There has always been a sizeable proportion of homosexuals in the broadcast media industry since the inception of television in Singapore. However, in the early decades, these individuals preferred to remain in the closet due to official policy which sought to restrict gay people from attaining managerial positions on Caldecott Hill. It was feared that they would introduce a gay-friendly angle into television broadcasts, which would have the greatest impact on mainstream society that any medium could achieve. (See the paragraph Past Restrictions in the main article Singapore gay documentaries)
However, as local television and society matured, gay men in the broadcast industry gradually became more assertive and less guarded of their sexuality. Producers began to explore the hitherto taboo topic of homosexuality by gingerly introducing stereotypical gay male characters into their drama serials. This was done initially in the Chinese language channels, as Singapore produced no English language television dramas in the early years. It was a creative progression as all the major role genres had been worked to death. It was also thought to be interesting to see how the public would react to such novel characters on a medium which penetrated vividly into their very homes.
锦绣前程 (A bright future), 1992
One of the first such experiments at introducing gay characters into local TV dramas was seen in a 1992 Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) production on Channel 8, the only Chinese language television channel at the time. It was a daily Mandarin serial entitled '锦绣前程' (A bright future) starring popular actor Li Nanxing as the main protagonist. He portrayed Yufeng, a handsome, masculine, struggling model who was the love interest of Ken, a stereotypically effeminate gay man, played by actor Lin Yisheng, hopelessly enamoured of Li's male beauty and bent on seducing him. Groundbreaking scenes, never before seen in a local production, included sexily shot, close-up sequences of Li's muscular body as he exercised on gym equipment, the lascivious lip-licking of the gay character as he watched Li exercising, the attempted resting of the homosexual character's cheek on Li's sweaty body, staged disco scenes of gay men dancing, including a swimming trunk fashion show, 2 gay lovers having a tiff in a carpark and an attempt at oral sex by the gay character on Li in a car. Actor Chen Hanwei also starred in the production, playing Li's brother.
Audible grunts of apparent disgust could be heard emanating from some homes during the airing of these landmark scenes on prime time slots. In the following weeks, numerous letters of complaint were received by SBC and the serial's introduction of homosexuality spawned several articles in the Chinese press. These factors caused the station to shelve its experimentation with gay subplots for many years.
More acceptable to the general public were cross-dressing comedy skits, especially by superstar comedian Jack Neo and drag icon Kumar , in which the roles they portrayed were 100% female and in which there were no hints of masculine homosexuality. Effeminate mannerisms and behaviour by non-cross-dressing male television artistes, especially in comedic routines, was also well-received, provided they made no references to homosexuality. Over the years, many straight comedians, including portly Moses Ng, performed in drag on television without raising eyebrows.
With the introduction of cable television into Singapore, subscription non-free-to-air channels produced overseas, with their more liberal portrayal of homosexuality in news reports, documentaries and dramas, became accessible to local viewers . These exerted no small impact on the mainstream audience, whose previous parochial outlook was broadened to encompass a much wider horizon.
In 2003, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) pioneered a revolution when it uttered the English words "gay" and "lesbian" for the very first time on local television in its feature report on the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. However, news of foreign gay events was covered more readily, while Singaporean developments were still firmly stuffed in the censorship closet.
All this changed in July 2003, when Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong made statements in Time magazine that the civil service would be overhauling its previous policy of not employing openly gay individuals. This landmark event opened the floodgates of television reportage on Singaporean gay news. (See Singapore gay documentaries). In typical top-down political management, television was now commandeered, or at least given the green light, to make a complete U-turn so as to educate the public on the acceptability of homosexuals as equal citizens and the injustice of discrimination, especially at work.
Crunch Time, 2003
It was only in May 2003 that the very first locally-produced television documentary dealing with homosexuality as its main subject was broadcast on Singaporean airwaves. It was a homophobic, 30-minute episode in a Mandarin-language series called Crunch Time 2 shown on Channel U, a television station owned by Singapore Press Holdings. The series was advertised in The Straits Times which promoted it as one that featured the turning points in the lives of 12 people including a loan shark, an unwed mother and a drug addict.
The particular program featured actors re-enacting the supposedly true-life account of a young, masculine gay Singaporean man cruising for sex in public swimming pools and toilets. It reinforced the misconception that homosexuality resulted from having an unhappy home, parents who constantly fight, and being sexually abused. In this case, the protagonist was only 6 years old when he was asked by an adult female to perform sexual acts with a girl his age. The episode wound up with an interview with a spokesman from Choices, a Christian counselling group from the Church of our Saviour (COOS) in Queenstown which helps "straighten" out gay lives, which was the eventual outcome for the gay man in the story. He was depicted as having been "successfully'" converted through counselling from a dissatisfied, unfulfilled homosexual to a man happily married to a female spouse and producing a son.
The negative and stereotypical depiction of homosexuality in the program prompted an online petition which garnered more than 200 signatories over the ensuing weekend. It probably had a significant effect as the episode was the last time a homophobic documentary was aired in Singapore. However, the overwhelmingly influential factor in ending televised homophobia was Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's statements in Time magazine in July 2003 about reversing anti-gay hiring policies in the civil service (see main article:PM Goh Chok Tong liberalises employment of openly gay individuals in civil service, July 2003.
Going Straits, 2005
The drama serial Going Straits aired on Arts Central featured a stereotypical effeminate, presumably gay hairdresser. The following clip was excerpted from an installment broadcast on 17 October 2005:
On 30 March 2017, the finale (episode 20) of the Channel 5 drama serial "Faculty" was uploaded to Toggle. The series depicted the lives of undergraduates in a fictitious tertiary institution named "Straits University". In the episode, the character Bryan Cordeiro appears to come to terms with his being associated with a gay identity, bromance crushes and a lack of attraction to even the most pretty girls. At the end of this clip, he agrees to meet Trevor, a boy who has a crush on him and whom he had blocked on the phone before.
