Stuart Koe is a Singaporean scientist and entrepreneur with a doctorate in pharmacy (1995) from the University of Minnesota, USA. In 2000, he set up Fridae, Asia's largest LGBT web portal. After leaving Fridae in 2013, he became managing director of ICM Pharma.
Stuart Koe Chi Yeow was born on 6 September 1972 to a small family in Singapore and had a sister two years younger than himself. He recalled that the 1970′s were a blur to him. His first memory was when he was less than a year old. He remembered vividly being in his cot, with a black-and-white TV at the foot of the bed playing Westerns which he presumed to be some John Wayne spaghetti western.
Koe writes in his blog:
"I have many mixed memories from my childhood…some pleasant, and some not so. But we’ll spare you the details. Both grandfathers passed away sometime before I hit 8. I hope this isn’t a sign of things to come. Hypertension and hypercholesterolaemia kinda run in both arms of the family, and I’m not taking my chances. Hence my “no mammal” policy. Sashimi, mushrooms and tofu have hence become my favorite foods (I know many find this quite distasteful, but they ain’t no friends of mine)…
I went to a snotty grade school (around these parts, we call them “Primary” schools) called Nanyang Primary School. I learnt later in life that this was where lots of snotty Chinese parents who ran large Singapore corporations or came from large snotty rich families sent their kids. Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew was an alum here. I kind of wonder sometimes what he was like as a kid. Anyway…he is a major benefactor of the school. I spent most of grades 1 through 6 playing with all the girls. Some were butch in a big way…even before they were 12. They were the ones who made the boys cry. Serious. I’d put their names here, but they would probably hunt me down and beat me up. They are all college grads now and many are lawyers…so they’d more probably sue me for my Madonna collection (ie all my assets).
Somehow, I survived those cruel (but fun) years. Co-ed’s definitely the way to go when you start out life in school. Girls are so much more fun to play with. They are definitely more creative (and cruel). And when they hit puberty (which is way before the boys), then the real fun begins. The boys were mostly timid, wimpish, and general bores.
From 1985 to 1988, I attended Raffles Institution. This was probably the epitome of snot. It was almost clinging to the walls. But not in the same way that Nanyang was. You basically had to graduate from grade school in the top 1% or 2% of the country in order to make it into RI. The boys in there thought they were god’s gift (well, maybe one or two were…but certainly not ALL of them). Rafflesians as a bunch are insufferable. But I shouldn’t speak so poorly of my alma mater. I happen to like the time I spent there…I do strongly suggest the new principal look into starting a mandatory class on humility though.
My RI days were when I awoke to my gaiety. Yep…I was one happy person. And there were lots of happy people around me (courtesy of being in a boys school, when puberty hit us….you could almost scoop it up with a shovel). Fortunately, there was almost no stigma attached to being gay. We were basically allowed to have crushes on one another (I quite infamously went public with my 2 “loves”…going so far as to sing “Crazy For You” at a school talent competition and dedicating the performance to this sweety one year my senior. I didn’t win for singing, though I certainly should have for spectacle. I never sang again…the shame was too great), many of my friends had their first experiences with drag at our annual “Drama Fest” with our teachers quite gladly applying the Revlon to those faces which were starting to sprout their first signs of downy mustache.
Those certainly were the days. We worked really hard, but we played hard as well. I was a prima donna competitive swimmer for a year (refusing to train with the team…I had my OWN coach after all…so there!), won lots of medals, and then decided to quit swimming after a year because I wanted to act! Well, that lasted a year, because I was then playing synths in a band my friends and I had formed. I thought I was cool then…boy was I ever mistaken. But we are all allowed our little fantasies. Basically, even at that age, I was a little prick. I did what I wanted, when I wanted, and no one could do anything about it. At least I did it really well, and had a ball.
Soon after my ‘O’ level exams, I was off to America!"
In 1989, Koe’s first stop on his journey outward from Singapore was in Philadelphia to study in a pharmacy programme, the son sent to learn his father’s profession. Koe seemed to quickly realise that a skinny, brainy Chinese teenager used to the orderliness of Singapore was no match for the rules of manhood on the streets of Philadelphia.
