For Its Own Reasons, Singapore Is Getting Rather Gay-Friendly (The Wall Street Journal)
22 Oct, 2004
Tourist Dollars Are Part of It, But There Still Are Limits; Renaming a 'Military' Ball
SINGAPORE -- This famously stodgy city-state is becoming an unlikely center of gay culture in Asia.
Nearly 8,000 gay men from around the world flocked to a beach resort here in August for an all-night party timed to coincide with Singapore's National Day. Laser lights played across the bodies of revelers, many shirtless and some stripped down to their Speedos, as they danced through the humid tropical night.
Gay bars, dance clubs and about a half-dozen bathhouses have sprung up. This past summer, the national art museum even featured an exhibit of homoerotic photos.
"Singapore's become much more tolerant and open," says Sean Ho, surveying the raucous scene at the dance party. Mr. Ho, a 33-year-old information-technology consultant, was decked out in a T-shirt proclaiming "Choose Sin" in large, red letters and "gapore" in smaller print. "They are giving us a lot more space," he says.
The driving force behind this change appears to be economic. One consideration: reaping so-called pink dollars from gay tourists. The August dance party and related events, including plays and art exhibitions with gay themes, pulled in about 2,500 foreign visitors and about $6 million, according to event organizers.
Singapore's more relaxed attitude toward homosexuality is also part of a broader government strategy to transform the small former British colony into a creative, idea-driven economy. That, Singapore's leaders realize, will require some loosening up, as well as a serious effort to change the world's perception of Singapore as a rigid, authoritarian place.
Singaporeans have long accepted a high degree of social control in exchange for state-delivered prosperity. But that is evolving as more Singaporeans are being exposed to the outside world through the Internet, travel and the globalized media.
Those same forces have awakened gay people in Singapore and across Asia to the greater acceptance of homosexuals in the West and elsewhere, encouraging more to live openly and demand civil liberties. Once a taboo topic in Singapore, homosexuality has had a lot of attention in the local press. The cover of a weekly magazine recently touted the feature "Queer Eye for a Straight Nation." One commentator in the article suggested the new prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, could improve his look by opting for a wardrobe of "all white leather."
The official Singapore Tourism Board commissioned a study of last year's Nation party, which looked at "the potential of tapping on these attendees to bring in tourism receipts." This year, the tourism board advertised the event under the headline "Party All the Time."
While some gay Singaporeans don't like the focus on the pink dollar, others see the profit motive as an avenue for gaining expanded rights. "It's highly unlikely we'll ever get gay rights on the grounds of civil liberties," says Dominic Chua, a 29-year-old schoolteacher. "The only appeal that seems to work is a pragmatic one that relies on dollars and cents."
In fact, the government remains decidedly ambivalent about gay people. In an interview last year, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said that gays "are like you and me" and shouldn't face discrimination in the civil service. But laws prohibiting homosexual acts remain on the books.
The government has also refused to register a group campaigning for equal rights for gays, saying that it is "contrary to public interest to grant legitimacy to the promotion of homosexual activities and viewpoints." Under Singapore law, societies must register with the government. Recently, censors banned a Taiwanese film about two gay teens, saying it "conveys the message that homosexuality is normal."
"This place is full of contradictions," says Stuart Koe, chief executive officer of Fridae.com, a gay Web portal with its main office in Singapore, and the organizer of the August parties. "Change at the grass roots is outpacing change at the policy level. But things are moving in the right direction."
Many things, such as a gay-pride parade, remain out of bounds. Arjan Nijen Twilhaar, editor in chief of gay-oriented magazine Manazine RA, says officials have warned him against "promoting a gay lifestyle," and have objected to photos of "too skimpy" underwear in an ad. "You are always on thin ice," says Mr. Nijen Twilhaar, "and you never know when it's going to crack."
August's dance parties got official scrutiny, too. A "Military Ball" planned this year had to be renamed. Police said they were concerned that guests might inadvertently break the law by wearing uniforms without authorization -- an offense in Singapore. Nation organizers say authorities also objected to anti-AIDS campaigners handing out condoms and pamphlets. The local police objected to the materials "based on the misunderstanding that they promoted gay sex," Mr. Koe says. The distribution ceased, but the police said in a statement that they did not request "the removal of any booth."
Critics of the government say all this smacks of hypocrisy. The government is content to let gay bathhouses with names such as TowelClub and Raw exist in the center of town, but loath, say some activists, to give gays permission for much besides sex, dancing and drinking.
"Entertainment doesn't challenge their political dominance," says Alex Au, a leader of People Like Us, the group that the government won't register, thus limiting its ability to raise funds and hold public meetings. The group is seeking the repeal of colonial-era antisodomy laws, which generally aren't enforced against consenting adults.
Of the government, Mr. Au says, "they are driven by economic imperatives. But they're trying to do the absolute minimum they can get away with, so it doesn't chip away at their ability to control the political agenda." Mr. Au believes the government blocked registration of his group not because it represents gays, but because it is independent: "They dislike any organization they can't co-opt or control fully."
A spokesman for Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs says: "Many Singaporeans continue to voice their objections to displays of homosexual behavior. There are certain things that homosexuals want which are not feasible now," including the setting up of a society.
In many ways, the 32-year-old Mr. Koe and his enterprises are emblematic of the shifts that are taking place. Mr. Koe, who has been openly homosexual since he was a teenager, spent six years at the University of Minnesota, where he earned a doctorate in pharmacy before returning to Singapore in 1997. He worked in the life-sciences division of the government's Economic Development Board before leaving to start Fridae, one of the largest gay-oriented Web sites in Asia.
Mr. Koe, who lives with his partner, another executive at Fridae, says: "Sometimes, we ask ourselves: 'Is it futile? Should we just move to New York where people get it?' " For now, however, they have decided to stay. "At the end of the day, I'm quite happy to be here. It's gratifying to see the changes and be a part of it," he says.