From Nation to Indignation: The Cultural Politics of Gay Parties in Singapore

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�Singapore,� Leong (1997: 142) wrote in 1997, �appears to be the last frontier in the Asian region for positive gay and lesbian developments�. Almost a decade later, however, this statement no longer rings true because Singaporean activists successfully held the first gay pride month there in Aug 2005 with little state interference. Called IndigNation, this gay pride month witnessed limited attendance and lacked the often-fully commercialized gay pride parade that has come to represent Euro-American gay pride (Armstrong 2002). Instead, IndigNation offered such free events as a poetry-reading, an art exhibition, and two public lectures on the history of same-sex practices in Singapore and China. The activists held IndigNation to protest both heavy state censorship of magazines serving gay Singaporeans and the state�s ban on such public gay parties as Nation. Incepted in 2001, Nation was a series of three parties that Asian gay portal site organized yearly to celebrate Singapore�s independence on Aug 9. Despite Nation�s reputation as the crown jewel of Asian circuit parties � it attracted a record 8,000 revelers in 2004 � and the US$6 million tourist revenue it generated that same year, the state banned it in 2005 on still-unverified allegations that Nation threatened public health as an HIV vector.

In view of the banning of Nation, homosexuality appears incompatible with the Singa-porean state. Although homosexuality, modernity and Americanization are not necessarily coter-minous (cf. Brenner 1998), the state treats them otherwise. Using antiquated laws that Singapore inherited from its days as a British factory, the state criminalizes same-sex acts as the results of the �immoral� American influence that industrialization exposed Singapore to in the late 1960s. However, I argue that homosexuality does indeed commensurate with the Singaporean state. Although continues to deny it, Nation presented the strongest statement of full national belonging gay Singaporeans have made thus far. Indeed, in attracting mostly moneyed gay men from Asia to its three nights of non-stop partying, Nation mimicked the Singaporean state in positing consumption as the basis of citizenship. In assuming that good consumption will literally buy gay Singaporeans full societal acceptance, Nation practices an assimilationist politics that Duggan (2003) calls �the new homonormativity.� Ironically, it takes IndigNation, with its free and diverse events that focused on inclusivity and community-building outside of consumption, to highlight both this commonality and the limits of homonormative model of gay citizenship that Nation presented.

The seeming incommensurability between homosexuality and the Singaporean state rests upon two bases. Legally speaking, same-sex acts remain chargeable offences in Singapore. Sections 377 and 377A of the Penal Code punish �unnatural� sex and gross indecency respectively, with life sentences as the maximum penalty. Media guidelines also forbid the positive portrayal of homosexuality. As recently as Oct 2006, the Media Development Authority (MDA) fined cable-TV provider Starhub Cable Vision (SCV) S$10,000 (US$6,500) for airing an episode of the American reality TV program Cheaters that featured footage of women engaging in m�nage � trois and bondage sex. Although SCV aired the heavily pixilated footage at midnight, the MDA still found it guilty of promoting lesbianism (The Straits Times 2006).

Ideologically, the Singaporean state treats homosexuality as antithetical to local traditions in what Chua (2003: 6) calls the �westoxification� of Singapore brought about by the country�s rapid industrialization in the late 1960s and subsequent ascendance in the global economic arena. Despite its 40 years of unbroken draconic rule, the dominant People�s Action Party (PAP) remains in power because it has secured and maintained massive improvements in material life. The PAP, however, sees the influx of Western products as threats to local social cohesion. Particularly, the PAP directs its anti-Western sentiments towards such American mass entertain-ment products as films and music. As they celebrate liberalism and individualism by normalizing promiscuity in sex and drugs and by turning criminals into folk heroes, these products pose an ideological challenge to the semi-democratic polity that the PAP has created (Chua 2003). Indeed, in its attempt to stave off this challenge, the state began gentrifying the various ethnic enclaves in Singapore in the late 1980s to physically remind Singaporeans of their cultural heri-tages (Kong and Yeoh 2003). For a state that actively encourages its citizens to marry and reproduce as an autocratic patriarch would his descendents (Heng and Devan 1992), homo-sexuality must pose a particularly dangerous threat because it promises to liberate sexuality from servicing the hetero-patriarchal state. In demonizing homosexuality as a corrupt Western import in spite of historical evidence to the contrary (e.g. Hinsch 1990; Stockard 1989), the state reifies the imaginary cultural border delineating the �morally pure� Singapore and the �depraved� West.

