Singapore gay history

Singapore gay history

Pre-Colonial period (up to 1819)

Relatively little is known about pre-colonial Singapore, let alone the history of homosexuality during this period. Nonetheless, it can reasonably be assumed that ideas and practices relating to sexual minorities were similar to other contemporary and nearby Malay societies.

As with all pre-modern societies, traditional Malay culture did not contain the idea or the figure of the modern gay individual. However, Malay society did acknowledge the reality and existence of alternatives to heterosexual practices. ‘Third gender’ or transgender individuals, who are called maknyah, were socially recognised, tolerated and even incorporated into community life. They occupied a stable, albeit arguably marginalised position within society. The Maknyah are similar in may ways to the hijra in India or the fa'afafine or Mahu in Polynesia. Unfortunately, there is limited scholarly knowledge about homosexuality in traditional Malay culture.

Colonial period (1819–1948)

Population Growth & Urbanisation

From the establishment of British rule in 1819 to the eve of World War II, Singapore's population grew rapidly from a small village of a few hundred to a large city of nearly a million. This growth and urbanisation is significant, given that the rise of large modern cities and urban culture has been correlated with the rise of the modern gay identity.

However, even prior to the emergence of that identity, the sheer scale of the city and its lifestyle, as well as the largely immigrant nature of its society, would have provided the opportunity for anonymity and discreet exploration of alternative sexuality, in the context of a British colonial city operating under Victoria-era morality laws.

Imbalanced sex-ratio

The balanced sex-ratio and settled family-based indigenous society was distorted for much of the 19th and early 20th centuries by mainly male migrant labour from China, India and Indonesia. Among the Chinese, who grew to form three-quarters of the population, the gender ratio at one point was 15 men for every woman.

Many of the women in this context were also in Singapore as prostitutes rather than as wives of male immigrants. At the other end of the social spectrum, white colonial elite society also suffered a gender imbalance, with many single young men arriving to serve in the colonial civil or military service, or as junior staff in European firms. Even the more senior staff who may have been married often chose to leave their wives and families back home in Europe, which was seen as a more healthy, safe and comfortable place for women and children.

The sheer gender imbalance in pre-war colonial Singapore would likely have encouraged numerous homosexual liaisons. In many ways, the social climate and sexual opportunities available to the men of the period would have been similar to prisoners, sailors and boarding school students, which are all groups prone to 'situational' homosexuality.

ocial Climate and sexual behaviour

Demographic changes led to Singapore acquiring a reputation as a 'sin city', filled with brothels, opium dens and gambling houses catering to lonely migrant men working in a strange foreign city. While the private lives of the Asian population were generally less well recorded, documents suggest that, at least elsewhere in similar colonial settings, European men were known to sometimes develop homosexual relationships with each other or else with local men, such as servants or houseboys.

Traditional Asian attitudes to homosexuality

Bret Hinsch in chapter 6 of his book " has detailed evidence, derived from the works of literati Li Yu and Shen De Fu, of institutionalised gay marriage practices amongst Hokkien men in Ming dynasty China(see also: [] ). The subculture was exported along with the human tide into Singapore and practised discreetly in an alien environment which officially espoused Victorian values. Usually, the younger of two male homosexual lovers would be "adopted" as the godson of the parents of the elder lover in a ceremony before the ancestral altar, involving an offering, amongst others, of pigs' trotters. Similarly, amongst the Indians, 'maasti' or sexual play between men who were not necessarily gay ( [] , [] ) would likely have been widespread with the paucity of women. This activity continues to this very day amongst the numerous migrant workers and even local Indians in the Serangoon Road area [] .

British law & homosexuality

As with other British colonies, Singapore acquired a legal system and law modelled after Britain. Victorian values were codified into strict laws governing sexual behaviour in the United Kingdom, and these were brought to the colonies. The colonial legal system criminalised sodomy (see section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code). These laws reinforced the values of the ruling British elite, which set the tone for other classes and ethnicities to emulate, at least on the surface. Over time, and in order to appear equally 'civilised' many Asians disavowed their longstanding cultural tolerance of sexual minorities.

