The Josef Ng affair
Growth of gay venues
The heady days of unmitigated burgeoning of available gay spaces experienced in the 1980's were curbed to some degree in the early 1990'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 of as somewhat of a threat to Asian values in some quarters of the Establishment and complaints made by members the straight public against rampant cruising led to the implementation of police entrapment in the early 1990s. This occurred both in the back alleys of the city area and at the reclaimed land off Fort Road. Attractive 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.
Most prominent case of entrapment
William Peterson, in his essay, The Queer Stage in Singapore, detailed one of the most notable instances which
"… took place in November 1993, when 12 men were nabbed in an anti-gay operation in Tanjong Rhu, a known gay cruising area. Good-looking, young police officers from the Geylang Police Division Headquarters, locally known as 'pretty police' were used to entrap the men. The names, ages and occupations of the arrested men were reported in the press, along with descriptions of the encounter. According to the Straits Times, in one instance, the accused was said to have "chatted up a special constable, before proceeding to caress his buttocks and chest". Another man who stood accused stated that "the guy [an officer] had approached me and smiled, so I walked over to chit-chat with him." He maintained that the officer then suggested that they go into the undergrowth to have sex. Once physical contact was made, each man was arrested and charged with "outraging their victim's modesty" (The Straits Times, 23 November 1993, p.19). The occupations of the arrested men ranged from butcher to (then) Singapore Broadcasting Corporation producer. Of the 12 arrested, 6 pleaded guilty immediately, receiving sentences ranging from 2 to 6 months in jail. All were given 3 strokes of the rotan cane, a beating that results in permanent scarring of the buttocks." [sic -- in fact this is probably not the case with only 3 strokes.] This episode was immortalised in movie producer Boo Jun Feng's short film, "Tanjong Rhu".
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, whilst homosexuals were being singled out for vilification.
In response to both the entrapment exercise and the sensationalistic treatment of this and other gay-related news stories by the press, two Singaporean artists, Josef Ng and Shannon Tham, created performance pieces that the government clearly found threatening to the dominant order. Ng and Tham’s works were presented in the context of a 12-hour New Year’s Eve event which included numerous other performances, literary readings and live music. Early in the morning on Friday, 31 December 1993 at the 5th Passage Gallery which occupied a service corridor in Parkway Parade, a large suburban shopping center dominated by Isetan and Yaohan department stores, Josef Ng gave a performance entitled "Brother Cane", apparently alluding to the caning sentence meted out to the victims of the entrapment operation.
Immediately after it finished the gallery was raided by the police. The spectators, and there were many, dispersed rapidly. The gallery was closed. Ng and his collaborators were arrested. Ng was charged with committing an obscene act which he pleaded guilty to as a course of least resistance. Iris Tan, the gallery manager, was prosecuted for allowing him to do it.
Description of performance
Singaporean performance artist and academic, Ray Langenbach, recalled the performance in an affidavit for the defense in the case, Department of the Public Prosecutor versus Josef Ng Sing Chor (1994). The following is a consolidated description from the accounts provided by Ray Langenbach and William Peterson:
Duration 15 minutes: Ng, dressed in a long black robe and black briefs, carefully laid out 12 tiles on the floor in a semi-circle. He placed the news cutting, "12 Men Nabbed in Anti-Gay Operation at Tanking Rhu" from the Straits Times on each tile. He then carefully placed a block of tofu on each tile along with a small plastic bag of red dye.
Duration 1 minute: Ng crouched behind one tile and read random words from the news cutting.
Duration 5 minutes: Ng picked up 3 strips of a child's rotan tied into 1. Striking the floor with it rhythmically, he performed a dance, swaying and leaping from side to side, and finally ending in a low crouching posture.
Duration 3 minutes: Ng approached the tofu blocks, tapping the rotan rhythmically on the floor and performed a dance. He tapped twice next to each block, then whipped each of the 12 bags of red dye and tofu on the third swing. Red paint and soft white tofu splattered violently.
Duration 1 minute: Ng said that he had heard that clipping hair could be a form of silent protest, and walked to the far end of the gallery space. Facing the wall with his back to the audience, he took off his robe, lowered his briefs just below the top of his buttocks and carried out an action that the audience could not see. He returned to the performance space and scatterd a small amount of hair on the center tile.
Duration 1 minute: Ng asked for a cigarette from the audience. He was given one. He lit it. He smoked a few puffs, then, saying "Sometimes silent protest is not enough," he stubbed out the cigarette on his arm. He said "Thank you," and put his robe back on.
Langenbach suggests that this performance could be seen as an instrument of social healing, drawing on the Southeast Asian ritual tradition of Taoist shamanism. "Ng produced a state of catharsis in the audience—through the per- formance, a social trauma and schism in the community, the transgression, arrest, punishment, and public exposure of the twelve men was ritually remembered and redressed." Drawing together sexuality and ritual, memory and social cohesion, the performance served as a challenge to government policies on both homosexuality and history simultaneously. But Langenbach was not called on to testify.
On Monday, 3 January 1994, the New Paper ran a cover story headlined “Pub(l)ic protest”, portraying the event as an extremely obscene performance.
Ban on performance art
In the following weeks the Singapore government reacted massively and placed a ban on improvisational performing arts which lasted for over a decade.
- "Archiving Cane", a Facebook page started by Loo Zihan in October 2012 detailing a timeline of events tracing the history of 'Brother Cane' and 'Cane' leading up to a durational performance and installation from 7 to 16 December 2012 at The Substation Gallery:
- Loo Zihan's website featuring his re-enactment of "Cane" in Chicago, USA. (2011):
- Performance score in PDF for Loo Zihan's re-enactment of "Cane" on Sunday, 19 February 2012 at 8pm at The Substation in Singapore, which was disseminated to audience members as they entered the performance space:.
- Video and photos of Loo Zihan's re-enactment of "Cane" at The Substation, Singapore on 19 February 2012:,,.
- Blog entry by "gdy2shoez" on 18 February 2012 in the blog "Everything also complain":.
This article was written by Roy Tan.