Last edited: May 18, 2004

Signaling Towards a Gay Future: SiGNeL and the Singaporean Gay Community

By Chris Tan

May 12, 2004 


“Singapore,” Leong (1997: 142) writes, “appears to be the last frontier in the Asian region for positive gay and lesbian developments”. For a country of Singapore’s Asian Tiger stature, it remains an anomaly of post-modernity. Singapore’s GDP per capita last year was US$20,000 (Statistics Singapore, 2003). Life expectancy was 78 years, while male and female enrolment rates in primary education stood at 95% and 93% respectively (World Bank, 2003a). These statistics compare favorably with those of other developed nations. The GDP per capita for the United States as US$37,600 (CIA, 2003). Life expectancy was also at 78 years, and the male and female primary education enrolment rates were 101% each (World Bank, 2003b). Yet even as US politics roils in the wake of its Supreme Court decision to strike down Texan anti-sodomy laws and at the prospects of legalized gay marriage, homosexuality remains a crime punishable with life sentences in Singapore because of antiquated laws inherited from its former British colonial masters.

“Sexuality, identity, and human rights”, Offord (2003: 133) asserts, “are presently being taken up as crucial sites of intervention by queer Southeast Asians” (see also Adam, et al, 1999; Altman, 2000; and Offord and Cantrell, 2001). The fact that these sites call for more individual privacy inevitably runs counters to the kind of highly interventionist policies that the Singaporean government undertakes. How then does the gay community in Singapore negotiate the tensions that arise between its need to claim its own separate identities and the heavy hetero-normative policies of the government? “A repressive and oppressive climate of homophobia,” Leong (1995: 12) notes, “tends to drive gay men and lesbians underground”. Singapore is however a highly wired country. In 2001, it had a connection rate of 89%, the second highest in the world following Hong Kong at 90% (McDonald, 2002). It should come as no surprise that instead of receding into the dark corners of the island, the gay community took its struggle off the ground and into cyberspace. Of the many Internet sites that now serve the many needs of the community, SiGNeL (i.e. Singapore Gay News List) is the primary new list that deals with political issues. In the interests of space and time, this paper will conclude by critically examining how SiGNeL functions as a site for identity-making.


“Crime Against the Order of Nature”

Singapore was a British colony from 1810 to 1959 when it was granted self-governance. Singapore did not become a full-fledged independent nation until 1965 when it left the Malayan Federation. In England, sodomy was criminalized since 1533 with a maximum penalty of death. It took more than 300 years for this death penalty to be removed, but legal punishment continued to take the forms of imprisonment and flogging (Warner, 1983: 79). In 1957, the Wolfenden Report recommended the decriminalization of consensual private sexual acts between men over 21 years old (public solicitation continues to be criminalized). This proposal was enacted ten years later.

In a survey of the social and legal position of gays and lesbians in 202 countries, Tielman and Hammelburg (1993) observe that English legislation against homosexuality has had a negative impact on the legal status of these groups in former British colonies. Like most other former colonies, the then-infantile Singapore found it expedient to adopt the laws of its former colonial master as the basis of its own Constitution. These laws include the archaic anti-sodomy ones that provide an institutional basis for the legal prohibition of homosexuality in Singapore. Homosexual acts are charged under two sections of the Penal Code (Cap. 224) (Singapore Statutes Online):

Section 377 (Unnatural Offences): Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.

Section 377A (Outrages on Decency): Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.

The range of crimes that can be construed as “unnatural offences” is very broad. It includes but is not limited to rape, consensual fellatio and anal sex. In Kunagasuntharam vs. PP (1992), the accused was sentenced to 14 years and 24 strokes of the cane for rape, 6 years for fellatio and another 8 years for anal intercourse. In the 1995 case of PP. vs. Victor Rajoo, the accused was acquitted but subsequently convicted of abduction, rape, theft, and robbery and convicted only of having oral sex with a woman. On the basis of the woman’s weak and inconsistent testimony, the judge ruled that she had probably consented to sexual intercourse. Consent was however not an element of the oral sex charge. In the end, Rajoo was jailed for 6 months and fined S$2,000 for fellatio. This ruling had two implications. It suggested that a person could be charged for fellatio even if the act is consensual and performed between heterosexual adults in private. It also implied all sexual acts other than vaginal sex are “unnatural” and punishable under Section 377.

