On 18 January 2021, a male passer-by, dressed in business attire with a tie and lanyard, threw a pride flag at Charmaine Low, the proprietor of health food stall SMOL at Lau Pa Sat, after questioning staff member Xiuling about what the flag represented. Low had mounted the flag at the outlet since its opening in November 2020 in support of the LGBTQ community. She was stunned at the act of hate but was determined to continue displaying the rainbow flag. A video of the incident was uploaded to Facebook and Instagram, following which it went viral and elicited an outpouring of support from customers and observers on social media alike. A police report was lodged and the culprit speedily identified but he was eventually only given a conditional warning.
On Monday, 18 January 2021, Charmaine Low, then 24 years of age and the founding proprietor of SMOL, a health food eatery serving grain, salad and protein bowls at Lau Pa Sat posted the following closed-circuit television surveillance footage, which was captured around noon that day, and an accompanying description to its Facebook page:
"This afternoon, our SMOL outlet at Lau Pa Sat encountered homophobic abuse from a middle-aged man.
Man: What is this Flag?
Me: To show our support for the LGBT+ community.
(He walks away, shows his disapproval, and then walks back)
Man: Do you know that this is a public food court? Not everybody support LGBT!!?? How can you put this flag??
We were stunned at this point. And all of a sudden, the man ripped our pride flag off our counter, and threw it forcefully at one of us.
Man: You are the kind of people who is (sic) destroying Singapore! Go TO HELL!!!
I support diversity and inclusion in all its forms, especially the inclusion of marginalised communities such as the LGBTQ community. I have had the privilege of starting SMOL, and believe in using the business as a platform to amplify the voices of those who are not heard.
Our display of the small pride flag on our counter top not only shows solidarity with the LGBTQ community, but is also a conversation starter with our customers. What happened today was an unfortunate incident with someone who was not interested in having a peaceful conversation, but who believed that he had the right to abuse and use force against our staff. It is also a reminder that discrimination against LGBTQ people in Singapore is well and alive, and there is so much more work to be done to promote understanding, love and tolerance for this community. While I am concerned about the safety of my team, we will not stop displaying our little pride flag at both our outlets (Lau Pa Sat and PLQ) as a way to support the community, and we urge other homegrown SMEs to show their support for the LGBTQ community in their own ways.
- Charmaine, Owner of SMOL"
The video shows a man, dressed in business attire with a tie and lanyard, walking past the storefront of Food Folks, the retail space at Lau Pa Sat in which SMOL is located. He pauses, does a double take, appearing to notice the flag this time, and walks over to confront one of the two staff manning the counter about it. He appears to inquire about the flag after pointing to it. The man gesticulates vigorously during their short exchange before walking over to the flag, unceremoniously grabbing it from where it was mounted, and throwing it at the worker. The man leaves the bewildered employees with some parting words, thrusting a finger towards them accusingly, as he walks out the glass doors which he entered from.
Reaction of public
After the post went viral with about 100,000 views on Instagram and 1000 shares on Facebook, support poured in for the outlet. Across SMOL's posts on social media, readers penned hundreds of comments expressing their shock and disapproval of the man's actions. One said, "Thank you for displaying the pride flag. It's awful that this happened but what you've written in this post shows how much moral courage you have." "Good thing is, if this didn't happen, I wouldn't have known about this store. Looking forward to having a bite here soon," another wrote. A number of netizens called for legal action against the man, urging SMOL to report the matter to the authorities.
Many others, though, praised the eatery's allyship with the LGBTQ community, pledged their support for the stall and said they would patronise it. One commenter questioned how “a flag and a show of solidarity to a marginalised group of people” will “destroy our country”. An observer added that the man had the choice to not patronise a private establishment if he did not support its policies. One writer urged the public to “constantly call out such homophobic behaviour” as such behaviour might go beyond targeting the LGBT community in the future. There “could very well be” other minority groups that could be subject to scorn and discrimination such as people of different religions, interracial couples, single mothers and even the underprivileged, he said. One contributor said that people should not “resort to violent antics and bad behavior” even if they disagreed with certain individuals and establishments’ policies. “I am against straight parents letting their children run wild and behaving unruly in public spaces. But hey, I don’t go around picking them up and throwing them down the recycle bins,” he quipped.
In a Facebook post regarding the matter, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said: “Everyone should feel safe in Singapore. We will not tolerate any threats made to physical safety.” “No one should threaten someone because they were LGBTQ; and likewise, no one should threaten someone else, because of religious affiliation,” he added.
Local celebrities also chimed in to endorse the eatery’s inclusiveness. Singer Nathan Hartono wrote on Instagram, “Tons of respect to your staff for standing their ground. Sorry this happened.♥️” Actor Nat Ho posted, “I’m sorry this happened. Hope you guys are alright.♥️” Singer Inch Chua wrote, “Heading to Smol sometime this week.”
"A lot has happened in the last 24 hours, and I am truly heartened and humbled by the love and support from the community. Our Lau Pa Sat outlet sold out early today, and I am so glad to have met many of you in person. I am sorry we were not able to chat longer, but I do hope to see all of you again in future!
The matter is now left in the hands of the Singapore Police Force, and I appeal for everyone to let the authorities do their job. The intention of this post was not to dox or to track down the perpetrator, but to highlight the everyday reality that the LGBTQ community experience when most incidents are not even caught on camera.
The comments on our socials demonstrated that love will always prevail, and I am glad to see the LGBTQ community and allies rise above hate. Our SMOL Pride Flag will keep flying proud in the meantime.
