This is the talk given at panel session Queer in Asia: Issues, Identities, and Communication, part of the 60th annual convention of the International Communication Association (ICA), held at Suntec Convention Centre 22- 26 June 2010.
This Queer in Asia session had an interesting origin: At the ICA conference in Dresden in 2006, when Singapore vied to be the next conference site, the support of some divisions and interest groups for holding the event here was secured only with the reassurance that certain matters would be addressed in the conference program. The two issues were sexuality and press freedom.
The Closetted Listener
This is an abridged version of an essay I intend to put up on my blog that seeks to get a sense of how the Singapore government’s contact – I dare not say engagement — with the gay community has changed over time.
That the internet is an effective enabler of community-building and mobilisation is now, I believe, a known thing. What I have lately become interested in is what impact internet communication, specifically gay-related content and interaction, has had on those listening in who are not potentially members of the community — the outsiders, so to speak. Perhaps the most important of the outsiders is the government.
My longer essay will mention eight event points. Two of them I class as blunders. Three of them were enforcement actions, but the most recent three had quite a different feel to them, suggesting the beginning of engagement. But how does one engage with another party without first hearing what its concerns and objectives are? So, the simple fact that there are signs of engagement suggests that listening has been taking place.
It is a well-known fact that our mainstream media will only carry stories or commentary on gay issues with the greatest reluctance. If you want to get a sense of gay community opinion, or even public opinion on this matter, the mainstream media is not the place to look. Essentially, gay-speak in Singapore is confined to new media. And if the government has been shifting its policy position to be more sensitive to the LGBT communities, it must have been listening in to gay-speak online.
That it does so for enforcement purposes is not an interesting angle, though I will cover it in my longer blog essay to come, for the record. What is more interesting is to see when and how it has been listening for the purpose of informing and modulating policy. And that’s the angle I will confine myself to today.
Of the eight event points, I will only touch on four, beginning with the blunder of 2003.
In 2003, Singapore was just recovering from two successive economic downturns and the government was eager to attract foreign professionals to enrich the talent pool in Singapore in the hope of powering the recovery. Taking advantage of an interview with Time magazine, the government laid out the welcome mat. The magazine reported that then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong
says his government now allows gay employees into its ranks, even in sensitive positions. The change in policy…. is being implemented without fanfare
— Time magazine, 7 July 2003, A lion in winter
Implemented without fanfare. They didn’t fully understand the internet. Within days, it was fanfared through Singapore’s digital space, particularly on gay forums. The traditional media picked up the story, reading into the prime minister’s words an indication of a liberalisation of their own editorial boundaries — at last we can write about gay stuff too — and ran to town with it. Just about everybody, including myself I should admit, hoped that it signalled a wider shift in policy, particularly over the existing sodomy law.
With expectations of a broader policy shift running high, the government found itself caught on the back foot. Apparently, it had only wanted to sneak in that invitation to gay foreigners, doing so on a media platform (i.e. Time magazine) aimed at foreign readers, without making any substantive accommodation in domestic policy. For some two-and-a-half months after the story broke, it either stayed silent or when it couldn’t, as when ministers were confronted with a question by reporters, warned that any attempt to read more than what was literally said in that statement to Time magazine and pushing for a wider review of policy would only encourage a backlash.
On 13 July 2003, Channel News Asia reported Minister without Portfolio Lim Boon Heng as saying,
…. it would be a step backward if the gay community starts to push and demand rights. I think there’s going to be a backlash
— Channel NewsAsia, 13 July 2003
Saying that, of course, was almost a plea to conservative sections to please come up with a backlash.
Eventually, the prime minister himself had to say categorically that outside of being open to employing gay foreigners, there would be no other changes in government policy. He also had to resort to an old-style signal to the mainstream media to lay off the subject with the phrase: “we will now move on”.
I think this was a learning experience for the government. Prior to this, they probably had no idea of the swift, borderless interplay between digital speech and traditional media. The story went from print (Time magazine) to internet (LGBT forums) back to print (local newspapers) and to broadcast (local TV and radio).
But aside from being blindsided on interconnectivity, the episode suggests that the government had not been fully aware that a Singapore gay community had grown online, sharing information, raising consciousness and becoming ready to pounce. As well, that there were sympathisers among those working in the mainstream media, particularly the younger generation of journalists. Together, the possibility that this could become a lobby pressing for change would surely have rung alarm bells in the government.
If they hadn’t by then, this episode would make them realise the need to monitor gay-speak on the internet, not just for enforcement purposes, but also for taking a measure of evolving public opinion.
