Singapore gay history

From SgWiki
Jump to: navigation, search

The pre-British era

Cover of a novel telling the ancient story of a sexually fluid Javanese princess, Galuh Candra Kirana who cross-dresses to become the warrior prince, Panji Semirang.

There exist no known written records of same-sex love in pre-colonial Singapore and, as a corollary, of any 'movement' in reaction to perceived or real oppression of such activity. However, the Hikayat Panji Semirang (Tale of Prince Semirang), an epic poem which tells of the adventures of a sexually fluid hero, Panji Semirang, was well known and beloved throughout South-East Asia, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia (see main article: Hikayat Panji Semirang).

Prior to the arrival of British traders and colonists in 1819, Singapore was largely populated by small, dispersed settlements of Orang Asli (aborigines) and Malays of the Johor-Riau archipelago triangle who engaged mainly in subsistence farming, fishery and trade. These people and the island came under the jurisdiction of the Sultanate of Johor which had no formal legal system. The highest authority lay in the hands of the Yang di-Pertuan of Johor who was also known as the Sultan. He was advised by the Majlis Orang Kaya (Council of Rich Men). Amongst the council members was the Temenggong of Johor who lived in Teluk Blangah, Singapore and who administered the island based on the level of authority bestowed upon him by the Sultan of Johor[1].

We can intrapolate from the culture of contemporary Malays that there was probably much tolerance to surreptitious homosexual activity, as evidenced by the absence of any vocal or physical violence against such individuals outside of the framework of the imported Islamic social system.

Effeminate men are derisively called "bapok" or "pondan" (see Singapore gay terminology), but apart from being teased and regarded ceteris paribus as having a lower status than their more masculine counterparts, there is no hatred directed against them, as is so often the situation in the West. "Third gender" or transgender individuals, who are called "mak nyah", have their own niche in traditional Malay society which acknowledged the existence of alternatives to heterosexual practices. They were recognised, tolerated and even incorporated into community life, occupying a stable, albeit marginalised position within society. This situation is similar to the traditional cultures of the larger Malayo-Polynesian region and is also seen in the bissu, calabai and calalai of the Bugis in Indonesia[2], the fa'afafine of Samoa, the fakafefine or fakaleiti of Tonga, the whakawahine of the Maoris, the akava'ine of the Cook Islands Maoris and the mahu of Hawaii[3]. Never have non-heteronormative Malay men banded together to form a movement because it was never warranted in the absence of overt oppression.

Under British colonial administration

To effectively govern the Straits Settlements of which Singapore was a part, the British authorities conveniently imported the Indian Penal Code drafted in their largest colony in the 1860s and renamed it the Straits Settlements Penal Code in 1871. It came into effect in Singapore, Penang and Malacca on September 16, 1872. The new Penal Code criminalised "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" which was interpreted by the courts to mean any form of penetrative sex which did not have the potential of procreation. This included not only homosexual sex, but also oral and anal sex between heterosexual couples. In 1938, the colonial legislature enacted Section 377A to criminalise all other non-penetrative sexual acts between men (see Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code).

With the criminalisation of homosexual acts, there must have been instances where flagrant gay sex in seedy nocturnal venues met with suppression by the police, but criminal prosecutions were rare. Aggrieved individuals would have wanted to speak out but as they had no social network, most suffered in silence and became more discreet with their sex lives. Southern Chinese and Indians were imported as indentured labourers to oil the gears of the British entrepôt economy. Most arrived without wives or girlfriends (the male to female ratio of the Chinese before the 1920s being as high as 15:1), so they relieved their sexual tensions with prostitutes or other men. It is thought that the first places where gay men, especially Chinese coolies, could chance upon each other were the public toilets near the Singapore River, predominantly at Boat Quay. The proximity of Hong Lim Park to Boat Quay may explain why the former became notorious as the first internationally known gay cruising rendezvous in Singapore to be listed in the Spartacus Gay Guide, the most widely read gay tourist publication in the world (see Singapore gay venues: historical).

The cover of Bret Hinsch's book, "Passions of the Cut Sleeve".

