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Pink pride of Lion City glows a patriotic red and white (The Sydney Morning Herald)
14 Aug, 2004

It's 1am 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 straight-laced Singapore.

"I've never seen anything like this in Singapore. It's got an atmosphere like Ibiza, Spain," says Ravin, a banker. When he left Singapore for London 13 years ago, "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 a crisis of identity with early closing hours, police drugs raids and urine testing, the party people are looking elsewhere.

Anan Anpruang, former chairman of Bangkok Pride, said the Government's new social order policy was destroying gay business in Thailand.

"Not only Singapore, but in Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong, clubs are open until 4 or 5. We are not organising big parties. The Government is not encouraging people to come to Thailand."

John, a Virgin flight attendant based in Hong Kong, was enjoying himself on the dance floor of the Nation 04 party, but agreed:
"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, towering water jets, fireworks and synchronised light and laser shows, the open-air party at the Sentosa musical fountain amphitheatre this week was a distinctly Singaporean affair. Fancy dress was rare. Partygoers had been warned it was illegal to wear any uniform or part of any uniform, so the men in uniform were actually police, not Village People wannabes. The suggested dress code was red and white, the national colours, to show support for Singapore on its national birthday. Many obliged.

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 and this new season of tolerance may be driven by pragmatism. Over the three nights, the party attracted 8000 revellers - some from Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, the US and Thailand - and added about $S10 million ($8.2 million) to the local economy.

Independent analysis of last year's Nation 03 event showed the gay tourists spent $S1000 a day, excluding air fares and hotels, which is four times the tourist average.

"What's important in Singapore is economic success," said William Case, associate professor of business of Queensland's Griffith University.

"The Government has seen studies that suggest societies that apply tolerance tend to be more creative," he said. "There may also be gains to be made from having a vibrant arts community in attracting expats, in getting international companies to base themselves there."

But Nation 04's organiser, Stuart Koe, still recovering at his office at gay media group, fridae.com, said "it's not just economic". He 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."

Koe got one break. A loophole in the licensing law meant he did not have to apply for permission because it was held on the resort island of Sentosa, which has an automatic event licence. Fifteen hundred people showed up; the Government did nothing.

People now feel more empowered and confident and more willing to take risks, Koe says. They "are starting to venture out more and censor less".

Ravin said: "Singapore has a lot of talented people who work hard and want to have fun. Events like this, if they're well conducted, will show the Government it's OK."

There is a warmer government attitude. It has announced it will hire openly gay people in the public service and the Singapore tourism board has promoted the event. Even so, Nation 04 rated no mention in the government-controlled mainstream press.

Koe was unfazed by the media blackout. He saw it it as a muzzle on conservative opponents. "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.

In Bangkok, the gay community is plotting to reclaim the crown. It has launched The Homosexual Political Group of Thailand to lobby the Government for greater support.

In Singapore, Koe says they cannot quite believe the hype. "When we read about Bangkok we thought it was a joke. We don't lay claim to any title. We don't want to. We should all co-operate.

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