On Wednesday, 23 February 2005, at 8.30 pm, Singapore's second Chinese-language TV channel, Channel U, broadcast a 30-minute current affairs program on the local gay community.
It was part of a series officially entitled "Inside out" (非常透视眼; fei chang tou shi yan) by MediaCorp but which would be better translated as "Very penetrating insight" (literally, a very penetrating eye).
The topic of this particular episode was "Do homosexuals have space for their activities?". It dealt with Singapore's gay community and the mainstream public's attitudes towards them.
It was the third documentary in Chinese to be aired on Singapore television and attempted to accurately portray the gay community, soliciting views from various segments of society. This was a departure from the first two Chinese documentaries shown earlier, the first of which was a homophobic one produced in collaboration with the ex-gay ministry and the second, a concertedly gay-friendly infotainment episode broadcast in the wake of the then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's announcement in Time magazine in 2003 that the civil service would henceforth employ openly gay individuals.
(Background scenes of people walking along Orchard Road, eventually panning to a gay couple - 'David', a gay chub, and his medium-built lover, filmed from the neck down, walking hand in hand along Boat Quay.)
Male narrator: Along with Singapore's development, the pace of liberalisation of society has increased tremendously in tandem, but a few homosexuals feel that the space allowed for their community's activities still has many limits. Has recently liberalised Singaporean mainstream society made adequate preparations for the acceptance of homosexuals? Do local homosexuals still face discrimination? The government has openly announced the acceptance of homosexuals in the Civil Service, including employment in sensitive positions. This may have led Singaporeans to deduce that the government has finally accepted homosexuals and acknowledged their existence. But what is the attitude of mainstream Singaporean society towards homosexuals?
Channel U interviews several 'mainstream' Singaporeans in public places and asks whether they can accept gays or not.
Middle-aged Chinese woman holding an umbrella: I can't accept it...but I don't know about other people. (Interviewer asks why). It's not normal.
Trendily dressed teenage Chinese girl: Of course...why not? There are so many on the street. It's OK. They don't provoke any reaction.
Bespectacled balding middle-aged Chinese man outside an electrical shop: Till now, I still can't accept homosexuals...because I feel that heterosexuality is the natural order of things, not homosexuality.
Middle-aged Chinese woman with dyed red hair at a hawker centre: I can. I agree with the government. Because people nowadays are quite liberated.
Tanned pimply teenage Chinese boy: Homosexuals? I feel that the situation is now starting to get more liberal. There are more and more homosexuals around. It can be said that nobody discriminates against them. Can I accept them? Yes, no problem.
Cherubic middle-aged Chinese man: I definitely cannot accept them. I wouldn't discriminate against them but I won't accept them.
Middle aged Chinese woman with purple scarf around her neck in Orchard Road: (speaking in English) For me, I'm able to accept them because they are also human beings.
Young adult Chinese girl with dyed red hair in front of Ngee Ann City: It can't be helped if they have these tendencies. So, I can also accept them.
(Pace picks up.)
Obese late middle-aged Chinese man outside a 'heartland ' provision shop: I don't accept them. Because maybe my thinking is more old-fashioned.
Late middle-aged Chinese woman with permed frizzy hair outside a provision shop: I don't accept them. Because I'm more traditional.
Back to interviewee 'Obese late middle-aged...' above: It seems to me that homosexuality in this society is still 'ugly' to look at.
Bespectacled middle-aged Chinese woman with close-cropped red Afro: Can't accept them.
Middle-aged Chinese woman with greying hair: Of course it's a man and a woman who pair up. Where is there such a thing as two women or two men? Yes or no?
Back to interviewee 'Bespectacled middle-aged... afro' above: Why don't they get married in the normal way? They should look for a boyfriend or girlfriend of the opposite sex.
(Camera pans to the office of a female lecturer at NUS.)
Male narrator: Sociologist Bao Lian Suo En (Paulin Tay Straughan) during our interview stated that society's increasing acceptance of homosexuals is a sign of our nation's progress towards liberalism and maturity.
Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan (a bespectacled middle aged female academic in a dress the same colour as her red lipstick, speaking in English): As we become more mature as a society, we become more confident. And when we become more confident, we become more embracing. Technology has broken down a lot of barriers. So, access to the Internet and therefore to support groups from other countries is now available, right?, to the local gay community.