World War II to 1960s

When the Japanese invaded Singapore in February 1942, Japanese laws replaced previous colonial laws. Gay sex was never criminalised in Japan and would now have been technically legal in Singapore. However, given the lack of human rights and rule of law under the Japanese occupation, this change in law was a technical and historical quirk, reflective of a different legal tradition, rather than an expansion of real rights for gay people.

Anecdotally, gay cruising continued in post-war Singapore in back alleys, public parks and toilets. In the most part, this was ignored by the police and no one was charged under section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code. Meanwhile, transvestite prostitution in Bugis Street became increasingly prominent. The State and mainstream society initially accepted it is as a vaguely undesirable but inevitable vice, similar to the pragmatic and worldly attitudes towards prostitution in the cosmopolitan port-city. With their growing fame, the transvestites of Bugis Street became a tourist attraction, drawing local and foreign visitors every night. Bugis Street and its associated transgender community were by far the most visible face of sexual minorities in the immediate post-war period, much as transgendered people had been in traditional Malay society. The difference was that the community was now much more public, urban and multi-ethnic. Prostitution and interaction with international visitors also added a new dimension to the life of this community.

Another arena in which GLBT issues were being played out was in National service. Compulsory uniformed (usually military) service was implemented in 1967: all 18-year old males were required to train full-time for two or two-and-a-half years, according to their level of education. Homosexuality and transsexuality were listed as conditions in a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) 'Directory of Diseases' (disease code 302). Prior to enlistment, all enlistees underwent a medical examination, during which they were asked to declare their homosexuality and/or transgender status (medics conducting the examination had little awareness of the difference between the two). New recruits who came out were deployed to non-combat, non-sensitive vocations. They were generally downgraded to a Public Employment Status of 3 (PES3) and assigned only light clerical work.

While the SAF was concerned of the safety of out gay and trans men living and working with straight servicemen it was also reluctant to exempt them from the compulsory National Service that all Singaporean men had to perform. However, post-operative male-to-female transsexuals were exempted from National Service as the Singapore Government recognised their new gender identity as women. It is unknown if post-operative female-to-male transsexuals perform National Service, though it is unlikely that many of them exist who have undergone their operation by the time of enlistment, around the age of 18. In any case, most homosexuals did (and do) not declare their sexual orientation during this examination and go on to serve in all variety of vocations. Gay men do not come out for many reasons, the most common being that they are not comfortable with declaring their sexuality to a State and organisation that is perceived to be homophobic. Some gay men also refrain from coming out as they wish to perform their duties alongside others, and find the segregation of homosexuals offensive.

The 1970s

With growing prosperity, many homosexuals, especially the English-educated middle class were exposed, via travel and the mass media, to the social liberalism of the West and the nascent gay movements there. This exposure introduced the idea that local society could evolve similarly. The growing popularity of travel to Thailand and Japan in the late 70's also introduced Singaporeans to traditional Asian societies that were more accepting of homosexuals.

Meanwhile, several nightlife entrepreneurs realised the unmet social demands of the emerging gay market, and gradually allowed their establishments to cater to gay customers on certain nights. One of the earliest was The Hangar, located in a secluded area outside the city centre where, for the first time, a large group of gay men could freely congregate and even dance together. Encouraged by this precedent, homosexuals started to patronise other, mainly straight, discos in the city area such as My Place, Black Velvet, West End, El Morroco, The Library, Studio M and even the NCO Club at Beach Road. Nightclubs like Pebbles Bar located on the ground floor of the now demolished Singapura Inn Hotel, which is now the landmark of Forum Galleria in Orchard Road, Tropicana Inn, which is now Pacific Plaza and less popularly Treetops Bar at the Holiday Inn, were increasingly packing in the gays and became iconic institutions of the local gay scene. Some heterosexual clubbers complained about this, so the managements of some of these outlets were pressurised by the authorities to display signs proclaiming 'No man and man dancing' (sic). Over time, the ruling was relaxed for fast songs, but same-gender slow dancing continued to be proscribed.

