Illiberal pragmatism and reciprocal complicity

This second post about the Queer Asia panel session at the International Communication Association’s annual conference is about the chief points others made and my reflections. The talk I gave at this session can be seen in the earlier post The Closetted Listener (abridged version).

Audrey Yue, University of Melbourne, was the other presenter. She focussed on the Illiberal Pragmatism that characterises Singapore’s stance on queer issues, putting into sharp relief the contrast between the relative space given to queer creativity on the one hand and the refusal to grant equal rights on the other. Not only that, she noted the irony of the government giving not just space but also support to the former when it would not move on the latter front.

Her long list of examples included Fridae.com that has grown to be one of the leading gay portals if not the leading one in Asia, and which was given an Arts Council award in 2008. In the sphere of film, she noted how when Singapore first embarked on the revitalisation of its local film industry in the mid 1990s, the first to be produced was Bugis Street, with its narrative of a transsexual character. A decade later, there was Rice Rhapsody, funded by the Singapore Film Commission, that told the story of a mother with three gay sons and ended “with everybody living happily ever after,” in Audrey’s own words.

In many ways, the space the government opened up  was not specifically directed at LGBT needs, but was claimed, exploited and even distorted by the queer communities for their own expression. Beyond the internet, film and theatre, she also pointed out how public housing schemes that allowed two friends over 35 to buy a flat together effectively meant state blessing for same-sex co-habitation. Down in Chinatown, the state’s efforts at conservation opened up spaces in old shophouses that lesbian and gay entrepreneurs exploited to launch numerous bars and saunas. Her research identified 19 bars and 16 saunas, “more than Melbourne and Sydney combined.”

What explains this contrast? Her view is that the Singapore government, focussed as it is on economic production, sees queerness as a “technology”, i.e. a means and skill set, for the creative side of economic growth —  a completely instrumental approach, divorced from issues of human dignity and civil rights.

Yet, many LGBT Singaporeans play their part without questioning. Whether its the Nation party, Butch hunt or posing at the bars and saunas, the hedonistic, consumerist preferences displayed is what completes the state’s strategy. LGBT persons in Singapore perform their roles as desired by the state: they “do” gay more than “be” gay.

It’s the doing that fructifies the strategy while “being” gay would pose a challenge to the limitations imposed by the state.

* * * * *

Following Audrey’s and my presentations, there was a lot of interesting back-and-forth among the two respondents, Larry Gross from the University of Southern California and John Nguyet Erni from Lingnan University, Hong Kong, and several members of the audience. I am not able to attribute all comments with precision; in any case, what follows is more in the nature of my thoughts in response to what was said rather than any attempt to capture what exactly was said.

I do recall John Erni saying that gay people in Hong Kong envy the social space gay Singaporeans have — a statement that left me dumbfounded. I’m still dumbfounded as I write: I have nothing more to say on this.

His main point however was that the governance system Audrey described was not really unique to Singapore. A number of other countries — he didn’t name them — have adopted similar policies of allowing cultural expression without political and civil rights. That is a valid point, though I wonder if the Singapore situation carries it rather further. Audrey’s point wasn’t merely that of allowing cultural expression, but the manner in which the Singapore government uses queer expression as a “technology” to achieve economic ends, to the extent even of supporting it on occasion.

Larry Gross, speaking as a Westerner, and someone from the Stonewall generation too, thought it was interesting how the gay issue in Asia is not necessarily developing along the path beaten by Western, or US experience. In America especially, the chief priorities in the decades following Stonewall were civil rights; even now, it’s about marrying and raising kids. He attributed the impulse to one of wanting to be no different from everybody else, of erasing difference between gay and straight. And then he mused that perhaps in the process, something is lost: the cultural difference in being gay and the sense of minority community was very positive too, comparing that to sense of belonging that ethnic minorities have.

In his gentle way, he might have been exploring a counter argument to Audrey’s lament that the political has been deprioritised. Perhaps there is something to be said for the “jouissance” (it was actually John Erni who used this word) of queerness that cultural expression offers.

