By Sonia Kolesnikov-Jessop
Published: Thursday, August 2, 2007
SINGAPORE — In a city-state that reserves the right to control public expression and private sexual behavior, these have been interesting weeks for the emerging gay rights movement.
Last month, the Singapore Media Development Authority allowed "Happy Ending - Asian Boys Vol. 3," a new play on gay themes by a local playwright, Alfian Sa'at, to be staged uncensored. It was seen by more than 6,000 people in its 23-day run and drew praise from a visiting British film actor and well-known gay rights advocate, Ian McKellen, among others.
But this week, the same authority denied licenses to two art exhibitions that had been planned for the third annual Singapore gay pride festival, IndigNation, which began Wednesday: an exhibition by Alex Au that was to show 80 photos of same-sex couples kissing, and a pencil drawing by Genevieve Chua depicting two nude women in a suggestive sexual position.
In a letter explaining its refusal to license the photo exhibit, the authority said that while homosexual-themed content was permissible in an "appropriate context," it should not be of a "promotional or exploitative nature."
"Hence we have allowed brief same-sex kissing in plays and in R21-rated films. But the proposed exhibition (comprising 80 color photographs), which mainly focuses on homosexual kissing, is deemed to promote a homosexual lifestyle and cannot be allowed," it said.
Although homosexuals in Singapore have become slightly more visible in recent years, few have been willing to take public stances on gay rights. Despite some signs that the government might be rethinking the issue, gay sex remains a criminal act under Section 377A of the Singapore penal code, and many are unsure how far they can push the debate.
In April, Lee Kuan Yew, the founding prime minister of modern Singapore, referred to homosexuality as "genetic" - an announcement some people seized on as an indication that the government might move toward liberalization.
At a public forum last month organized to coincide with the opening performances of "Happy Ending," a lawmaker, Baey Yam Keng of the ruling People's Action Party, argued that if Section 377A was reviewed in Parliament, members should be freed from the obligation to vote strictly along party lines, in order to encourage a "very open debate and open expression of opinion."
At the same forum, the Reverend Yap Kim Hao, a former Methodist bishop, said he thought the law should be repealed. The National Council of Churches of Singapore said that Yap was not speaking on its behalf.
"Happy Endings" is the final play in a trilogy by Sa'at that began in 2000 with "Asian Boys Vol. 1." In the years since that first installment was performed, Singapore has loosened some of its restrictions on sex, both heterosexual and homosexual.
The government now lets gays serve openly in the civil service and allows a small number of gay bars, saunas and other businesses to flourish in certain parts of the city. In 2001, the government gave the green light to the first outdoor party for gays in Singapore. In ensuing years, though, the party got bigger, and in 2005 it was denied a license. Organizers moved it to Bangkok.
Last year, the government announced plans to decriminalize heterosexual oral and anal sex between consenting men and women, but made clear that the ban on homosexual sex would remain intact. However, the Home Affairs Ministry said it would not be "proactive" in enforcing the ban when it came to consensual acts taking place in private.
Sa'at said that with "Happy Ending" he wanted to confront issues that he was "at most alluding to" in the first two plays.
"The first was almost apolitical because it used a lot of camp aesthetic, and there was a lot of hide-and-seek because I wanted to avoid censure and get it staged," he said.
"Happy Endings" is more direct. In part, it is an adaptation of "Peculiar Chris," a gay-themed 1992 novel written by a Singaporean, Johann Lee. The book deals with a gay man's coming of age, his first loves and his eventual decision to leave Singapore, where his sexuality makes him a criminal.
McKellen, who was in "Lord of the Rings" and "X-Men," saw "Happy Endings" in Singapore while on tour with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "It seemed to be talking about a situation I recognized in my own life, even though here it was, set on the other side of the world," McKellen said.
"The play does have a strong point of view, but it doesn't only argue one side of the issue and time and again you're having, as you watch it, to adjust your thoughts and answer the point that is being made," McKellen said. "It doesn't just shoot its opinion at you."
He said seeing the play made him feel that he was witnessing "a really important part of Singapore's social history."
A survey in May by a local newspaper found that 62 percent of "heartlanders" - Singaporeans living in public housing, a majority of the population - thought homosexuality should not be legalized.
But Ivan Heng, the director of "Happy Endings," said the question was badly phrased.
"The question was whether gay sexuality was acceptable and not whether homosexuals should be put in jail," he said. "There is a big difference here. Of course, the majority of the population is conservative and will reply accordingly, but that doesn't mean they want to see gay people in jails."