These implications raised a range of issues (The Straits Times, 1995a and 1995b). Oral sex is common enough a practice in the bedroom that a high proportion of the married couples would have been guilty of it under Section 377. Even if they had not tried it, what if oral sex became an issue in marital disputes and divorce proceedings? If fellatio is historically embedded in Chinese culture as “playing the flute”, why should it be considered a crime “against the order of nature”? Indeed, “Section 377 was shown to be itself unnatural, imposed from another cultural tradition and anachronistic in the contemporary setting” (Leong, 1997: 129). The issue of fellatio was resolved when a defense lawyer asked the court to rule in the interests of the public whether oral sex between two heterosexual parties is an offence or not (The Straits Times, 1995c). Justice Lai Kew Chai admitted that as long as the act is used as “a prelude to natural sex”, it is permissible. When pressed to clarify the statement that fellatio between two consenting adults is an offence or not, his reply was more non-committed: “Let’s cross that bridge when we come to it” (The Straits Times, 1995d).

Whereas Section 377 targets both heterosexual and homosexual couples, Section 377a singles men out. Like “unnatural offences”, “gross indecency” is equally undefined. From the sting operations that the police carried out in the late 1980s and early 1990s however, it implicitly includes oral sex between men, mutual masturbation and touching the genitals of another male. In the AIDS panic following the first reported case of AIDS infection in 1985 (Heng, 2001: 84), the government embarked on a misguided attempt to control homosexuality on the belief that AIDS was a homosexual-only disease and that this would halt its spread. A number of gay clubs was forced to close for no apparent reason. Niche, for example, had its liquor license revoked and it is believed that this was in reaction to the first reported AIDS death in Singapore (Heng, 2001: 85). Shadows, on the other hand, did not have its lease renewed in 1992 despite it being the most popular gay disco at the time. Leong (1995: 16) attributes its closure to what Stan Sesser wrote in New Yorker earlier that year. Sesser (1992: 56) had alluded to Shadows when he argued that despite Singapore’s strict governmental control, there were some free-spirited undercurrents.

The police also began conducting entrapment operations. It sent very young male constables in revealing attire (i.e. shorts and tank tops) to loiter around parks, public bathrooms and shopping malls. Making eye contact to signal interest and striking conversations with cruising gay men, these agents provocateur arrest their unsuspecting victims the moment they were touched on the buttocks or genitals. The charge was use of criminal force to outrage one’s modesty. If the cruising gay man did not touch the decoy’s genitals despite the provocation, the police might invoke Section 19 (soliciting in a public place) of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (Cap. 184). This Section covers both prostitution, where money is involved in the transaction, and soliciting “for any other immoral purpose”, where a proposition for sex is made without monetary transaction. This offence carries a fine of up to S$1000, doubling on a subsequent conviction, and includes a jail term of no more than 6 months. If the cruiser used a symbolic gesture to signal sexual interests with the decoy, he could be tried under Section 294A of the Penal Code. Originally a Section called “obscene songs”, it now includes the commission of any obscene act in any public place to the annoyance of others. The punishment here is a maximum of 3 months’ jail time, a fine, or both (Leong, 1997: 131).

The worst of the sting operations was carried out in March 1992. Ten policemen were deployed at the East Coast Parkway beach where gay men were known to cruise. The police worked alongside the news media in this ambush. The March 9 and 10 editions of The New Paper reported eight arrests and published face-snapshots of four of them. It is clear from these media reports that there is a symbiotic relationship between the news media and the police. Since the published pictures were taken at the scene of the raid, it was speculated that journalists from the sensationalist press (i.e. the English-language The New Paper, the Mandarin-language Lianhe Wanbao and Shin Min Daily News) had orchestrated such media events. Acting as “moral entrepreneurs”, or people who make rules of behavior (Becker, 1963: 147), these journalists alerted the police to the “scene of the crime”. The police, obliged to respond to the “complaint”, conducted a raid. The journalists were therefore present to report and photograph the “ambush”. In the end, the consequences of the raid went far beyond the S$1,000 fine that was slapped on each of the eight men. So great was the shame that one of the four men whose incriminating picture was published committed suicide (Leong, 1995: 15 – 6).