In 1971, an exposé of the hidden lives of Singapore homosexuals in the English language evening tabloid The New Nation, entitled 'They are different' carried a large photograph of a pair of holding hands apparently belonging to lesbians. It caused a stir and raised mainstream awareness of the existence of gay people who were not transgendered.

During the decade, there was a well-known transsexual model featured occasionally in Her World magazine. On the silver screen, cinema goers enjoyed a Chinese language Shaw Brothers production entitled 'Ai Nu' (Love Slave) which starred actresses Lily Ho and Pei Ti as a lesbian couple in a period setting. In the final scene when Lily Ho wanted to desert Pei Ti to pair off with the male hero, she was asked for a final kiss. Whilst they were kissing, Pei Ti sneaked a poison pill into her mouth which she bit, thus transforming it into a poignant kiss of death.

The widespread construction of public swimming pools from the 1970s gave Singapore the highest density of public pools per unit area in the world. Coupled with the emergence of many shopping centres, this increased the number of conducive spaces for gay cruising. The growing population, size and urban density of the city created opportunities for anonymous gay encounters even as it raised the risk of discovery by others and hence the number of public complaints about gay cruising and/or public sex, a factor which led to the phenomenon of police entrapment more than a decade later.

As Singaporean surgeons became more skillful, some like Prof. S Shan Ratnam were authorised to perform male-to-female sex-reassignment surgery at Kandang Kerbau Hospital from 1971 onwards. However, before hopeful transsexuals-to-be could go under the knife, they first had to subject themselves to a battery of psychological tests by psychiatrist Prof. Tsoi Wing Foo. Later, the more technically-demanding female-to-male variety was also offered there and at Alexandra Hospital, performed by gynaecologists such as Dr. Ilancheran. A Gender Identity Clinic and Gender Reassignment Surgery Clinic were set up at the National University Hospital two decades later. In fact, for thirty years, Singapore was one of the world leaders in gender-reassignment surgery. Bugis Street and Johore Road started to become populated with a range of genders from transvestites to iatrogenic intersex individuals to fully transformed women. Local hospitals and clinics also attracted transgender clients from other countries in the region, especially Malaysia and Thailand.

Meanwhile, the rise of gay cruising and gay nighclubs led to the formation of informal social networks of friends. Within these networks, information and rumours spread within the gay community about the sexuality of local television, sports and entertainment celebrities, university professors, children and relatives of politicians, and even the occasional Cabinet minister himself. This form of informal networking and 'knowledge' constituted the nascent beginnings of a gay community, which was beginning to acquire a sense of itself within the larger society.

The 1980s

The early 80s was a period of widespread prosperity and new freedoms which saw the opening of clubs like Shadows, Marmota, Legend and Niche which catered to a predominantly gay clientele even though they were not exclusively gay. These discos would be closed by the time of the mid-80s, for unclear reasons, to be replaced by weekly Sunday Night Gay Parties or "Shadow Nights" run by the former management of Shadows (affectionately known as the "Shadow Management"). These "Shadow Nights" were roving events held at semi-permanent venues which included Rascals (at the Pan Pacific Hotel), Heartthrob (at Melia at Scotts), The Gate (at Orchard Hotel), Music World (in Katong) and Studebaker's which later morphed into Venom (at Pacific Plaza). It is interesting to note that men's night parties held since Studebaker's were no longer run by the "Shadow Management". Lesbian culture also found a focal point in a small bar named Crocodile Rock in Far East Plaza, which remains to this day the oldest lesbian bar in Singapore.

