Last edited: September 06, 2004

Singapore Not So Straitlaced

Asia Online, August 27, 2004
Reproduced from TheAge

By Michael Backman

Chewing gum remains largely banned in Singapore, there’s heavy media censorship and the Government intervenes in most spheres of economic and private activity. It has all contributed to Singapore’s reputation as being straitlaced to the point of being boring. Or is Singapore so straitlaced?

August 9 was Singapore’s National Day. The previous evening, what was billed as Asia’s biggest gay party, the Nation Party, was held in Singapore. It was part of three days of high-profile gay-oriented events that were kicked off with an opening party at Singapore’s Suntec Convention Centre, not far from Singapore’s new Parliament building.

Sponsors of the Nation Party included Motorola, Ralph Lauren (which took the opportunity to launch a new fragrance for men during the festivities) and Moet & Chandon, which hosted a VIP tent.

Several plays were staged to coincide with the event. Posters for them appeared in public places around Singapore. One was for a play called Mardi Gras. It showed two men dressed only in Lycra briefs. The other was for Top or Bottom, a none-too-subtle reference to gay anal sex, and starring, among others, Kumar, Singapore’s best-known transvestite. Both plays were staged in the Jubilee Hall at the Raffles Hotel, a venue ultimately owned by the Singapore Government.

Per capita, Singapore probably now has as many gay men as London, or even more. (According to a Time magazine survey of Singapore published in mid-2003, there were seven saunas “catering exclusively to gay clients”. Essentially, these are venues that do not offer sex to clients but allow sex between clients on premises.) And there is a growing number of obviously gay bars and clubs. Singapore, what has happened to you?

And yet oral sex that does not lead to full intercourse remains illegal in Singapore, as do homosexual acts. Singapore’s Court of Appeal upheld the oral sex ban in 1997 and a man was jailed in Singapore last year based on this ban. The court referred in part in its decision to an Indian case that dates back to 1817 in which a man was charged with having intercourse with a buffalo’s nostril. I kid you not.

Prostitution is permitted. Indeed that’s one of the great ironies of Asia: prostitution is permitted in Singapore but is illegal in Bangkok. But pimping, soliciting and streetwalking are not permitted. Pimping can attract stiff penalties including lengthy jail terms. But prostitutes who are registered are quite able to work in licensed brothels that operate openly in Singapore’s Designated Red-light Areas (DRAs), of which there are about six in which as many as 400 licensed brothels operate. The principal DRAs are located in Geylang, Flanders Square, Keong Saik Road and Desker Road. Additionally, escort services and private callgirls are permitted. Most brothels cater to locals. Women from mainland China, Malaysia (especially Sarawak and Sabah), Thailand, Laos and the Philippines make up the core of the sector’s workforce.

Prostitutes are required to register and carry a Yellow Card supplied by the Government. It is the same size and in the same style as a national identity card and carries the holder’s photograph and thumb print. Card holders are required to submit to a health check every two weeks.

How many prostitutes are there in Singapore? No one knows for sure, although no doubt the Government does, but it’s not telling. David Brazil in his book No Money, No Honey! on commercial sex in Singapore put the figure at about 6000.

Prostitution is apparent even on Orchard Road. The Orchard Towers complex, right on Singapore’s premier shopping strip, has earned the moniker The Four Floors of Whores. It’s not a DRA, but you wouldn’t know it. It has several discos that cater mostly to a Filipino crowd. Massage parlours and KTV lounges that specialise in mainland Chinese prostitutes also operate from the building.

The Golden Mile Shopping Centre on Beach Road, towards Singapore’s Changi Airport, is another area that has become a centre for illicit prostitution. The conventional shops and restaurants there cater to local Thais, as do the prostitutes. They are Thai and largely service locally employed Thai construction workers.

The Singapore Government bans movies such as Eyes Wide Shut and Lolita on account of their “pornographic” content. It bans magazines such as Playboy too. And yet pornographic DVDs are readily available in the city’s many red-light districts. Sex toys and pornographic magazines too are sold most evenings from lean-to stalls along Desker Road in Singapore’s Little India district. Indeed, Desker Road is the only place in Asia that I’ve seen child pornography available for sale. This in a red-light district that’s licensed by the Government.

To be fair, it was not copious and I saw it on only one occasion. It’s obviously something that the Singapore Government would never condone.

But is Singapore really positioning itself to be a new centre for sex tourism in the region? Some point to widespread rumours in Singapore that a prominent local political figure maintains a boyfriend across the causeway in the Malaysian city of Johor Bahru as one reason for the apparent liberalisation.

But that is what happens when you have the tight media controls that the Singapore Government insists upon: people create their own news and are willing to believe anything once the established media has lost its credibility.

More likely, it all points to the lengths to which Singapore will go to stay afloat, given that it is a small economy that’s feeling the heat. The Nation Party received almost no coverage in the Government-controlled local media, but it was reported widely in the region.

And that’s exactly what the Singapore Government seems to want: to appear disapproving of all this to the point of keeping homosexual acts banned, while making money from it on the side as visitors flock in to attend the festivities. It’s hypocritical of course. But in Singapore, hypocrisy, at least, is not a crime.

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