As a physical manifestation of homosexuality, the Nation party endangers the state even more because it vigorously attempts to assert full national belonging for all gay Singaporeans and threatened to erase the imaginary cultural border that the state has drawn. Indeed, I argue that the state banned all public gay parties because of these assertions and not because the parties posed risks to public health as the state had claimed. Stuart Koe, the CEO of, has persistently claimed that Nation was never anything more than apolitical revelry because �we�re not about to demand any rights. For us, this is just another dance party.� (Today 2001) Evidence, however, strongly suggests otherwise. Prior to the ban, always organized Nation to coincide with Singapore�s National Day on Aug 9. In 2004, for example, Nation opened with the Make Love, Not War party at the Suntec Convention and Exhibition Center on Aug 7, followed by Nation, the main event, on Aug 8 at the Musical Fountain on the resort island of Sentosa, before ending with the Closing Party on Aug 9, National Day itself. This close alignment in both name and timing with national celebrations of independence affirms the place gay Singaporeans have within the Singaporean nation. The slogan for Nation in 2002 � �One People. One Nation. One Party.� � alluded palpably to the National Day song One People, One Nation, One Singapore to accentuate this affirmation even further.

The state was fully aware of what went on in Nation, but it chose not to act initially. Before 2004, Nation remained a small-scaled party held indoors and away from the public gaze (Lim 2004). In 2004, Nation had grown too big for its good. Responding to my earlier inquiry, prominent Singaporean gay rights activist Alex Au pointed out in a posting on SiGNeL, the Singapore Gay News List, on 19 Nov 2005 at 8.04 pm:

There was an unspoken deal between [the police and] that the organisers would not play up the gay angle in public, to give the police deniability (in case anyone should ask them why they approved of “gay” parties). As the public and media profile of the Nation and other parties went up, this deniability became untenable. The 2003 party was already straining at the leash, what with a letter from a certain Tan Kim Neo to the press � The 2004 party was the last straw, because the world’s media played it up. The [Singaporean government] tried their best to maintain deniability, by instructing the local media not to say anything AT ALL about Nation 04, in order not to provoke questions from the public, but this looked ever more contrived as the world’s media could not be so controlled. (emphasis in original)

The additional but unwanted media attention on Nation and its symbolic and discursive assertions of full national belonging for all gay Singaporeans forced the state to ban all public gay parties. If nations were indeed �imagined communities� as Anderson (1983) argues, then the state�s rejection of Nation re-invisibilizes gay Singaporeans by banishing them outside of the imagined Singaporean nation.

The banning of Nation seems to provide further proof of the incompatibility between ho-mosexuality and the Singaporean state. However, I argue that the two do commensurate with each other because Nation exemplifies homonormativity, an assimilationist politics that �does not contest dominant heteronormative assumptions and institutions, but upholds and sustains them, while promising the possibility of a demobilized gay constituency and a privatized, depoliticized gay culture anchored in domesticity and consumption.� (Duggan 2003: 50) As a neoliberal economy, Singapore equates good consumption with good citizenship. Nation�s assertions of full citizenship seems to apply to all gay Singaporeans, but only a small handful of Singaporeans fits the party�s model of exemplary citizenship in reality. If we examine the following the photos taken from Nation in 2004, we can discern the identity of this model citizen. (Fig 1) Firstly, this model citizen is gendered male. Secondly, he appears hyper-masculine. Thirdly, he is racialized as Chinese, the numerically and politically dominant race in Singapore. Many of the revelers at Nation, having hailed from other parts of Asia like Japan and South Korea, were in fact not Chinese. However, they could pass as such. Lastly and most importantly, Nation�s model citizen is wealthy. He must be able to afford the S$150 (US$90) for the Weekend Pack for Nation.04 that included a pass to all three parties and a commemorative T-shirt, the gym memberships necessarily for him to attain and maintain his lean, taut body, and, for the foreigner party-goers, flight and lodging in Singapore. Undoubtedly, the party-goers numbered among them women, the too-skinny, the chubby, the dark-skinned, the poor, and others who failed to meet Nation�s strict criteria of citizenship. Photographs taken from the party, however, seldom, if ever, feature them. Herein lay the limits of Nation�s homonormative model of citizenship. For all the party�s powerful assertions, these claims cannot guarantee full citizen-ship. The state ban on public gay parties has revealed this much. Furthermore, even if the claims are effective, that citizenship that they achieve applies only to a select few.

