Queering the Dot
By Louis Ho
Full text also available in Chinese.
“I believe this is the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept. This will bring the law into line with current social mores, and I hope, provide some relief to gay Singaporeans.” In his National Day Rally speech on August 21, Singapore’s prime minister, Lee Hsien Loong, signaled a seismic shift in the country’s legal stance on male homosexuality when he announced the repeal of a colonial-era statute criminalizing acts of “gross indecency” between men. Section 377A of the penal code was introduced in the Straits Settlements in 1938, intended as a tool to maintain social hygiene among the resident European population by reining in the patronage of male Asian prostitutes. The government’s decision, not unanticipated, came in the wake of several court challenges to the law in recent decades, with the Court of Appeal ruling most recently in February that Section 377A was “unenforceable in its entirety.”
Reactions from Singapore’s queer creative community were cautiously optimistic. The artist behind one of the most compelling gay-themed shows in Singapore in recent memory, Brian Gothong Tan, noted that the time was ripe: “I was happy of course; it’s been a long time coming and it felt like Singapore has been stuck in the Middle Ages for too long.” Artist Charmaine Poh, who identifies as pansexual, echoed the sentiment: “I think that for gay men especially, who have been directly targeted, it’s a cause for celebration to finally not be considered a criminal.” Yet, amid the general approbation, others recalled the bad times. Divaagar, a multimedia practitioner who refers to himself as a “proud offender of 377A,” was pointed in his ambivalence. “I’m reminded,” he mused, “of how much it has caused harm, and how it has weighed on the minds of many queer people here.” Artist and educator Regina De Rozario, openly lesbian, alluded to the damage and indignity engendered by institutionalized homophobia: “I thought about my gay friends over the years . . . who could not afford to be ‘out,’ or who struggled with this in some way. To think about that wasted time and potential makes me sad and angry.”
Scant representation of sexual and gender alterities existed in Singapore in the early years of independence. One of the first examples, perhaps unsurprisingly, was a banned Hollywood movie. Peter Bogdanovich’s Saint Jack (1979), touted as the only American film to be shot entirely in Singapore, featured a character played by former Bond actor George Lazenby, who picks up another man for a sexual encounter—depicted on screen with full-frontal nudity—as well as transgender individuals who were real-life sex workers on the infamous Bugis Street; the ban on the movie was lifted only in 2006. Gay life in Singapore became more visible in the 1980s through a booming theater scene and the tragedy of the HIV/AIDS crisis. Yet self-censorship lingered, as was evident in the case of painter Teng Nee Cheong (1951–2013). Despite the overt homoeroticism of his visual vocabulary, Teng was never able to go public about his personal orientation. He produced numerous images of male nudes over the course of his career, one of the earliest extant being Tribute to Mishima (1980), which pictures a supine man clad in nothing but a pair of white socks. The Balinese Rangda mask in the painting, according to curator Lindy Poh, alludes to Yukio Mishima’s novel Confessions of a Mask (1949), both a coded reference to the Japanese writer’s homosexuality and to the facade that Teng affected in everyday life out of necessity.
The push for LGBTQ+ rights began to take shape in the comparatively liberal years of Goh Chok Tong’s reign. (Singapore’s founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, who stepped down as prime minister in 1990, was renowned for having little appetite for dissent.) A complaint by patrons about police behavior during a 1993 raid of the Rascals discotheque produced an unprecedented apology from the authorities, and a promise against future recurrence. The so-called Rascals incident is regarded by some as Singapore’s equivalent of New York’s 1969 Stonewall riots, the symbolic seed of what was to become a vocal, organized movement, helped along by the spread of internet connectivity and websites such as Fridae.com.
A collective queer consciousness also emerged in Singapore’s art scene in this period. At an event hosted by the artist-led platform 5th Passage on New Year’s Day in 1994, protesting the police entrapment of gay men, Josef Ng publicly snipped off his pubic hair, triggering a decade-long constraint on the licensing and funding of performance art. Two other milestones occurred at the Substation, Singapore’s oldest independent arts space. In 1992, a pair of female artists, Ho Soon Yeen and Dominique Hui, staged the exhibition “We Kissed,” which was followed the next year by “Flowing Forest, Burning Hearts,” a two-man show by Tan Peng and John Goss. On that occasion, Tan made history by stating categorically in a newspaper interview that he was gay. Elsewhere, Jimmy Ong’s 1996 exhibition, “Lovers & Ancestors,” as he put it, was a “parting letter to family and friends as I left Singapore to live out a gay union.”