"I first attended college in Philadelphia, and to cut a long story short, I soon learnt how to grow eyes on the back of my head, and had a crash course on inner-city survival. Philadelphia may be the “City of Brotherly Love”, but they were probably talking about GANGSTA/HOMEBOY type of “brotherly love”. It was definitely culture shock for me, and I quickly decided that I didn’t want to spend the next 6 years fearing for my life, so I quickly bailed out and transferred to the University of Minnesota.
Brilliant. From one of the most dangerous places, to one of the coldest! It appeared I really knew how to pick hospitable places to live in.
But seriously, Minneapolis/St Paul is one of the nicest cities I’ve lived in. The winters may be brutal (with the windchill, it has ever gotten to 80-below, and crazy college kids compete to see who would be the first out in shorts on the first day it hits 0 degrees Celcius after a long cold winter), and LONG (you can bet on snow from November to April), but the spring and summer and fall are absolutely beautiful, the park system fantastic, and the people simply…well….nice!
Here, I met several people whom I spent a good deal of my life and aspirations with. They were, and still are very special people to me. Steve, Beth, Rob, Kjersten, Khanh, Christine. Brilliant, beautiful, and absolutely humble and centered. I am truly blessed to have been touched by them during the course of my stay.
My university career was like a rollercoaster of events. I ran for numerous offices, won some, made lots of alliances, lots of enemies who hated my guts, and ultimately, made a nuisance of myself on all levels. But I was definitely not your prototypical “international student” who only sat in the first three rows and busted the curve. I never went to class…and STILL busted the curve. Ha! I don’t think they knew what to think of me. I even went for my Board licensure exams with blond hair, a 3-piece Donna Karan suit….and that was while I was student govt president!
My coursework took me to as diverse places as the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, to San Francisco for 5 weeks working with the immensely talented team at the San Francisco General Hospital, to China for a month to study Qigong and Traditional Chinese Medicine. It was an incredible learning experience, and I was hungry for it. The people I met, the things I did…I just don’t think it would have been the same had I stayed in Singapore."
Koe credited the University of Minnesota's College of Pharmacy Dean Emeritus Larry Weaver as a major influence in his early development as a leader. Weaver constantly challenged Koe to not accept the status quo and to always find elegant yet creative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. Weaver was an inspiration for being humble and humane, no matter what Koe was doing.
To encourage his interests, Koe said his professors at the college supported his requests for unusual internships beyond Minnesota, including a rotation in Beijing at a traditional Chinese medicine academy. His professors gave him that room to do what he felt was necessary for his education. They taught him the rules were there, but sometimes the rules were written by people who did not see all the possibilities. They taught Koe to always try new things.
He ran for various student government offices in his college. His Rimbaud-style, slightly cocky attitude strengthened, at least online. During his tenure, Koe served as president of the College Board, working closely with mentor and associate professor Bruce Benson, and was president of the Rho Chi Honor Society. He was also a regional delegate to APhA-ASP and campaigned at a national level for leadership of the student organization.
Koe also remembered fondly his time as a pharmacy representative at the Center for Health Interprofessional Programs (CHIP), where he enjoyed the interactions with students from the other allied health sciences, making some of the longest and deepest relationships from his years at the college.
A photograph of him in his college years echoes the Hamid that Walter Spies had sketched generations earlier - but with dramatic changes to the representation of the young Asian male body. Koe had colored his hair a burnished orange to contrast with his black eyebrows. He stared straight at the camera, rather than gazing away. His eyes hid behind fashionable gold-rimmed sunglasses that widened them. As with Walter’s Hamid, Koe was still a set of bony lines and deltas - long arms strapped together with muscles that served their job as ropes but little else. No Winckelmann ellipses or ripples. His head was cocked to the side and his face was a pentagon of a broad smile. He posed for the camera bare-chested, but - as had also been the case in Walter’s Hamid - his nipples and pectoral muscles were left to the imagination, since he had draped his shoulders with a black and red vest, the Rimbaudian anarchist’s colors. If in one photograph his hair was orange, in the next it might be blond. He wrote that he went through “a series of six different hair colors in as many weeks." Koe later blogged: “A new haircut, new look! If people ever start taking you for granted, change your image!”