There were a number of different questions from the floor, of which I shall only mention two. One related to how Audrey and I saw the impact of Richard Florida’s The Rise of the Creative Class on Singapore’s policy evolution, particularly the tolerance limb.

I said, looking at our experience, especially through the lens of Audrey’s analysis, Singapore has both proven and subverted it. My thoughts (not all of which were expressed in answer) are that the government is performing tolerance, allowing the superficial, e.g. entertainment outlets, without progressing the substantive. And yet, it is undeniable that they have managed to attract foreign talent and there has been some flowering of creativity (though how much is debatable). The success in attracting/flowering proves the proposition, but this success coming about merely through superficial implementation of “tolerance” in a sense subverts Florida’s argument.

The other question came from Terence Lee from Murdoch University. He asked what I saw were the chances of getting rights recognised and when. I had to admit that it’s hard for me even to guess. However, one factor that I wanted to highlight and which many people seeing gay issues through the Western perspective may fail to pay attention to is the role of China. As we move further into this century, China’s profile is going to grow. Its cultural weight will increase. The way its own socio-political and governance model evolves will have an influence on countries like Singapore, in that the China model will become a significant reference. If China moves on gay rights, perhaps as part of an advance in human rights generally, then attitudes here will change faster and Singapore will be more and more uncomfortable trying to remain as an outlier. If China doesn’t move, then its inaction legitimises inaction in Singapore too.

* * * * *

There’s one last point that I feel I should record from the discussion, though I cannot remember who said what. It grew out of someone’s point that what tolerance Singapore has is conditioned upon an hierarchy of sexualities. The nature of “tolerance” itself implies a subordinate and regulated placing for the object that is tolerated. To the degree that gay people in Singapore prefer to revel in their performative role, to “do” gay and be so used in the larger scheme of things, rather than contest the hierarchy, are not gay people here reciprocating with complicity in the government’s illiberal pragmatism? Oh dear.

8 Responses to “Illiberal pragmatism and reciprocal complicity”


  1. 1 twasher 24 June 2010 at 23:48

    I do recall John Erni saying that gay people in Hong Kong envy the social space gay Singaporeans have — a statement that left me dumbfounded.

    I don’t know what the gay scene in HK is like, so I couldn’t figure out why you were dumbfounded. Is it because Erni’s remark flies in the face of facts, or because you didn’t know before he said that that gay people in HK lacked social space to that extent?

  2. 2 Chris 25 June 2010 at 02:47

    The nature of “tolerance” itself implies a subordinate and regulated placing for the object that is tolerated.

    “Tolerance” merely says that I agree that you may be homosexual without let or hindrance from the state. It says nothing about whether I believe that homosexuality is “wrong”, “immoral”, or “non-Biblical” (for example). I can believe all three while still tolerating homosexuals.

    “Acceptance”, on the other hand, says that I accept the fact that you are homosexual and do not believe that, on a moral basis, you are inferior in any way to any other person.

    The movement from “tolerance” to “acceptance” is difficult. It took from 1967 and the Wolfenden Act to 2005 and “civil partnerships” to move much of the way between the two in the United Kingdom. When we get to full marriage rights, I think we can say the movement between the two is complete.

    • 3 Robox 25 June 2010 at 03:41

      Chris, want to hear a definition of “tolerance” that I came across once?

      tolerance (defn.): “You smell bad, but I can hold my nose.”

  3. 5 Robox 25 June 2010 at 03:37

    1. “A number of other countries — [John Erni] didn’t name them — have adopted similar policies of allowing cultural expression without political and civil rights.”

    I suspect that the countries that Erni could have had in mind are all Asian ones. One reason I say that is that the so-called advances I am seeing, which are no advances at all except for the increasing elimination of the hardline approach towards LGBTs, seems to be a fallback on traditional attitudes in Asian societies towards ‘same sex attractions’; I suspect that they were more what we would today call trans women-heterosexually identified male attractions.

    One of those attitudes was of the trans women/gay men demographic as a source of entertainment and not one that needed to be regarded with any seriousness. (Hence, why the need to clamour for legal rights?) A substantial portion of that entertainment was in the sex trade. (It explains to me why some of the first reactions to the demands for gay rights were met with bemusement.)

