Contradictions Mark Singapore’s Same-Sex Scene
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
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
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
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
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
Lee’s coming out had been a gradual process, just like
Singapore’s at the moment; neither was without its bumps. Fridae.com, 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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