Bret Hinsch[4] in chapter 6 of his book 'Passions of the Cut Sleeve: the Male Homosexual Tradition in China' has detailed evidence, derived from the works of literati Li Yu and Shen De Fu, of institutionalised gay marriage practices amongst Hokkien men in Ming dynasty China. "A Record of the Customs of All China" by Hu Pu'an, published in 1773, contains accounts of Golden Orchid Associations, women-only associations that practiced marriage-like ceremonies among its members in Guangdong province. Golden Orchid members still existed in immigrant Chinese communities (including Singapore) into the earlier half of the 20th century (see documentation of major episodes of homosexuality throughout Chinese history: [5]).

However, it is not known for sure if the subculture of Hokkien male-male marriage was exported along with the human tide into Singapore. What can be definitely attested to by contemporary Singaporeans is the existence of a ceremony in which parents unofficially adopt the intimate friend of a male member of the family as a godson, thereby effectively rendering him an in-law (kai er zi (Mandarin); k'oey kia (Hokkien)) without the two male lovers having to get officially or ceremonially married. The Chinese ceremony is conducted before the family's ancestral altar and includes an offering of pigs' trotters.

The intense bonds of Chinese triad brotherhood must also have led to sexual liaisons between those with a homosexual orientation. There is evidence of this in prisons even today. Aspects of these are seen in Royston Tan's groundbreaking movie about local teenage gangsters, "15"[6]. These relationships were well tolerated amongst the Chinese and no oppression would have resulted within their own community.

Similarly, in the Indian community, Dravidian versions of the Northern Indian 'maasti' or sexual play between men who were not necessarily gay must have been widespread given the paucity of women and also well tolerated. Such activities continue to flourish today in Little India, at the Serangoon Road area[7]. Before the advent of British colonialism and the establishment of the Indian Penal Code, gay sex was never a crime under Hindu law, as evidenced by sculptures depicting homosexual sex at the temple complex in Khajuraho, India.

In Peranakan or Baba culture, male-to-female cross-dressing was often indulged in for fun or for performances, especially stage performances as women were traditionally not allowed to take part. It enjoyed community support and was not frowned upon. Vestiges of this tradition continue to this very day in the theatrical productions of the Gunong Sayang Association[8] (see Singapore gay theatre).

Before Singapore gained its independence from the United Kingdom, the main racial groups of Malays, Chinese and Indians had very little concept of 'human rights', which was largely a product of Western civilisation. Eastern society emphasised duties, obligations and knowing one's place in a hierarchical society. The fact that a coolie enjoyed fewer rights than a government official was tolerated due to the pervasive influence of Hinduism throughout Southeast Asia, the doctrine of karma and Confucianism. Such a system was rarely considered unfair. Moreover, many Chinese and Indians regarded themselves as sojourners. Thus, any notion of gays banding together to speak out against the injustice of the British-imposed Penal Code must have been extremely remote indeed.

The Japanese occupation

When the Japanese imperial army invaded Singapore in February 1942 and renamed it Syonan-to, the British legal system was scrapped overnight and replaced by new courts established by the Japanese Military Administration. The Syonan Koto-Hoin (Supreme Court) was formed on 29 May 1942[9]. Unbeknownst to all save the elite few who possessed a knowledge of Japanese culture either through erudition or travel, homosexuality suddenly became legitimate as it was never criminalised in Japan, except for a short period during the Meiji restoration. In fact, the Japanese military, who revered the Bushido code, were the inheritors of a tradition which extolled homosexuality as a higher form of love. It was widely indulged in by the Samurai of yore (see Homosexuality in Japan).

A major operation, locally known as 'Sook Ching'(肅清) which means "a purge through cleansing" in Chinese and as Kakyōshukusei (華僑粛清) or "purging of Chinese" by the Japanese, was conducted to cleanse the local Chinese population of anti-Japanese elements[10]. Not only were those who were fingered by informants and suspected of harbouring anti-Japanese sentiments sent to be shot, but also any able-bodied, good-looking male in the prime of his life. Such a person would constitute a potential threat to the invaders by virtue of his genetic and physical health. It is estimated that 25,000 to 50,000 were massacred, amongst them the finest specimens of Chinese Singaporean manhood.

