to these meetings ranged from 20 to 80. PLU gradually developed sub-groups such as Sanctuary for gay Christians, one for women to increase the lesbian participation and a support group where more intimate personal issues could be discussed in small groups within private home settings. Then it began to organize regular social events like parties and picnics drawing crowds of up to 200 people . Despite this level of activity, a major problem remained that of legal status. In a country with highly discretionary laws about what constitutes illegal assembly for subversive purposes, many of PLU participants felt it should be properly registered as a bona fide society for its own good. However, PLU's organizers dithered for a long time over seeking registration, not confident that they would be successful. Their sanguine assumption was that in a society like Singapore, the authority would know about the existence of the group but was adopting a "leave well alone" approach so long as PLU kept a low profile and did not become too radical. The group's fear was that seeking formal recognition would disrupt this tacit understanding and force officialdom not only to turn down the application but to oblige the group to cease operating.
The first few years of the 1990s were encouraging for those Singaporeans who sought a more open political and cultural climate. A more liberal film censorship regime was ushered in with a film classification system so that adults can now get to see movies which would hitherto have been banned, and this would include a fair share of movies with gay themes. The first lesbian play "Mergers and Acquisitions" was staged. A novel, Peculiar Chris, was published which was a love story featuring a gay recruit who had come out to the military authority. An exhibition of homo-erotic paintings was staged by artist Tan Peng ("Out of the closet", declared a positive review in the major English-daily language daily The Straits Times). However, the stories of police surveillance of gay cruising places were increasing. Not only were gay people being entrapped but their pictures were being published in the newspapers. There seemed to be an agenda to make examples of them. Six cases of entrapment led to caning sentences in court. This moved two performance artists to stage acts of protest. Their performance took place at a show in the wee hours of the first day of 1994. The official wrath it drew signaled the curtailing of the liberalizing trend in Singapore.
The two acts which so offended officialdom was induced vomiting in one and the scattering of some pubic hair on stage in the other. Whether or not these performances were good or bad art, or even art, need not be the concern of this paper. At worst, the artists should be regarded as no more than young people having some fun during a New Year's Eve party in front of a very small audience, most of whom were probably converts to their message. The official reaction therefore must be perceived as being out of all proportion to the incident. The belief was that when the event was sensationalized by the afternoon tabloid The New Paper, it generated a discussion within the cabinet. Condemnation of the show by senior political leaders and the National Arts Council lent credence to those rumours. The two artists were prohibited from performing . Subsequently, the Ministry of Home Affairs, in response to this incident and other developments in Singapore theatre, issued new regulations to tighten control on what it termed "scriptless performance" and alluded to the latter's socially disruptive potential.
This event and a few others pointed to a political leadership which was viewing developments in the arts and the broader realm of lifestyle with a very attentive and suspicious eye. Those familiar with the ways of the Singapore government would assess this to be far more than just a few of the countryís prudish leaders taking offence occasionally at the bohemian conduct of some of its citizens. What was in operation was a larger national ideology often articulated in strategic terms of a traditional Asian society fighting to preserve its essence against attrition by undesirable Western influences. Increasingly the preservation of that essence is being presented as critical at least to economic well-being, if not to national survival. Two particular strands in this discourse continue to hobble the emancipation of gay people:
1994 was witness to more constraints in public discourse, some of which were imposed directly by the government while others were the result of self-censorship as people became more nervous in the wake of the political climate growing more stern. This has had an impact on the fledgling PLU. In April 1995, a local English-language tabloid The New Paper wanted to do a story on it . While the group had never operated on a clandestine basis, it was not yet confident enough to handle a potential publicity blitz by the media and, given the risky mood of the times, it decided to lie low for a while and rework its strategy. The big monthly forum was stopped for awhile and energy is now focused on seeking registration. Such an interregnum was not helpful for a young movement trying to maintain a momentum of growth.