A full-fledged movement developed in the new millennium, an era that saw the advent of IndigNation and Pink Dot in 2005 and 2009, respectively—high-profile annual events that serve as pride festivals for the community and its allies—as well as the emergence of new generations of artists who foreground non-conforming identities. Ming Wong, for instance, included in both editions of the groundbreaking LGBTQ+ exhibition “Spectrosynthesis” (2017 and 2019), works through the syntax of cinema to interrogate issues of gender and cultural subjectivity, while Poh’s photographic series How They Love (2017–19) features people who identify with a spectrum of genders and sexualities, including those who are bisexual, non-binary, and genderqueer. Zarina Muhammad’s Talismans for Peculiar Habitats (2019), an installation relating to Malay-Muslim funerary rites, makes reference to the artist’s faith and orientation, as well as being a tribute to the “queer found family who cared for [her] during several health crises.” Artists who do not explicitly address themes of queerness in their practice, like De Rozario and Zen Teh, nonetheless openly identify as such. De Rozario is candid about the fact that she makes work as part of the collective Perception3 with her artistic and life partner, Seah Sze Yunn. Likewise, Teh frequently collaborates with her domestic partner, researcher-curator Hera. Just before Section 377A met its demise, Gothong Tan’s exhibition “The Swimming Pool Library,” held in January, presented a “queer utopia” that collapses and reimagines the spaces of Katong Swimming Pool, a well-known cruising spot, and a dance club. Channeling communal and personal narratives, the installation was activated by local queer performers. In an outer gallery, the names of gay-centric venues, events, and websites were projected on a wall, the insubstantial nature of the light-based work suggesting the ephemerality of a history little studied.
Today, as in the past, independent spaces are vital platforms for alternative voices. Before it lost its physical home in 2021, the Substation was a stalwart of the scene, carving out a safe haven for creative practitioners of various persuasions to espouse non-mainstream values. Grey Projects, established in 2008 by artist and writer Jason Wee, presented a queer-themed exhibition, “No Approval,” in 2013 that featured names such as Loo Zihan, Sarah Choo, and one of Singapore’s few transgender artists, Marla Bendini. Co-curated by Wee and this author, the show was, in the former’s words, a flagrant attempt to “continue to make family and kin in all the crevices and cracks that the law has left.” Most recently, Grey Projects organized a series of programs centered on community-building, titled “Post-Repeal: Let’s Think About Us!”, in conjunction with another artist-run space, Starch, which staged an exhibition focused on several queer-identifying female artists, including Burmese-born Myo Thet Hnin. Starch was founded by artist-curator Moses Tan, whose own quietly engaging practice draws on queer theory to deconstruct melancholia and shame. His An immaculate end to a disembodied beginning (2021), for one, juxtaposes alien sculptural forms and installative spaces as an analogy for notions of queerness and disavowal within hegemonic frameworks.
The need for creative negotiation of sociocultural terrain persists, despite the scrapping of 377A. The long-awaited repeal of the archaic, discriminatory law was blunted by the simultaneous disclosure that the government would possibly amend the Constitution to define marriage as a heterosexual institution. Furthermore, Lee stated in his speech that current policies on “public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards, and film classification” would remain. While the allure of marriage or even civil partnerships is limited for some, others are concerned with practical matters. “I think it’s crucial,” De Rozario observes, “to consider how access to resources can be made possible, without necessarily depending on the state for permission.” Wee, who is raising a child with his partner, admits to feeling anger: “I want folks to know that queer families have been here, are here, and will continue to appear and form and remain despite the laws.” What the near future holds for LGBTQ+ Singaporeans, given the authorities’ propensity to balance socially progressive initiatives with more conservative counter-measures, is debatable.
Certainly, not all seems rosy. Divaagar, in rejecting the notion of same-sex marriage as the ultimate aim of the fight for gay rights, perhaps has the last word. “Queer life,” he remarks, “has taught me that other affinities, relationships, and families are out there, far more interesting than the model of the nuclear family. I’d like to imagine other futures where fundamental rights aren’t tied to heteronormative ideals.” One can only hope, indeed, that that day is not too far off for the little red dot.