(Scene shifts to the office of 2 People Like Us leaders.)
Male narrator: Still, some gay rights activists don't express agreement.
PLU's Eileena Lee (speaking slowly in English): I don't think they actually have outrightly said that they are embracing this whole diversity thing. What they actually said was that gay people are just as normal as other people; I guess they are meaning the heterosexual people. But having said that, you know, after what Prime Minister Goh has said about accepting homosexuals in the Civil Service, nothing has been done about that.
(Cut to a window overlooking the Supreme Court, with a silhouetted chub wistfully peering out.)
Male narrator: After experiencing bouts of wrestling with his psychological demons and finally coming to accept his sexual orientation, he regards the level of Singaporeans' acceptance of homosexuality with suspicion.
'David' (anonymous gay chub speaking in an intentionally digitally garbled voice): If someone really comes up and asks me, I wouldn't admit it. Nor would I make a concerted effort to tell each person. You don't know about their degree of acceptance of homosexuals. I don't feel that I, or my gay friends, have experienced discrimination. The biggest reason is that we aren't daring enough to come out. You can never tell what their reaction may be. So, it's best not to say anything. As far as looking for employment is concerned, if you openly admit, "I'm a homosexual", I think that this will have a great effect on your clinching the job. I think the majority of gays have not faced discrimination because they did not out themselves to their employers. They have not felt the necessity to come out. Most of the friends I know are not honest about their sexuality with their families. I feel that contemporary society is still biased against homosexuals.
(Pan to Goh Chok Tong's famous 'we are born this way and they are born that way' quote in bold pink...
then camera zooms in on brochure of Toy Factory's production of 'Bent' and 'Asian Boys Vol. 1', and the Necessary Stage's 'Mardi Gras' and 'Beautiful Thing'.)
Male narrator: This past year, the topic of homosexuality here has drawn the attention of arts producers. In the past, the issue of homosexuality would definitely not have been allowed to surface in the mainstream media, nor would the staging of public performances be approved. The official loosening-up policy has received a rapturous response from homosexual groups.
Assistant Artistic Director from Toy Factory Production Ensemble, Mr. Xie Shen Jie (Nelson Chia): These groups have existed in all times and will continue to do so forever. Moreover, they will never cease to seek out spaces in which to survive. Because they need to survive. If you don't provide an environment where they can thrive, their vitality will become even stronger, I feel. This is also why in drama, we have homosexuality as fodder. We will continue and never stop having these productions. All of us in homosexual and similar groups, and artistes concerned with gay topics will never cease to seek a way and a voice to discuss the issue.
(Camera shows excerpts from 'Bent' and other gay plays.)
Male narrator: This past year, each theatre group has produced a string of productions dealing with homosexuality. Toy Factory's staging of 'Bent' and other plays have featured themes of homosexuality. Toy Factory's Asst. Artistic Director Xie Shen Jie, during our interview, pointed out that the Government has indeed already broadened the dimensions that productions can take.
Toy Factory's Nelson Jia: As far as the application for a permit to stage these productions is concerned, the situation now, compared to previously, has improved considerably. Of course, that is not to say that there is blanket approval. But it has become a bit more convenient. Compare this to the past, when even the least homosexual nuance on stage, let alone the script calling for a gay character, would immediately have given the authorities extreme jitters. Nowadays, this kind of thing is commonplace, up to the point that we can even display gay kissing.
(Camera shows magazine and newspaper ads for gay spas and massage. Also the external facades of gay bars like Vincent's and Taboo at night.)
Male narrator: Along with these developments, venues catering to homosexual interests have ventured out one by one. Openly gay nightspots can already appear amongst those catering to mainstream society. Then why are there still gays who complain? Is our nation's society being fair towards them?
(Camera zooms in on the Straits Times and Zaobao reports on Fridae's Snowball party ban last year.
Then camera shows blurred images of gays pub crawling. White on black headlines appear "Homosexuals do not have space for their activities?")
Male narrator: Last year, the authorities refused to issue a public entertainment licence when an application to hold a gay Christmas party was submitted. The reason given was that our society was still a conservative one. Moreover, it had been observed that homosexuals were indulging in public displays of intimacy. Therefore, the permit was denied. Homosexual groups have thus felt dissatisfied with the aforementioned decision.
