Singapore's first LGBT pride festival open to the general public, IndigNation, took place during the month of August in 2005. It subsequently became an annual affair after the success of the inaugural event. IndigNation was conceived as the antithesis to gay parties, however, billing itself as a showcase of the more sublime aspects of LGBT culture.
Previous gay celebrations, exemplified by Fridae's iconic Nation parties held annually in Singapore since 2001, were private commercial functions organised mainly for LGBT recreation. They were, in addition, socio-political statements of significance in Singapore gay history and milestones in Singapore's human rights record.
Even though Pink Dot SG, held yearly at Hong Lim Park since 2009, brands itself as a gathering in support of the "freedom to love", many participants enjoy dancing and partying to the music played by the DJs after the climax of the event.
Prior to 2001, all parties held for LGBT people were private affairs not advertised or even made known to the general public. Most were held indoors, especially on Sunday nights at various mainstream discos which were eager to tap the pink dollar on a day when business from their straight patrons was slow. This phenomenon began in the early 1980s when the police started to turn a blind eye to men disco-dancing with each other, but not during the slow numbers, when they were cautioned by the managements of these venues to "behave". This was done to avoid complaints from heterosexual patrons who were initially invariably present.
By and by, from the mid-1980s onwards, the increasing numbers of gay men flocking to these discos on Sunday nights drove the straight clientèle away and the managements were subsequently more inclined to tolerate homosexuals engaging in slow dancing and in tight embrace, as well.
Realising the untapped potential and pent-up demand for gay parties, more and more mainstream discos advertised Sundays as "men's night" to draw the gay crowd. Venues such as Marmota, Niche, Legend and Studebaker's made a healthy profit from their calculated gamble. However, there was still an unmet need on all the other nights of the week.
This chasm was filled by pioneering entrepreneurs, especially Max Lim, who organised weekday private gay parties at roving locations such as discos at Far East Shopping Centre along Orchard Road and nightspots like Dancers - the Club and Forbidden City at Clarke Quay. Soon, other gay businessmen set up discos like Taboo and Why Not in Tanjong Pagar, which were exclusively gay on every night of the week.
Breaking out of the claustrophobic confines of indoor venues, Max Lim organised Singapore's first open-air private gay parties advertised via leaflets and word-of-mouth at spacious venues such as the East Coast Lagoon and Big Splash. These were a roaring success as they were such a novelty by virtue of the incredible amount of space in which paying partygoers could roam, with food, drink, dancing and individual events on offer. Groundbreaking though these were, they still remained private affairs, out of the radar of the mainstream community and media. As such, the full potential of advertising could not be harnessed, which limited the patronage at these events.
After establishing an English-language webportal Fridae.com in the year 2000, scientist and entrepreneur Dr. Stuart Koe, who had worked for a few years with the Economic Development Board, tested the socio-political boundaries and organised Singapore's first private, widely advertised, open-air gay mega-party. Not unexpectedly, along with the government's liberalising trend at the time, the party was given the green light by the police. Koe even managed to secure corporate sponsorship for the historic event. In a shrewd move to underscore the gay community's loyalty to Singapore and the values which she upholds, the party was held on 8 August 2001 to coincide with National Day and aptly given the moniker "Nation".
It was held at Sentosa's Fantasy Island. "Nation"' was dubbed by the foreign media as Singapore's 'coming out party'. Over 1500 paying gay revellers celebrated both the eve of National Day, as well as their sense of community. Many flew in from Sydney, Malaysia, the U.S. and Hong Kong. The venue was divided into 3 zones: the Centro Boyz zone where the Miss Divastating drag competition was held, the Womyn's zone where no men were allowed for most of the evening, and the Chill Out area where guests could mingle and booths were set up to sell food, drinks, toys and to distribute flyers. 8 to 10 uniformed police officers made their obligatory visit at around 11:30pm to check that everything was alright and left without incident after 15 minutes. The mega-do also raised funds for local safe-sex advocacy group Action for AIDS (AfA) which received a portion of ticket sales.
Despite initial concerns that there would be Government resistance to another gay Nation party, more than 2500 red-and-white dress-themed people gathered at the Fountain Gardens and Musical Fountain in Sentosa on Thursday 9 August 2003 for Singapore’s 37th birthday and 2nd pride party. Nation.02, co-organised by Fridae and Kinemat Productions was sponsored by Qantas and other corporations including Pepsi, Planet Fitness and The Gallery Hotel. Paying partygoers had a choice of 2 dance areas and were treated to a specially-produced laser show by Oracle Lasers, percussion by Idham Budiman, and visual effects by Fake from Kinemat. Attendance by regional visitors was even higher than the previous year's bash, drawing close to 500 partygoers, mainly from Hong Kong, Thailand and Taiwan.
Fridae's Nation.03 extravaganza at Sentosa expanded to become a 3-day event in 2003, attracting an estimated 4500 paying attendees intent on celebrating Singapore's 38th National Day. It included a welcome party at Why Not? bar on August 7 and a poolside recovery party on August 9 at the water-theme park Big Splash and Tunnel Club, also located on the same premises. This year's major corporate sponsor was Subaru represented locally by MotorImage Enterprises Pte Ltd. An estimated 1000 partygoers were visitors from Australia, Hong Kong, Japan, Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and as far away as Canada and the U.S. The Sijori Resort Sentosa, located a few minutes from the party grounds and Hotel 1929, the official hotel for the party, reported a 100 percent occupancy rate during the period.
Government and mainstream media support for Nation was at an all time high because earlier in 2003, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had made a statement in Time magazine (Asia) that openly gay civil servants would henceforth be employed in the civil service, even in sensitive positions. He also made the now-famous quip that "we are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me." The mainstream and LGBT media reported this news widely and the gay community was elated.
