Singapore - the new mecca for Asia's pink dollar (The Age [Australia])
14 Aug, 2004
Once staid Singapore seems ready to take over from Bangkok as Asia's gay party town, reports Connie Levett.
It's 1am in Singapore and thousands of glistening bodies in red and white designer jocks, the national colours, are just getting started as Asia's biggest gay festival shakes preconceptions about the straight-laced city state.
"I've never seen anything like this in Singapore. It's got an atmosphere like Ibiza, Spain," says Ravin, a banker who left Singapore for London 13 years ago. "When I left there were a couple of small bars, but it was all kept very quiet."
No longer. Singapore has discovered the pink tourist dollar and, as Asia's traditional gay capital Bangkok suffers from enforced early closing hours, police drug raids and urine tests, the party people are looking elsewhere.
From the dance floor of the Nation04 party - the festival's biggest - John, a flight attendant based in Hong Kong, said: "This is not the Sydney mardi gras - not as wild, not as many outside programs - but I'm glad about what they are doing here."
Even with the techno music and laser shows, the open-air party at the Sentosa musical fountain amphitheatre last weekend was a distinctly Singaporean affair.
Many wore the suggested dress code of red and white, the national colours, to show support for Singapore's national birthday. As one Hong Kong tourist put it: "It's Singapore: tell them to do it and they will."
Homosexual acts are still illegal in Singapore but this new season of tolerance may be driven by pragmatism. The long-weekend festival, with a party on each of the three nights, attracted 8000 revellers and is predicted to bring $S10 million ($A8.2 million) into the local economy. Partygoers were split evenly between locals and visitors.
Independent analysis of last year's event shows gay tourists spent $S1000 a day, four times the tourist average.
Griffith University's associate professor of business, William Case, has followed the shift with interest. "What's important in Singapore is economic success," he said.
"The Government has seen studies that suggest societies that apply tolerance tend to be more creative. There may also be gains to be made from having a vibrant arts community in attracting expats and in getting international companies to base themselves there."
However, Nation04 organiser Stuart Koe said it's not just economic, and points to a change in social attitudes.
"Five years ago when we planned the first party, a lot of people said, 'it won't work, you'll get shut down, the Government won't allow it', there was a lot of self-censorship."
Five years on, "people are feeling more empowered and confident and more willing to take risks," Mr Koe said.
Despite this success and a warmer Government attitude - it has announced it will hire openly gay people in the civil service and the Singapore tourism board has discreetly promoted the event - Nation04 rated no mention in the Government-controlled mainstream press.
Mr Koe was unfazed by the media blackout. "We effect change just by being. Once we get society to accept us we accomplish more than by lobbying to get the law changed," he said.