Such events were now officially sanctioned and no longer discouraged by their managements. No police raids at these establishments took place. With these weekly gatherings for energetic dancing to let off steam and meet new friends, homosexuals felt the first bonds of a relatively cohesive community- a warm feeling of being welcomed into a new brotherhood, in contradistinction to erstwhile isolation, alienation and loneliness for many.

Distant rumblings of a nebulous entity dubbed the 'gay plague', later standardised in nomenclature as AIDS, were heard emanating from America. There was some relief when US doctors discovered that it affected not exclusively gays, but also Haitians and haemophiliacs. However, it caused some local homosexuals to cast a wary eye on Caucasians and promiscuous Singaporeans returning from Western countries. The possibility that it would become a problem here seemed remote at the time.

It came as a shock when the first case of local HIV infection was reported in 1985. It galvanised a group of healthcare personnel (both gay and straight) to set up a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Action For AIDS (AFA) in 1988 which provided support and counseling for AIDS victims as well as educating the public on safe sex. AFA was not technically part of the Singapore gay movement and has been careful to present itself as an NGO dealing with a public health issue. However, a significant portion of the energy and leadership behind it has been provided by gay people and in many practical ways AFA has rallied homosexuals around a cause.

Cruising continued in areas like Hong Lim Park, Boat Quay, back alleys in the Central Business District, Raffles Place MRT Station and Tanjong Pagar, swimming pools, Fort Road Beach and public toilets. Police patrols to these areas were sporadically seen; on rare occasions individuals have had their IC numbers recorded, but for the most part they were left alone and no arrests were made. Lesbian couples who held hands in public, while not officially persecuted, report that they were frequently the target of verbal, physical, and at times sexual abuse from passers-by and gang members.

From the mid-80's onwards, pubs and karaoke bars like Babylon and Inner Circle started to sprout up along Tanjong Pagar. Sizable groups of gay men could be seen milling about outside these establishments especially on weekends. This, along with cruising activity at nearby Ann Siang Hill and the surrounding back alleys would eventually come to give Tanjong Pagar Road the reputation of being Singapore's gay quarter.

Large bookshops like Borders, Kinokuniya, Tower Books and even MPH responded to the growing body of mainly foreign gay-themed literature by stocking these books along with those on women's issues in sections entitled 'Gender Studies'.

The 1990s

The expansion of gay spaces in the 80's were curbed to some degree in the 90's. Singapore's rapid economic growth had been attributed by its leaders to 'Asian values'. The promotion of these ideas by Singaporean leaders fostered a climate of social conservatism. Against this backdrop, gays were perceived as a threat to Asian values and a sign of the emergence of decadent Western liberalism and individualism. Complaints made by the public about public cruising led to police entrapment raids. Youthful and attractive undercover cops would pose as gay cruisers. The moment they were fondled by their targets, the latter would be arrested for outrage of modesty. Their names and occasionally mugshots were published in the press to humiliate them. The most publicised case occurred in a forested grove near Tanjong Rhu's Fort Road Beach in November 1993. Amongst the 12 men arrested was a Singapore Broadcasting Corporation producer. All were punished with three strokes of the cane and prison sentences ranging from 2 to 6 months. In protest, performance artist Josef Ng staged a work on New Year's eve, 1993, as part of which he snipped off his pubic hair while his back was turned to the audience. This provoked a severe government reprisal in the form of a ban on all performance art, one that held sway until 2004. Ng was also charged in court for committing an obscene act in public. (For more details, see: [] )

Gay discos also experienced occasional police raids, the most well-known of which occurred at Rascals on 30 May 1993, where policemen shouted rudely at patrons. A gay lawyer who was present later enlisted the support of 21 other gay professionals in writing a letter of complaint to the Chief of Police. To their surprise, they received an apology. This was the last documented case of police harassment at gay discos for many years to come.