His pharmacy studies took him to the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, then to San Francisco General Hospital, and then to China to study qigong and traditional Chinese medicine. He was happier with his life off the smart island. “The people I met,” he wrote, “the things I did, I just don’t think it would have been the same had I stayed in Singapore.”
Something else had changed. He had fallen in love with a Caucasian medical student. This time he did more about it than just sing a song about romance at a Raffles talent show. They became boyfriends.
By 1992, when Koe was almost twenty, he had begun coming out to friends in Minnesota, including one named Christine. “What blew me away,” he would later write, “was her staunch support for gays and lesbians everywhere. She broke up with a boyfriend because he made a disparaging remark about lesbians. She told off her sister and relatives when they started making homophobic jokes. When I asked her why she stood up so strongly she said, ‘Stuart, you’re my friend. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with being gay. We’re all people, and any form of prejudice or bigotry simply is unacceptable.’”
He was stunned. Later he would blog: "We’re afraid of being branded gay if we stand up against people making homophobic remarks. Well, wake up and smell the coffee, we ARE gay. When do we start standing up for ourselves?"
Return to SingaporeEdit
In 1995, Koe, who is openly gay, voluntarily returned to Singapore after living and studying overseas for almost ten years, despite the knowledge that it would be to a possibly hostile environment for LGBT people. Upon his return, he worked in the life-sciences division of the Economic Development Board (EDB). During this period, he also devoted his energy towards mainstream charity work.
"I made a decision to return upon graduation. I was then in a very significant relationship with a very special man…and it had already been 2 years at that point in time. It was heartbreaking to leave…we tried to make it work, but deep down inside, probably knew that the obstacles would be significant. Still, I felt that it was important not to lose my Singapore citizenship, that I owed that much to my parents who had financed my education…and in retrospect, it still is the best choice.
So I embarked on the next phase of my journey. National Service in Singapore is for 2.5 years. Every able-bodied (and some not so able bodied) male is obligated to be in servitude for that period of time…usually right after the equivalent of high-school at 18 years of age. I managed to defer it until I finished college…so I was significantly older than all these boys at 23 years. I lucked out, and spent most of my NS as a research assistant at the Defence Medical Research Institute. I didn’t even have to wear a uniform (I know, all those butch military fantasies dashed), had my own cubicle office, and called my own hours, worked on some interesting projects, and went home at 5pm everyday. This was unheard of by most of my friends. I tell you, I must have been a saint in my last life.
Socially, my life during this period shot through the roof. I clubbed 4 times a week, threw brilliant parties, and could be found anywhere from TV to magazines, newspapers and radio (for what, I still don’t know). I guess when you don’t really HAVE to work, you just put all that extra energy into partying. I think I’ve gotten it out of my system now…but at the time, it’s all I ever did.
It all culminated in my hosting a series of parties at Zouk, the premier club in Singapore…on Sundays, catering to a largely male audience, which really just started redefining the meaning of PARTY in Singapore. We had some really classic flyers, memorable shows, and costumes! It was my effort to bring some world-class partying home, but the crowd didn’t bite…maybe Singaporean’s are still too conservative. In anycase, JUICY is still a small part of club history in Singapore.
I finally completed my National Service obligations on May 17, 1998. It was an anticlimax…but still, the liberation was nice. I was on a job hunt that I started in February, and was still coming up with nothing. I managed to land an important interview in London (I’m exercising a little revisionist history writing here), so I jumped at the opportunity, packed my bags, scraped up every last cent I had, and with only 3 days to say goodbye to my friends, I hopped on the first available flight to London, knowing that I would try my utmost not to come back to Singapore. As with many impulsive decisions like that, of course a man had something to do with it, but more about that later…probably in one of my journal entries.
In the subsequent 6 months (yes, somehow, I managed to stay for 1/2 a year!), I was STILL unable to get a job, getting increasingly frustrated, but enjoying London tremendously nevertheless. I made 2 wonderful friends, Chris and Chowee, clubbed non-stop (Trade and Heaven!), worked out at the gym (Soho Athletic Club, along with the only other day-members – students and prostittutes), entertained a steady stream of visiting friends, hung out with Melissa, and broke up with the guy I came to London to be with. At that point, my life was absolutely shattered. Nothing seemed to be going right. My self-esteem was at its nadir…I had never encountered so much negativity in my life, and I was lost.
