August 8, 2001 was a monumental day for Singapore's vibrant lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) community. It was the day that the city state saw its first private, well-publicized party for the LGBT community, the Nation party.
Last year the party, frowned upon by Singapore's straitlaced leaders, was staged in Phuket. This year it's back. The CEO of organizers Fridae.com, Dr Stuart Koe, spoke with the Gazette's Andy Johnstone in advance of the Nation VI party in Karon, and explained why this will be the last one.
From 2001 until mid-2005, the Nation party was the highlight of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered (LGBT) year in Singapore. "A gay party? Big deal," a person from the liberated Occident or indeed elsewhere in the Orient might be forgiven for thinking.
Yet homosexuality – described in Section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code as: "… voluntarily…carnal intercourse against the order of nature", that is, any form of sexual intercourse which does not have the potential for procreation, is illegal in the city state.
"Are you English, Andrew?" Stuart asks. "Well, Statute 377 – the anti-sodomy laws – are actually a hand-me-down from the British," he says politely, without any hint of recrimination.
I find myself mumbling a bumbling-Brit apology, although Stuart readily says none is necessary.
"It's a throwback law; variants of it exist in many of the countries that were once part of the British Empire – India, Pakistan, Singapore and others, but not, for example Hong Kong or Australia, which repealed its law three years ago.
"Singapore, unfortunately, hasn't, but that's due in part to the conservative nature of the government," he notes with a wry and slightly weary smile – he is busy making the final arrangements for this year's party, Nation VI.
Interestingly, Lord Thomas Macaulay, who drafted the Indian Penal Code – including the sections relating to sexual offenses – which served as the basis for most British colonial law, remained a bachelor, an unusual situation for a man in Victorian times.
The Nation parties from to 2001 to 2004 were roaring successes, garnering as many as 8,000 partygoers – lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and straight – and heralded what many felt was a softening of the "benignly-dictatorial" government's anti-LGBT stance, which had grown harder in the preceding two decades.
"Then as now, people flew in from from Hong Kong, Australia, the US, Thailand and many other Asian counties, as well as Europe," says Stuart.
A squad of uniformed police officers made a one-off visit during the course of the evening, saw that there was nothing dreadful happening and left the 1,500 revelers to enjoy themselves.
There was some concern that, despite police acceptance of the first Nation party, and the big business sponsorship the event, the second Nation party might not go ahead.
Such fears were, in fact, unfounded; Nation.02 received some 2,500 guests and had sponsorship from such corporations as Qantas and Pepsi.
Nation.03 was an even bigger success. Figures for party goers ran to some 4,500. It was also a watershed in terms of acceptance in Singaporean media.
Scenes from the bash were shown on Singaporean TV and the event was portrayed in a positive light, with one TV station stating "Nation.03 can be seen as a gauge of Singapore's tolerance."
All went well until a few months after Nation.04, which attracted 8,000 fun-seekers, when the Public Entertainment Licensing Unit (PELU) of the Singaporean police refused to grant a license for the SnowBall party, which was due to have been held on December 26.
Remarks were made about the hypocrisy of the refusal, particularly as Nation.04 was nominated for "Best Event Experience" in the 2005 Singapore Tourism Awards.
In April 2005, the PELU rejected Fridae's application to host Nation.05, claiming the party to be "contrary to public interest".
Fridae upped sticks and brought the party – as well as more than 1,000 revelers – to Phuket.
Despite some initial reluctance from the Kata-Karon Municipality, the party went ahead and was a success – all the more welcome for the island in the lean post-tsunami year.
Although Stuart says that the government's attitude toward the LGBT community in Singapore has not worsened, he explains that the community has been testing the waters and trying to be more visible.
"But we've found that there are limits as to how much public space the government is willing to allow us to have. [The government] has not clamped down on the community – so long as we are not too visible about it," he says.
"Nation was very visible, Fridae has been very vocal and I think the government was uncomfortable with that. The [gay] bars and clubs are still in existence, still operational…So long as the gay community doesn't have a voice in the public arena, then the government is fine with that."