The local media, especially the daily tabloid The New Paper, began to sensationalise homosexual activities with attention-grabbing headlines like 'Swimming Pool Perverts' or 'Homosexuals Pollute East Coast'. In 1992, the Censorship Review Committee recommended that 'materials encouraging homosexuality should continue to be disallowed.' In 1996, I-S Magazine’s publishing license was suspended for one issue because of gay content appearing in the personal ads section.

It was against this deterioration in public image and treatment that a Singapore gay movement emerged. The most revolutionary factor which surfaced to facilitate the development of a sense of community amongst Singaporean gays was the widespread availability of the Internet and start of affordable access to the World Wide Web from the mid-90's.

Activists such as Alex Au, a member of People Like Us, the first gay equality organisation in Singapore, saw the potential of the Internet as a vehicle to unite the gay community and foment intellectual discussion. The Singapore Gay News List (SigNeL) was started on 15 March 1997 and has been instrumental in discussing issues of interest to the community. On Oct 15 1998, RedQuEEn!, an e-mail list for queer-identified women was established. Au also launched his Yawning Bread website in November 1996, to which he would contribute the most thorough analyses of issues facing the local gay community. It would also serve as a defacto chronicle of Singapore gay issues and history as they unfolded.

LGBTs could visit foreign websites to remain updated on gay news from around the globe or even view and download pornography, thus effectively bypassing Singapore's Undesirable Publications Act.

To enable censorship of undesirable sites, all Internet traffic into and out of Singapore was required to be routed through local proxy servers. As a token of this restriction, to placate social conservatives, prominent porn websites such as Playboy and Penthouse were blocked. The official explanation was that the Government wanted to signal a stand on undesirable sites without unduly hindering the development of the Internet. However, websites of local origin were monitored more closely than those from overseas.

Web services like IRC and ICQ allowed locals to engage in online chat not only with fellow gay Singaporeans but also with the international gay community. What started out as a communication tool for like-minded university students soon became a key "gay space" with the entry of players like Singnet and Pacific Internet which provided reasonably-priced internet access services. Notable IRC channels which fostered gay forums included #GAM & #GSG.

One of the most important LGBT events of the decade took place in 1996 when People Like Us submitted their first application for registration as a society, after taking a year of painstaking effort to solicit 10 signatories. The application was lodged with the Registrar of Societies on 7 November 1996. However, it was rejected on 9 April 1997 with no reason given. PLU's appeals all the way to the Prime Minister's Office met with no success. This rejection was reported by news agencies around the world.

For over two decades, post-operative transsexuals had been discreetly lobbying to be given the right to have their new sex reflected in their identity cards (but not their birth certificates) and to get married to opposite-sex spouses. They were finally granted their wish on 24 January 1996 via an announcement by MP Abdullah Tarmugi without much public fanfare or opposition.

On 11 December 1998, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew responded to a gay man's question about the place of homosexuals in Singapore, live on CNN International by saying, '...what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on other people. I mean, we don't harass anybody.' Given Lee's stature as the venerated albeit authoritarian founding father of independent Singapore, these words helped set the tenor for official policy on homosexuality for many years to come. His comments may be regarded as the one of the most significant events, as far as gay rights are concerned, of the decade.

On 5 March 1999, Singapore's pioneer gay portal SGBOY.COM was started as a not-for-profit hobbyist site hosted on GeoCities. It was developed into a major portal and added forums and chat functions. It was the first such non-political website in the island-state and offered an outlet for closeted gay people with light-hearted stories and a counselling email service. It's very first editor was artist/photographer Jason Wee.

The 2000s

ee also

* Homosexuality in Singapore

External links

*An archive of Dr. Russell Heng's paper on Singapore gay history from the 1960s to 1998, published in the Journal of Homosexuality Vol. 40 Nos. 3/4 2001 Special Issue - Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity and Community, edited by Gerard Sullivan and Peter Jackson, pp. 81 – 97: []
*An article by Alex Au on the importance of documenting and organising often all-too-ephemeral gay history: []

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