Thankfully, 2 other friends came to my resuce. John, in San Francisco whom I’ve never met, and Ivan, in Hong Kong whom I’ve only met once. They were the ones I communicated with, several times a day, wrote to, talked to. And finally, I decided that the only thing that made sense was to return to Singapore yet again.
This was the first time I ever considered Singapore a refuge. Quite a turning point in my life. I quickly found a temp job as a pharmacist, in the mean time putting the rest of my life back in order. Ambrose and I started really hanging out together, and we started planning a trip to the Sydney Gay & Lesbian Mardi Gras in February of 1999. My job hunt continued, and slowly…everything started falling into place."
Setting up FridaeEdit
Koe embarked on a radical career change when, in 2001, he founded and became the CEO of fridae.com which grew to become Asia's largest English-language LGBT web portal. By 2010, the website had garnered half a million members across Asia.
"Breaking rules left, right and center”, according to Koe, he dovetailed three related interests into a unique sustainable media business, social networking enterprise and public health resource:
- As a media company, Fridae reported on gay news from the region that mainstream media would not touch, serving as one of the few independent voices for the community.
- As a social networking site, Fridae continued to break into new markets and in 2010 was ranked the top gay site in China, Hong Kong and Singapore.
- Fridae also had a strong public health component. Koe became actively involved in programs in the region sponsored by the World Health Organization and United Nations development agencies, and Fridae received funding from the United States Agency for International Development for projects related to HIV.
Concomitantly with managing Fridae, Koe served on the Board of Directors of AIDS Concern in Hong Kong, as well as acted as a trustee of the Action for AIDS Endowment Fund in Singapore, both the largest HIV NGOs in their respective countries. In August 2009, he was nominated to lead the formation of a new regional network for HIV amongst gay and transgender populations in Southeast Asia.
Koe said balancing multiple leadership roles could pose a challenge, and wearing the hats for so many groups can presented conflicts in honouring the needs of each group he represented, as well as his own business goals. Koe’s leadership roles took him out of direct pharmacy practice. Although he missed the patient contact, he found his positions allowed him the opportunity to do what he also liked best about pharmacy - helping people on a personal level.
Organising parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377AEdit
In the second weekend of October 2007, a parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code was jointly organised by Koe, human rights lawyer George Hwang and housewife Tan Joo Hymn . It was revealed during a press conference that it had garnered 2,519 signatures from Singaporeans and Singapore residents .
As CEO of Fridae, Koe contributed greatly in cash and kind to events organised by the LGBT community and became the latter's most socially responsible patron. He also performed research and wrote academic papers on the epidemiology of HIV infection amongst gay men in Singapore.
In 2009, Koe kindly agreed to his company being Pink Dot SG's first corporate sponsor, providing technology (website), creative, marketing and logistics support, the use of the Fridae office at Kallang Bahru Industrial Estate for meetings, and at least $2,000 to get the inaugural event off the ground.
Living with his partnerEdit
In 2008, when he turned 35, he had been living together with his partner, Jim, whom he met in 2000 and who was a year older than himself, in a HDB flat in Holland Village since 2003.
He later became Managing Director of ICM Pharma Pte Ltd and served as Chairman of the Singapore Manufacturing Federation's (SMF) Youth Network Function Committee. Other Positions held on behalf of SMF were:
- Director, GS1 Singapore Ltd
- Director, SME Centre@SMF Pte Ltd
- Chairman, SMF Life Sciences IG
- S2, StuartKoe.com.
- Stuart Koe, "Challenging the Status Quo: Stuart Koe", Fridae, 30 June 2010.
- Stuart Koe's YouTube channel:.
- Gary L. Atkins, Imagining Gay Paradise: Bali, Bangkok, and Cyber-Singapore, Hong Kong University Press, 1 January 2012.
This article was written by Roy Tan.