Thus, in one fell swoop, the strong, young and handsome were culled, leaving their physically less perfect brethren to survive and propagate their gene pool into modern-day Singapore. The feared practice of Japanese soldiers ransacking homes and carting off pretty daughters to become spouses in Japan was less prevalent than in Malaysia, but must have occurred to some degree. Especially from the gay male point of view, this represented an enormous loss to society. It dealt a severe blow to the model of an egalitarian homosexual relationship between two strong, handsome men as these specimens had suddenly become a rarity. The deficiency would take decades to redress itself, aided by complementary selection of physical traits by courting parents-to-be, improved healthcare and nutrition, as well as Chinese immigration from neighbouring Malaysia and mainland China. Many feel that this process is still incomplete, leading to some Taiwanese gay men pejoratively referring to their Singaporean counterparts as "prawns", i.e. good only from the neck down[11].

Any increased leeway gay men must have felt about their sexuality under the Japanese occupation was severely mitigated by the harshness of everyday life, eking out a bare existence.

After World War II

The overthrow of the Japanese in August 1945 by Allied forces resulted in jubilation, tinged with regret, amongst the gay population. The British legal system was reinstated, with its notorious section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code, criminalising all sexual acts 'against the order of nature'.

The incompetence and unfairness of the British post-war administration in addressing the economic plight of Singaporeans sowed the seed of the concept of self-determination within the local populace. Not only was the idea of independence mulled over, but also of universal human rights, including gay equality.

Independence

Along the tortuous road to complete independence from the United Kingdom in 1959 and subsequently from the Malaysian federation in 1965 came the drafting of the Constitution and the gradual repeal of colonial laws which discriminated on the basis of race, language and religion. Homosexuals, however, were dismayed by the glaring absence of any categorical statement outlawing discrimination due to sexual orientation. In those days, homosexuality as a topic was taboo. One did not even mention it in polite society, much less agitate to have it included in an official document, owing to stigmatisation by generations of imported Victorian morality.

As a segment of a newly-independent republic with the schizoid qualities of both optimism and insecurity, gay Singaporeans were exhorted to build Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's vision of 'a rugged society'. This implied promoting masculine values, a dedication to work and self-sacrifice. Yellow culture (pornography and vice) were driven underground so as not to distract from his goal.

Thus, self-expression, sexuality and leisure had to take a back seat to nation building. This was somewhat to the consternation of gays, who were compelled to remain largely in the closet, due to the lack of official and social tolerance and an altogether different focus in priorities. However, every homosexual citizen accepted the status quo as Singapore had to survive as a sovereign nation.

Nocturnal cruising in back alleys, public parks and toilets went on as usual, hidden from official scrutiny, as it always had in all societies since the dawn of civilisation. In Singapore, it is thought that such activities first began in the public toilets along the Singapore River, especially at Boat Quay, by homosexual cargo coolies. This may explain the development of Hong Lim Park as mid-20th century Singapore's most notorious cruising spot, because of its proximity to Boat Quay. Gays indulging in such trysts were in the most part left unimpeded by the Police, perhaps guided by the pioneering Government's conviction not to let any Singaporean be discriminated against, as they were under British and Federal Malaysian rule. No one was charged under section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code.

In fact, the authorities knew full well that transvestite prostitution took place in Bugis Street and Johore Road, but turned a blind eye, regarding it as an undesirable but inevitable vice. Ironically, such liaisons contributed to the fledgling economy by drawing revenue from passing sailors who patronised the streetwalkers. Moreover, the strutting and pouting transvestites of Bugis Street were one of Singapore's biggest tourist attractions, commanding an international clientèle of gawkers and providing a considerable boost to the tourism segment of the economy in addition to stimulating the vibrancy of local nightlife.

