After the beach raids [on gay men at Fort Road in 1993], what had been private talk began to spread outward through small group meetings when a few Singaporean men started gathering to discuss what it was like to be gay on the island. They met in private homes, at first, then, in a crossover, they moved to rooms at a local arts center called the Substation. Over their tentative assemblies hung a legal threat.
Singapore’s constitution assured citizens they had a “right to freedom of speech and expression,” as well as “the right to assemble peaceably.” It also guaranteed “the right to form associations. ” Historically, though, some associations in Singapore had specialized in vice and in violence against other racial groups on the small island, and so Singapore had adopted a strict “Societies Act” that specified that all groups had to register with and receive approval from the government.
It was one way of maintaining public order and trying to insure that if speech became offensive, it could be limited. But the Society Act’s requirements could also chill marginalized voices. The government Registrar of Societies, for example, could deny permission to any group believed “likely to be used for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order.”[i] If, for example, gay men gathered to meet one another and form friendships that might eventually lead to illegal sodomy, then that could be interpreted as a group “likely to be used for unlawful purposes.” If they gathered to speak more openly about their homosexuality or promote positive, rather than shameful images, that could be read as a “purpose prejudicial to public welfare.”
The registration forms specified that group organizers not only had to list their names, addresses, national identification numbers, and educational qualifications, but also their employers’ names and addresses. For those who wanted to associate with one another but not come out to their employers for risk of being fired or their families for risk of being ostracized, that automatically chilled their speech.
Societies were also banned from reinforcing their identities with non-verbal expressions such as flags, emblems, or other insignia without prior written approval from the Registrar. That gave the government a lock on how group-identity symbols such as banners, uniforms or colors could be employed. Were a gay society to ever be approved, the Registrar could still insist on okaying any use of international gay symbols as the rainbow flag or the pink triangle, the former a celebration of diversity and the latter a reminder of the holocaust against gay men that Nazi Germany had undertaken in the 1940s. Just how seriously the government took this provision regulating symbolic speech was indicated by the severity of punishment: a $3,000 civil fine or imprisonment for a year — or both.
Finally, any group of ten or more people regularly meeting that did not register as a society risked even more severe penalties. Individuals who simply attended such a meeting or invited someone to it could be fined $5,000 and jailed for up to three years. Those who permitted such meetings in buildings or houses they owned faced similar punishments. Citizens who published or displayed materials from unregistered societies – or even happened to have such materials in their possession – could be fined $5,000 and imprisoned for two years.
As the meetings of gay men at the Substation continued, so did the possibility they might be violating the Societies Act. Each Sunday, about forty to eighty men listened to a speaker discuss a topic such as legal rights or housing or relationships, and then broke into smaller discussion groups where they could share their own personal stories. The format was the typical one used earlier by “consciousness-raising” groups in the United States and Europe, but it was new for Singaporean gay men. One of the group’s organizers later wrote that “many who came to the forum half-expected to be arrested by the end of each Sunday.”
The group also boldly started a small, printed monthly newsletter, something that under the Societies Act might have brought fines and imprisonment both for those men producing it and for those who carried or read it. The organizers chose a name, “People Like Us,” avoiding any mention of what would have been all-too-obvious Western trigger words, like “homosexual,” “gay,” or “queer.” “PLU” provided not only a cover but also a homebred attempt to name their identity with a term not as clinical as “homosexual” or as confrontational as “queer.” The word also did not divide “gay men” from “lesbian women,” or “homosexual” from “bisexual” or “transsexual,” or “closeted” from “out.”
In this beginning attempt to gain a more public voice, it was left to individuals to define who were “people like us.”
Always there was fear. In one case, the three PLU organizers – Alex Au, Russell Heng, and Joseph Lo – discovered a police officer had been sent to the meetings, although apparently as a joke being played on him by others in his department who suspected he was gay. Although he was not actually there to spy, that tipped the organizers that some in the police department certainly knew about the meetings.
Another time, a man who had borrowed his mother’s car and then secretly attended the forum reported that the mother, who had once worked for the police, had received a call from a friend at the department warning her that a check on her car license was in progress to discover why it was sitting at the PLU meeting place.
As the meetings grew in size, the question was whether the police might move first or whether — eager for another homosexual scandal — the New Paper would launch its own raid. In Europe or the United States, gay men at the same stage of organizing had sometimes been able to rely on a sympathetic press. Au and the others in PLU had no such confidence in Singapore’s press.
In April 1995 came a tip from a friend at the New Paper’s newsroom. A mother had searched her son’s room and found a copy of PLU’s monthly newsletter and then had complained to the paper. Au expected a reporter and a photographer outside the next meeting. The organizers moved quickly to alert everyone who usually attended, using only word of mouth. When the journalists arrived, only Au and one other organizer were there. Although they talked with the reporter, no story resulted. Two homosexuals apparently did not make a scandal. Nor, apparently, did it make for a photograph.
But it was enough to convince Au and the others that it was time to try for licenses, one for the printed newsletter and one for the society itself. Both requests would be groundbreaking.
The application for the newsletter went in first. It got a swift “no.”
The application for the society then required a year of lobbying the PLU’s own members to find ten persons willing to publicly list themselves on the application.
Copyright 2012 Hong Kong University Press