Ironically, it was IndigNation, Singapore�s first gay pride month, that inevitably high-lighted the above commonalities that the Singaporean state shares with homosexuality. Lacking the often-fully commercialized gay pride parade that has come to represent Euro-American gay pride (Armstrong 2002), IndigNation included such free events as a poetry-reading, an art exhibition, and two public lectures on the history of same-sex practices in Singapore and China. According to Alex, one of the local activists behind IndigNation, Nation�s commercial success had made the party synonymous with homosexuality in the popular Singaporean imagination. To counter this unhealthy association, the activists behind IndigNation deliberately made most of the pride events free to showcase gay and lesbian life outside of promiscuous consumption and to encourage all interested individuals, whether straight or gay, to participate. Contrary to popular belief, the activists did not initiate IndigNation solely in response to the state ban on Nation. Rather, as Daniel pointed out, he and a friend wanted to set Aug aside for �social welfare activities, social service activities so that the entire month is more than just a party.� Indeed, Daniel�s friend thought of organizing a concert for the disabled to give gay Singaporeans an opportunity to help less fortunate people. What the activists did want was to incorporate the word �nation� into the name of the pride month to re-occupy the powerful discursive position to assert full national belonging that the state forced Nation to abandon. In the spirit of engendering a sense of community among the disparate gay and lesbian groups in Singapore, the activists coordinated rather than organize IndigNation. According to Alex, the activists approached agreeable individuals and groups to incorporate their regular events for Aug into the pride month. While the activists took care of publicity, these individuals and groups located their own venues to host the events. Doing so also helped resolve the activists� problem of not having a budget.

IndigNation witnessed limited attendance, but the activists held it successfully with only one known incident of active state inference. However, not all gay and lesbian groups partici-pated. Heartland, a gay Buddhist fellowship, withdrew because it perceived the enthusiasm of one of the activists as his attempt to violate IndigNation�s inclusivity and turn the pride month into a one-man show. According to Eileena, her group RedQuEEn! refrained from participation because RedQuEEn! functions as a safe space for women to explore their sexualities. Participating in IndigNation would have thrust Red-QuEEn! into the glare of the public limelight and severely disrupted the neutrality of its space.

ADLUS presents the most noteworthy case among the groups that did not participate. A group for sports and outdoor activities, ADLUS originally scheduled its sixth anniversary bash as IndigNation�s closing event. Many members protested that they were not consulted about this decision, and that the incorporation of the bash violated the non-political stance that the group takes. A prominent member of ADLUS once asked me what was there to be indignant about. Compared to the situation a decade ago, gay Singaporeans now enjoy a semi-open public life with the clan-destine cluster of bathhouses, dance clubs, karaoke bars and other gay businesses in Chinatown. Worse, the state might treat IndigNation as seditionist and visit its wrath upon all gay Singaporeans by closing down all said businesses. After all, did the police not turn up at ADLUS�s bash to question the legality of the event? In the aftermath of the heated debate about ADLUS�s role in IndigNation, many of its pro-IndigNation members left in anger. Indeed, ADLUS now vehemently denies that its anniversary bash was ever part of the pride month and reacts to any questions raised about this matter with open hostility. In thinking that assimilation would bring about acceptance or at least tolerance, ADLUS presents a case of homonormativity at work. The gay businesses in Chinatown operate at the state�s pleasure and nothing prevents the state from closing them down. Indeed, ADLUS�s actions went against its founding charter. A senior but now-inactive member pointed out to me that the group was originally founded to carry out outreach work among gay men and lesbians via sports and outdoor activities. Hence, despite its insistent claims otherwise, ADLUS has always been political.