On a more socially respectable level, homosexuals who were more in control of their libidos and who upheld fidelity or serial monogamy forged closeted relationships, be they transient or permanent, with their lovers. Some moved in with each other and passed themselves off as uncle and nephew, or elder and younger blood brothers if their age difference was not too great. Few came out to a tradition-bound society which preferred not to hear the truth anyway. Lesbian cohabitation was more uncommon as women were under greater pressure to get married to opposite-sex spouses and bear children. Samsui women, who were hardy, sworn-spinsters working mainly at construction sites, lived in all-female enclaves but it is not known for certain if some developed sexual relationships with others. On a platonic level, homosexuals formed cliques with like-minded friends and held social gatherings at each others' homes.

National service was implemented in 1967, whereby all 18-year old males were required to train full-time for two or two-and-a-half years, depending on their educational attainment. Homosexuality, and later, transsexuality were listed as conditions in a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) 'Directory of Diseases' and recruits who outed themselves to the examining doctors at the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) at Dempsey Road had their 'deployability' denied in sensitive positions. They were classified as snigger-worthy Category 302 personnel, downgraded to a Public Employment Status of 3 (PES3) and assigned only clerical work at army bases. This was because the SAF was unsure of the effect of homosexuals living and working for prolonged periods with straight combat servicemen. Later, when physical fitness tests were introduced, they were excused from two 'static stations' eg. pull-ups and sit-ups. Little did the SAF, in its apparent naïveté, know that thousands upon thousands of closeted homosexuals would serve out their patriotic obligations for generations to come without undue incident.

The 1970s

With the prosperity that prudent policies of promoting foreign multinational investment brought, while other regional countries were mired in the inefficiencies of import substitution and socialist economics, those homosexuals, especially the English-educated who could afford air travel, were exposed to the liberalism of the West and the nascent gay movements there. In the early days of accessible mass air transport, the destinations of choice were the Anglophone countries of the West and Australia. Nouveau-riche gay Chinese-educated businessmen and professionals were banned from travelling to Red China and were thus also introduced to the Western cultural environment via tourism. In the early years, Indochina was a no-go area because it was in the grip of violent communist insurgencies and Thailand was a poor second-choice destination because it did not hold as much superficial prestige and allure as Europe and America did.

Exposure to Western liberal democracy, its media and literature whetted the appetite of progressive homosexuals with the hope that the local polity and social milieu could evolve into one which could tolerate their sexuality. The growing popularity of travel to Thailand and Japan in the late 70's also opened the eyes of Singaporean gays to the possibility that an Asian society could be conservative and traditional, but yet accepting of homosexuals as an integral part of it.

The majority of gays, however, could not afford international air travel in the early 70's and were restricted to stereotypical portrayals of themselves as effeminate or cross-dressing salacious individuals, fed by the heavily-censored media who were prevented from depicting any positive images of homosexuals whatsoever. As such, their self-respect and sense of community were sorely lacking.

Savvy entrepreneurs saw the unmet social demands of the pink market and gingerly allowed their establishments to cater to a gay customer base on certain nights. One of the first was The Hangar, located in a relatively secluded out-of-town area (Upper East Coast Road) where, for the first time, a large group of predominantly men could dance together with gay abandon. Encouraged by this precedence, homosexuals started to patronise other, mainly straight, discos in the city area such as My Place, Black Velvet, West End, El Morocco, The Library, Studio M and even the NCO Club at Beach Road. Heterosexual clubbers who had never beheld such a sight were perturbed enough to complain so that the managements of some of these outlets were pressurised by the authorities to display signs proclaiming 'No man and man dancing' (sic). By and by, the ruling was relaxed for fast numbers but homosexuals flouting this Out-of-Bounds marker by waltzing to the slow ones were promptly cautioned to behave.

Nightclubs like Pebbles Bar located on the ground floor of the now demolished Hotel Singapura, and less popularly Treetops Bar at the Holiday Inn, were increasingly packing in the gays and became iconic institutions of the local gay scene.

In 1972, the first substantial mention of Singapore's LGBT community was made in a groundbreaking 4-part feature by the English-language tabloid of that era called The New Nation. The exposé was entitled, "They are different..." and was published as a series on 4 consecutive days from Monday, 24 July to Thursday, 27 July 1972. It cause quite a stir, with schoolgirls all abuzz, and jolted mainstream society's consciousness into realising that non-stereotypical gays and lesbians who were just like the average Joe or Jill existed. Some readers were shocked, whilst others delighted, at the startling revelation that non-transvestite commercial homosexual services were available in Singapore (see main article: Singapore's first newspaper articles on the LGBT community).