- Charmaine, Founder"
In response to queries from the media, Low said that while she did not make a police report, “multiple police reports” had been made on SMOL’s behalf. She added that she had also given a statement to the police on the afternoon of Tuesday, 19 January 2021 in response to these reports. The police confirmed that a report had been lodged and that investigations were ongoing. Several days later, Low said that while the matter was now in the hands of the police and commended their efficiency in identifying and locating the perpetrator, Low said the outlet would not stop displaying the pride flag and urged other small businesses to “show support for the LGBTQ community in their own ways”.
Low recounted: “From the moment he asked, I felt that something was about to happen. From his tone, he seemed to already know what the flag was for but had asked to incite a conversation that was just not nice.” Low had displayed the rainbow flag at the stall's counter to show solidarity with the LGBT community since it opened in November 2020. The stall’s other outlet at Paya Lebar Quarter also had a pride flag on display since the middle of 2020. Despite being “stunned” by the incident, Low said she would continue to keep the flag up in support of the community.
While most customers usually questioned what the flag was for or asked why the stall supported the LGBTQ community, nothing of “such a hateful nature” occurred up till yesterday, reported Low. The other staff member on duty, who was hearing-impaired, became aware of the altercation only after the man threw the flag. The staff member was “quite wary” on her way to work on the morning following the incident because she was concerned that the man might return. Low put the flag back up right after the incident because she wanted to show solidarity with the LGBTQ community. "I believe in conversations, and that is what the pride flag is for and about. You may disagree with us, but at the end of the day, we are all Singaporeans. There is no need to resort to violence."
It appeared that twice the usual number of customers turned up the following day to support SMOL, as Low confirmed in an Instagram post later that day and that the Lau Pa Sat outlet had sold out early. “I am truly heartened and humbled by the love and support from the community,” she wrote. Many also sent her encouraging messages online. There was a plethora of empathy from online users on SMOL’s Facebook page. Facebook user Kenneth Woo commented that it “is people like (the man) who destroy Singapore because such attitudes pervade their lives and ethics”. Another user, Kamy Yeow, described the man’s actions as “uncalled for” and said that he should have spoken nicely with the people manning the stall. “Behaving in such a manner only degrades society as a whole,” he added. One of SMOL's staff said that although she was initially traumatised by what had happened, she was delighted by the amount of love and support that had been shown since then by the public.
In response to queries from the media, Pink Dot SG said that it was not aware of any instances where businesses had gotten into trouble with the law for supporting the LGBTQ community. “Certain groups or individuals may not feel as supportive of the LGBTQ community in Singapore. They may also disagree that businesses should be allowed to show their support, even if there is no rule prohibiting it,” a Pink Dot SG spokesperson said. “While it is their right not to patronise these businesses, they should not be allowed to take matters into their own hands and confront these businesses in a threatening or hostile manner.”
Pink Dot 2021 campaign video
"In the past year, our nation bore witness to continued acts of discrimination against the LGBTQ community and its allies. From a Pride flag being ripped from the countertop of a local eatery and thrown at the staff, to the Reddit post that documented the traumatic experience of a transgender student in the Singapore school system— these events serve as a reminder that more needs to be done to foster love and understanding for everyone in Singapore. We invite all Singaporeans to once again light up their homes and businesses in pink — to stand in solidarity with the LGBTQ community and to help those who are isolated during this pandemic feel less alone."
Culprit given 24-month conditional warning
On Tuesday, 6 July 2021, in response to a question by Non-Constituency Member of Parliament Leong Mun Wai from the Progress Singapore Party, who asked for an update on the case and whether more steps would be taken to deal with such incidents of abuse due to discrimination, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam revealed in a written parliamentary reply that the perpetrator of the hateful act had been given a 24-month conditional warning. The police did not recommend prosecution for the 47-year-old culprit because he did not cause any injuries and the incident in January that year was “not protracted”. Besides, the man had a medical history of mental disorder, which may have partly explained his actions in the case.
The Attorney-General's Chambers concurred with the police’s decision and the conditional warning was for an offence of intentionally causing harassment, alarm or distress under Section 3(2) of the Protection from Harassment Act. Shanmugam stressed that the Government’s position was “clear” that harassment and abuse of any person “for any reason” was not condoned. He said: "The law protects LGBTQ individuals the same as everyone else."
Proprietor's message of closure
The following day, on Wednesday, July 2021, SMOL's founder, Charmaine Low, posted the following message on the eatery's Facebook page, both in text as well as in a poster format:
"It has been a gruelling 7 months. And I cannot be more thankful for the closure.
Many of you may have seen the article by Today regarding the latest update of the flag throwing incident in January.
First, I’d like to thank the community and the allies who showed their unwavering support during the incident. You gave us the strength to continue fighting for what we believed in.
I was glad to find out the result of the investigation through the news, as the last I heard from SPF was on 02/03 (a day after Pritam Singh had mentioned the case in parliament)— promising an update soon.
To those who have been the voice for our community – Pritam Singh, Leong Mun Wai 梁文辉, K Shanmugam Sc, as well as Singapore Police Force, thank you.
Destigmatising mental health is something I firmly believe in, and can only hope that our system provides help for those who need it most. In the meantime, I urge the public not to shame the perpetrator or comment on SPF’s decision.
Being queer and on the receiving end of such hateful remarks/violence has inevitably left trauma that I will carry with me for a better part of my life.
But I am not alone. And this wasn’t an isolated incident. Many of us continue to suffer in silence everyday. If you are someone who needs help, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself, reach out to someone you trust or the good people at Oogachaga/Prout.
Lastly, I hope that this serves as a reminder that regardless of gender identity/sexuality, beliefs, religion, race, we all deserve to be treated with respect.
— Charmaine (she/her), Founder of SMOL"
This article was written by Roy Tan.