Last edited: November 28, 2004

A Contradiction in Terms

On the streets and between the sheets what it means to be gay in straight-laced Singapore.

By June Lee, and Gary Kitching,

This article first appeared in the Sep 17, 2004 issue of I-S Magazine (Singapore) and is reproduced with permission. I-S Magazine is a free weekly lifestyle, entertainment and nightlife zine; and is available at numerous outlets every Friday.

It wasn’t so long ago that homosexuality was an off-limits topic in Singapore. But these days, Singapore is slowly and surely coming out of the closet. Over the past few years, the gay issue has become increasingly visible in Singapore, thanks to the proliferation of gay bars, saunas, plays and publications, as well as parties such as the Nation bash, organized by gay and lesbian portal Since its inception in 2001, Nation has evolved into Asia’s largest gay event, with an estimated 8,000 people â?” half of whom were foreign visitors â? “attending this year’s Nation.04 in August.

Following Nation.04, Agence France-Presse (AFP) carried a report titled “Singapore emerging as Asia’s new gay entertainment capital,” while MSNBC commented, “the festival (Nation) is at odds with Singapore’s image as a strait laced city state, but the government has turned a blind eye to the growth of an entertainment industry catering for homosexuals, quietly acknowledging the potential of the pink dollar.”

In a larger context, the reasons â?” be they money, ethics or just plain resignation to the inevitable â?” don’t matter. What’s significant is how the Singapore government has opened up, albeit cautiously, on the topic of gays, though the signals can be contradictory.

Just six years ago in 1998, a caller asked then Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew on a CNN International phone-in program whether there was a future for gay people in Singapore. Mr. Lee responded by saying, “ was a question of what a society considers acceptable...but what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don’t impinge on other people...we don’t harass anybody.”

In another unexpected move last year, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong was quoted in Time magazine as saying that gays will be allowed to serve in “sensitive positions” in the civil service. “So let it evolve, and in time the population will understand that some people are born that way...We are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me.” But he later clarified his stance at a National Day Rally. “As for my comments on gays, they do not signal any change in policy that would erode the moral standard of Singapore, or our family values. In every society, there are gay people. We should accept those in our midst as fellow human beings, and as fellow Singaporeans. If the public sector refuses to employ gays, the private sector might also refuse...That said, let me stress that I do not encourage or endorse a gay lifestyle.”

Stuart Koe, founder of, notes that Mr. Goh’s statement in Time last year signaled to the media that homosexuality was no longer a taboo topic. “Overnight, radio talk shows, TV talk shows, magazines, newspaper forums etc. were flooded with discussions for and against the issue,” notes Koe. “Many people were confronted with having to consider homosexuality for the first time. And several things became evident: A vast majority of people were quite indifferent, and the vocal opposition invariably had strong conservative religious convictions.”

In light of what Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at his recent inauguration speech, gay Singaporean men and women I-S Magazine spoke to are optimistic that their legal status might change in the near future. “Ours must be an open and inclusive Singapore...We must continue to widen our common ground, and care for one another,” said Prime Minister Lee. He continued, “People should feel free to express diverse views, pursue unconventional ideas or simply be different.”

Legally Yours The sex laws Singapore inherited in 1872 from the Indian Penal Code are a colonial legacy. Today, Singapore lags behind its neighbors in tackling the legal rights of gays. Homosexuality is legal in Indonesia, Thailand (age of consent 15), Taiwan, Japan (age of consent 13 for males) and Hong Kong (decriminalized in 1991). In Malaysia, sodomy and fellatio are still illegal. And in Singapore today, there is still no final resolution to the CNN caller’s question. Consensual homosexual acts are still illegal, as outlined in Sections 377 and 377(a) of the Penal Code.

“The true paradox is seen when one considers that we are a secular Asian state with a law that legislates what is essentially Victorian era Christian morality,” says Koe. “I believe that in time, we as a country will find the resolve to right this wrong, as have Britain, Australia, Hong Kong and most other ex-colonies that have repealed this outdated law.”

In most of the Western world, the debate has moved on to gay marriage, child adoption, inheritance rights and the like. Most big businesses in the US and Europe now also recognize same sex relationships. About 150 of the Fortune 500 companies in the US provide domestic partner benefits, such as health care and pensions to partners of homosexual employees. This includes six of the top 10 companies: General Motors, Ford, IBM, Citigroup Inc., AT&T and Boeing. Other major companies include American Express, Disney, Hewlett Packard, IBM, Levi Strauss, Microsoft, Nike, Shell, Starbucks Coffee, Sun Microsystems and United Airlines.