It is unknown the actual number of arrests the police made over the years. From 1974 to 1986, the government published an annual Statistical Report on Crime in Singapore. Now, access to these figures is now granted only by the Criminal Intelligence Unit of the Criminal Investigation Department on very special grounds, with the added proviso that these figures are not to be published in any form (Leong, 1997: 128). Between 1990 and 1994 however, the newspapers reported 67 convictions of homosexuals stemming from police undercover activities. The punishment ranged from fines between S$200 to S$1,000 to caning (see The Straits Times, 1993). These 67 cases were very likely to be just a minute fraction of the total convicted, since reporting depends on such exigencies on the news collectors as whether or not there were more interesting news that day. The majority of those arrested also pleaded guilty in order to avoid the shaming glare of the media inherent in trials and appeals (Leong, 1997: 132).

One would notice that lesbians were never convicted. Section 377A is applicable only to men, and the courts have only punished men for same-sex acts. This is not to say that lesbianism is legal. In principal, certain lesbian acts are punishable under Section 20 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act (Cap. 184), which refers to “riotous, disorderly or indecent behavior” in a public setting. The punishment is a fine not exceeding S$1000 or imprisonment not exceeding one year (Singapore Statutes Online). In 1993, The New Paper reported two girls kissing and fondling each other in a public swimming pool. Since the girls were not identified, no police action was taken. In reality however, the impact of the legal omission of lesbianism goes beyond court cases. Leong (1995: 14) writes:

The legal omission of lesbianism amounts to the symbolic annihilation of lesbians: officially, lesbians do not exist in Singapore. Silence, or the absence of discourse on lesbianism is no better than the legal oppression of male homosexuality: it is representative in itself by way of denying the existence of another form of human sexuality, thought and behavior.


Traditional Media

Despite the anti-sodomy laws and the AIDS panic-inspired police raids, the government does have a certain tolerance for homosexuality. No matter how discreet their façades may be, the numerous gay bathhouses and clubs that now dot Singapore’s urban landscape cannot operate without the government’s tacit agreement. Indeed, I have heard some gay Singaporeans commenting that the government is wary of something akin to the Stonewall Riots might happen and ruin Singapore’s reputation as a politically stable business center. The government therefore allows these gay businesses because they act as important safety valves for disgruntled gay Singaporeans to let off steam in an otherwise homophobic and repressive environment.

This tolerance for homosexuality is however balanced with a strict suppression of homosexual representation in traditional media. The Media Development Authority (MDA) administers a series of guidelines for both traditional media like television, and new ones like the Internet. For television, the Free-to-Air and Cable TV Program Codes stipulate that any television programming must be congruent with such national objectives as the observation of societal and moral standards as well as the promotion of positive family values.[1] The use of “guidelines” here to describe the MDA codes is however misleading. “Guidelines” by definition are suggestive but not legally binding. Yet depending on the severity of the violation, any breach of these codes can attract fines ranging from S$1,000 to S$50,000. On 16 March 2003, MediaWorks TV broadcasted an in-depth interview with Anne Heche that featured a significant discussion of the actress’s life with Ellen DeGeneres. MDA subsequently found MediaWorks TV guilty of “[glamorizing] the lesbian relationship between Anne and Ellen and [portraying] them as role models”. It slapped the company with a hefty S$15,000 fine, even though the program was about Heche’s life and hardly pornographic at all. What these guidelines effectively do then is to prevent the media from portraying homosexuality in a positive light. In a press release about the MediaWorks TV fine, MDA states that “while information, themes or subplots on homosexuality or lesbianism may be explored, the Code disallows content that promotes, justifies and glamorizes such alternative lifestyles”.[2]

For the printed media, the Singaporean legal system has also demonstrated over the years its capabilities in censuring publications for printing inappropriate material. In October 1994, International Herald Tribune published an opinion piece written by an American academic about Asian repressive regimes that have a “compliant judiciary”. Although neither Singapore nor any specific persons were named in this piece, the editor, printer and distributor of the newspaper were charged. The academic himself was fined S$10,000 for contempt of court and was subjected to an S$100,000 libel suit by Lee Kuan Yew (Lingle, 1996). Other publications like Time, Newsweek, Asian Wall Street Journal and The Economist have also been subjected to similar treatment (Leong, 1997: 128). Asia Watch, a New York-based human rights watchdog organization, notes in 1989 that besides banning and censoring magazines and newspapers, and applying heavy fines to unruly editors for defamation, the Singaporean government is also known to bar journalists from entering Singapore as a strategy of restraint. Having been long whipped into submission, local traditional media therefore perform a role drastically different from their counterparts in the United States. Leong (1997: 139) writes:

In America, most journalists perceive themselves as muckrakers or whistle-blowers exposing corruption, political scandals, and unfair monopolies. The press thus assumes an adversarial position against politicians and big corporations. In contrast, the Singapore press tends to take a celebratory position toward public officials. Negative reporting of politicians, policy, or the nation in general is not the order of the day.