Nation.03 marked a milestone in that it was the first time in Singaporean television history that a local gay event was reported in a positive light, accompanied by snippets of bare-chested men dancing on podia. The following day, Channel NewsAsia and its sister station MediaCorp TV Channel 5 announced, 'Nation.03 can be seen as a gauge of Singapore's tolerance.' Organiser Stuart Koe and well known actress and LGBT ally Pam Oei who attended the party were also interviewed in the television news clips.
Hailed by Time magazine as "a 3-day festival of international proportions,"Nation.04 featured state of the art visual effects, world-class venues, and international circuit DJs from Taiwan, Japan, Australia, USA and Singapore.
The weekend kicked off with a "Make Love, Not War" Opening Party at Suntec City's Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre on Saturday Aug 7, followed by the main event, Nation at the Sentosa Musical Fountain on August 8 2004 and the Closing Party at the world-famous Zouk Club on August 9 2004.
For the first time, Nation also included the participation of various arts organisations in an informal "Nation Arts Programme." This included the plays Mergers/Wills by Toy Factory in Mandarin, Top or Bottom and Mardi Gras by The Necessary Stage, and The Revenge of the Dim Sum Dollies by Dream Academy Productions. 2 related art exhibitions were also held during this period, “Red + White = Pink” by Utterly Art and an exhibition by Art Seasons.
The private party was the largest in the series, to date, and attracted more than 8,000 paying revelers, 40% of whom were international visitors. Tourist revenue generated during the festival was estimated to be nearly SGD$6 million, according to data collected by an independent market research firm.
The gay community was shocked and outraged when in early December 2004, the Public Entertainment Licencing Unit (PELU) of the police rejected an application for a public entertainment licence to hold SnowBall.04 on 26 December 2004[].
It was the first time that a PELU licence had been denied as organiser Jungle Media, a subsidiary of Singapore-based Fridae.com, had successfully obtained licenses for all similar past events, namely Snowball in December 2002 and 2003, Nation (August 2002, 2003, 2004), Squirt (April 2004), Boys of Summer (June 2003) and Paradise Ball (December 2003).
Despite the fact that Nation.04 had been nominated for "Best Event Experience" in the 2005 Singapore Tourism Awards, the police said that “the event is likely to be organised as a gay party which is contrary to public interest in general.”
In a press statement, the police said the following were taken into consideration:
“The promotion materials were widely advertised on Fridae.com, a known gay portal";
“Observations during the indoor Opening Ball at Suntec showed that patrons of the same gender were seen openly kissing and intimately touching each other. Some of the revellers were cross-dressed, for example, males wearing skirts. Patrons were also seen using the toilets of the opposite sex. The behaviour of these patrons suggested that most of them were probably gays/lesbians and this was thus an event almost exclusively for gays/lesbians";
“A number of couples of the same sex were seen hugging and kissing in public after the event while waiting for taxis and checking into the nearby hotels after the party";
“Several letters of complaint were received from some patrons about the openly gay acts at the Ball.”
It also said: “The Police recognise that there are some Singaporeans with gay tendencies. While Police do not discriminate against them on this basis, the Police also recognise that Singapore is still, by and large, a conservative and traditional society. Hence, the Police cannot approve any application for an event which goes against the moral values of a large majority of Singaporeans. Future applications for events of similar nature will be closely scrutinised.”
When queried by reporters on the rejection of the entertainment licence to hold Snowball, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the decision reflected "balance and judgement" and that "the party should not be targeted at gays alone".
Many gay analysts also felt that in addition to the above reasons given by the police, the concern raised in September 2004 by the Minister of State for Health, Dr. Balaji Sadasivan about the rising numbers of HIV cases in Singapore and his unsubstantiated attribution of the cause to fraternisation between locals and Westerners during gay parties was pivotal in instigating the official policy turnaround.
In April 2005, the Licensing Division of the Singapore Police faxed a rejection of Fridae's application to hold Nation.05, by then, Asia's most acclaimed gay and lesbian private party which had been held annually since National Day in August 2001, citing the event to be 'contrary to public interest.' Nation.05, slated to coincide with Singapore's 40th birthday, had clinched sponsorship by Fortune 100 global communications leader Motorola for the second consecutive year and Subaru for the third. The carmaker was a well known pioneer corporate sponsor of gay and lesbian athletic and community events in the United States and was represented by Motor Image Pte Ltd locally. Dr. Stuart Koe, CEO of Fridae said, "We are disappointed that the authorities have deemed a National Day celebration by Singapore's gay citizens as being 'contrary to public interest' when it had previously been approved for four years without incident. This is a direct contradiction to previous calls for embracing of diversity."
Undaunted and determined to circumvent the official ban, Fridae creatively transplanted Nation.V, to Phuket, Thailand. It was held from Friday 4 November to Sunday 6 November 2005 at 8 venues with DJs and artistes from the U.S., Thailand, Australia, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, New Zealand and Hong Kong. The event, which created a buzz in the international gay party circuit gave a booster shot in the arm to Phuket's recovering tsunami-devastated economy. It was reported in Australia's Sydney Morning Herald that Singapore's loss was Thailand's gain.
The resulting private event was smaller, with less than 1000 partygoers. Eventually, all 800 tickets on offer were sold, mainly to Thais, as compared to the 8000 mostly Singaporean revellers who flocked to the previous party before the ban. The host hotel which housed the participants was the Crowne Plaza hotel on Karon Beach. The welcome reception was held around the hotel pool, the G.Y.M. party at the Arena disco and the closing after-hours party at the Locker Room.
This article was written by Roy Tan.