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Gay Asia: Tolerance Pays (Far Eastern Economic Review)
28 Oct, 2004

In this special report, we examine the changing lives of Asia's gays. We begin in Singapore, a state where contradictions abound, but where one message has hit home: Gay rights make economic sense

For many, the journey has yet to begin, but a growing number of Asian gay men and women are finally on the road to winning social and legal acceptance.

Some are benefiting from the belief that open societies equal stronger economies; others are finding the courage to stand up for themselves as they find--often through the Net--that they are not alone.

ON A HOT TROPICAL NIGHT, around 8,000 gay men are dancing to pulsing house music. Laser lights play across sweaty bodies. Many of the men have whipped off their shirts. Some are down to just their Speedos.

Welcome to Singapore.

Sean Ho, a 33-year-old information-technology consultant surveys the scene. He's wearing a T-shirt that proclaims "Choose Sin" in large, red letters. Below, in smaller type, is "gapore." "Singapore's become much more tolerant and open," says Ho. "They are giving us a lot more space."

The annual gay Nation party, held to coincide with Singapore's National Day in August, is an event the city-state's conservative founders would probably never have imagined. But stodgy Singapore has recently witnessed a flowering of gay culture. Gay bars, dance clubs and about a half-dozen bath houses have sprung up. The national art museum even featured an exhibit of homoerotic photos this summer.

The driving force behind this liberalization appears to be economic. One consideration: Earning "pink dollars" from gay tourists. Organizers estimate that Nation and related events pulled in about 2,500 foreign visitors and nearly $6 million. But Singapore's more relaxed attitude towards homosexuality is also part of a broader government strategy to transform the city into a creative, ideas-driven economy. That, Singapore's mandarins 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.

Even so, when it comes to gay people, the government remains ambivalent. Despite then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's pronouncement in an interview last year that gays "are like you and me" and shouldn't face discrimination in the civil service, 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." Recently, censors banned a Taiwanese film about two gay teens, saying it "conveys the message that homosexuality is normal." And the country's one magazine aimed at homosexual readers has seldom dared to use the word "gay."

"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."

Indeed, across Asia, international travel, an increasingly globalized mass media and--crucially--the Internet are exposing gay people to the greater acceptance of homosexuals in the West and elsewhere, encouraging more to live openly and demand civil liberties. In some cases, though, that's raising the risk of a conservative backlash.

In Singapore, police harassment of gay people, common even in the early 1990s, say activists, has stopped. Gay nightlife is flourishing. And, since Goh's remarks, the once taboo topic of homosexuality has received a lot of attention in the mass media. The cover of local weekly I-S Magazine recently showed two sperm in an embrace with the headline: "Happy Together? Can straight and gay Singapore co-exist?"

The official Singapore Tourism Board commissioned a study of last year's Nation party "to assess the potential of tapping on these attendees to bring in tourism receipts." This summer, the agency included the Nation parties in a newspaper ad, headlined "Party All the Time!" that also listed the official National Day celebrations and other attractions.

All this is making it easier for gay men and women to be more open. Dinesh Naidu, a 29-year-old writer, came out to his family over the past year. After a rocky start, his parents are now fairly accepting. Naidu says his boyfriend "gets along very well with my mother. After a few beers, my father can be quite friendly, too." Still, many homosexuals keep their orientation secret from family and colleagues.

Conservative Christian groups have taken the lead in opposing more liberal attitudes. Some churches actively work to "convert" gay people into heterosexuals. The government cites such opposition to justify its go-slow policies.

Many things, such as a gay-pride parade, remain out of bounds. There are strict limits on other forms of expression, too. Arjan Nijen Twilhaar, editor of a gay-oriented magazine, says officials have warned him against "promoting a gay lifestyle," and have objected to photos of "too skimpy" underwear in his magazine. "You are always on thin ice," says Nijen Twilhaar, "and you never know when it's going to crack."

When he applied to renew his publication licence, Nijen Twilhaar says the government's Media Development Authority cautioned him that the more gay people "lobby for public space, the bigger the backlash." Since then, he has decided to limit distribution of the magazine to paying customers. Keeping a lower profile should allow the magazine more freedom, says Nijen Twilhaar. "We'll no longer have to hide the fact that we are addressing a gay target audience."

August's dance parties also received scrutiny, with officials ordering that a planned "Military Ball" be renamed. Police say they were concerned guests might inadvertently break the law by wearing uniforms without authorization--an offence in Singapore. The next night, Nation organizers say, the authorities objected to anti-Aids campaigners handing out condoms and pamphlets. Police "objected to the Action for Aids materials based on the misunderstanding that they promoted gay sex," Koe says. The operation was shut down. Police say 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 Towel Club and Raw exist in the centre of town, but is 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 has refused to register, thus limiting its ability to raise funds and hold public meetings. The group is seeking the repeal of colonial-era anti-sodomy laws, which generally aren't enforced against consenting adults.

Of the government, 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." 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."

But, according to a spokesman for Singapore's Ministry of Home Affairs, "many Singaporeans continue to voice their objections to displays of homosexual behaviour. There are certain things that homosexuals want which are not feasible now. This includes the setting-up of a society to promote homosexual activities and viewpoints."

Other gay activists favour a less confrontational approach. "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."

The economic argument seems to have some merit. In one recent study, Marcus Noland, a researcher at the Institute for International Economics in Washington, found that countries that were more accepting of homosexuality fared better economically. "Tolerance pays," says Noland. "People who are comfortable with differences seem to be more comfortable with innovation."

A book by American academic Richard Florida about what makes cities vibrant makes a similar point. Florida says a city's openness to gay communities is an indicator of receptivity to new ideas and, thus, creativity. The book, The Rise of the Creative Class, has been cited frequently by the pro-government Straits Times newspaper.

For decades, the implicit social contract in Singapore was that the government would deliver the economic goods and people would acquiesce to a high degree of government control over their lives. That agreement is becoming increasingly strained, as Singapore finds that more openness is what is required to keep the economy moving and as the government struggles to accommodate the wishes of the growing number of its citizens exposed to the world through the Internet and time spent living abroad.

In many ways, the 32-year-old Koe and his enterprises are emblematic of the shifts that are taking place. Koe, who has been openly homosexual since he was a teenager, spent six years studying in the United States before returning to Singapore in 1995. He worked for the Economic Development Board before leaving to start Fridae, one of the largest gay-oriented Web sites in Asia.

Koe, who lives with his partner, says: "Sometimes, we ask ourselves: 'Is it futile? Should we just move to New York where people get it?'" For now, they've decided to stay. "It's gratifying to see the changes and be a part of it," he says.

Singapore's need to hang on to people like Koe is why many gays believe the city will continue to expand the space open to homosexual citizens. "Singapore may not be first in gay rights, but it can't afford to be last," says Martin Loh, a painter who was fired from his job as an analyst for Singapore's intelligence agency in the 1980s after it was discovered he was gay. "We will one day enjoy these rights because the government knows it can't be too far back on these things. It has nothing to do with enlightenment."

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