During the decade, there was a well-known transsexual model featured occasionally in Her World magazine. On the silver screen, cinema goers enjoyed a Chinese language Shaw Brothers production entitled 'Ai Nu' (Love Slave) which starred actresses Lily Ho and Pei Ti as a lesbian couple in a period setting. In the final scene when Lily Ho wanted to desert Pei Ti to pair off with the male hero, she was asked for a final kiss. Whilst they were kissing, Pei Ti sneaked a poison pill into her mouth which she bit, thus transforming it into a poignant kiss of death.

Cinema patrons and television viewers were also made aware of the women's and black liberation movements in America. Singaporean gays could see the parallels between those social movements and their own desire to struggle for equality.

The building of numerous public swimming pools across the island gave Singapore the highest density of public pools per unit area in the world. This, coupled with the mushrooming of many shopping centres increased the amount of enclosed public spaces in which homosexuals could cruise. Reclamation of land along the East Coast provided secluded stretches of beach which also became novel frolicking grounds. It became inevitable that complaints would rise, a factor which led to the phenomenon of police entrapment more than a decade later.

As Singaporean surgeons became more skillful, some like Prof. S Shan Ratnam were authorised to perform male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery at Kandang Kerbau Hospital from 1971 onwards. However, before hopeful transsexuals-to-be could go under the knife, they first had to subject themselves to an exhaustive battery of tests and be given a clean psychological bill of health by chief academic psychiatrist Prof. Tsoi Wing Foo. Later, the more technically-demanding female-to-male variety was also offered there and at Alexandra Hospital, performed by gynaecologists such as Dr. Ilancheran. A Gender Identity Clinic and Gender Reassignment Surgery Clinic were set up at the National University Hospital two decades later. In fact, for thirty years, Singapore was one of the world leaders in gender-reassignment surgery. This gave a new lease of life to the many transexuals who felt trapped in bodies of the wrong sex. Thus, Bugis Street and Johore Road started to become populated with a range of genders from transvestites to iatrogenic intersex individuals to fully transformed women.

Towards the end of the decade, reliable information disseminated through the grapevine made the gay populace aware of the sexuality of certain television producers, local sporting superstars, pop idols, sons and nephews of ministers and MPs, and even Government ministers themselves. Therefore, they came to realise that homosexuality was present within the highest echelons of Singaporean society, an epiphany which ratcheted up their self-respect by several notches.

The 1980s

The early 80s was a period of widespread prosperity and new freedoms which saw the opening of clubs like Shadows, Marmota, Legend and Niche which catered to a predominantly gay clientèle even though they were not exclusively gay. These discoes would be closed by the time of the mid-80s, for unclear reasons, to be replaced by weekly Sunday Night Gay Parties or "Shadow Nights" run by the former management of Shadows (affectionately known as the "Shadow Management"). These "Shadow Nights" were roving events held at semi-permanent venues which included Rascals (at the Pan Pacific Hotel), Heartthrob (at Melia at Scotts), The Gate (at Orchard Hotel), Music World (in Katong) and Studebaker's which later morphed into Venom (at Pacific Plaza). It is interesting to note that men's night parties held since Studebaker's were no longer run by the "Shadow Management"

These events were now officially sanctioned and no longer discouraged by their managements. Men were not prevented from dancing with other men as they were in the previous decades, even during slow numbers. No Police raids at these establishments took place. With these weekly gatherings for energetic dancing to let off steam and meet new friends, homosexuals felt the first bonds of a relatively cohesive community- a warm feeling of being welcomed into a new brotherhood, in contradistinction to erstwhile isolation, alienation and loneliness for many.

Distant rumblings of a nebulous entity dubbed the 'gay plague', later standardised in nomenclature as AIDS, were heard emanating from America. There was some relief when US doctors discovered that it affected not exclusively gays, but also Haitians, haemophiliacs and intravenous drug abusers. However, it caused some local homosexuals to cast a wary eye on Caucasians and promiscuous Singaporeans returning from Western countries. The possibility that it would become a problem here seemed remote at the time. In fact, during a televised forum discussion, a member of parliament (MP) even quipped that Singaporeans were protected from AIDS because of "Asian values".

