Homosexual activity between consenting adults is still illegal in Singapore. Colonial sodomy laws are not exactly a proud inheritance (some say they were meant to keep British troops in line), so it is odd that, amid much tradition that is proudly preserved, these antiquated laws remain on the statute books. Until recently, the government justified the criminal status of homosexual activity by citing so-called Asian values of Singaporean society. Imagine the fizz, then, in the republic's media and especially the gay community, when Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong told TIME last month that the government has been quietly tolerating gays in the civil service for a while now.
It wasn't exactly a celebration of diversity as envisioned in the government-sponsored Remaking Singapore report that followed Goh's interview. Nor was it quite the stuff of the open society that the government is seeking to foster. But it did reflect realities that visitors have been slowly uncovering: Singapore is actually becoming a hell of place to party with people of every race and sexuality, and despite images to the contrary, it does not need much more loosening up to remain high on, if not top of, the Asian league of fun cities.
In the wake of last weekend's bigger-than-ever Nation party, organized by Singapore's leading gay and lesbian website, Fridae.com, another truth is evident: the gay scene—indisputably one of the drivers of the city's cosmopolitan nightlife—has finally arrived, with or without the laws. It had been evolving in the past few years alongside— and often in combination with—Singapore's alternative youth culture (with which it shares DJs, venues, fashion and a lot else besides). When Goh proclaimed that "in time, the population will understand that some people are born that way … but they are like you and me," he seemed to these groups to be talking from some kind of social space capsule, viewing Earth at a fantastic distance—because Singapore has been changing quicker, in terms of social attitudes, than anyone presumed. Despite the laws or perceived familial disapproval, the republic's gay life is more open than that of most other cities in Asia, even Hong Kong.
On a walk down Tanjong Pagar in Chinatown on Friday or Saturday night, the gay (or straight) visitor will be impressed by the vivacity of the area: a clutch of discos, bars and restaurants, with guys and gals in their hundreds wandering from one rowdy place to another, often arm in arm (although kissing in public seems to still be taboo, even in gay venues). Gay life is not confined to a pink ghetto, though. There's a lively disco at Centro, opposite the venerable Fullerton hotel, that stages a gay event on Sunday nights just a short walk from the High Court. On the same night, the nearby Embassy Club, part of the new Esplanade concert hall complex, hosts another.
Goh, of course, is aware that the government's core support comes from the grass roots: families in government housing estates who would view radical changes in family and marriage patterns as alarming, and where a gay child could expect to be tolerated at best or disinherited at worst. For these reasons, the government wants to move slowly.
Yet a quick visit to Centro one Sunday reveals very few outcasts. Instead, there's a rather sweet, high school dance atmosphere, with gays at one end of the floor and other alternatives at the opposite, and some mixture of them in between. In Singapore, years of discreetly living with anti-gay laws have created a mix of attitudes that might confuse the gay tourist used to firmer lines being drawn between gay and straight nightlife. Beautiful young girls in short dresses are dancing to techno with their boyfriends at the Water Bar disco in Chinatown on a Saturday night, right next to a group of funky gay Asians, while a more mature Caucasian in black is doing Mick Jagger imitations with a tall, brush-cut young Chinese in baggy jeans. But wander over to Taboo, the must-go, packed-out gay disco on Tanjong Pagar, and you will find a bevy of gay teenagers from every race bopping on a podium in the corner and half the room full of guys with their T shirts off. It's not really a cruising joint. It's just part of the gay scene's confidence in the face of the criminal code.
Singapore is not an entirely liberated city—yet. The city's gays—mostly diligent, discreet workers and students—were relieved by Goh's recent announcement and by the generally supportive readers' letters published in the Straits Times (even if there were some hardened homosexuality-is-a-sin exceptions). But the token coming-out story that the newspaper also printed revealed just how many gays were still in closets, even if they do risk a visit to the clubs on weekends. It is also notable that the new gay theater piece, Existence, to be presented next month by the Fun Stage, portrays the love of two young Singaporean men for each other as doomed. Its author Benny Lim, a 23-year-old local undergraduate, says, "Being accepted by mainstream society doesn't mean that all the problems faced by homosexuals will go away." A general homophobic backlash from elements of the Christian community is also in progress.
One thing, however, is sure: attitudes toward gays are changing fast. Goh's assurance that the republic will not be hosting gay parades was calculated p.r., designed to appease conservatives worried about an influx of gay tourists. But it was also a disingenuous statement if the Nation party was anything to go by. That party may not have been a Sydney Mardi Gras with a Gay Men's Chorus and dykes on bikes—and it may not have been officially backed—but it was a three-day fest of international proportions, held on Sentosa island. Its cheeky centerpiece was a riotous party at the island's Musical Fountain, timed for Aug. 9, Singapore's National Day.
Gays are just as proud of Singapore as its other citizens, and National Day saw them and their foreign guests delightedly celebrating the diversity that is now apparent in the republic. So far, so good. But remember: until the less progressive elements in Singapore get used to it, you'd best stay mum. In fact, you'd better not tell Mum at all.