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.
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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.
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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.