It came as a shock when the first case of local HIV infection was reported in 1985. It galvanised a group of healthcare personnel (both gay and straight) to set up a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Action For AIDS (AFA) in 1988 which provided support and counseling for AIDS victims as well as educating the public on safe sex. AFA was not technically part of the Singapore gay movement and has been careful to present itself as an NGO dealing with a public health issue. However, a significant portion of the energy and leadership behind it has been provided by gay people and in many practical ways, AFA has rallied homosexuals around a cause.

A lacuna in the local pink economy, which provided no outlet for men to have sex with other men on its premises, prompted many to travel to Bangkok. With its much vaunted acceptance of homosexuals and wild nightlife, Thailand became the destination of choice for gays seeking to indulge their carnal fantasies. Many returned with the hope that Singapore could one day be as open and tolerant of homosexuality as her near-neighbour was.

Cruising areas like Hong Lim Park, Boat Quay, back alleys in the Central Business District and Tanjong Pagar, swimming pools, Fort Road Beach and public toilets all experienced greater throughput. Police patrols to these areas were sporadically seen and on rare occasions, individuals had their IC numbers recorded, but for the most part, they were left alone to pursue their yearnings and no arrests were made.

From the mid-80's onwards, pubs and karaoke bars like Babylon and Inner Circle started to sprout up along Tanjong Pagar. Sizable groups of gay men could be seen milling about outside these establishments especially on weekends. This, along with cruising activity at nearby Ann Siang Hill and the surrounding back alleys gave Tanjong Pagar Road the reputation of being Singapore's Castro Street, after its San Francisco counterpart.

Large bookshops like Borders, Kinokuniya, Tower Books and even MPH responded to the growing body of gay literature mainly from America by discreetly stocking these books along with those on women's issues in sections euphemistically entitled 'Gender Studies'. With strong demand from the local gay community, the books eventually occupied most of the shelf space. In the late 90's, the red herring 'Gender Studies' moniker was replaced by a more frank title of 'Alternative Literature', which although a step closer to the truth, still falls short of the ideally accurate 'Gay and Lesbian Literature' by which it is known in the West. Straight salespeople would sometimes look curiously at patrons who hung around for long periods at these sections to see what sort of people read these books. In the late 80's, pictorial calenders of handsome, hunky, bare-chested Asian men also made their appearance, even in thoroughly local bookshops such as Popular Bookstore, a phenomenon which the authorities appeared to have no qualms about.

Individual artists, poets and writers became more expressive of their sexuality in their work, further imparting a sublime cultural sheen to local gay life.

The 1990s

The heady days of unmitigated burgeoning of available gay spaces experienced in the 80's were curbed to some degree in the early 90's. Singapore's breakneck economic growth was being attributed to 'Asian values', the most vociferous proponent of whom was Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. 'Family values' were seen as an integral subset of these and touted with much verve by the politically commandeered local media. No one took seriously American economic guru, Paul Krugman's assertion that the rapid growth of the Asian Newly Industrialising Economies (NIEs) was mainly due to massive government-directed input factors, much like the Soviet economic expansion of the 1950's, and that this would slow considerably in future without true productivity increases or innovation.

Gays were perceived as a threat to Asian values in some quarters of the Establishment and complaints made by members of the straight public against rampant cruising led to the implementation of police entrapment. This occurred both in the back alleys of the city area and at Fort Road Beach. Good-looking undercover cops would pose as homosexual cruisers and chat up unsuspecting gays in these areas. These decoys would behave suggestively, and the moment they were fondled by their targets, the latter would be arrested for outrage of modesty. Their names and occasionally mugshots were published in the press to humiliate them.

The most publicised case occurred in a forested grove near Tanjong Rhu's Fort Road Beach in November 1993. Amongst the 12 men arrested was a Singapore Broadcasting Corporation producer. All were punished with three strokes of the cane and prison sentences ranging from 2 to 6 months. This episode was immortalised in movie producer Boo Jun Feng's short film, "Tanjong Rhu"[12].