In January this year, the Singapore government announced that it would review the sex laws, but did not make it clear whether this would affect the status of homosexuals.

“It is not enough for the government to say they would not prosecute even if the law exists. Why call me a criminal when I want to do no more than what other people do when they fall in love?” asks Russell Heng, playwright and founding member of advocacy group People Like Us (PLU). Heng is unequivocal about the need to decriminalize gay sex. “If the outcome (of the review) is to remove the restrictions only for straight people (heterosexual oral sex is also illegal unless it is a prelude to actual intercourse) and not for gay people, I would say the government can no longer plead that it has inherited antiquated colonial legislation. New laws that fail to decriminalize homosexual sex can only mean that the Singapore government deliberately wants to ‘abuse’ its gay citizens. I say ‘abuse’ because even if the state does not harass or prosecute gay people, calling them criminal is mental abuse.”

“It’s a matter of human rights,” asserts Eileena Lee, founder of lesbian e-group RedQuEEn! and pro-tem PLU president. “It’s hypocrisy on the government’s part. I’m not saying this in a nasty way, but here is a situation where they want something from the gay community â?” talent, spending power etc. â?” but they’re not giving equal rights in return.”

Stuart Koe takes a more positive view of the long wait for decriminalization. “The contradiction will remain so long as the law remains on the books. But I believe most of the government considers it a dead law, save a few conservative individuals. So it’s really a question of time before we achieve some level of consistency between policy and our judiciary. It’s not a question of if it will happen, but rather when.”

Coming of Age The most pressing issues for gay people in Singapore are homophobia and acceptance. There is still no way of knowing how big the gay population in Singapore is, as many are still closeted. In international research, the consensus is that gay people make up anything from three to 10 percent of any given population. By the most conservative estimates, three percent of Singapore’s four million is 120,000. Even though Singapore has a huge and evident gay community, I-S Magazine found it difficult while researching this article to get gay people to speak on the record, for fear of reprisal from employers and colleagues.

Pioneer gay activist Alex Au explains that the climate of homophobia is created by the law and government policies such as censorship. “It is still not widely known that the current scientific consensus is that homosexual orientation is largely biologically set, like skin color. Meanwhile, free rein is given to preachers who go around spreading the shibboleth that homosexuality is merely sinful choice, and that people can be ‘cured’ of it. The result of official homophobia is that popular homophobia runs unchallenged. Thus families remain unsympathetic to gay sons and daughters, and employers feel free to fire gay employees at will.”

The evolution of today’s gay community in Singapore began some 15 or 20 years ago, defined by a series of gay bars such as Legends and Niche. “There was little else to signify any presence of a gay community to the rest of Singapore. Many gay people then were closeted, with limited options outside of these bars and clubs to meet other gay people legitimately. This, together with limited access to information about gays in or outside Singapore, and living in a society that considered homosexuality taboo, resulted in generations who felt socially outcast and repressed,” say Koe.

What changed the scene was the Internet, which gave gay people information about what was going on in other parts of the world â?” as well as the opportunity to meet each other. Koe explains, “In the chat rooms, through web pages, and bulletin boards, gays in Singapore â?” and indeed all over the world â?” suddenly had a new way to communicate, without fear of discrimination or persecution.”

“And thus was born a new sense of belonging, that we were not alone. People could finally find one another, and rapidly, these online relationships were taken offline â?” friendships were formed, and unofficial community groups began sprouting to meet a variety of needs, from self-help groups, to those who met weekly to play volleyball.” Koe adds, “Even more importantly, businesses started sprouting to serve the community. Cafes, bars, restaurants, health clubs, retail outlets, you name it. As the community grew, so did the strength of any business proposition to focus it.”

“The end result is the gay community in Singapore today benefits from a far wider variety of outlets and businesses than imaginable five years ago. The speed with which things have changed here is dazzling, and it’s taken the strength and fortitude of a large number of pioneers, entrepreneurs and activists to stand up, take risks, and simply do what they believe in to get to where we are.”

Nipped In The Bud Despite some liberalization, the flip side is that there are other actions again that are more restrictive and don’t really point to a loosening up.