    I will pick up on this same point towards the end.

    2. “[Audrey Yue’s] view is that the Singapore government, focussed as it is on economic production, sees queerness as a “technology”, i.e. a means and skill set, for the creative side of economic growth – a completely instrumental approach, divorced from issues of human dignity and civil rights.”

    I do agree: the PAP government’s new-found tolerance for LGBTs is really of LGBTs as a means to an economic end. And while Ms Yue has described this as the PAP government seeing queerness as a technology which some feminists would call an “objectification” of LGBTs, then the only conclusion to draw is that the PAP government must also see queers – the persons – as an economic sector unto themselves.

    Putting both panellists’ observations together, LGBTs are an economic sector unto themselves and definitely not one that is as diversified as the hetero ones: all gays are stereotyped as “creative” and they constitute an economic sector engaged in creative work, some of which falls under the category of entertainment.

    For heteros.

    Where does this leave the gay mechanical engineer or hawker stall assistant. Do they have as much of the rights – social rights included – that those newly minted privileged creative gays have?

    • 6 Robox 25 June 2010 at 06:20

      Sorry, Alex. I realized how clumsy my post above reads. (It always happens to me when I am processing my thoughts at the very same time as penning them.)

      But to summarize my main points:

      1. Stereotyping gays as creative is still stereotyping us. In spite of it being a “positive steretype”, it implies that those who are not implicated, as it were, by that stereotype, it disadvantages heterosexuals who may be equally creative.

      2. Stereotyping ALL gays as creative also disadvantages those gays who may not be as creative; those who do the stereotyping may have no reason to see this groups of gays as having any value, much less deserving of their rights.

      Thank you for indulging me.

      • 7 Chris 26 June 2010 at 16:35

        The argument about stereotyping gay men and (less often) lesbians has gone on in Western lesbian and gay circles for as long as I’ve been in them. The idea that all gay men are young, affluent, Caucasian gym bunnies who have great creative jobs during the day and snort coke off other men’s navels at night before engaging in anal sex the rest of the night and after spending an evening in a gay bar or club is rubbish. We all know that in those “gay circles”. There are lots of working class gay men, gay men of colour who fit the stereotype above except for the “Caucasian” part, and Caucasian gay men who wouldn’t know what a gay bar is. I am 57 years old; in “gay years” that is about 158. I am officially invisible to those who hold the stereotype to be true.

        As I am not aware of the lesbian scene except very peripherally, I will not say anything about it and leave that to those who do know something.

        It is true that many of the most articulate Singaporean gay men that I know are creative, affluent types who do go to gay pubs and clubs and are sexually active in their own set. This does not take into account so many whom I don’t know because they don’t blog or because I haven’t met them on my trips to Singapore. Any stereotyping I might do would miss them out, which is not a good idea when government policy or social research is being carried out (not that I’m doing any of that, mind you).

        Stereotyping isn’t a good idea because it both discriminates against those who do not fit it and fails to describe adequately the entire set of people belonging to the category.

        BTW, this stereotyping observation often comes up at Pride events here in Europe or America. In the Pride marches themselves we see lesbians, gay men, bisexuals, straight people and all of every body type, level of affluence, age, race, and category imaginable. In London Pride there is a group of civil servants who march in dark suits and ties, with tightly rolled-up umbrellas and bowler hats on their heads (for example).

        In the general press we only see the male Caucasian gym bunny who is wearing a thong that barely covers his junk and has sparkles over the rest of his tanned toned body. Did I mention he’s probably wearing high heels?

        Who’s stereotyping now?

  4. 8 Dickson 27 June 2010 at 21:17

    If the raison d’etre of LBGTs in Singapore is necessarily that of an economic basis – as is the rest of Singapore – then I have reasons to be optimistic about the exploitation of this “queerness technology” as the avenue through which the local LGBT community is able to push for greater visibility and common space (I hesitate to use the word “rights”, guessing that it is not a word particularly favored by the government, except in the context of its sovereignty) with the rest of the Singaporean community.


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