PLU's Mr. Chen De Wei (Charles Tan, bespectacled, with hint of goatee, who had earlier on been shown in the office with Eileena Lee): Looking at it from one aspect, the event relied on ticketing sales for entry. If you are fearful that it may offend the sensitivities of conservative people, they can easily stay away from it. It presents no problem, isn't that true? Moreover, parties such as this have been held for many years. None of them faced any problems. So, this sudden refusal to issue a permit is somewhat of a contradiction. The explanation should have been given from a legal viewpoint. There was no actual infringement of any laws. It was only a party, meant to enable the clientele, the majority of whom perhaps would have been homosexual, to have an enjoyable night out. That's the only thing. It wouldn't have caused any disturbance to the average man-in-the-street.
Male narrator: Toy Factory's Asst. Artistic Director, Xie Shen Jie, also said that the position taken by the relevant authorities is not explicit.
Toy Factory's Nelson Chia: You say you don't approve of the holding of this party because Singapore, after all, is more of a conservative society. But you want to increase the amount of liberal space in this conservative society. You moreover encourage liberalisation. Then you approve of the existence of homosexual groups. You acknowledge their existence. This is tantamount to two heads speaking in different tongues. Homosexual groups are going to feel that actually... I also think that the situation is this...you are using a contradictory policy decision as a reason for them to accept, subsequently hoping that they will swallow it. Because this reason, I think, the minute everyone hears it, they immediately know that, "Eh, this isn't what you said in the first place" (the charming Mr. Xie flashes an equally beguiling ironic smile). So, can you come up with a more comprehensive reason to explain away this matter.
(Camera captures a self-conscious Paulin Tay Straughan walking along an NUS corridor, opening a glass door and entering her office.)
Male narrator: However, sociologists think that the authorities' actions were not taken from a position of discrimination. They, in fact, acted from a standpoint of the public interest.
Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan (speaking in English): I think we also have to understand the role of the state. When we deal with issues like homosexuality, while on one hand, we expect the Government to, you know, to appreciate and embrace every single member of society, right?, and that is the right thing, right? Just because you're homosexual doesn't make you a lesser member, right? But at the same time, the Government is also mindful that everything it does is read as an initiative, right?, and there are members of the society who will expect the Government to be...they look towards the Government as some kind of, you know, moral authority, right?, you know, on what should be and what shouldn't be encouraged. So acceptance is one thing. Promoting is another thing. And these two need not be the same.
(Camera focuses on Chapter 311 of the Societies Act, section (d), stating the reasons why it would be contrary to the national interest for a specified society to be registered.)
Male narrator: Under this 'accepting but not promoting' policy, gay support groups have all along not been granted approval by the Registrar of Societies. In 1997, one homosexual group planned to set up such an organisation. However, the authorities, without providing any explanation, refused to approve their registration. Seven years later, the same group again tried to get registered. This time, the reason given for the denial of registration was that the group would present a threat to the national interest.
PLU's Chen De Wei (Charles Tan): Of course there is this feeling of there being a contradiction. Moreover, the reason given was unpalatable. One the one hand, our former Prime Minister, and the Government, has said that gays are tolerated, isn't that right? So why is it that when we applied to set up a perfectly reasonable and legitimate support group, it was no go? So, we feel like it's a slap in the face.
Male narrator: After these incidents, gay rights activists are of the opinion that homosexuals here are being deprived of their rights. But sociologists feel that this is an exaggeration.
Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan: I think that's overstating, huh? I don't see it as a denial of gay rights. I think the people involved in promoting gay rights should be very mindful that there are certain rights, you know, there are certain privileges that you want to fight for because that means inclusion into mainstream rights and privileges, you know, that other members of society get. Things like employment and so forth, right? That you should not be denied a job just because of your sexual tendencies. You should not be denied housing, healthcare, education, just because, you know, of your sexual tendency. Bottom line is if you want, if you ask the question, you know, "How well are we accepting our gay members?", then, the question would be, "If you are gay and a Singaporean, do you have access to everything available to your straight friend?" And if the answer is yes, and I think the answer pretty much is yes, then we're doing OK.
( Commercial break .)
(Camera makes a series of quick takes of the facades of shops selling luxury goods along Orchard Road.