In 2003, the Ministry for Information, Communications and the Arts (Mita) agreed in principle with the 22-member Censorship Review Committee’s recommendations for relaxing the ban on gay themed movies and publications. Based on the CRC’s other recommendations, shows such as Sex and the City, and publications such as Cosmopolitan are now allowed in Singapore. The committee referred to the screening of Lan Yu, an award winning film about a gay businessman and a university student, at the Singapore International Film Festival.

However, in July this year, the Taiwanese romantic comedy Formula 17 and the Indian lesbian film Girlfriend were banned, despite the efforts of indie distributor Festive Films (which brought in art house movies such as the French Love Me If You Dare). The Films Appeal Committee upheld the ban of Formula 17, saying it “creates an illusion of a homosexual utopia, where everyone, including passersby, is homosexual and no ills or problems are reflected.”

Recently, local men’s magazine Manazine also ran into trouble with the Media Development Authority (MDA) for its “pro-gay” content. After a controversial third issue was published with a model positioned “too closely to the buttocks of the other male model,” the MDA told newspaper Streats in February, “we have warned the publisher that the current state of the magazine, which contains nudity and homosexual content, is unacceptable.” In August, however, complaints from concerned parents about the magazine’s homosexual content and easy availability at public outlets forced the publisher to limit access to the publication, which has a circulation of 10,000. Subscribers have to show Manazine privilege cards before they can pick up a copy of the magazine. Arjan Nijen Twilhaar, publisher and chief editor, says, “The discussion is no longer on the publication itself, it is now about distribution and claiming public space. We always aimed for a more open minded community...But we might be a bit too forward thinking for conservative Singapore.” Still, it is telling that the magazine has at least not been banned outright.

An ongoing saga over the years is the registration of the gay advocacy group People Like Us (PLU) as a society. Established in 1993, PLU’s first application in 1997 was turned down by the Registrar of Societies. PLU reapplied in February but registration was again denied. This was surprising to some, in the light of developments over the last couple of years, as well as PM Lee Hsien Loong’s comments at his Harvard Club lecture in January, when he said, “There will be other groups formed, I’m quite sure, to campaign for specific issues, gay rights for example.” Au’s comments on the refusal to register PLU were published by “(it) raises serious doubts about any claim about freeing up Singapore, and makes an utter mockery of Goh Chok Tong’s words about gay civil servants.”

As recently as March, theater company The Fun Stage also had to cancel a planned gay lecture series, after being unable to obtain a Public Entertainment License (needed for all public talks in Singapore). But Prime Minister Lee took everyone by surprise when he announced a change in policy in August that indoor events that do not touch on “race and religion” can be held without organizers having to apply for a Public Entertainment License in future.

People Like You and Me The gay community in Singapore is not a very vocal one. The lack of political activism in past years can be attributed to a sense of privacy. Koe says, “Many consider sexuality as a private concern, not something to wave a flag for or get political over. However, the community is growing in visibility, and finding its way into mainstream consciousness on many different levels. This is of tremendous importance, as it is ignorance that fuels much of the negative attitudes towards homosexuality. Simply by being visible, we change mindsets of those who may not have the opportunity to know anyone gay.”

Adds Eileena Lee: “We are trying to make (political) progress without rocking the boat. This being Singapore, the change must come from the top down â?” the government must give a stamp of approval before we become ‘normal’ people.”

Koe believes that “decriminalization should be one of the end points, but it shouldn’t be the only objective.” He explains: “The community in Singapore is relatively young. It needs time to evolve, mature and diversify further. With growing visibility, more Singaporeans will have the opportunity to interact with openly gay individuals, groups, and companies, and they will be able to make more informed decisions regarding their attitudes towards homosexuality in general. In time, many will realize that gays and lesbians are truly ‘like you and me,’ in the words of Mr. Goh, and perhaps the often quoted ‘conservatism of the mainstream’ will prove to be otherwise.”

While there’s no doubt that progress has been made in recent years, gay Singaporeans still find themselves in legal limbo. Homosexuality is openly accepted today in the arts, theater and party community, but it is still a sensitive â?” and unresolved â?” issue in other areas. A generation of gays coming out of the closet is only the first tentative step â?” the question is, what is the next step?

Still, “for the most part, it is good to be gay in Singapore,” asserts Koe.

“We’ve got options, we’ve got outlets, and we’ve got a community that is growing in size and diversity...I’d argue that the positives outweigh the negatives.”

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