Writing on Facebook, playwright and poet Alfian Sa’at said of the gay-affirmative event Pink Dot, “like so many things in Singapore, [it] has ended up reproducing the power structures that it should aim to challenge.” He was referring to the way Pink Dot has written all over it the social ascendancy of the English-speaking ethnic-Chinese middle class.
He reported a comment from a friend: “Pink Dot is as much a celebration of the LGBT community to love as it is a display of the self-love of Chinese, middle-class, English-educated liberals. What is inclusive in the term ‘LGBT’ is problematised by the fact that what is supposed to stand for the queer community in Singapore is almost exclusively ‘CMEL’!”
The third annual Pink Dot was held last Saturday, 18 June 2011. Organisers said “over 10,000” people attended, the largest gathering on Hong Lim Park since the Speakers’ Corner was inaugurated.
Alfian’s critique may well be spot on. But the implicit assumption behind such a view — that any social movement aimed at objective A must first satisfy the nose test for objective B — is highly problematic. Does one expect an animal rights group to satisfy class-equality standards among all its members, volunteers and supporters? Does one demand that an anti-abortion campaign lean over backwards to ensure gender equality?
That said, I should not misrepresent Alfian’s position. He is not demanding that Pink Dot should be different, at least not in so many words. As he has written, “I don’t deny or dismiss how meaningful [Pink Dot] might be to some people. It’s just that it has a different meaning for me,” and that was why he chose not to attend this year. Nor was he stopping others from attending either.
Nuanced differently is another criticism of his — that Pink Dot “comes across as anxious to colonise and co-opt all the streams that exist out there.” Here again, it’s somewhat more complex than that, and that’s why I think it is necessary for me to pen my thoughts.
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A social movement ultimately hinges on one key issue. The supporters it attracts subscribe to the core idea, but beyond that, may not agree on anything else. Nor is participation usually made conditional upon subscription to additional beliefs. There is no test for eligibility outside of the movement’s key aim, and people self-select when they join.
It should hardly be surprising therefore that on other issues, participants bring with them their (differing) biases. Or that they tend to come from certain social strata. To expect a gay-affirmative movement to meet purity standards by other yardsticks — racial views, religious representativeness, age profile, etc — is plain unrealistic.
Where an indictment can be made is when a movement applies tests for exclusion unrelated to its key aim. Does a gay movement deliberately exclude people of a certain ethnicity from participation? Does a breast cancer campaign go out of its way to exclude unmarried adults? Does a hamster-lovers’ society turn away atheists? By no stretch of the imagination can such an indictment be made of the Pink Dot movement.
But if one says that they were negligent in not making efforts to ensure purity in all other regards, or in purging itself of the various biases that its participants bring in, I would say, that’s just not fair. It’s too tall an order and it’s not what the movement is about. Why should they expend precious energy and resources on that? Don’t forget, people didn’t join to have their minds about ethnicity, religion or vegetarianism changed. They joined to promote the primary cause.
It’s almost inevitable that social movements do not attract a representative cross-section of the population. Social aims are embedded in certain worldviews and a movement’s supporters would disproportionately be drawn from among those who already subscribe to that worldview. Gay equality is very much an outgrowth of liberal philosophies, which at this point in history is largely anchored within Western civilisation. It doesn’t have to be. Ideas do not have skin colours, anymore than gunpowder, first invented by the Chinese, “belongs” to the Chinese, and that its use in the German army is somehow inauthentic. Nevertheless, it would be dishonest to deny that liberalism is most advanced in Western democracies and those Singaporeans who have picked up these ideas are mainly inspired by them. Mainly, not all. There is also a growing liberal tradition in Chinese intellectual thought.
While large numbers of Singaporeans are Western-acculturated to some degree, we are not all equally so. Some segments of our population are more so than others. Here again, it is hardly news to anyone that the middle-class, English-speaking Chinese and Indians lead the pack.
(At this point I need to make a digression, for I am concerned that some readers will take what I said above about how some Singaporeans are influenced by Western liberal philosophies, to then assert that they are somehow less authentic than Singaporeans more acculturated to ‘traditional’ Asian worldviews. As an extension of this, there will be some people who will then assert that homosexuality and the equal treatment of gay people is an ‘imported’ idea and therefore invalid. This is to completely miss my statement that ideas do not have skin colours. A ‘traditional’ Asian worldview is not any more authentic to us because of the colour of our skin than a liberal worldview. If the idea doesn’t suit us, it doesn’t suit us. If an idea invented by someone else works better for us, or strikes us as more advanced, rational, compassionate or just, it would be a form of essentialist thinking to stop ourselves from embracing it. Being gay-affirmative and having a liberal agenda is no more natural or unnatural than the opposite.)
Fighting for gay equality is one of those self-actualisations that Abraham Maslow theorised about at the top of his pyramind. Since people generally need the luxury of prior needs satisfied before they get involved in that, it should therefore be totally expected that the more privileged segments of our society are over-represented in the Pink Dot movement.
Actually, it’s not just Pink Dot. Look around at most civil society, non-profit groups that serve a wider cause (as opposed to clan associations or temple groups) and what you see is the same: Lots of English-speaking middle-class Chinese and Indians. You don’t see as many ethnic Chinese who are more comfortable in Chinese than in English. You next-to-never see any Indians who are more comfortable in Tamil than English. You don’t see many Malays either relative to the percentage of total population. In fact, one group that is way over-represented are the White Singaporeans — who are Permanent Residents if not citizens, but who see Singapore as their second home. The primary denominator is not ethnicity, it’s social class. And for liberal causes, the other chief denominator is the English language and Western acculturisation.
This unbalanced (if you will) mix inevitably brings with it the attitudes (and neglect) of social groups that constitute it; their strengths and their weaknesses too.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? It depends. One could argue that precisely because they are drawn disproportionately from the privileged sections of society, they punch above their weight. On the other hand, it can be unfortunate in that there can be an unintended marginalisation of those that do not quite fit the same social profile and who feel crowded out by the majority of the participants. Furthermore, every attempt by the movement to broaden its base is also seen as an attempt to co-opt and colonise other streams that might otherwise share the same social aim, but spring from different social groups.
In other words, all these tensions are understandable. Moreover, they can be found in every social movement. The important measure is whether they beget change. From the looks of it, Pink Dot is on its way.
With thanks to Dominic Chua for the photos.
On a separate note, see also The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Natural Selection and Evolution, with a Key to Many Complicating Factors. Scientifically illiterate persons need not read. Thanks to Kelly for the link.