Huge shocking-pink Chinese characters which read 'Pink Dollar Market' are superimposed and scroll across the screen.
Camera pans around the upper half of Fridae's advertisement brochure for Nation 03. The blurb on the cover reads, "don't just hang around... Asia's very own 'Mardi Gras' happens every 8th August right here in Singapore". A tantalising black-and-white photo of 3 buff Asian torsos in skimpy underwear embellishes the page.)
Male narrator: In Western countries, the majority of the homosexual cohort belong to the high income category of individuals. According to market research, because that they do not have the burden of family responsibilities, their spending power is especially strong. They vacation often, have a penchant for flaunting luxury goods and love entertainment, thus forming a powerful new market. Some have nicknamed this unique market the 'Pink Economy'.
Some people think that the motive for Singapore changing its stance on homosexuals is its desire for capitalising on this market.
Reports have indicated that the local gay party extravaganza last year, Nation 04, attracted both from within our shores and overseas close to 8,000 participants, earning Singapore almost 10 million Sing dollars in tourist revenue.
Toy Factory's Nelson Chia (grinning from ear to ear): If you look at the sources of income for the Singapore economy as a whole, it really does not depend on the 'pink dollar'. Large-scale parties are held once, maybe twice, a year. Or take theatre for instance. The Government is actually not making anything from theatre productions, as far as the 'pink dollar' is concerned. So I think that from the point of view of the economy, they really do not rely on the 'pink dollar'.
Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan: Particularly in Singapore, not everything is determined by how much money you can make...because I think our State still continues to value, and we continue to value, you know, the Government's role as moral arbitrator, right? I think that these developments come more because, as a society, we have progressed.
('David' and his lover, whose side profile is clearly visible in broad daylight, walk into view in a scene along Boat Quay. David's other half lovingly puts his arm around the hefty chub's distal shoulder. They then walk hand-in-hand along the riverside railing, visible from head-to-toe, albeit out of focus.)
Male narrator: Some homosexuals feel that although the Government can accept public information regarding gays, reports in the mainstream media are still negative.
"David": Basically, as far as average Singaporeans are concerned, their acquaintance with homosexuals is too little. Moreover, they only read negative reports, like 'homosexuals are increasingly getting infected with AIDS' or that the lives they lead belong to the 'rabid party animal' category. Add to that the perception that their lives are full of sexual fun and games. There are absolutely no positive reports whatsoever. I feel that if this carries on, society will never change...because they will never really come into contact with, or discover that, homosexuals are actually very ordinary people. The people you see walking towards you on the street every day may be homosexual, not only those who are up to strange things.
PLU's Eileena Lee (speaking in English at a more normal pace): There's a correlation between homophobia and lack of visibility of anything about gay people - gay women, gay men, or anything about sexual minorities. I'm talking about the media - as in films, as in TV, as in newspapers. You hardly get to see any positive information about sexual minorities. Or if you do, you get to see pretty much negative stuff about sexual minorities, so, you know, naturally, people will have this misconception of sexual minorities being very, you know, the deviant sort.
Toy Factory's Nelson Chia: It's because now, there is still no kind of channel to enable the positive voice of homosexuals to emerge. Theatre, actually, is already one form of channel. But in the mainstream media, be it TV or newspapers, this kind of viewpoint is still not readily approved of... not readily approved of. So, often, voices of protest are heard. It appears, at the present time, to be decidedly unfair! If others are allowed to criticise you, you must be given the right to reply. I personally hope that in future, we will be able to listen to voices from both parties.
Sociologist Paulin Tay Straughan: No matter what we say, no matter what how many doors the state opens, there are going to be people, ordinary good folks, alright?, who are going to be fearful. I would encourage the gay community, particularly those who are taking up leadership positions within these communities, to make good use of these opportunities to promote a more positive image, alright?, of what the community stands for. Showcase the talents, showcase what, you know, this community can do for Singapore. Fight wisely. Promote positive, wholesome images so that these people, in time to come, will see a gay Singaporean is no different from a straight Singaporean.
(Credits roll, with thanks to Toy Factory Production Ensemble)
(Produced by Threesixzero Productions for MediaCorp TV)
- Alex Au, Yawning Bread article, "Sociologist says gays in Singapore have 'pretty much' everything", March 2005.