The gay community was outraged by what they felt was a gross infringement of their right to consensual adult homosexual acts. Heterosexual Singaporeans could continue to have sex in parked cars and in secluded public areas with impunity, while homosexuals were being singled out for vilification. As a token of protest, a performance artist named Josef Ng staged a work on New Year's Eve 1993, in which he snipped off his pubic hair while his back was turned to the audience[13]. This provoked a severe government reprisal in the form of a ban on all performance art[14] for over a decade. Ng was charged in court for committing an obscene act in public. Ng's performance was dramatically re-enacted by film producer and performance artist Loo Zi Han in 2011[15] (see Singapore gay equality movement for more details).

Gay discos started to experience occasional police raids, the most well-known of which occurred at Rascals disco in the basement of the Pan Pacific Hotel on 30 May 1993, where policemen shouted at patrons and were inappropriately rude. A gay lawyer, Wilfred Ong, who was present, later enlisted the support of 21 other gay professionals in writing a letter of complaint to the Chief of Police[16]. To everyone's surprise, they received an apology. This would be the last documented case of police harassment at gay discos for many years to come. This episode has been dubbed "Singapore's Stonewall". To commemorate this landmark event, People Like Us, Singapore's first LGBT advocacy group, announced the "Rascals Prize" in 2008 - the first ever award for research work related to LGBT issues in Singapore[17].

The local media, especially The New Paper, began to sensationalise homosexual activities which they invariably portrayed as undesirable. Attention-grabbing headlines like 'Swimming Pool Perverts' or 'Homosexuals Pollute East Coast' were used to boost sales.

In 1992, the Censorship Review Committee (CRC) recommended that "materials encouraging homosexuality should continue to be disallowed." It also placed homosexuality on par with bestiality and paedophilia as far as undesirable material to be censored was concerned - "pictorial illustrations of sex acts such as group sex, sadomasochistic acts, paedophiliac (sic) act, homosexuality, bestiality and sex involving children should not be allowed"[18]. Nevertheless, Singapore's first gay novel, Peculiar Chris by Johann S. Lee, was published that year, followed by Glass Cathedral by Andrew Koh in 1995. (see main article: Singapore gay literature). Some local magazines, like Glamour Backstage, circumvented the CRC's draconian rules by publishing articles featuring men in sexy poses and other covert information about the gay community without specifically stating that they were gay-related[19]. Lesser-known publications were Undergear and International Male. These magazines were lapped up by a gay community hungry for forbidden fruit. In 1996, I-S Magazine's publishing license was suspended for one issue because of gay content appearing in the personal ads section. The latter had steadily grown in popularity over the past few years as an avenue for homosexuals to meet up.

It was against this deterioration in public image and treatment that a Singapore gay equality movement emerged.

The most revolutionary factor which surfaced to facilitate the development of a sense of community amongst Singaporean gays was the widespread availability of the Internet and affordable access to the World Wide Web in the mid-90's.

For the first time, gay surfers could e-mail messages in the blink of an eye to complete strangers, both locally and abroad, who shared the same interests. They could also anonymously make their displeasure about official discrimination known to the Government, who was previously unaware of the feelings of this 'invisible' population, via mainstream discussion groups such as soc.culture.singapore and Sintercom. Astute activists such as Alex Au, one of the pioneers of People Like Us, the first gay equality organisation in Singapore, saw the potential of the Internet as a vehicle to unite the gay community and foment intellectual discussion. The Singapore Gay News List (SigNeL) was started on 15 March 1997 and has been instrumental in discussing and formulating strategies to achieve the goals of the homosexual populace. On 15 October 1998, RedQuEEn!, an e-mail list for queer-identified women was established. Au also launched his Yawning Bread website in November 1996, to which he would contribute the most thorough analyses of issues facing the local gay community. It concomitantly served as a detailed, annotated chronicle of evolving Singapore gay history.

On the leisure front, LGBTs could visit foreign websites to remain updated on gay news from around the globe or even view and download pornography, thus effectively bypassing Singapore's Undesirable Publications Act.