The laudatory stance towards politicians is however predicted upon a confrontational “us” versus “them” attitude”. The West is portrayed as foreign devils and an influence on the population responsible for “evils” ranging from causing Singapore’s national downfall to the spread of homosexuality and AIDS. The facts that declining birth rates are a characteristic common to all industrialized countries, and that the major ethnic groups in Singapore (i.e. the Chinese, the Malays, and the Indians) all have their own historically entrenched same-sex cultural traditions (see Baba, 2001; Dynes and Donaldson, 1992; Hinsch, 1990; Khan, 2001; Ruan, 1997) were conveniently forgotten. Indeed, “the deployment of that representation as a focus of difference between Asian and Western cultural values and attitudes” (Offord, 2003: 134 – 5) forms the basis of what is popularly called the “Great Marriage Debate” in the early 1980s. In 1983, Lee Kuan Yew accused the country’s mothers of jeopardizing the country’s future by willfully distorting the patterns of biological reproduction. According to him, Singapore’s highly educated women, defined as those with college education, were failing to either marry or bearing more than 1.65 children per couple. As such, they were not reproducing in sufficient numbers to secure their self-replacement in the population. On the other hand, women of “no education” (i.e. those who did not complete the equivalent of an elementary school education) and only primary education were having 3.5 children and 2.7 children each respectively. This far outstripped those Lee called the “graduate mothers” (Heng and Devan, 1992: 344 - 5).

The problem here is this. Lee reasoned that because graduate women have completed their college education, their genetic stock must be superior to those women who did not. Un-apologetically eugenic, he argued that in not reproducing enough, these educated women would cause the few remaining intelligent Singaporeans in the future to be “increasingly swamped by a seething, proliferating mass of the unintelligent, untalented, and genetically inferior” (Heng and Devan, 1992: 345). Since Singapore had few resources other than manpower, Lee (The Straits Times, 1983) warned:

If we continue to reproduce ourselves in this lopsided way, we will be unable to maintain our present standards. Levels of competence will decline. Our economy will falter, the administration will suffer, and the society will decline. For how can we avoid lowering performance when for every two graduates (with some exaggeration to make the point), in 25 years’ time there will be one graduate, and for every two educated workers, there will be three?

The root of the problem, in Lee’s opinion, was the Western education that the educated women had received. He believed that such an education was steeped in decadent individualism, which in turn caused the educated women to resist marriage when they should have behaved like good women of Confucian upbringing, gotten married and borne children. Indeed, Lee openly reminisced the past when families would enforce their daughters’ marriages by arranging such unions for them. He also regretted how his government’s decision to allow women’s suffrage and universal education relinquished to women some control over their biological destinies:

When we adopted these policies they were manifestly right, enlightened and the way forward for the future. With the advantage of blinding hindsight, educating everybody, yes, absolutely right. Equal employment opportunities, yes, but we shouldn’t get our women into jobs where they cannot, at the same time, be mothers … You just can’t be doing a full-time, heavy job like that of a doctor or engineer and run a home and bring up children … we must think deep and long on the profound changes we have unwittingly set off.

Lee went as far as to think of reintroducing polygyny even though it had been outlawed since the passing of the 1961 Women’s Charter. He openly admired the Chinese patriarchs of the past whose retinues of wives, concubines and illegitimate children were proof of both their virility and genetic superiority (The Straits Times, 1983).

A decade later, the tensions between Western “decadent” liberalism and the East Asian Confucian logic of family reproduction would form the crux of the so-called “Asian values” debate of the 1990s, where Singapore was a particularly vocal proponent. Singapore’s elder statesman Lee Kuan Yew had insisted that East Asian Confucian values are different from Western ones. In doing so, he drew upon that strand in Confucianist thought that privileges the heteronormative family as the basis for Asian societies. The individual is not above the wishes of the family and neither is the government. In this genetically, philosophically and culturally heterosexist configuration, the state is cast as both the organ of the family as well as the protectorate of its values (Offord, 2003: 153, n2; see also De Bary, 1998; Jacobsen and Bruun, 2000; and Sen, 1997). Reflecting his government’s views, the then-Minster of Foreign Affairs Wong Kan Seng stated at the 1993 World Conference on Human Rights in Vienna that “Singaporeans … do not agree … that pornography is an acceptable manifestation of free expression or that homosexual relationships are just a matter of lifestyle choice. Most of us will agree that the right to marry is confined to those of the opposite gender.”(Wong, 1995: 244)