In conclusion, activists successfully coordinated Singapore�s first pride month in Aug 2005. Held in protest of both heavy state censorship of magazines serving gay Singaporeans and the state�s ban on Nation and all other public gay parties, IndigNation lacked the parade that characterizes Euro-American gay pride but included a number of free events focused on inclu-sivity and community-building outside of consumption. Although the state claims incommen-surability with homosexuality when it banned Nation of allegations that it posed public health threats as an HIV vector, IndigNation inevitably highlighted the commonalities of homo-normative neoliberal citizenship that homosexuality, as represented by Nation, shares with the Singaporean state. Although the activists who coordinated IndigNation did not intend it, IndigNation has shed light on the limits of the kind of citizenship that both Nation and the state hold as exemplary.


Anderson, Benedict (1983) Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origins and Spread of Nationalism. London: Verso.

Armstrong, Elizabeth A. 2002. Forging Gay Identities: Organizing Sexuality in San Francisco, 1950-1994. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Brenner, Suzanne April. 1998. The Domestication of Desire: Women, Wealth, and Modernity in Java. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Chua, Beng Huat. 2003. Life is Not Complete Without Shopping: Consumption Culture in Singapore. Singapore: Singapore University Press.

Duggan, Lisa. 2003. The Twilight of Equality? Neoliberalism, Cultural Politics, and the Attack on Democracy. Boston: Beacon Press.

Heng, Geraldine and Janadas Devan. 1992. �State Fatherhood: The Politics of Nationalism, Sexuality, and Race in Singapore,� in Nationalisms and Sexualities. Edited by Andrew Parker, et al., pp. Pp. 343 � 64. New York; London: Routledge.

Hinsch, Bret. 1990. Passions of the Cut Sleeve: The Male Homosexual Tradition in China. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kong, Lily and Brenda S. A. Yeoh. 2003. The Political Landscapes in Singapore: Constructions of �Nation�. Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press.

Leong, Laurence Wai-Teng. 1997. �Singapore,� in Sociolegal Control of Homosexuality: A Multi-Nation Comparison. Edited by Donald J. West and Richard Green, pp. 127 � 44. New York: Plenum Press.

Lim, Kean Fan. 2004. Where Love Dares (Not) Speak its Name: The Expression of Homo-sexuality in Singapore. Urban Studies. 41(9): 1,759 � 88.

Stockard, Janice E. (1989) Daughters of the Canton Delta: Marriage Patterns and Economic Strategies, 1860 � 1930. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

The Straits Times. 2006. 24 Oct. SCV Fined $10,000 for Airing Lesbian Acts.

Today. 2001. 7 Aug. Why All This Fuss? Gays Peeved as Spotlight Turns on N-Day Bash.


# Jjade 2010-02-02 01:35

jade said,

December 2, 2006 at 8:37 pm

brilliant, brilliant article!
# The Citizen Onwards 2010-02-02 01:35

The Citizen « Onwards said,

December 6, 2006 at 12:12 am

[...] On another note, a paper i wrote about sexual citizenship in Singapore several months ago closely correlates to what Chris K. K. Tan writes in ‘The Cultural Politics of Gay Parties in Singapore’, but mine is of a lesser standard of course. Fantastic article. I might consider pursuing graduate studies in the area of sexuality and culture under the supervision of F. and/or A., two well-known names in the area of queer Asian sexuality. I’m glad to have accidentally stumbled in this area (i should stop bagging overseas education) and learnt so much from it – perhaps in time to come my education will be put to good use, ya know? To serve the nation. [...]
# Charles George Arbut 2010-02-02 01:36

Charles George Arbuthnot said,

June 20, 2007 at 5:47 am


El Piñón Madhavan Ranganathan Akechi Mitsuharu Fesdhoo Uedem Red Squirrel Lake Ford’s Prairie, Washington Sagara (disambiguation) Charles George Arbuthnot Live at Georgia Theatre …

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