PLU made an attempt to register itself as a company rather than a society hoping to circumvent the need of declaring its gay identity in 1995 but this was turned down by the Registry of Companies and Businesses with an injunction that should the applicants proceed with incorporation, the Registry shall exercise its powers under section 20(2) of the Companies Act (Cap 50). This particular law states:
This response from the Registry confirms the groupís suspicion that the authority knows about its existence. With hindsight, seeking registration as a business was not a politic move because it created an impression that PLU was trying to be furtive and that invited suspicion. It was also against the raison díÍtre of forming an openly gay movement. The group then tried to register as a society fully declaring its intention to address the homosexual issue. To do this, it needs a minimum of 10 people willing to lend their names to the registration process. By early 1996, it could only find nine candidates and meanwhile, many of the early supporters of the group and some of its founders have moved on. This indicates a dearth of stamina and a low level of confidence which persists within the gay community. It also underlines a basic dilemma whereby gay people feels cagey about associating with an organization which has no legal endorsement but are also too nervous to lend their name to get the movement registered. Meanwhile the regular monthly meetings have been scaled down to smaller less-structured gatherings at a cafe and the strategy is to maintain the group at this low profile until registration can be arranged. What keeps PLU going is a core group of around five or six persons.
Finally, PLU managed to gather 10 individuals (gay and
straight) willing to put their names on the application to the Registrar of
Societies and the application was lodged on 7 November 1996. The group was never
sanguine that registration would be that easily achieved but deemed it important
to try. Even if it were bound to be rejected, it would be a way of getting an
official explanation why such a grouping had to be proscribed, and thus
initiating a form of dialogue between the State and the gay community. The
registration went through the bureaucratic routine of being vetted by the
Registrar of Societies and the police. The treatment it received from officials
involved were business-like and courteous but the application was still rejected
on 9 April 1997. PLU followed up with a series of responses; first, write to the
registrar seeking the reasons for the rejection and, second, appeal to the
Minister of Home Affairs to review the registrar's decision. Again the emphasis
was to get officialdom engaged in a dialogue even if the Minister turned down
the appeal. Dialogue did not prove to be an easy quest and basically, the second
round of answers were still a firm no. Technically, the appeal process should
end at the Minister's office but PLU took it further to the Prime Minister's
office. The latter redirected the PLU's request to the Ministry ending up with
the same negative reply . Clearly, the strategy to get a process of dialogue
going with officialdom has not worked and the situation is also illustrative of
how constricted the scope for any form of political debate can be within an
authoritarian polity dominated by one political party.
Implications for the Future
Viewed in perspective, homosexuals in Singapore have, within a generation of 30 years, progressed from the stage of just having a gay scene which served their entertainment needs to one where there is a nascent sense of community with an identified purpose of improving the status and welfare of gay people. If at one level, these gains have seemed impressive, at another, they remain precarious, determined to a large extent by how much the authority is prepared to suffer it and also how long the small core group of organizers will persevere.
The outdated laws against homosexual acts is only one aspect of the challenge facing gay Singaporeans. Beyond the legality question is the larger issue of gaining legitimacy in the eyes of the larger public. Gay Singaporeans are far from overcoming both problems and all these serve to explain why stepping out of the closet is still being done cautiously on tiptoe.
Singapore's international image has been one of a highly regulated society which tolerates not the tiniest infraction of its rules. But given the developments described in this paper, the reality of the gay scene can be perceived as being not all that confining by those living there. PLU's bid for registration may have failed but it had existed for a good three years when it lodged its application and within that time, it has conducted a monthly public meeting without fail and puts out a newsletter.
Singapore's gay community is also alert to the possibilities of the Internet. PLU did not succeed in getting the state into a dialogue on the homosexual issue but makes up for it by putting all the text of its exchange with the state on its WWW home page . This has a certain uplifting effect on the morale of those involved with the PLU endeavour. A few members of the PLU core group have also been preparing an alternative in expectation of failure to gain legal recognition; on 15 March 1997, they launched a newslist called the Singapore Gay News List (SiGNel) . To be sure this is not the only cyberspace venue for gay Singaporeans to interact. Other newslists includes SinGLe (Singapore Gays and Lesbians) and Singapore Pride, to name just two. Increasingly, gay Singaporeans are also becoming confident enough to set up individual homepages announcing their gay identity.