The Internet

The negative association of homosexuality with pornography and other controversial material surfaced once again in 1996 when the government instituted guidelines for new media like the Internet. Administered by the Media Development Authority (MDA), Clause 4(2)(e) of the Internet Code of Practice bans access to sites with material that “advocates homosexuality or lesbianism, or depicts or promotes incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia”. No one has been charged yet for breaching the Internet Code of Practice and hosting gay-positive material on his/her website. If such a case were to happen however, one can expect the punishment to be similar to the fine MediaWorks TV received for airing the Anne Heche interview. Indeed, nobody seems willing to test the MDA’s limits because none of the gay community’s key Internet sites are hosted on Singaporean servers., a non-pornographic Asian gay and lesbian lifestyle portal that organizes such gay-centered events as the immensely popular Nation party, is hosted in Hong Kong. Yawning Bread is hosted in the United States. This is the personal homepage of Alex Au Waipang, one of the more publicly outspoken members of the Singaporean gay community, and it offers numerous essays about the Singaporean political economy. Such key news lists as SiGNeL, RedQuEEn and Adlus also operate out of the United States. They are all Yahoo! groups.

It was inevitable that the gay community took its struggle against the state’s hetero-normative policies off the ground and into cyberspace. Besides being subjected to unprovoked police harassment in the places of consumption like the clubs and bars, the gay community also cannot organize legally. People Like Us (i.e. PLU), Singapore’s only political organization that advocates gay and lesbian rights, says in its mission statement that it “[works] for more informed understanding, the removal of barriers and a fuller integration of sexual minorities with the larger community.” It lodged its first application to become a society in November 1996, but the Registrar of Societies rejected the application without justification. Even appeals made to the Prime Minster proved to be fruitless. PLU lodged a second application in 2003. This time, it was rejected again. On 4 Apr 2004 at 4:47 am, Alex Au posted the rejection letter on SiGNeL. Citing Section 4(2)(b) of the Societies Act (Cap. 311), the Registrar justified his decision: “The society is likely to be used for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore”.

Comparatively, the Internet provides a far less repressive but far more democratic environment for the gay community. Unlike the overly rigid Singaporean society, Kleinwaechter (1998: 119) notes that “the decentralized Internet is to a certain degree the most organized chaos in the history of mankind. It is unmanageable and uncontrollable. It is a new dimension, a new culture, a new way of communication.” In its state of chaos however, the Internet “represents a deep realignment of human community, one which circumvents borders” (Sondheim, 1997: 6). It provides a means for the gay community to challenge the state’s silence on civil rights and develop an awareness for gay and lesbian issues (Leong, 1997: 142). Offord (2003: 141) writes:

[The Internet] has facilitated an educational role, a place of gay and lesbian Singaporeans to share their feelings and thoughts regarding a variety of subjects that include activism, the political culture of Singapore, the media’s representation of homosexuality, coming out issue, family constraints, gossip, and more.

Ironically, the government helped the formation of such sites as Yawning Bread, SiGNeL and RedQuEEn. As one of the technological and global capital hubs of the region, the government is deliberately guiding the country’s future towards a completely “wired” and “intelligent” society. The government’s goal is to transform the Singapore into an “Internet island” (Shari, 1999). It actively engages in what Brunn and Cottle (1997: 243) call “cyber-boosterism”, or the “self-promotion by states in cyberspace through the electronic transmission of visual and typescript information, often accomplished in a corpus of official state World Wide Web homepages”. Cyberboosterism therefore enables Singapore to sell itself (on the official Singapore website at and compete on a more equal footing with larger countries that its small geographical size does not allow it to. In response, Internet connectivity among Singaporeans has grown tremendously. According to the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (quoted in Offord, 2003: 142), “Internet use in Singapore has jumped from 100,000 dial-up accounts (in July 1996) to 321,575 by end-June 1998. If we include corporate accounts and users in the tertiary institutes, the total number of Internet users is approximately 500,000.” It is not surprising then that in 2001, Singapore had a connection rate of 89%, the second highest in the world following Hong Kong at 90% (McDonald, 2002).



