Reuters: Gay Culture in Singapore

Saturday, July 3, 2004

Sun Mar 7, 2004 12:07 AM ET
By Sophie Hares

In the dark studio at Singapore's spiky-roofed Esplanade theatre, 200 people packed tightly on to benches to watch a witty and poignant tale of gay life, love and loss being played out on a minimalist stage.

The content would barely raise an eyebrow in New York, London or Sydney, but the sell-out play featuring nudity and kissing signals the tentative start to a more liberalised era in strait-laced

With its soaring skyline and high-tech living, Singapore has claimed a place among the world's most modern cities, but government policy and social mores in the wealthy, multi-cultural island state are famously conservative.

There are signs, however, of low-key policy changes and budding tolerance for a thriving gay community in a country whose censorship laws are so strict that even brief glimpses of nudity are routinely cut from commercial movie releases.

"The scene has blossomed over the past five or six years, as the government has chosen to close one eye to the development of an entertainment industry catering to the gay crowd," said Alex Au from gay group People Like Us, which Singapore refuses to register as a society.

Podium dancers, pumping music and muscular boys stripping off their tops on packed dancefloors have long been a feature of busy gay clubs around Singapore's Chinatown.

But now gay-oriented karaoke lounges, saunas, cafes and bars are opening, and businesses are fast realising the so-called "pink dollar" is a lucrative market waiting to be tapped.

Airlines, car and credit card firms, and property developers promoting upmarket apartments have launched subtle marketing strategies to court gays and lesbians, who are often perceived as
high-earners with plenty of disposable income.

Among the bolder signs of change are a growing calendar of plays with themes of alternative lifestyles played out in mainstream venues such as the new Esplanade theatre, nicknamed the "durian" for its resemblance to the pungent, spiky fruit.

"The audiences do see in these plays the dilemma of what it means to be gay in straight Singapore," said Ivan Heng, director of "Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol.2", which opened at the theatre in early February.

"There seems to be much more freedom than there used to be, but as long as laws criminalise consensual acts between adults, it's still got some way to go."

Some now talk of Singapore usurping hedonistic Bangkok as Asia's gay capital after the wealthy island hosted a dance party known as "Nation" in August that drew nearly 5,000 people from around the world, an event unimaginable just a few years ago.

"Singapore's a very functionalist society. I don't think it has anything to do with issues of morality or anything like that," said Charmaine Tan, 27.

"In the end, the issue of economics will always override everything else."

Singapore quietly admitted last year that gay people could now be employed in the civil service without fear of discrimination -- another move almost unthinkable in the past.

But while there may be encouraging signs of change, the gay community in Singapore enjoys few of the freedoms of cities such as Sydney, with its huge Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras parade, or Amsterdam, where same-sex couples may marry and adopt children.

And there are no signs it will remove controversial section 377A from its Penal Code which says acts of "gross indecency" between two men are punishable by up to two years in jail.

There are no laws specifically targeted at lesbians.

"I think the government could do a lot more in terms of being courageous enough at least to invite debate on the issue," said one gay man who declined to be identified.

"Saying things like it's too sensitive, or we are an Asian society, are really euphemisms for intolerance."


Hiding their sexuality from friends and work colleagues for fear of recrimination is still par for the course for many gays and lesbians in Singapore.

"Because Singapore is primarily Chinese, there's the issue of filial piety, there's always the pressure to get married and perhaps it's even more so in an Asian country," said Tan.

Resistance by gay organisations to the government's policies is surprisingly passive as some fear outspoken protests could spark a crackdown on the small concessions already won.

"Singaporeans as a whole are not a very vocal, politically inclined bunch of people. Because they're not outspoken, there isn't the same kind of backlash," said Stuart Koe, head of, which runs Singapore's main gay and lesbian website.

"People aren't going to march on the streets. I don't think there's ever going to be a gay pride march here in Singapore."

Despite the slow pace of change, many remain optimistic the government will eventually be forced to make more concessions to the gay community to bring Singapore into line with other modern states.

Although how long that takes, will be anyone's guess.

"When we see 50 percent of people under 30 have a gay friendly attitude, we know that time is on our side. The biggest problem is that this government doesn't answer to the people," said Au of People Like Us.