In Stuart's words, "[The government] has actually gone ahead and silenced us in the media. For example, I specifically am not allowed to be interviewed by journalists [for broadcast in Singapore] on any subject. If I am interviewed, then I'll usually be cut out of the story. The media are not allowed to run any positive stories about the gay community.
"Even Nation.04 – with 8,000 people attending – was not mentioned in The Straits Times."
Despite this, Stuart is confident that the first four Nation parties demonstrated that Singapore is a different country from what most people outside the nation believed it to be.
"It has an awful reputation of banning chewing gum and caning vandals… Those are the soundbites you get outside Singapore.
"But [the Nation parties provided] a breath of fresh air. Things were happening in Singapore that nobody expected."
Stuart describes those years of the Nation parties as "…great PR for Singapore [outside the country]," before suggesting, "but I don't think that Singapore itself viewed it quite the same way."
Another obstacle for the gay community, Stuart said, were the Christian fundamentalists. "I'm not really sure how large that group is, or how powerful its voice is, but it is certainly a loud voice."
But this, argues Stuart, is in contrast to what he views as a "surprisingly laissez-faire attitude" to homosexuality held by the majority of Singaporeans.
"I think that Asian culture – generally – views sexuality as a very private issue, not something that they talk about. In [Fridae's] dealings – as a company – yes, we have come across some individuals and companies that are uncomfortable with the topic, but none that have demonstrated outright discrimination toward us," he adds.
The attitude from the government appears to be rather confused, says Stuart, with Fridae enjoying good working relationships with the certain agencies.
"We've worked with the Singapore Tourism Board, the Ministry of Health, the National Arts Council… I suppose that these bodies are more pragmatic, and understand what the world is like."
The problem in Singapore, he states, is that, "Different groups, different people do not have a voice to represent them. The gay community is disenfranchised; we don't really have a ‘champion' to help us seek redress or get legal reforms.
"What Fridae tried to do is to mobilize the community to show that they can lead their lives in a more fulfilling, less fearful way, but that was clamped down upon. We wanted to change things through the people, and not by, for example, lobbying the government directly."
Any change, he says, will come from the top down. "It will probably be a rather arbitrary decision by someone in the government who says, ‘You know what? This doesn't really matter and we should move on.'
"It won't come through the voting process or by voices being heard. I don't think that any change will come within the next 10 years, but who knows?"
Yet the gay community does require its voice to be heard.
Stuart revealed that Nation VI will be Fridae's last event – the end of an era.
"When we first started throwing parties, the concept of a multi-day gay party with international DJs and punters flying in from around the world was fairly novel in Asia. Now, there are a number of impressive party organizers in the region – it is time for Fridae to focus on empowering the Asian gay community through other means.
"Meanwhile, Fridae will remain committed to supporting and working closely with party organizers in the region as we have been."
Fridae will focus on building its portal, with Version 5 and a new women's portal, Friday, due for launch in early 2007. Version 5 is expected to integrate many "Web 2.0" features such as blogging, photo and video sharing, as well as "innovative features to enhance the experience of Fridae's members".
Based on audited traffic data from Nielsen/Netratings, Fridae.com attracts 380,000 visitors and 50 million page views every month.
"I think that this kind of traffic makes us the largest [gay interest] portal in the region, and we project that this will grow tenfold in the next few years," adds Stuart.
In addition, Fridae plans to launch a new advocacy network of activists, legal counselors and support groups.
"Gays and lesbians in Asia continue to be subjected to institutional and political discrimination, homophobia and stigmatization. One way to overcome this is for the various stakeholders across Asia to come together, learn from one another, and collaborate," says Stuart.
A smiling Stuart says, "Nation.VI will be the grand finale – going out with a bang."
Nation.VI is being held at the Hilton Phuket Arcadia Resort & Spa until October 22. Visit www.fridae.asia/nation and www.twoqueensparty.com for more information.