How exactly does the Internet help the gay community build its own gay and lesbian identities? In this last section of this essay, I will examine the role SiGNeL (i.e. Singapore Gay News List) plays in the furthering of this goal. Launched on 15 March 1997 by a few members of the PLU core group as preparation for an alternative in expectation of failure to gain legal recognition (Heng, 2001: 92), SiGNeL is not the only cyberspace venue for gay Singaporeans to interact. At the time of its establishment, there were other news lists like the now-defunct SinGLe (i.e. Singapore Gays and Lesbians) and Singapore Pride. It does “[have] a certain degree of serious debate and dialogue, an investigative spirit” (Offord, 2003: 149). Offord continues his description of the site:

This is a moderated site that demonstrates the intersubjective interaction that can occur among individuals who are in conversation about human rights, values, attitudes, movements, influences, government policies, and much more. It is a space for critical engagement, interrogation, and exchange of perspectives.

Through the postings they make on SiGNeL, gay and lesbian Singaporeans are able to discover what it is to be Singaporean and possessing a sexuality that is incongruent with the one the state champions. Earlier this year, I began noticing that even though the Singaporean gay community’s struggle for legal recognition can be traced ultimately to the gay civil rights movement here in the United States, the identity labels that the community are lagging behind those used here. While labels like “queer”, “hasbian” and “heteroflexible” enjoys a certain currency here, they are almost never used in Singapore. Instead, Singaporean sexualities are identified using labels from the older and less accurate tripartite system of heterosexual, bisexual and homosexual. I thought that this was peculiar, because the semantic domains of relatively simple sexuality labels like “gay”, “lesbian” and “straight” usually change once the local community adapts these labels. In Taiwan, for example, the lesbian community there localized the butch/femme dichotomy of performative roles as T/Po (Chao, 2001: 185). Why has not the Singaporean gay community done the same with labels like “gay” and “straight”? Certainly, there is no lack of terms that describe same-sex relationships from any of the ethnic cultures there. Chou (2000: 22 – 3) lists many of the ones that the Chinese have. For male same-sex relationships, there are pi (favorite), duan xiu (cut sleeve), fen tao (shared peach) and han lu ying xiong (stranded heroes). For female, there are jin lan jie mei (golden orchid sisters), mo jing (polishing mirrors) and hou ting hua (backyard flower). One possible reason for this historical amnesia is that these labels are archaic and/or literary. Unless one is historically and/or literary inclined, one is unlikely to come across them.

“Are there any modern non-Western labels that the community can adopt then”, I asked myself. In the past decades, the label tong zhi have gained increasing currency in China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Tong zhi seems to be the Mandarin equivalent of “queer”. According to Chou (2000: 3),

unlike “homo” and “hetero”, tongzhi is not defined by the gender of one’s erotic object choice, but connotes an entire range of alternative sexual practices and sensitivities in a way that “lesbian”, “gay” and “bisexual” does not. It rejects essentialism and behaviorism, and it does not require counting the incidence of same-sex sexual acts to qualify an individual’s tongzhi identity. There is no “sex” in the word itself, thus helping to counteract the pervasive vulgarization of tongxinglian (homosexuality) in the mainstream society; yet it also helps to pluralize sexuality, as tongzhi refers not only to tongxinglian but to all forms of sexual practice that have been marginalized by hegemonic heterosexism.

Acting as a devil’s advocate, I posted on SiGNeL on 20 Jan 2004 at 7.30 pm about how essentializing “gay” and “straight” can be. I asked, “Given [the Singaporean gay community’s] easy access to the cultural influences from [China, Taiwan and Hong Kong], why then [is it] still using ‘gay’ instead of ‘tong zhi’?” That triggered a 15-day debate that ended in the rejection of tong zhi because it is too narrowly sinocentric. Not all Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, and those who are do not necessarily identify with China. After a brief exploration of alternatives, “gay”, “lesbian” and “straight” remain the staple labels of sexuality in Singapore. In his reply later the same day at 10.53 pm, Yawning Bread argued that “Singapore is not part of Greater China. In the general case, Singaporeans are not Chinese”. In a posting on 21 Jan at 2.02 am, he further added that

from my interaction with the Chinese Tongzhi activists, I think their agenda is misguided. They were on a rejectionist path, saying the gay experience of the West didn't apply to Chinese, because Chinese culture and the Chinese experience was unique (echoes of Chinese particularism and cultural supremacy again!), and that was why they would not use terms from the West but had to invent their own.