单翼天使 (My Guardian Angels), 2020
- Main article: My Guardian Angels
单翼天使 (literally 'one-winged angel' but translated by Mediacorp as My Guardian Angels) was a 30-episode Chinese-language series which featured negative representations of gay people. It contained a gay ephebophilic character who molested teenage boys and who had a sexually transmitted disease, as well as scenes where characters behaved in homophobic ways. The drama aired on Channel 8 in April and May 2020 but was still available for viewing in July 2020 on YouTube and Mediacorp’s streaming service, meWATCH. The show starred Chase Tan, Kym Ng and Brandon Wong, Zoe Tay, Pierre Png, Hong Ling, Chen Tianwen, Jin Yin Ji, Benjamin Tan, Edwin Goh and Fang Rong.
In the drama, one character, a basketball coach played by Chase Tan, molests a teenage boy in one of the scenes. The character goes on to molest another boy off-camera later in the series, and is eventually jailed for his offences. Characters played by Kym Ng and Brandon Wong behave in a homophobic manner. They talk about their son’s (played by Benjamin Tan) romantic life. Ng’s character, Miao Miao, expresses concern that their son is wooing a woman, but Wong says, “At least it’s a girl, not a guy.” Miao Miao stalks her son as she is anxious that he might be romantically involved with a male friend of his. She sees the two kissing and yells out loudly for them to stop. (The two characters turn out not to be gay.)
The furore over the TV show began on Monday, 29 June 2020 after gay business owner Teo Yu Sheng posted comments about the drama on the Instagram account of his company, Heckin' Unicorn. Teo, then 29 years of age, highlighted storylines and scenes in My Guardian Angels which he said perpetuated negative stereotypes about the LGBTQ community. National broadcaster Mediacorp received a lot of flak from netizens on Instagram, Twitter and Reddit, frequented by younger people. They spammed the Instagram accounts of Mediacorp and actors Chase Tan, Kym Ng and Brandon Wong for their roles in the TV series.
Under Mediacorp’s Instagram post on 3 July 2020 (which was unrelated to My Guardian Angels), there were more than 1,400 comments. Many of them were angry ones about the broadcaster’s portrayal of negative gay stereotypes and called for the company to apologise. Mediacorp released a statement to Yahoo Lifestyle SEA responding to the criticism, saying: “there is no intention to disrespect or discriminate against any persons or community in the drama”. However, the statement did not offer any apology.
Members of the LGBTQ community said the ephebophile character perpetuated a false stereotype of gay men as perverted sexual predators, and pointed out that such problematic portrayals of queer people were not balanced by positive portrayals in the local media. In his Instagram post on the Heckin' Unicorn account, Teo said, “We’re extremely disgusted that our country’s only free-to-air TV broadcaster has decided to take such a low blow on Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community. Perpetuating negative stereotypes about the LGBTQ+ community is bad enough in itself. But when you consider the fact that LGBTQ+ individuals can’t legally be portrayed positively in local TV shows, you’ll quickly realise just how low Mediacorp went with this move.” One user commented on Mediacorp’s Instagram page, “If the scriptwriters, directors, and actors/actresses don’t know how and what it’s like to be part of the LGBTQ+ community, then DON’T EVEN TRY CREATING SUCH CHARACTERS. Your story plots are disgusting. This convinces me to stop supporting local dramas.”
Mediacorp said in response to queries by Yahoo Lifestyle SEA:
“We would like to assure that there is no intention to disrespect or discriminate against any persons or community in the drama, My Guardian Angels. The drama aims to reflect scenarios and stories that are close to real-life. The sub-plot involving Kym Ng’s character – an overly protective mother - seeks to highlight the mother’s concern for her teenage son as he grapples with growing-up issues. On the paedophile character, the intention and overall message of that sub-plot is to encourage young people to be aware of potential dangers, and to speak up and protect themselves. We take feedback seriously and will continue to exercise vigilance and be more mindful in our portrayal of characters.”
Mediacorp released the same statement above on Instagram on Tuesday, 30 June 2020 in response to the critical comments of netizens. Twitter users reported that Mediacorp and Channel 8 released the statement on Twitter too, but later deleted the posts. Teo continued to share comments on the Instagram account Heckin’ Unicorn and responded to Mediacorp’s statement: “You may claim the lack of intent to be discriminatory, but it doesn’t make your actions any less so. Your response is also terribly tone-deaf, because you continue to dig into the stereotype that children need to be aware of the “dangers of gay people. Your lack of apology is glaring, and it reflects the kinds of values that your company lacks,” he added.
“Hi everyone, I’m sorry for taking some time to respond to your feedback regarding a role I played in the recent Channel 8 drama series, My Guardian Angels. I’ve been using the time to reflect and gather my thoughts as I understand that I need to address this.
I’m deeply saddened that the role I played has caused distress in the community and I’d like to emphasise that it was never my intention. I'm an aspiring actor and every opportunity given to me is precious. I do not mean to disrespect anyone in the process.
Over the years, I have had the pleasure of working alongside very talented and professional LGBTQ individuals. Thank you for sharing your thoughts and feedback. I sincerely apologise and I will continuously strive to do better."
Some members of the LGBT community felt that attacking the actors like Chase Tan and Kym Ng was not the right approach but applauded those who spoke out against Mediacorp and the script writers of the series. They suggested instead that businesses, such as the international LGBTQ-friendly ones with big advertisement budgets, could support the community by withdrawing their advertisements from Mediacorp to show their support. That would be an even more effective way of making Mediacorp realise the hurt caused by their prejudices.
This article was written by Roy Tan.