Fast forward to 2007. This was the year when the gay community pushed for a repeal of Section 377A, which is the reference number of the law that criminalises sex between two males. In October, the prime minister, now Lee Hsien Loong, stood up in parliament to defend his government’s approach, walking the absurdly thin line of keeping the law on the books but promising not to “pro-actively” enforce it.
Speaking about where he understood public opinion was at that moment, he said that in his view, not many people were seized with the issue of repeal. Only a minority were, for and against. In particular, he noted that the Chinese-speaking community in Singapore, a large group, were “not strongly engaged, either for removing section 377A or against removing section 377A.”
He also said “I do not doubt the depth of the sentiments and the breadth of the support…”
One gets the sense that he was speaking with confidence that he knew where things stood. It could only have come from a careful analysis of opinion expressed across various media platforms.
Yet, what he said was not the same as what his predecessor said in 2003. Lee was formalising a “no enforcement” policy where Goh did not mention it, and to this albeit nano-scale degree, it represented a shift in policy. The listener was beginning to respond to what it was hearing.
August 2008 was the month when the government announced that demonstrations could be held with minimal licensing rules, but only at Hong Lim Green, also known as Speakers’ Corner.
Promptly, reporters from the newspaper Today posed to the authorities the question of whether a gay pride demonstration could take place. A spokesman from the Ministry of Home Affairs responded with an equivocal “We want to be as open as possible,” adding that the new liberalisation effort would be a “work in evolution”.
This non-committal answer should be seen in the context of the ban on the Snowball and Nation circuit parties imposed in December 2004 and August 2005. Then, although the explanations from the authorities were circumlocutory, the bottom line was that they were banned simply because they were gay.
Liberalising Hong Lim Green as an allowable place for demonstrations had nothing to do with accommodating gay sensibilities; it had to do with the risk that civil disobedience over other political issues might pick up steam if the rules were seen as too unreasonable. So it was not obvious that a gay pride event at Hong Lim would be allowed; the authorities might still find some pretext to exclude it from the list of permissible gatherings.
Despite the ambiguity of the official position, a group of gay men and women got together to plan their first Pink Dot, most belonging to a generation for whom the natural medium of communication and organising was the internet. This would have enabled the government to eavesdrop on a lot of the conversations, including checking the backgrounds of the key players.
We don’t know for sure if they did, but I’d be astonished if they didn’t; it would be very uncharacteristic of this government. In any case, it would have been a good thing if monitoring took place because the authorities would have been able to know that there was no reason to fear the worst. The organisers were planning a joyful gathering rather than a politically-incendiary protest.
The first Pink Dot in May 2009 went off with no obstruction at all, with the initially ambiguous official position eventually settling on a Yes. The second one, in May 2010 drew an even larger crowd. Five years after the Nation party was banned, here again was a public gathering unequivocally gay. Here again, an evolution of policy.
For my last example, I come back to the law. In January 2009, prosecutors charged six men for having sexual contact with a minor. The initial charges were brought under the same Section 377A of the Penal Code that the prime minister had in 2007 said would not be pro-actively enforced.
The Attorney-General’s Chambers did something they seldom do: Issue a press statement. If you look at the handful of press statements they have issued in the last two years, most of them refer to politically sensitive cases. That this case too merited a public statement, points to the government’s assessment that this case too has political implications.
Here is the key paragraph in the press statement:
The Public Prosecutor will prosecute persons who exploit a young victim who is a minor, irrespective of the gender of the victim or whether the act was consensual. A young male victim, who is a minor, deserves to be accorded the same protection of the law as that given to a young female victim who is a minor.
— Press statement from the Attorney-General’s Chambers, 29 January 2009
As you can see, this statement anticipated accusations that the government was going back on its word over not enforcing the law, by pointing out, quite reasonably, that in this case a juvenile was involved.
Who would be the primary target audience for such a statement? And how did the government become aware that such communication would be called for? I think by this point, I don’t have to spell out the answers.
Beyond the key role that the internet has played in building community and mobilising the LGBT communities in Singapore, what these examples show is that it has also served, in the absence of the mainstream media serving them, as a platform for negotiation with the State. Virtually none of the LGBT participants using the internet are conscious of this aspect of their own online activity, and none of them alone has much impact. But through the sum of their conversations, it is possible for the government to discern their chief concerns and depth of feeling. In contrast to the early years where we had examples of blundering, we can see a more nuanced governmental response in recent years, and I would argue that this comes from a more systematic effort to monitor and take into account gay opinion expressed online.
See the report on this panel session in Illiberal pragmatism and reciprocal complicity.