My deep suspicions were proved when some years ago, the organisers of a Tongzhi Conference asked PLU to submit a paper and send a representative.


I asked why we were invited. They replied saying because Singapore is also a Chinese society. I demurred, saying we're multiracial. They said, we're majority Chinese. I then counter-proposed that PLU can send a speaker, but he will be racially non-Chinese. The Tongzhi people came back and said cannot, he must be a Chinese person.


Until that racist attitude changes, I think we should stay clear of this kind of thing.

Chunu298 disagrees in his posting on 21 Jan at 6.14 am:

I disagree. Seen China News on TV lately and according to President Hu Jing Tao, overseas Chinese are regarded to be part of the Chinese race. That was part of his New Year's message. Included in it are the terms " si hai yi jia", the usual "Chinese as one family" concept.

To this, Kelvin Wong replies on 22 Jan at 3.55 am:

Well, that is HIS idea of what CHINA should be, by making relations with all Chinese, it’s a nationalistic speech! Do we call Americans and Australia English after all? Why?

I am Singaporean, but of the descent of Chinese, that really all. I am happy with being able to grow up exposed to so many cultures like Malay, India and the West and it is because of this, that I don't see myself as China Chinese. My roots are in this Malayan island and I see myself as part of this region, not a displaced Chinese person who floated from China to the straits here.

I think the problem really is this, what makes a Chinese Chinese? Just because we are born Chinese does not make me China Chinese. My entire growing up and persona is so different from mainland China Chinese that I could as well be called an American instead. What about Chinese of mixed parentage, which land do they belong to? What about the Perenakans, the Straits-born Chinese?

I am just a Singaporean, I am just a product of the melting pot of rojak languages, culture and influences, and it makes me Singaporean and not CHINESE and I am proud of just that.

Dinesh Naidu commented on 22 Jan at 4.06 am that there is no need to look for a new label because “we here in Singapore have already invented our own beautiful term which embraces the diverse (cultural & sexual) spectrum and has local historical resonance, i.e. 'people like us' or 'plu'.” Although associated with gay Singaporeans (especially after the media limelight it received in the run-up to its second application to become a society), PLU’s membership is not limited to gay Singaporeans only. In fact, according to the PLU website, two of the original ten signatories who made the first petition in 1996 were straight women. With this in mind, I chipped in later at 5.27 pm:

I do question the comment about "PLU" being our local version of "tong zhi". Even though many people use "PLU" synonymously with "gay", do these two terms really mean the same thing? Being gay is one thing, but PLU is a political organization that pushes for more gay civil rights. Its members are not limited to that region of the sexuality spectrum that "gay" is located in. People like Alex and Kevin can legitimately lay claim to this identity because political activism is what they do. What about the other people? I suppose they don't need to join PLU in order to call themselves PLU, but do they share Alex's and Kevin's political commitments? Or are they merely using PLU as a code word for "gay" so that potentially homophobic bystanders will not understand what they are talking about, in the same way these people will say "Ajay" or just shorten "gay" to "g" to avoid negative reactions?

Although tong zhi was rejected because of its overly sinocentric focus, the fact that several of the SiGNeLers wrote about the multi-ethnicity of the Singaporean raises a crucial point about SiGNeL and the Internet in general. Compared with traditional Singaporean media, SiGNeL is a less repressive and gay-affirming forum for gay Singaporeans to engage in conversation. Nevertheless, it is by no means a truly democratic space. Access to SiGNeL and the Internet in general presupposes both the wealth to acquire this access (through use of both a computer and, in the very least, a modem), and the proficiency in English. Singapore may be an affluent country, but it is unrealistic to assume that all Singaporeans are wealthy enough to acquire the technologies needed to access the Internet. Some Singaporeans, especially those of the older generations who did not have an English-based education, may also find the Internet’s English-dominated environment a hurdle that they cannot cross easily. The tremendous incongruity between the estimated two dozens or so SiGNeLers who post regularly and the 1207 users who subscribe to SiGNeL also suggests that some quality inherent to SiGNeL is preventing the vast majority of the subscribers from posting and participating actively. While a certain number of lurkers is expected in any news lists, the fact that most active SiGNeLers are racially Chinese may deter gay Singaporeans of Malay or Indian descent from participating actively. Certainly, more research into the factors that determine participation is required.