To enable censorship of undesirable sites, all internet traffic into and out of Singapore was required to be routed through local proxy servers. As a token of this restriction, to placate especially religious fundamentalists and ultraconservatives, access to prominent straight porn websites such as Playboy and Penthouse were blocked, but gay sites, pornographic or otherwise, were left for the most part untouched, to the glee of LGBT surfers. The official line was that the Government wanted to curb immoral influences without unduly hindering the development of the internet. However, websites of local origin were monitored more closely than those from overseas.

Web services like IRC and ICQ allowed locals to engage in online chat not only with fellow gay Singaporeans but also with the international gay community. What started out as a communication tool for like-minded university students soon became a key "gay space" with the entry of players like Singnet and Pacific Internet which provided reasonably-priced internet access services. Notable IRC channels which fostered gay dialog included #GAM & #GSG.

One of the most important LGBT events of the decade took place in 1996 when Alex Au submitted the first application for registration of People Like Us (PLU) as a society, together with 9 other signatories after a year of painstaking effort to solicit their willingness. The application forms were lodged with the Registrar of Societies on 7 November 1996. However, the application was rejected the following year on 9 April 1997 with no reason given. PLU's appeals all the way to the Prime Minister's Office met with no success. This rejection was reported by news agencies around the world.

For over two decades, post-operative transsexuals had been discreetly lobbying to be given the right to have their new sex reflected in their identity cards (but not their birth certificates) and to get married to opposite-sex spouses. They were finally granted their wish on 24 January 1996 via an announcement by MP Abdullah Tarmugi without much public fanfare or opposition.

Before the 1990s, local homosexuals had to journey all the way to Bangkok, Thailand to experience the pleasures that gay saunas offered. It became more convenient in the early 1990s when an establishment called Ryu, meaning 'dragon' in Japanese, opened in Taman Pelangi near the Pelangi Complex in Johor Baru, Johor, Malaysia. Realising the immense pent-up demand, pioneering gay entrepreneur Max Lim opened Singapore's first gay sauna in 1997, naming it after the Roman gladiator, Spartacus. It was located, humorously and coincidentally, at 69 South Bridge Road. Spartacus' facilities included a daily gay disco on the ground floor fringed by an overhead observation deck, and showers, a gym and a sauna above that. It was strict about sex at first, displaying signs which read, "No obscene acts allowed", but the rule was gradually relaxed after everyone realised that the police did not bother to harass its patrons.

On 11 December 1998, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew responded to a gay man's question about the place of homosexuals in Singapore, live on CNN International by saying, '...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. I mean, we don't harass anybody'. These momentous words would set the tenor for official policy on homosexuality for many years to come and may be regarded as the most significant event, as far as gay rights are concerned, of the decade, if not of the century (see Lee Kuan Yew's views on homosexuality).

In March 1999, Dominic Yeo, then a National Serviceman, set up a personal website, "Singapore Boy Homepage". It was later renamed SgBoy[20] and became renowned for its gay Singapore city guide, classifieds and online discussion boards which enjoyed a high degree of participation and dealt with a diverse array of topics. It also hosted a birthday bash every year to commemorate its founding. It was the first and initially the most popular LGBT web portal in Singapore, managing to introduce a whole new perspective on Asian gay culture to the world at large.

The 2000s

(See Singapore gay history: the 2000s)

The 2010s

(See Singapore gay history: the 2010s)

See also

External links

  • An archive of Dr. Russell Heng's paper on Singapore gay history from the 1960s to 1998 entitled, "Tiptoe out of the closet: the before and after of the increasingly visible gay community in Singapore", published in the Journal of Homosexuality Vol. 40 Nos. 3/4 2001 Special Issue - Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity and Community, edited by Gerard Sullivan and Peter Jackson, pp. 81 – 97:[21].
  • A 2005 Fridae article by Alex Au on the importance of documenting Singapore's LGBT history:[22].

Acknowledgements

This article was written by Roy Tan based on his personal experiences, verbal accounts and articles provided by friends, information on Yawning Bread, Fridae, SiGNeL, Blowing Wind and other Internet sources.