Last edited: March 06, 2005

Contradictions Mark Singapore’s Same-Sex Scene

CBC News, March 2, 2005

By Matthew Walls

Two weeks ago in a jungle clearing on the southern Filipino island of Mindanao, two communist rebels from the New People’s Party (NPA) joined hands in the presence of their armed comrades and were married. Ka [Comrade] Andres, 54, and Ka Jose, 21, lovers for three years, are male.

A red hammer and sickle flag with gold sequins was draped across their shoulders for the proceedings. After saying their vows, the two walked hand-in-hand under an archway of assault rifles formed by party members. In their one empty hand each carried a bullet, a symbol of their armed struggle in the revolution.

The NPA, the military arm of the Philippine Communist party, officially approved same-sex marriage in its 1998 party document On the Proletarian Relationship of Sexes. That didn’t stop the couple from encountering the prejudices of some party members, which the two blamed on the patriarchal culture of the Philippines.

“[We] conducted painstaking discussions to make comrades understand gay relations and gay rights,” Andres said to the Philippine Daily Inquirer.

Over 80 per cent of Filipinos are Roman Catholics. The church wields a powerful influence over social mores and government policy. It staunchly opposes birth control and gay marriage, and gets support on this from President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo, a devout Catholic.

Yet even though gay stereotypes abound within Filipino society, homosexuality is generally accepted. During last year’s election, all candidates, including Arroyo, said they supported gay rights, as the constitution grants every person human rights.

Only in two other Southeast Asian countries are homosexual acts not illegal. They also happen to be the two countries with the greatest press freedom: Indonesia and Thailand. The Philippines shares a further distinction with Indonesia: both have populations whose main religion considers homosexuality to be a sin.

The religion argument, that an Islamic or Christian society cannot tolerate homosexuality, has been used by the ruling parties in Singapore and Malaysia to defend their laws criminalizing homosexual acts.

Both countries inherited Victorian penal codes from the British colonial era that punish homosexual acts between men, and to a lesser extent, women. In Singapore, the sentence is up to 10 years, with a possible fine; it’s 20 years in Malaysia, with a possible fine or whipping.

That’s on paper. In reality, Singapore’s government says it has not charged anyone for homosexual acts in over 40 years. And Singapore is, or was until recently, becoming the place for gays in Southeast Asia.

Not only are there half a dozen saunas and an uncountable number of gay bars, but last year’s biggest gathering of gays in Asia was held not in Bangkok but on Sentosa Island in Singapore. The three-day Nation ‘04 party, held to coincide with Singapore’s national day, attracted 6,000 partygoers and by organizers’ estimate generated almost $8 million Cdn. And in Singapore, where almost everyone can quote the national GDP, the government will chase any dollar, green or pink.

Up to a point, it seems. Last December, the government refused a permit from the same organizers to hold Snowball ‘03. In its press statement, the police said the event was “likely to be organized as a gay party which is contrary to public interest in general.”

What happened? This would have been, after all, the party’s third anniversary. Some believe it was the Ministry of Health’s announcement the previous month of an AIDS epidemic in Singapore, a large part of which the government blamed – unfairly, many in the gay community say – on the promiscuous lifestyles of some gays.

“I think the AIDS notice made the police rather firm to show the public, to make sure the gay activities don’t get out of hand,” said Russell Kiang Khng Heng, a researcher at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies.

Roger Winder, Program Director at Action for Aids, Singapore’s only AIDS NGO, thinks it was largely due to “a rising number of objections voiced by vocal conservative minority.”

The real concern of the government, as it has been for decades, is the silent “conservative majority,” the “Heartlanders” living in the Housing Development Board (HDB) estates. The letters of complaint from the vocal few were making it difficult for the government not to appear to the many as if it was condoning gay lifestyles.

And so the government made a choice. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that space for gays was important but the issue was “a matter of balance.”

It was a disappointing start for those hoping the new prime minister would be as bold as he said he would be in opening up Singapore. One of the government’s own studies had found that creative cities often had a vibrant gay community. And many gays still dispute how conservative that majority really is.

“The conservative majority is a mysterious majority,” said Eileena Lee, president of People Like Us. The gay and lesbian NGO has twice been denied NGO status, most recently in May 2004.

Snowball’s cancellation has not stopped gays in Singapore from continuing with their normal day-to-day lives, she said, and she’s not worried about any long-term implications.

“The gay and gay establishments are still open.” Lee said. “Gay people are still partying, gay men are still going to the bath houses.”

Lee came out eight years ago, when she was 26. The initial reaction from her parents was not good, she said. On the day I spoke with her, Lee was to appear on a taped television program that night. Her mother had invited relatives over to watch.

She said, “I cannot fathom living my life in the closet.”

Lee’s coming out had been a gradual process, just like Singapore’s at the moment; neither was without its bumps., the organizer of Nation ‘04 and the banned Snowball ‘03, has not given up on Singapore: Nation ‘05 is firmly fixed in the party calendar.

  • Matthew Walls is a freelance journalist and environmental consultant based in Singapore. He recently completed an internship with the Singapore Institute of International Affairs. He has published in the Montreal Gazette, Sydney Morning Herald, and Maisonneuve magazine.

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