For a nation-state of Singapore’s affluence, it is an oddity of modernity. While nation-states of the same economic stature have recognized the need to acknowledge the sociolegal rights of their queer citizens by either legalizing same-sex marriage or, at the very least, decriminalizing private same-sex acts, Singapore remains staunchly puritanical and sexually repressive. Perhaps nobody else can summarize the situation in Singapore better than Heng (90 - 2):

a) Where legality is concerned, Singapore has very punitive laws against the homosexual act inherited from the British colonial government. This is written in Sections 377 and 377A of the Penal Code. The first of these imposes a penalty of up to life imprisonment for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” which technically covers any act of sodomy or oral sex between gay or straight couples. Section 337A is more specific and prohibits “any male … in public or private” from engaging in “any acts of gross indecency with another male person and imposes a maximum sentence of up to two years imprisonment. Although life imprisonment has not been meted out to anybody convicted of homosexual acts and criminal prosecution has always targeted sex in public places and not in private, the laws are still psychologically intimidating. They expose gay people to police harassment for doing no more than drinking or dancing in a bar or sitting in the park. Defining homosexuality as a crime also makes it easier for the authority to close down gay places at their whim because the proprietors of these places would not dare to demand an explanation or challenge the action in court. The closing of Niche in 1989 was one such example. The laws make for a chicken-and-egg problem. In order to work towards decriminalization, the gay community has to get organized but organizing to defend a “criminal act” in turn makes gay people and their supporters cagey.

b) Decriminalizing homosexuality would help the gay liberation cause in Singapore as it did elsewhere but it would not automatically guarantee legitimacy. Lesbians are a case in point. Singapore laws inherited from the British only specifically prohibit male homosexual acts and lesbian relations technically are not breaking any law. However, this does not make lesbians any less a target for social oppression and proscription by the State. In 1994 a bar in Boat Quay, a fashionable part of the city, decided to set aside a weekly night for lesbians. Billed innocuously as a women’s night and advertised only by word of mouth, it became very popular. But it operated for no more than two weeks before the management received a letter from the police requesting that the establishment ensure a better gender mix among its clientele. That put an end to the lesbian night. Clearly, the lack of legitimacy is equally oppressive for lesbians as for gay men and the problem manifests in many daily situations, e.g., paucity and transience of gay-friendly places to relax, fear of family discovery and homophobic work environment.

At the same time, Singapore’s government has decided to steer the country’s future towards a completely “wired” and “intelligent” society. In planning to turn Singapore into an “Internet island”, the government actively engages in cyberboosterism to give the country a competitive edge in cyberspace that its small geographical size cannot. It is therefore not a coincidence that the Singaporean gay community has chosen to take its struggle for legal recognition off the ground and into cyberspace. In particular, news lists like SiGNeL are useful in that they provide a forum where the gay Singaporeans can engage each other in conversation. On one occasion, I acted on my curiosity about the dominant use of such Western-originated identity labels as “gay”, “lesbian” and “straight” in the community and suggested that the more sinocentric tong zhi be used instead. The result was an outright rejection of tong zhi on the grounds that it is too sinocentric. Not all Singaporeans are of Chinese descent, and those who are do not necessarily identify with China.

To the extent that cyberspaces like SiGNeL provide a less homophobic space for the gay community to explore its identities, it is not an entirely democratic space. Access to the SiGNeL and the Internet in general is not only predicated upon the economic ability to acquire the necessary communication technologies, but also fluency in the English language. Despite Singapore’s affluence and the status of English as its administrative language, it is unrealistic to assume that all gay Singaporeans possess both the wealth and the linguistic proficiency to participate in SiGNeL. The fact that active SiGNeLers constitute only a minute fraction of the actual number of subscribers is also cause for concern. Even though a certain number of lurkers is to be expected in news list, there is definitely a need to conduct further research into why such a mismatch exists and how SiGNeL can be made into a more gay-friendly space for all gay Singaporeans to participate in.



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Court Cases Cited

Kunagasuntharam vs. PP (1992) 1 SLR: 81 – 6

PP. vs. Victor Rajoo (1995) 3 SLR: 417 – 32

[1] The full texts of these codes, along with those for codes that govern other forms of media, can be found at  I accessed these codes on 9/27/03.

[2] “MediaWorks fined for breach of programme code”,{6F5B1D AE-8F65-4D08-94CA-CF645BB1AA73}&type=date&content=, accessed on 9/27/03

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