Gays don't count in Singapore
May 28, 2000
RELATED: Police refuse permit for gay and lesbian forum
By BARRY PORTER
TODAY, in the back room of a Singapore arts centre, a small but ground-breaking event was due to be staged which could have marked the island-state's coming of age as a more tolerant, open-minded city.
Gays and lesbians hoped to be allowed to gather in the same room for the first time to openly discuss in public their rights and role in society.
They weren't planning a homosexual orgy. They simply wanted to talk. But even that was deemed too risky by Singapore police.
"The police cannot allow the holding of this public forum, which will advance and legitimise the cause of homosexuals in Singapore," the police said in a statement, after rejecting an application for a public entertainment licence, which is required for all public gatherings in Singapore.
While most other former British colonies lifted restrictions on homosexual sex between consenting adults long ago, Singapore remains stuck in the Victorian era.
It is not illegal to be gay in Singapore, but it is illegal to perform any homosexual acts, either in public or private.
Anyone who voluntarily has intercourse "against the order of nature" with any man, woman or animal, can be jailed for life and fined. Also, any male abetting or procuring "an act of gross indecency" with another man can be jailed for up to two years.
Homosexuals say they can find nothing in the law that stops them just quietly speaking about being gay, as long as they do not provoke any civil disturbance.
Alex Au, one of the organisers of the proposed forum, said: "I am disappointed, but not entirely surprised. The Government has been hard-line and they base their position on what they perceive as a conservative society. However, our survey show that Singaporeans are more fair-minded."
People Like Us, a loose-knit grouping of like-minded individuals, released the results of an eye-opening survey of 491 Singaporeans last weekend that shows 46 per cent of those polled on the street and 74 per cent of Internet respondents are ready to accept a gay relative in their family - if not immediately, then after a while.
Police licensing officers think otherwise. "The mainstream moral values of Singaporeans are conservative.
It will therefore be contrary to public interest to grant a public entertainment licence," its statement said.
The banned forum would have debated the prospects for homosexuals under "Singapore 21", a government campaign launched last year by Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong aimed at encouraging all Singaporeans to participate more in society.
Its slogan is: Everyone counts. Homosexuals wanted to discuss whether that included them.
In practice, the authorities turn a blind eye to discreet gay bars and nightclubs, but won't tolerate anything that might push homosexuality into the wider public domain.
Several gay Internet Web sites have sprung up and not been blocked, providing like-minded cyber-geeks with a virtual community.
Until recently, Singapore even boasted a transvestite cabaret bar - the Boom Boom Room. It closed a month ago, but not under police pressure.
However, People Like Us has been trying to register as a gay and lesbian society since 1993, but has been repeatedly rejected without explanation.
All sympathetic references to homosexuality are also barred from state media.
Against this backdrop, Mr Goh's government has been trying to make a genuine effort to shake off Singapore's nanny-state image.
On the one hand, he wants to hail in a new order, encouraging Singaporeans to embrace creativity to breed a new generation of adventurous technopreneurs.
He also wants to shed Singapore's "boring" image. But he does not want to let go of old-order family values.
Visiting MIT economics professor Lester Thurow recently made the suggestion that Singapore should perhaps scrap its ban on chewing gum as a gesture towards ending the long-standing joke about it being a "fine city".
Mr Goh firmly said no. Discarded gum is still a public pest. Perhaps he views homosexuals the same way.