SiGNeL is useful as a forum for debate and a means of information dissemination. It therefore helps create an intellectual climate of openness and mutual support. SiGNeL has not remained purely as chatting in cyberspace. Subscribers have used it to organize large meetings in restaurants, trips to concerts and school reunions for gay alumni. Thus the list has contributed substantively to community building. More significantly, in a society where many gay people are firstly, anxious about the exposure of their sexuality, and secondly, nervous about political activism, SiGNeL has provided the critical publicity for those members of the gay community who had set examples by taking bold individual public action to challenge hostile socio-political norms against homosexuality. Two cases should be mentioned in this regard. Joseph Lo, one of the founding members of PLU took the opportunity of his attendance at a government-organized conference to raise the issue of the rejection of PLU's registration without any explanation and challenged the government Member of Parliament chairing the conference that any state claim to wanting to consult citizens in decision-making would amount to no more than platitudes in view of the summary rejection of PLU . The second case was Andrew Lee's protest against the Anglican church's homophobic policy by attending a service at Saint Andrews Cathedral carrying the rainbow colour flag and a placard which read: "God loves all Bisexual, Gay, Lesbian and Transgendered Persons too!" . These acts signal a new mood of unprecedented activism even though it is still far from the militancy and defiance which gave birth to gay liberation movements in the West. Nevertheless, it is an harbinger that the threshold of activism is slowly but steadily shifting to a willingness to engage authority on the gay issue rather than be satisfied with the status quo.
According to the SiGNeL list owner, there were 564 subscribers by October 1998. In numerical terms, it was reaching out to far more people than the monthly PLU meeting where attendance usually stayed below a hundred. However, the more activist members of the gay community also understand that cyberspace interaction with the occasional party event is not a substitute for the focused association which is critical for a gay political movement. Furthermore, for the 500 that could be reached through email linkages, the vast majority of the gay constituency remained unreached because they had no access to computer facilities. So at some future date, another effort must be made to continue where PLU left off, whether this is done by some of the old PLU core-group or a new set of people.
Several developments in the legal field also gave gay Singaporeans reasons to hope for a less draconian and more just approach to non-mainstream sexual behaviour:
Given the above scenario, an optimistic reading of the situation would acknowledge the following:
Be that as it may, the relationship between homosexuals and the state will continue to have its share of suspicion and uncertainty. Improvements are going to evolve over a long haul and the gay movement in Singapore is unlikely to move in the direction of radical activism and large-scale mobilization that was witnessed at the birth of gay liberation movements in countries like the US or Australia. The reason is simple: the gay struggle in most western societies took place within well established liberal democratic polities where there is a strong tradition and acceptance of political activism. Street protest or even civil defiance enjoy both legitimacy and a measure of protection by the law. Even then, the advancement of gay rights (e.g., decriminalization) in the West took years. In Singapore which, basically, is still an authoritarian country, these liberties cannot be taken for granted. Top down institutional tolerance for dissent, or its lack of, is only half the problem. The other half is the lack of a constituency with possibly a majority of gay people still uncomfortable about a more assertive form of gay activism. Those who are pushing the political agenda could not count on a critical mass within the gay community willing to go public with their support. In other words, bottom up grassroots pressure for improvement to the status and welfare of homosexuals remain weak. Singaporeís gay movement is in the early stages of finding its own form of activism. The deliberations of this movement should also not be seen in isolation. It is part of the larger pattern where many other constituencies, e.g., racial minorities, women, journalists, artists, etc, are seeking more socio-political space for themselves. Collectively they will have to soften up the political climate before any significant change can take place.