This year, Singapore’s Pink Dot movement celebrated its 10th year, celebrating the freedom to love for all people including people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer. The Pink Dot movement has grown by leaps and bounds, starting with a turnout of 2,500 attendees in its first year. It then grew rapidly in attendance, eventually reaching an attendance of 28,000 in 2015.
From its inception, it has consistently branded itself as being neither a protest nor a parade, telling people instead to bring their picnic mats. In its Frequently Asked Questions page, it describes itself as a “congregation of people who believe that everyone deserves a right to love, regardless of their sexual orientation.”
Among LGBTIQ celebrations worldwide, Singapore presents a bundle of contradictions to the external observer, with inclusivity being celebrated while foreigners are kept out of the festivities.
Pink Dot’s compliance to the government’s regulations to keep foreigners out of the main Pink Dot event is simply a longstanding practice of what socio-legal scholar Lynette Chua calls pragmatic resistance. Pragmatic resistance involves activists in Singapore picking their battles and refraining from breaking the law outright, as they do not want to be seen as a threat to existing authorities in power. This way, they avoid unnecessary conflicts with the government, in order to push the normative limits to advance the movement for LGBTIQ equality.
Ever since the government amended the Public Order Act in 2016, only Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents have been permitted to assemble at the Speakers’ Corner while Pink Dot was being held. Furthermore, foreign entities have been barred from funding political causes locally, so Pink Dot was no longer able to receive funding from multi-national corporations such as Google and Facebook, as it had in previous years.
The organizers had two options: comply with the rules or not have the event. That said, the organizers did not merely comply, and they took this as a chance to expand Pink Dot from a one-day event to include Pink Fest in 2018, in which all were able to participate in ancillary events across two weekends. These events were held in various locations outside of the Speakers’ Corner, so foreigners were able to somehow be involved in Pink Dot’s activities.
Due to the restrictions on funding from foreign entities and attendance by foreigners, Pink Dot and its supporters rose to the occasion to show that the LGBTIQ movement is not simply a matter of “foreign interference” as conservatives in Singapore often claim, but a grassroots movement for locals, by locals. In 2017, 120 Singapore companies raised S$253,000 for Pink Dot, and Speakers’ Corner was filled at capacity, with close to 20,000 Singaporean Citizens and Permanent Residents in attendance. The organizers of Pink Dot have been politically savvy for having made the most out of the challenge/opportunity that the amendments to the Public Order Act presented.
In other words, the government’s restrictions actually enabled Pink Dot to make a louder statement for equality on behalf of LGBTIQ Singaporeans, and this is a result of Pink Dot’s ability to turn these restrictions into opportunities for them to shape the way the movement evolves.
Ready for What?
This year, Pink Dot took on a tone that was very different from its usual. It used to be more focused on placatory taglines such as “Supporting the Freedom to Love” and “For Family, For Friends, For Love” in the past. This year’s “We are Ready” takes on a more assertive tone that directly challenges the government’s claims that Singapore is “not ready” for LGBTIQ equality.
In Singapore, gay sex remains illegal under Section 377A, which criminalizes gay sexual acts between men. This law has a far-reaching impact not only on men who have sex with men, but on people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer.
Key figures of the government, such as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, have assured Singaporeans since 2007 that Section 377A stands merely as a symbol of Singapore’s conservative society and will not be actively enforced. However, Section 377A continues to cast a specter of uncertainty and insecurity for LGBTIQ people in Singapore. This has resulted in the reinforcement of discriminatory practices by government and private agencies.
For instance, the Infocomm Media Development Authority’s Free-to-Air Radio Programme Code states that “Information, themes or subplots on lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transsexualism, transvestism … should not in any way promote, justify or glamorise such lifestyles.” It is unsurprising, then, that Oogachaga, a community-based counselling, support, and personal development agency in Singapore for LGBTQ individuals, found in a 2012 survey that 60.2% of respondents have had experiences with sexual orientation and/or gender identity-based abuse and discrimination.
According to a joint report by Oogachaga and Pink Dot SG on human rights issues specific to LGBTQ people in Singapore for the Universal Periodic Review (UPR), as well as a statement by Sayoni at the UPR Pre-Session, the Registrar of Societies, under the Societies Act, refuses the registration of LGBT organizations without providing the grounds for rejection. There is no doubt that the ambiguity brought about by Section 377A has to do with the rejections faced by transgender women’s shelter T Project in its attempts to be registered as a non-profit organization with the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority, in turn limiting its ability to serve homeless transgender women.
The promise that Section 377A would not be enforced rings hollow when considering the fact that its mere existence has such a huge impact not just on gay men (to whom the law technically only applies to) but on all LGBTIQ people. Given the government’s repeated claim that it is not their role to “lead society when it comes to changing social attitudes,” it is all the more important for LBGTIQ people in Singapore to make their voices heard, which is where Pink Dot has been instrumental.
10 Declarations for Equality: Imagining a Queer Future
Before this year’s light up, ambassadors of Pink Dot read out 10 Declarations for Equality, boldly outlining a hope for the future and pointing out the challenges faced by LGBTQ+ people in Singapore.
With the 10 Declarations of Equality, the Pink Dot movement pragmatically pushes once again the envelope for LGBTQ equality in Singapore. Pink Dot spokesperson Paerin Choa calls on supporters to “remember that, just as we’ve been forced to erect barriers that separate us from friends and family members here, the LGBTQ community are likewise still restricted by discriminating laws and social prejudice.” This message resonates not just in Singapore but in the rest of the world, as we remember the challenges and injustices faced by LGBTIQ people everywhere.
This August, Singapore celebrates the 14th iteration of IndigNation, Singapore’s annual Pride season, which “envisions a world in which every LGBTQ person can live the fullest life of their imagination, form and access multiple queer and allied communities which acknowledge and collaborate with each other.” This year’s theme, Imagining A Queer Future, calls on LGBTQ+ people in Singapore to move beyond simply celebrating the freedom to love, to actively envision what Singapore’s diverse queer communities can look like.
Their events, which include an extensive line-up of film screenings, open mics, and even a Queer Conference, are open to all, including foreigners. IndigNation runs from August 1 to 31, and their events schedule can be found on their website.
The first step towards imagining a queer future this year happened as a collective of 12 LGBTQ+ and civil society groups submitted an open letter to the Prime Minister’s Office on August 1, calling on the Prime Minister to commit himself to the 10 Declarations of Equality, with recommendations on how each declaration can be achieved.
After years of pragmatic resistance, the biggest LGBTIQ movement in Singapore has come forward to boldly declare that Singaporeans are ready. As this article has shown, pragmatic resistance has allowed LGBTIQ groups in Singapore to make progress steadily by becoming more visible in society, while carefully negotiating the tension between conforming to the state and pushing the boundaries. This did not start with Pink Dot; countless activists and LGBTIQ organizations such as IndigNation, Sayoni, and People Like Us have been doing this for decades, but Pink Dot gave the movement a hypervisibility that enabled these conversations to be brought into the mainstream. Neither does it stop with Pink Dot, and Singapore’s Pride month is far from over.
Published on August 1, 2018 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization