Singapore's LGBT history remains largely unknown to the vast majority in mainstream society and even to many LGBT people themselves. This is partly because the LGBT community is a relatively "invisible" one - it is not easy to identify who is gay or lesbian, although transgender Singaporeans who do not "pass" well may be more obvious in a crowd. Moreover, with male gay sex being remaining criminalised under Section 377A of the Penal Code, procreation being culturally seen as an important aspect of one's duty to society and with considerable peer pressure to adhere to gender norms, there is much shame associated with being gay or transgender. This leads to a great reluctance of many LGBT Singaporeans to come out to the general public.
Historical and media records also tend to suppress or euphemise the description of LGBT activities because of colonial Victorian morality and the current regime's insistence on the censorship of positive portrayals of LGBT Singaporeans. However, if one ploughs through archival reports and reads between the lines which were often derogatory of LGBT people, many instances of salient events can be teased out to reconstruct a credible historiography.
Pre-British era (before 1819)
There exist no known written records of same-sex love in pre-colonial Singapore and, as a corollary, of any "movement" in reaction to perceived or real oppression of such activity. However, anthropologists like Michael Peletz note that between the 15th and 18th centuries, Southeast Asia was characterised by gender fluidity, egalitarianism and considerable female autonomy. Furthermore, there were culturally sanctioned positions for transgender individuals all across the region where one finds a tradition of cross-dressing and other forms of gender-transgressive behaviour. Associated with these is a rich local lexicon and a variety of rituals. A vast corpus of works by colonial civil servants, missionaries and travellers in the 19th and early 20th centuries yielded accounts of the natives' sexuality, which in many instances shocked the Judeo-Christian morality of their Western colonial masters.
The Dutch noted that Dyaks, Acehnese, Bugis, Balinese, Javanese, Batak, Minangkabau and Chinese in the vast Malay archipelago shared a passionate addiction to vices such as pederasty and homosexual sodomy. The following is a description from physician Julius Jacobs after his visit to Bali in the early 1880s, where he observed many dance performances by young boys dressed up like women:
"One knows that they are boys, and it is sickening to see men from all strata of Balinese society proffering their kepengs (Chinese coins) to have the chance to dance with these children, sometimes in the queerest postures; one is still more revolted to discover that these children, sometimes after exercising for hours in a perpendicular position, are compelled, utterly exhausted though they may be, to carry out horizontal maneuvers with the highest bidders, after being fondled by this man and kissed by that."
The Hikayat Panji Semirang (Tale of Prince Semirang), an epic poem which dates from the 14th century, tells of the adventures of a sexually fluid hero, Panji Semirang. It was well known and beloved throughout Southeast Asia, especially in Indonesia and Malaysia. Another traditional Javanese literary work, Serat Centhini, written in 1814, is the Southeast Asian version of India's famed Kama Sutra. This stylised sex manual has detailed descriptions of sodomy, fellatio, mutual masturbation and transvestism. The poem shows that male homosexuality was an unproblematic, everyday part of a highly varied traditional Javanese sexual culture.
Prior to the arrival of British traders and colonists in 1819, Singapore was largely populated by small, dispersed settlements of Orang Asli (aborigines) and Malays of the Johor-Riau archipelago who engaged mainly in subsistence farming, fishery and trade. These people and the island came under the jurisdiction of the Sultanate of Johor which was the successor of the Malacca Sultanate, both of which had their own codes of law but no formal legal system. It is also possible that adat law, often inadequately translated as "customary law", governed the island's inhabitants. The highest authority lay in the hands of the Yang di-Pertuan of Johor who was also known as the Sultan of Johor. He was advised by the Majlis Orang Kaya (Council of Rich Men). Amongst the council members was the Temenggong of Johor who lived in Telok Blangah, Singapore and who administered the island based on the level of authority bestowed upon him by the Sultan of Johor. However, little is known about the laws that were actually applicable and the British have always assumed that no law prevailed on the island when it was acquired.
We can retropolate from the culture of contemporary Malays that there was probably much tolerance towards men who indulged in surreptitious homosexual activity, as evidenced by the absence of any vocal or physical violence against such people, outside of the framework of the imported Islamic sociopolitical system. Neither did non-heteronormative Malay men have to band together to form a movement because it was never warranted in the absence of overt oppression.
Effeminate men are derisively called "bapuk" or "pondan" (see main article: Singapore gay terminology), but apart from being teased and regarded ceteris paribus as having a lower status than their more masculine counterparts, there is no hatred directed against them, as is so often the situation in the West. "Third gender" or transgender individuals, who are called "mak nyah", have their own niche in traditional Malay society which acknowledged the existence of alternatives to heterosexual practices. They were recognised, tolerated and even incorporated into community life, occupying a stable, albeit marginalised position within society. This situation is similar to the traditional cultures of the larger Malayo-Polynesian and Austronesian regions, as well as throughout Southeast Asia. Such traditions were a function of age-old indigenous belief systems that portrayed the gods as androgynous, or comprised of male-female pairs. Given this view of divinity, people who embodied both masculinity and femininity in their gender and/or sexuality were believed to be closer to the divine and uniquely capable of mediating between the spirits and humans.
Prime examples are seen in Indonesia's South Sulawesi province. When the Europeans first visited the region in the 16th century, they were shocked by what they saw. Portuguese missionary Antonio de Paiva wrote a scandalising letter to his Catholic bishop in 1544 about his observations of the Bugis people:
“Your Lordship will know that the priests of these kings are generally called bissus. They grow no hair on their beards, dress in a womanly fashion, and grow their hair long and braided; they imitate [women’s] speech because they adopt all of the female gestures and inclinations. They marry and are received, according to the custom of the land, with other common men, and they live indoors, uniting carnally in their secret places with the men whom they have for husbands...”
He concluded the letter with his amazement that the Christian god, who had destroyed "three cities of Sodom for the same sin," had not yet smited such "wanton people" who were "encircled by evil." The European colonial powers mocked Southeast Asia's tolerance for gender and sexual diversity, perceiving their attitudes as evidence the region needed “redemptive civilisation. The bissu tradition, which considers these individuals as neither male nor female, dates back to the 13th century. They are a “fifth gender” within the Bugis' gender system, which comprises also male men (oroané), female women (makkunrai), male women (calabai) and female men (calalai). A similar culture is shared by the to burake tambolang of the Torajan people from the same region.
Elsewhere in Austronesia, one finds the palopa and kwolu-aatmwol of Papua New Guinea, the sistergirls of the Tiwi Islands, the palao'ana of the Northern Marianas Islands, the fa'afafine of Samoa, America Samoa and Tokelau, the fakafefine or fakaleiti/leiti of Tonga, the whakawahine of the Maoris, the takataapui of Aotearoa New Zealand, the akava'ine of the Cook Islands Maoris, the fakafifine of Niue, the mahu of Hawaii and the mahu vahine of Tahiti. In the past, transgender religious leaders amongst both the Torajan and Bugis people played important roles in their communities. Bissu and to burake led spiritual ceremonies or harvest rituals in villages. The people would admire and honour a village with a to burake.
Some tribes in the southeast of Papua, similar to tribes in the eastern highlands of Papua New Guinea, practised “ritualised homosexuality”. This practice required young men to perform oral sex on elder males as part of their rite of passage into manhood. They believed that semen was the source of life and the essence of masculinity, important for boys to become real men.
In East Java, the traditional dance performance Reog Ponorogo depicts intimate relationships between two characters, warok and gemblak. The main male dancer, or warok, must follow strict physical and spiritual rules and rituals. Under these rules, a warok was prohibited from engaging in a sexual relationship with a woman. But he was allowed to have intimate relationships with young boys’ characters, or gemblak, in the performance. Although warok and gemblak were engaged in same-sex acts, they did not identify themselves as homosexuals. In other Javanese traditional drama performances like ludruk and wayang orang, a man playing a woman’s character or vice versa is not unusual.
In the Philippines, pre-colonial communities were religiously led by babaylan who were women healers and shamans responsible for mediating between the gods and people. These roles were also open to assigned male at birth individuals (asog, bayog) so long as they comported themselves like women. A 16th century Spanish manuscript described asog thus: “Ordinarily they dress as women, act like prudes, and are so effeminate that one does not know them would believe they are women... they marry other males and sleep with them as man and wife and have carnal knowledge.”
In Vietnam, there are similar records kept by European priests of “men” who acted as spirit mediums and who wore “women’s clothing and completely pull out their beards.” Even today, the tradition of feminine, assigned male at birth mediums who channel feminine spirits lives on in Đạo Mẫu temples that worship the Mother Goddess belonging to an indigenous religion of the country.
Myanmar has a rich pre-Buddhist tradition of “nat kadaw,” literally translated as “wife of a spirit.” While there are historical records of assigned male at birth nat kadaws, some of whom resisted the British in the First Anglo-Burmese War, today nat kadaws are known as assigned male at birth individuals who dress as women during the ceremonies and perform important blessings. They typically have sex with men, and some also identify as women outside of a ceremonial context.
Other salient examples of the traditional tolerance for gender diversity in neighbouring Malaysia have been quoted by academic Julian CH Lee in his book, "Policing Sexuality", published by Zed Books Ltd in August 2012. There are records from as early as the 15th century of gender fluid Malay priests or courtesans called sida-sida, who served in the palaces of Malay sultans. These people were typically “male-bodied priests or courtiers” who undertook “androgynous behavior” such as wearing women’s clothes and likely “engaged in sexual relationships with individuals of the same sex” or “both sexes.” In the 19th century, the manang bali were gender fluid Iban shamans of Sarawak. They were assigned male at birth individuals who adopted the mannerisms, clothing and lifestyle of women, even taking on men as husbands. This was undertaken in order for them to become healers, mediators between spirits and people, village leaders and intermediaries. Not only were they tolerated but even celebrated and looked upon with great esteem because of their contribution to society. So accepted was gender diversity in Malaysia that as late as the 1960s, known "specialised homosexual villages" existed in Kelantan, with one even abutting on the Sultan's palace.
At least one Malaysian monarch was known to be openly homosexual. Captain Alexander Hamilton, an English sailor who visited Old Johor in 1695, wrote about the behaviour of Sultan Mahmud Shah II. His accounts were corroborated by the Dutch delegate to Johor in 1699. They noted that the Sultan was partial to handsome men. Hamilton in his book, A New Account of the East Indies published in Edinburgh in 1727, recounted the following story:
"In anno 1695, their King was a youth of twenty years of age, and being vitiously inclined, was so corrupted by adulation and flagitious company, that he became intolerable. I went to Johor Lama at that time, to traffic with his subjects...
He was a great sodomite, and had taken many of his orang kaya or nobles' sons, by force into his palace for that abominable service. A Moorish merchant, who was a freighter on board my ship, had a handsome boy to his son, whom the King one day saw, and would needs have him for a catamite. He threatened the father, that if he did not send him with good will, he would have him by force. The poor man had taken a house close by our ship, and immediately came with his son on board, imploring my protection, which I promised him."
"He continued his insupportable tyranny and brutality for a year or two after I was gone, and his mother, to try if he could be broke off that unnatural custom of converse with males, persuaded a beautiful young woman to visit him, when he was a bed, which she did, and allured him with her embraces, but he was so far from being pleased with her conversation, that he called his black guard, and made them break both her arms, for offering to embrace his royal person. She cried, and said it was by his mother’s order she came, but that was no excuse."
Up to as late as the 1980s, the Malaysian government offered gender-confirmation surgeries — the only country in Southeast Asia to provide such operations apart from Thailand and Singapore. Transgender health was so widely embraced that even the government contributed funds towards the Mak Nyah Association. Unfortunately, everything changed in 1903 when a fatwa was issued by the National Fatwa Council banning such surgeries and the hospital that undertook it was shut down, marking the beginning of a repressive, anti-LGBT chapter in Malaysia’s history.
Under British colonial administration
Singapore's first prostitutes included effeminate males from Indonesia
In a Straits Times article on 12 April 1970 written by Lawrence Basapa, it was reported that a few months after the British arrived in 1819, Singapore's first sex workers sailed to the island from Indonesia. It is believed that there were about 100 of them, mostly young girls in their early teens, including a sprinkling of effeminate males who came to Singapore in search of a better life.
Section 377 of the Penal Code
To effectively govern the Straits Settlements of which Singapore was a part, the British authorities conveniently imported the Indian Penal Code drafted in their largest colony in the 1860s and renamed it the Straits Settlements Penal Code in 1871. It came into effect in Singapore, Penang and Malacca on September 16, 1872. The new Penal Code included a Section 377 which criminalised "carnal intercourse against the order of nature". The latter was interpreted by the courts to mean any form of penetrative sex which did not have the potential of procreation. This included not only homosexual sex, but also oral and anal sex between heterosexual couples.
Hainanese boys brought in as homosexual prostitutes
Constance Mary Turnbull, in her work A History of Modern Singapore 1819-2005, noted that when the British started to import large numbers of Chinese coolies soon after the colony's founding, Hainanese boys were concomitantly brought in as homosexual prostitutes for the indentured labourers whose numbers were to rise threefold in the last thirty years of the 19th century. This was presumably to satisfy their carnal cravings in an environment which saw a serious dearth of women. The practice was legal as homosexual sex was not yet criminalised locally. As mentioned above, the Indian Penal Code containing its infamous "unnatural sex" statute of Section 377 would only be ported over and come into effect in 1872.
The 1826 population figures registered a total of 13,750 inhabitants, with 5,747 Chinese males and only 341 Chinese females - a ratio of almost 17:1! This compared with 2,501 Malay males and 2,289 Malay females. The sex ratio of early Indian migrants was similarly distorted.
It would have been difficult for the colonial administrators to persuade cisgender female sex workers from China to work in early Singapore as women were very reluctant to immigrate, considering it a hardship posting. The British therefore fell back on Hainanese boys whom they figured would make a good substitute since they were reputed to have fair skins and pleasant faces, both features highly valued in the Chinese concept of beauty. It seems counterintuitive that Hainanese boys would have had a reputation of being fair-complexioned because Hainan island lay at the sunniest, southernmost part of China. It may have been the fact that Hainanese cultural practices dictated that the men stay at home to do the cooking while the women work in the fields. This could have been the reason why it was predominantly Hainanese men who gravitated towards the cooking profession after they emigrated to Singapore. However, the records do not mention if these boys cross-dressed and worked as transgender sex workers or as the outwardly male "rent boys" or "money boys" that we know of today. This presents a huge problem when trying to differentiate the history of phenotypically male from transgender sex workers in Singapore.
In 1877, the colonial authorities established a Chinese Protectorate headquartered in a shophouse in North Canal Road to establish firmer control over the Chinese immigrants. The Protectorate did not seek to ban female prostitution in Singapore because that would have been unrealistic - in 1884, there were 60,000 Chinese men but only 6,600 Chinese women, of whom an estimated 2,000 were prostitutes. A ban would have also encouraged homosexual prostitution.
Newspaper report on intersex person
The first mention of an intersex individual in the local press was made in The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942) on 21 December 1896 on page 2:
"One of the followers of Mat Salleh, the Borneo freebooter and rebel, who was condemned to death, was found to be a hermaphrodite. The Governor of British North Borneo commuted the sentence to imprisonment for life, in the interests of medical science, it is understood."
One would nowadays be appalled to imagine that an intersex person would be subjected to medical experiments in prison while serving his life sentence but such were the standards of medical ethics in the 19th century.
East-West homosexual liaisons in hotels
European-style travellers' lodgings like the Raffles Hotel were built. They were a common fixture of many colonial cities. Such hotels offered higher standards of comfort, and the possibility for their patrons to relive the metropolitan lifestyle. As sites of foreign capital accumulation that exploited indigenous labour, and as spaces of social definition where Westerners asserted their superiority over locals as much as class and national distinctions among themselves, hotels represented a microcosm of colonial society.
An academic from the National University of Singapore's Department of History, Maurizio Peleggi,, wrote on page 20 of his paper, "The Social and Material Life of Colonial Hotels: Comfort Zones as Contact Zones in British Colombo and Singapore, ca. 1870-1930":
"Lamenting the silence of archival records on homosexuality in British Malaya, historian John Butcher suggested some years ago that relationships between European and Asian men must have been far from uncommon.
Given the easing of inhibitions afforded by travel's transitory condition, one can assume homoerotic intimacy and sexual encounters between male tourists and local youth, particularly servants in hotels and boardinghouses, to have also been not infrequent."
Prosecution for "obscene" lesbian article
On 4 November 1927, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942) reported on page 16 the prosecution of the editor, manager and printer of a weekly Chinese tabloid for the publication of an article which dealt with lesbianism. The magistrate deemed it obscene and fined all three parties:
"An article entitled "Lesbian Divorce" published in a local Chinese weekly called the Amusement Bell, was held by the Third Magistrate, Mr. C. H. Dakers, yesterday, to be obscene. The article was the subject of a prosecution in which the editor of the paper, Lei Lai Long, the manager, Wong Keng Yaim, and the printers, the Ngai Mun Press, were alleged to have been responsible for the publication of the article. Translations of the "story" shewed it to b a droll affair, revelling in metaphors of a very doubtful kind.
The first two accused were represented by Mr. Collier who submitted that the article was not obscene but a story which would act as a deterrent.
His Worship held that if the article was to act as a deterrent it should have been published in a straightforward manner and not so that it appeared with a jocular trend.
The accused were convicted, the first and second being fined $80 each and the third $40."
- Main article: Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code
In 1938, Section 377A was introduced by the legislature into the Straits Settlements Penal Code to criminalise all non-penetrative sexual acts between men, eg. mutual masturbation and frottage. One year prior to this, in 1937, René Onraet, the then Inspector-General of the Straits Settlements Police Force, in his annual report to Singapore's colonial government on the state of crime on the island, noted that with regard to vice, "male prostitution" was widespread. The report caused the government to institute "a policy to stamp out this evil" and was a prelude to making such acts between men a criminal offence so that "male prostitution" could be policed and also perhaps to protect European expatriates and visitors, eg. sailors, from the vice,. However, it must be stressed that "male prostitution" was not solely targeted but all forms of sex work and pimping which the authorities regarded as "social evils".
377A was not meant to prosecute adult males who indulged in consensual sex in private. This inference is in line with the fact that one of the first reported offences under Section 377A involved a British captain, Douglas Marr, who was charged for but acquitted of illegal homosexual acts with a Singaporean Malay male youth, Sudin bin Daud, at the captain's home in 1941,,.
Daffodil Sng, powerful homosexual pimp
In April 1970, The Straits Times published a consecutive weekly series of feature articles on the history of prostitution in Singapore. In the 12 April 1970 edition on page 4, it mentioned a homosexual man named Daffodil Sng (whom they called a catamite) who started a chain of brothels and built a vice empire employing female sex workers. He fought for dominance and the monopoly of the vice trade with an earlier, heterosexual vice lord named Ah Yap. Both hired secret society members to engage in physical fights.
"In 1937 another vice "king" entered the scene. He was a catamite named Daffodil Sng. He started brothels in Changi, Bencoolen Street, Waterloo Street and Tiong Bahru. By 1938 he was almost as powerful as Ah Yap."
Dr. Kozo Ando points out existence of male prostitutes
The 27 July 1939 edition of The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942) reported on page 7 that Dr. Kozo Ando, a Japanese doctor from Penang whose family was one of the early settlers in Malaya, drew the attention of the Singapore Rotary Club to the existence of male sex workers in Singapore. In a lecture entitled "The Oldest Profession", he used the definition of a "prostitute" as "a person who makes it a profession to gratify the lust of various persons of the opposite or the same sex for money."
Male prostitution regarded as "an abominable type of vice" rife in Singapore
- See also: Archive of The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser article, "“Abominable Type of Vice” Rife In Singapore", 28 March 1941
On 28 March 1941, The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser (1884-1942) on page 7 reported that FJC Wilson, head of the Anti-Vice Branch, condemned male sex work as "an abominable type of vice" in the Singapore Criminal District Court and had a "serious position in Singapore at the present time",,. However, as with all reports at the time, there was no mention of whether the male sex worker crossed-dressed or not. In all probability, most of the persons charged were transwoman sex workers but in the case of Sudin bin Daud in the following article, a later trial made it clear that he was wearing a men's shirt when he was arrested, so this may be evidence of the existence of rent boys during that era.
“Abominable Type of Vice” Rife In Singapore
COURT URGED TO TAKE A SERIOUS VIEW OF INDECENCY CASES
STRONG condemnation of the serious position in Singapore at the present time in regard to an “abominable type of vice was made in the Singapore Criminal District Court yesterday by Mr. F. J. C. Wilson, head the local Anti-Vice Branch.
Mr. Wilson who was prosecuting in a case in which a Chinese was charged with committing an act cf gross indecency in a “low down quarter” of Singapore recently, asked for such a heavy sentence to be passed on the man that it would serve as a deterrent to “animals of the same ilk as the accused.”
Tan Ah Yiow, the accused, was sentenced to nine months’ rigorous imprisonment to be followed by two years’ police supervision.
Explaining the prosecution’s version of the incident, which the accused denied after pleading guilty to the offence last week, Mr. Wilson said that acting on information received, he proceeded to a certain house in a very low down quarter of Singapore, and on going into a room on the ground floor he found the accused. “In the same room was a European client,” said Mr. Wilson.
“A disgusting and revolting practice had been performed,” Mr. Wilson continued, adding that although medical evidence to support the foregoing had not yet been received from the hospital, steps were being taken to secure that evidence which would be positive.
Exhibits appertaining to “this disgusting act” were taken possession of by him and sent to the Government pathologist for examination Tan was subsequently arrest and taken to the Detective Branch and charged. Mr. Wilson stressed that a ricksha puller was also arrested and charged for having procured the commision of the above offence, the point being, he said, was that the accused’s practices must have been known to the ricksha puller.
Tan who admitted three previous convictions for theft, denied the prosecution's allegations and said that why he pleaded guilty last week was because he thought that as he would be sent to prison in any case, he might as well admit the charge.
In the same court earlier in the day Sudin bin Daud, a Malay who pleaded guilty to a charge of committing sn act of gross indecency in a room of a house, and to stealing a wrist watch from another room about the same time, was sentenced to a total of 18 months’ rigorous imprisonment plus two years’ police supervision. The facts of the case had been admitted by Daud, said Mr. Wilson.
Daud had a previous conviction for theft last year and Mr. Wilson asked that a serious view should be taken of this offence.
It was only by means of a great deal of very hard and concentrated work that he was able to obtain cases of this nature in which there was any likelihood of a successful prosecution being taken, said Mr. Wilson. Only by prompt action by the police and their being convinced of a conviction did they bring these cases to court where there may be some chance to eradicate this evil, Mr. Wilson emphasised.
The second charge of theft, he said, were part and parcel of the first charge, and was committed at the same time, day and place and was part of the general transaction of the first cffence which carried a maximum penalty of seven years, Mr. Wiison continued. He asked the Judge, Mr J. L. McFall, to take into account that the two charges were co-related.
Mr. Wilson further urged the Judge to inflict on the accused a punishment of whipping also in addition to whatever sentence he may pass.
Mr. McFall denied that a whipping did not fall within the same section as the particular offence Sudin bin Daud was instead sentenced to nine months’ rigorous imprisonment on each charge, the sentences to run consecutively and given police supervision of two years.
Early gay venues
With the criminalisation of homosexual acts, there must have been instances where flagrant consensual gay sex between locals in seedy nocturnal venues met with suppression by the police, but criminal prosecutions were rare because the authorities were more concerned with homosexual prostitution targeting European clients whose morals they did not want corrupted. Aggrieved individuals would have wanted to speak out but as they had no social network, most suffered in silence and became more discreet with their sex lives. Southern Chinese and Indians were imported as indentured labourers to oil the gears of the British entrepôt economy. Most arrived without wives or girlfriends (the male to female ratio of the Chinese before the 1920s being as high as 15:1), so they relieved their sexual tensions with prostitutes or other men. It is thought that the first places where homosexual men, especially Chinese coolies, could chance upon each other were the public toilets and back alleys near the colony's economic heart - the bustling Singapore River, predominantly along the right bank (looking downstream) of Boat Quay (see main article: Public toilets in Singapore: gay aspects). The proximity of Hong Lim Park to Boat Quay may explain why the former became notorious as the first internationally known gay cruising rendezvous in Singapore to be listed in the Spartacus International Gay Guide, the most widely read gay tourist publication in the world (see Singapore gay venues: historical).
Hokkien same-sex marriage culture
Bret Hinsch, in chapter 6 of his book Passions of the Cut Sleeve: the Male Homosexual Tradition in China, has detailed evidence, derived from the works of literati Li Yu (李漁) and Shen Defu (沈德符), of institutionalised same-sex marriage practices amongst Hokkien men in Ming dynasty China. The older man in the union would play the masculine role as a qīxīong (契兄) or "adoptive older brother", paying a "bride price" to the family of the younger man (apparently, virgins fetched higher prices) who became the qīdì (契弟), or "adoptive younger brother". Li Yu described the ceremony: "They do not skip the three cups of tea or the six wedding rituals - it is just like a proper marriage with a formal wedding." The qīdì then moved into the household of the qīxīong, where he would be completely dependent on him, be treated as a son-in-law by the qīxīong's parents, and possibly even help raise children adopted by the qīxīong. These marriages could last as long as 20 years before both men were expected to marry women in order to procreate. This popular Fujian bond brotherhood tradition was also mentioned by Qing dynasty scholar and poet Yuan Mei (袁枚) in her work Zi Bu Yu (子不語) which, amongst other supernatural stories, recounts the tale of the Rabbit God, the patron deity of gay men.
However, it is not known with certainty if the subculture of Hokkien male-male marriage was exported along with the human tide into Singapore. What can be definitely attested to by contemporary Singaporeans is the existence of a ceremony in which parents unofficially adopt the intimate friend of a male member of the family as a godson (干儿子: gān ér zi (Mandarin); khoe kíaⁿ (Hokkien); 契仔: kai tsai (Cantonese), thereby effectively rendering him an in-law without the two male lovers having to get officially or ceremonially married. The Chinese ceremony is conducted before the family's ancestral altar and includes an offering of pigs' trotters.
Temples dedicated to the worship of the Rabbit God, the patron deity of homosexuals, were popular in China's Fujian province during the Qing dynasty. In these temples, images of Hu Tianbao, who became deified as the Rabbit God after he was unjustly beaten to death for falling in love with a high-ranking male official, show him in embrace with another man. Academic Keith Stevens, writing in his paper, "The wrestling princes" in the Journal of the Hong Kong Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society in 2002, reports seeing images like these in temples in Hokkien-speaking communities in Malaysia, Taiwan, Thailand and Singapore.
"A Record of the Customs of All China" by Hu Pu'an, published in 1773, contains accounts of Golden Orchid Associations, women-only associations that practiced marriage-like ceremonies among its members in Guangdong province. Golden Orchid members still existed in immigrant Chinese communities (including Singapore) into the earlier half of the 20th century (see documentation of major episodes of homosexuality throughout Chinese history: ,,).
The intense bonds of Chinese triad brotherhood must also have led to sexual liaisons between those with a homosexual orientation. There is evidence of this in prisons even today. Aspects of these are seen in Royston Tan's groundbreaking movie about local teenage gangsters, "15". These relationships were well tolerated amongst the Chinese and no oppression would have resulted within their own community.
Homosexuality in other communities
Similarly, in the Indian community, Dravidian versions of the Northern Indian masti or sexual play between men who were not necessarily gay must have been widespread given the paucity of women and also well tolerated. Such activities continue to flourish today in Little India, at the Serangoon Road area. Before the advent of British colonialism and the establishment of the Indian Penal Code, gay sex was never a crime under Hindu law, as evidenced by sculptures depicting homosexual sex at the temple complex in Khajuraho, India.
In Peranakan or Baba culture, male-to-female cross-dressing was often indulged in for fun or for performances, especially stage plays (Wayang Peranakan) as women were traditionally not allowed to take part. It enjoyed community support and was not frowned upon,,(see video:). William Tan Wee Liam was a pioneering Peranakan actor, playwright, director and producer, well known for playing female roles during the 1950s and 60s. Other legendary female impersonators were Francis Hogan and GT Lye. Vestiges of this tradition continue to this very day in the theatrical productions of the Gunong Sayang Association and Peranakan Siblings (see main article: Singapore gay theatre).
Before Singapore gained its independence from the United Kingdom, the main racial groups of Malays, Chinese and Indians had very little concept of 'human rights', which was largely a product of Western civilisation. Eastern society emphasised duties, obligations and knowing one's place in a hierarchical society. The fact that a coolie enjoyed fewer rights than a government official was tolerated due to the pervasive influence of Hinduism throughout Southeast Asia, the doctrine of karma and Confucianism. Such a system was rarely considered unfair. Moreover, many Chinese and Indians regarded themselves as sojourners. Thus, any notion of gays banding together to speak out against the injustice of the British-imposed Penal Code must have been extremely remote indeed.
Around the middle of the 20th century, the word "gay", adopted from the British argot (code language) called Polari to connote "homosexual", had not yet crept into the lexicon of the colonial authorities and locals in Singapore. It still had its traditional meaning of "joyful", "carefree" or "bright and showy". This was evident in media reports of the time. It was not until the 1970s that "gay" became widely used in the sense that we know it today. Newspaper headlines containing the phrase "Singapore goes gay" and the naming of popular public venues like Gay World attested to this.
Homosexual sex becomes legal
When Singapore fell to the Japanese imperial army on 15 February 1942 and was renamed Syonan-to (昭南島, Light of the South), the British legal system was scrapped overnight and replaced by new courts established by the Japanese Military Administration. A Military Court of Justice was established on 7 April 1942 to administer military ordinances and the laws of the Japanese army. The following month, the Syonan Koto-Hoin (昭南高度方院, Syonan Supreme Court) was formed on 29 May 1942. Unbeknownst to all, save the elite few who possessed a knowledge of Japanese culture either through erudition or travel, homosexual sex suddenly became legitimate as it was never criminalised in Japan except for seven years (1872 to 1880) during the Meiji Restoration when Japan diligently emulated many norms of Western institutions in her effort to "modernise". In fact, the Japanese military, who revered the bushido code, were the inheritors of a tradition which extolled homosexuality (nanshoku; 男色) as a higher form of love. It was widely indulged in by the samurai of yore (see Homosexuality in Japan and LGBT rights in Japan).
There is an anecdotal account by a Singaporean Chinese man, born in the 1930s and over 70 years of age in the early 2000s when he related the story, who described having a Japanese officer as a lover during the Japanese occupation. During the day, the soldiers would confiscate food from his home. But when night fell, the officer would bring food for him and his family. It was a lover's privilege.
To deal with civil cases and crimes committed by the local populace and ancillary Japanese civilians, a proclamation was issued by the Japanese on 27 May 1942 to reopen all Singaporean civil courts including the Criminal, District, Police and Coroner’s Courts and to make all former British laws applicable so long as they did not interfere with the military administration. Even though this theoretically meant that Sections 377 and 377A of the Straits Settlements Penal Code once again held sway, the Japanese would not have bothered to prosecute any Singaporean for gay sex as it was not illegal in the Japanese military itself.
Cessation of prostitution
Vice was temporarily halted by the Japanese presence. Hundreds of sex workers, both female and male, were rounded up during the first week of the Occupation and supplied to Japanese soldiers. Their fate has never been learnt of. Vice was the only pattern of life in Singapore that was radically altered by the war. Only the red light areas survived the Japanese Occupation. However, their modus operandi changed. The post-war years saw the decline of secret society involvement and the appearance of a class structure in vice.
Sook Ching massacre
A major, two-week long operation (from 21 February to 4 March 1942), locally known as Sook Ching (肅清) which means "a purge through cleansing" in Chinese and as Kakyoshukusei (華僑粛清) or "purging of Chinese" by the Japanese, was conducted to cleanse the local Chinese population of anti-Japanese elements,. Not only were those who were fingered by hooded informants and suspected of harbouring anti-Japanese sentiments sent to be shot, but also any muscular, good-looking male in the prime of his life. One such person was Chua Choon Guan, a lucky survivor of the massacre who was machine gunned at Tanah Merah Besar beach but who miraculously managed to crawl out from under the corpses. He had been held at the Jalan Besar football stadium concentration centre and was selected to be executed because of his physique. Chua recounted: "They had a liking for those who were well built and they took us all out.",. In a Straits Times interview, another hunky survivor who also dragged himself out from the mass of dead bodies, Cheng Kwong Yu, described the arbitrary selection process: "There was a crowd that came and picked us out. They had a liking for those who were big.", Such sturdy individuals would have constituted a potential threat to the invaders by virtue of their genetic and physical health. It is estimated that 25,000 to 50,000 were exterminated, amongst them the finest specimens of Chinese Singaporean manhood.
Thus, in one fell swoop, the strong, young and handsome were culled, leaving their physically less perfect brethren to survive and propagate their gene pool into modern-day Singapore. The feared practice of Japanese soldiers ransacking homes and carting off pretty daughters to become spouses in Japan was less prevalent than in Malaysia, but must have occurred to some degree. It was common for girls and women to darken their faces, leave their hair untended, and wear conservative clothing to make themselves less attractive to Japanese men. Especially from the gay male point of view, this represented an enormous loss to society. It dealt a severe blow to the model of an egalitarian homosexual relationship between two strong, handsome men as these specimens had suddenly become a rarity. The deficiency would take decades to redress itself, aided by complementary selection of physical traits by courting parents-to-be, improved healthcare and nutrition, as well as Chinese immigration from neighbouring Malaysia and mainland China. Many feel that this process is still incomplete, leading to some Taiwanese gay men pejoratively referring to their Singaporean counterparts as "prawns", i.e. good only from the neck down.
After World War II
The overthrow of the Japanese in August 1945 by Allied forces resulted in jubilation, tinged with regret, amongst the gay population. The British legal system was reinstated, with its notorious Section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code, criminalising all sexual acts "against the order of nature" regardless of gender, as well as Section 377A which prohibited non-penetrative sex specifically between men.
The incompetence and unfairness of the British post-war administration in addressing the economic plight of Singaporeans sowed the seeds of the concept of self-determination within the local populace. Not only was the idea of independence mulled over, but also of universal human rights, including gay equality.
Along the tortuous road to complete independence from the United Kingdom in 1959 and subsequently from the Malaysian federation in 1965 came the drafting of the Constitution and the gradual repeal of colonial laws which discriminated on the basis of race, language and religion. Homosexuals, however, were dismayed by the glaring absence of any categorical statement outlawing discrimination due to sexual orientation. In those days, homosexuality as a topic was taboo. One did not even mention it in polite society, much less agitate to have it included in an official document, owing to stigmatisation by generations of imported Victorian morality.
As a segment of a newly-independent republic with the schizoid attributes of both optimism and insecurity, gay Singaporeans were exhorted to build Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew's vision of 'a rugged society'. This implied promoting masculine values, a dedication to work and self-sacrifice. "Yellow culture" (pornography, vice and other behaviours deemed decadent) was driven underground so as not to distract from his goal.
Thus, self-expression, sexuality and leisure had to take a back seat to nation building. This was somewhat to the consternation of gays, who were compelled to remain largely in the closet, due to the lack of official and social tolerance and an altogether different focus in priorities. However, every homosexual citizen accepted the status quo as Singapore had to survive as a sovereign nation.
Nocturnal cruising in back alleys, public parks and toilets went on as usual, hidden from official scrutiny, as it always had in all societies since the dawn of civilisation. In Singapore, it is thought that such activities first began in the public toilets along the Singapore River, especially at Boat Quay, by homosexual cargo coolies. This may explain the development of Hong Lim Park as mid-20th century Singapore's most notorious cruising spot, because of its proximity to Boat Quay. Gays indulging in such trysts were in the most part left unimpeded by the Police, perhaps guided by the pioneering Government's conviction not to let any Singaporean be discriminated against, as they were under British and Federal Malaysian rule. No one was charged under Section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code.
In fact, the authorities knew full well that male-to-female transgender sex work (officially called male prostitution or transvestite prostitution during that era) took place in Bugis Street and Johore Road, but turned a blind eye, regarding it as an undesirable but inevitable vice. Ironically, such liaisons contributed to the fledgling economy by drawing revenue from passing sailors who patronised the streetwalkers. Moreover, the strutting and pouting transwomen of Bugis Street were one of Singapore's biggest tourist attractions, commanding an international clientele of gawkers and providing a considerable boost to the tourism segment of the economy in addition to stimulating the vibrancy of local nightlife.
On a more socially respectable level, homosexuals who were more in control of their libidos and who upheld fidelity or serial monogamy forged closeted relationships, be they transient or permanent, with their lovers. Some moved in with each other and passed themselves off as uncle and nephew, or elder and younger blood brothers if their age difference was not too great. Few came out to a tradition-bound society which preferred not to hear the truth anyway. Lesbian cohabitation was more uncommon as women were under greater pressure to get married to opposite-sex spouses and bear children. Samsui women, who were hardy, sworn-spinsters working mainly at construction sites, lived in all-female enclaves but it is not known for certain if some developed sexual relationships with others. On a platonic level, homosexuals formed cliques with like-minded friends and held social gatherings at each others' homes.
National Service was implemented in 1967, whereby all 18-year old males were required to train full-time for two or two-and-a-half years, depending on their educational attainment. Homosexuality, and later, transsexuality were listed as conditions in a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) 'Directory of Diseases' and recruits who outed themselves to the examining doctors at the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) at Dempsey Road had their 'deployability' denied in sensitive positions. They were classified as Category 302 (later becoming a derogatory term) personnel, downgraded to a Physical Employment Status of 3 (PES3) and assigned only clerical work at army bases. This was because the SAF was unsure of the effect of homosexuals living and working for prolonged periods with straight combat servicemen. Later, when physical fitness tests were introduced, they were excused from two 'static stations' eg. pull-ups and sit-ups. Little did the SAF, in its apparent naivete, know that thousands upon thousands of closeted homosexuals would serve out their patriotic obligations for generations to come without undue incident.
With the prosperity that prudent policies of promoting foreign multinational investment brought while other regional countries were mired in the inefficiencies of import substitution and socialist economics, those homosexuals, especially the English-educated who could afford air travel, were exposed to the liberalism of the West and the nascent gay movements there. In the early days of accessible mass air transport, the destinations of choice were the Anglophone countries of the West and Australia. Nouveau riche gay Chinese-educated businessmen and professionals were banned from travelling to Red China and were thus also introduced to the Western cultural environment via tourism. In the early years, Indochina was a no-go area because it was in the grip of violent communist insurgencies and Thailand was a poor second-choice destination because it did not hold as much superficial prestige and allure as Europe and America did.
Exposure to Western liberal democracy, its media and literature whetted the appetite of progressive homosexuals with the hope that the local polity and social milieu could evolve into one which could tolerate their sexuality. The growing popularity of travel to Thailand and Japan in the late 70's also opened the eyes of Singaporean gays to the possibility that an Asian society could be conservative and traditional, but yet accepting of homosexuals as an integral part of it.
The majority of gays, however, could not afford international air travel in the early 70's and were restricted to stereotypical portrayals of themselves as effeminate or cross-dressing salacious individuals, fed by the heavily-censored media who were prevented from depicting any positive images of homosexuals whatsoever. As such, their self-respect and sense of community were sorely lacking.
Savvy entrepreneurs saw the unmet social demands of the pink market and gingerly allowed their establishments to cater to a gay customer base on certain nights. One of the first was The Hangar, located in a relatively secluded out-of-town area (Upper East Coast Road) where, for the first time, a large group of predominantly men could dance together with gay abandon. Encouraged by this precedence, homosexuals started to patronise other, mainly straight, discos in the city area such as the upmarket My Place, Black Velvet, West End, El Morocco, The Library, Studio M and even the more prosaic NCO Club at Beach Road. Heterosexual clubbers who had never beheld such a sight were perturbed enough to complain so that the managements of some of these outlets were pressurised by the authorities to display signs proclaiming "No man and man dancing" (sic). By and by, the ruling was relaxed for fast numbers but homosexuals flouting this Out-of-Bounds marker by waltzing to the slow ones were promptly cautioned to behave.
Nightclubs like Pebble Bar located on the ground floor of the now demolished Hotel Singapura Intercontinental, and less popularly Treetops Bar at the Holiday Inn, were increasingly packing in the gays and became iconic institutions of the local gay scene.
In 1972, the first substantial mention of Singapore's LGBT community was made in a groundbreaking 4-part feature by the English-language tabloid of that era called New Nation. The expose was entitled, "They are different..." and was published as a series on 4 consecutive days from Monday, 24 July to Thursday, 27 July 1972. It caused quite a stir, with schoolgirls all abuzz, and jolted mainstream society's consciousness into realising that non-stereotypical gays and lesbians who were just like the average Joe or Jill existed. Some readers were shocked, whilst others delighted, at the startling revelation that non-transvestite commercial homosexual services were available in Singapore (see main article: Singapore's first newspaper articles on the LGBT community). A follow-up expose on Singapore's lesbian community was published 3 months later (see main article: Singapore's first newspaper articles on the lesbian community).
During the decade, two well known transsexual models were occasionally featured in Her World magazine. The first was Shonna, the first Singaporean to undergo a sex change operation in 1971 (see main article: Sex reassignment surgery in Singapore). Another was named Christine. Both emigrated out of Singapore several years later. Iconic transgender model Amy Tashiana was too overbooked with appointments to accept the projects.
On the silver screen, cinema goers enjoyed a 1972 Chinese language Shaw Brothers production entitled Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan or "Ai Nu" (Love Slave), the iconic film company's first foray into lesbian content. It starred actresses Lily Ho and Pei Ti as a lesbian couple in a period setting. In the final scene when Lily Ho wanted to desert Pei Ti to pair off with the male hero, she was asked for a final kiss. Whilst they were kissing, Pei Ti sneaked a poison pill into her mouth which she bit, thus transforming it into a poignant kiss of death.
Cinema patrons and television viewers were also made aware of the women's rights and African American civil rights movements in the United States. Singaporean gays could see the parallels between those social movements and their own desire to struggle for equality.
Throughout the 1970s, the Singapore Sports Council embarked on a public swimming pool-building spree to promote sports and help realise Lee Kuan Yew's vision of a "rugged society". This resulted in Singapore having the highest number of public swimming complexes per unit area in the world by the end of the decade. An unintended side-effect of this was the creation of numerous circumscribed indoor (changing room) and outdoor (pool and poolside) venues where gay men could cruise. The most notorious of these was River Valley Swimming Pool which, partly because of its central city location, proved to be an irresistible magnet for homosexuals.
Rapid economic growth also fostered the mushrooming of shopping centres, some containing toilets and corridors whose design was conducive to gay cruising. The most well known of these were at Plaza Singapura, Peace Centre and Sembawang Shopping Centre.
Reclamation of land at the East Coast near Fort Road also provided a secluded hard-to-access stretch of beach where gay men could indulge in cruising and skinny dipping. It became inevitable that complaints would arise, a factor which led to the phenomenon of police entrapment more than a decade later.
As Singaporean surgeons became more skillful, some like Prof. S Shan Ratnam were authorised to perform male-to-female sex reassignment surgery at Kandang Kerbau Hospital from 1971 onwards (see video:). However, before hopeful transsexuals-to-be could go under the knife, they first had to subject themselves to an exhaustive battery of tests and be given a clean psychological bill of health by chief academic psychiatrist Prof. Tsoi Wing Foo. Later, the more technically-demanding female-to-male variety was also offered there and at Alexandra Hospital, performed by gynaecologists such as Dr. Arunachalam Ilancheran. A Gender Identity Clinic and Gender Reassignment Surgery Clinic were set up at the National University Hospital two decades later. In fact, for thirty years, Singapore was one of the world leaders in sex reassignment surgery. This gave a new lease of life to the many transsexuals who felt trapped in bodies of the wrong sex. Thus, Bugis Street and Johore Road started to become populated with a range of genders from transvestites to iatrogenic intersex individuals to fully transformed women.
In 1979, the film Saint Jack was released. It was groundbreaking in that it was the first Hollywood movie to be filmed entirely on location in Singapore, the first to contain a gay Singaporean sub-plot complete with full frontal male nudity and the first to have a Singaporean trans woman nude scene. The film was banned in Singapore and Malaysia on 17 January 1980. The Singapore censorship authorities axed it "largely due to concerns that there would be excessive edits required to the scenes of nudity and some coarse language before it could be shown to a general audience." The ban was only lifted in March 2006. It is now an M18-rated film.
Towards the end of the decade, reliable information disseminated through the grapevine made the gay populace aware of the sexuality of certain television producers, local sporting superstars, pop idols, sons and nephews of ministers and members of parliament, and even Government cabinet ministers themselves. One minister, a married man, began frequenting nocturnal gay cruising areas and after this came to the attention of the ruling party, he was dismissed. By and by, gay Singaporeans came to realise that homosexuality was present even within the highest echelons of society, an epiphany which ratcheted up their self-respect by several notches.
The early 80s was a period of widespread prosperity and new freedoms which saw the opening of clubs like Marmota, Shadow, Legend and Niche which catered to a predominantly gay clientele even though they were not exclusively gay. These discos would be closed by the time of the mid-80s, for unclear reasons, to be replaced by weekly Sunday Night Gay Parties or "Shadow Nights" run by the former management of Shadow (affectionately known as the "Shadow Management"). These "Shadow Nights" were roving events held at semi-permanent venues which included Rascals (at the Pan Pacific Hotel), Heartthrob (at Melia at Scotts), The Gate (at Orchard Hotel), Music World (in Katong) and Studebaker's which later morphed into Venom (at Pacific Plaza). It is interesting to note that men's night parties held since Studebaker's were no longer run by the "Shadow Management".
These events were now officially sanctioned and no longer discouraged by their managements. Men were not prevented from dancing with other men as they were in the previous decades, even during slow numbers. No Police raids at these establishments took place. With these weekly gatherings for energetic dancing to let off steam and meet new friends, homosexuals felt the first bonds of a relatively cohesive community - a warm feeling of being welcomed into a new brotherhood, in contradistinction to erstwhile isolation, alienation and loneliness for many.
Fads from the West, such as the wearing of single ear stud or earring on the right ear as a code to indicate one was gay or on both ears to signal that one was bisexual,, were emulated. An original coded signal developed locally was carrying a bottle of mineral water at the beach to indicate one was cruising for sex. A less frequently employed sign for the same purpose was displaying a white handkerchief sticking out of one's back pocket. This was a bare bones version of the complex hanky code developed in the West to inform of the specific flavour of erotic encounter one was seeking.
In early 1982, the British television serial, Brideshead Revisted, adapted from Evelyn Waugh's eponymous 1945 novel was shown during a prime time slot on Singapore television's arts channel. It contained strong homoerotic undertones and imagery - the first time local gay men could see a relatively positive portrayal of a subtly homosexual relationship dramatised in the media.
Distant rumblings of a nebulous entity dubbed the 'gay plague', later standardised in nomenclature as AIDS, were heard emanating from America. There was some relief when US doctors discovered that it affected not exclusively gays, but also Haitians, haemophiliacs and intravenous drug abusers. However, it caused some local homosexuals to cast a wary eye on Caucasians and promiscuous Singaporeans returning from Western countries. The possibility that it would become a problem here seemed remote at the time. In fact, during a televised forum discussion, a PAP member of parliament (MP) even proudly quipped that Singaporeans were protected from AIDS because of "Asian values".
It therefore came as a rude shock when the first case of local HIV infection, then known as HTLV-III, was reported in April 1985 (see Archive of "Three in S’pore found with Aids-linked virus", The Straits Times, 10 April 1985) and the first death from full blown AIDS almost exactly 2 years later (see Archive of "Aids claims first victim here", The Straits Times, 8 April 1987). It galvanised Dr. Roy Chan and a group of activist-minded healthcare professionals (both gay and straight) to set up a non-governmental organization (NGO) called Action for AIDS (AfA) in 1988 which provided support and counseling for people living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV) as well as education to the public regarding safer sex. AFA was not technically part of the Singapore gay equality movement and has been careful to present itself as an NGO dealing with a public health issue. However, a significant portion of the energy and leadership behind it has been provided by gay people and in many practical ways, AFA has rallied homosexuals around a cause.
The arrival of HIV in Singapore was an important watershed which radically reversed the hitherto relative tolerant attitude of the Government towards the gay community. It also sparked the birth of the Singapore gay equality movement in response to a highly discriminatory official crackdown during the following decade.
A lacuna in the local pink economy, which provided no outlet for men to have sex with other men on its premises, prompted many to travel to Bangkok. With its much vaunted acceptance of homosexuals and wild nightlife, Thailand became the destination of choice for gays seeking to indulge their carnal fantasies. Many returned with the hope that Singapore could one day be as open and tolerant of homosexuality as her near-neighbour was.
Cruising areas like Hong Lim Park, Boat Quay, back alleys in the Central Business District and Tanjong Pagar, swimming pools, Fort Road Beach and public toilets all experienced greater throughput. Police patrols to these areas were sporadically seen and on rare occasions, individuals had their IC numbers recorded, but for the most part, they were left alone to pursue their yearnings and no arrests were made.
From the mid-80's onwards, pubs and karaoke bars like Babylon and Inner Circle started to sprout up along Tanjong Pagar. Sizable groups of gay men could be seen milling about outside these establishments especially on weekends. This, along with cruising activity at nearby Ann Siang Hill and the surrounding back alleys gave Tanjong Pagar Road the reputation of being Singapore's Castro Street, after its San Francisco counterpart.
Large bookshops like Borders, Kinokuniya, Tower Books and even MPH responded to the growing body of gay literature mainly from America by discreetly stocking these books along with those on women's issues in sections euphemistically entitled 'Gender Studies'. With strong demand from the local gay community, the books eventually occupied most of the shelf space. In the late 90's, the red herring 'Gender Studies' moniker was replaced by a more frank title of 'Alternative Literature', which although a step closer to the truth, still fell short of the ideally accurate 'Gay and Lesbian Literature' by which it was known in the West. Straight salespeople would sometimes look curiously at patrons who hung around for long periods at these sections to see what sort of people read these books. In the late 80's, pictorial calenders of handsome, hunky, bare-chested Asian men also made their appearance, even in thoroughly local bookshops such as Popular Bookstore, a phenomenon which the authorities appeared to have no qualms about.
Individual artists, poets and writers became more expressive of their sexuality in their work, further imparting a sublime cultural sheen to local gay life.
One of the first experiments at introducing gay characters into local TV dramas was witnessed 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" (jǐn xìu qían chéng, an idiom meaning "a promising future", translated by SBC as "A bright tomorrow") starring popular actor Li Nan Xing 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 Yi Sheng, hopelessly enamoured of Li's male beauty and bent on seducing him. 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 to come.
In October 1992, the first theatre performance that touched on the topic of homosexuality was staged at The Substation. The play, entitled Another Tribe (异族), was produced by theatre company Drama Box (戏剧盒). It was the latter's first R(A) (Restricted (Artistic)) Chinese language play, written by Otto Fong and co-directed by Kok Heng Leun and Tang Tuan Choon.
The heady days of the unmitigated burgeoning of available gay spaces experienced in the 80's were curbed to some degree in the early 90's. Singapore's breakneck economic growth was being attributed to 'Asian values', the most vociferous proponent of whom was Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew. 'Family values' were seen as an integral subset of these and touted with much verve by the politically commandeered local media. No one took seriously American economic guru, Paul Krugman's assertion that the rapid growth of the Asian Newly Industrialising Economies (NIEs) was mainly due to massive government-directed input factors, much like the Soviet economic expansion of the 1950's, and that this would slow considerably in future without true productivity increases or innovation.
Gays were perceived of as somewhat of a threat to Asian values in some quarters of the Establishment and complaints made by members the straight public against rampant cruising, plus the arrival of HIV in Singapore which initially affected mainly men-who-have-sex-with-men (MSM), led to the implementation of police entrapment. The latter occurred both in the back alleys of the city area and at Fort Road Beach. Good-looking undercover cops would pose as homosexual cruisers and chat up unsuspecting gays in these areas. These decoys would behave suggestively, and the moment they were fondled by their targets, the latter would be arrested for outrage of modesty. Their names and occasionally mugshots were published in the press to humiliate them.
The most publicised case occurred in a forested grove near Tanjong Rhu's Fort Road Beach in November 1993. Amongst the 12 men arrested was a Singapore Broadcasting Corporation producer. All were punished with three strokes of the cane and prison sentences ranging from 2 to 6 months. This episode was immortalised in movie producer Boo Jun Feng's short film, "Tanjong Rhu" (see trailer:, Fridae interview:).
The gay community was outraged by what they felt was a gross infringement of their right to consensual adult homosexual acts. Heterosexual Singaporeans could continue to have sex in parked cars and in secluded public areas with impunity, whilst homosexuals were being singled out for vilification. As a token of protest, a performance artist named Josef Ng staged a work on New Year's eve, 1993, in which he pulled down his underwear, exposing his buttocks, and snipped off his pubic hair while his back was turned to the audience. This provoked a severe government reprisal in the form of a ban on all performance art for over a decade. Ng was charged in court for committing an obscene act in public. Ng's performance was dramatically re-enacted by film producer and performance artist Loo Zi Han in 2011, (see The Josef Ng affair and Singapore gay equality movement for more details).
Gay discos started to experience occasional Police raids, the most well-known of which occurred at Rascals disco in the basement level of the Pan Pacific Hotel on 30 May 1993, where policemen shouted at patrons and were inappropriately rude. A gay lawyer, Wilfred Ong, who was present, later enlisted the support of 21 other gay professionals in writing a letter of complaint to the Chief of Police. To everyone's surprise, they received an apology! This would be the last documented case of Police harassment at gay discos for many years to come. This episode has been dubbed "Singapore's Stonewall". To commemorate this landmark event, People Like Us, Singapore's first LGBT advocacy group announced the "Rascals Prize" in 2008, the first-ever award for research work related to LGBT issues in Singapore.
The local media, especially The New Paper, began to sensationalise homosexual activities which they invariably portrayed as undesirable. Attention-grabbing headlines like "Swimming Pool Perverts" or "Homosexuals Pollute East Coast" were used to boost sales.
In 1992, the Censorship Review Committee (CRC) recommended that "materials encouraging homosexuality should continue to be disallowed." It also placed homosexuality on par with bestiality and paedophilia as far as undesirable material to be censored was concerned - "pictorial illustrations of sex acts such as group sex, sadomasochistic acts, paedophiliac (sic) act, homosexuality, bestiality and sex involving children should not be allowed". Nevertheless, Singapore's first gay novel, Peculiar Chris, by Johann S. Lee was published that year, followed by Glass Cathedral by Andrew Koh in 1995. (see main article: Singapore gay literature). Some local magazines, like Glamour Backstage, circumvented the CRC's draconian rules by publishing articles featuring men in sexy poses and other covert information about the gay community without specifically stating that they were gay-related. Lesser known publications were Undergear and International Male. These magazines were lapped up by a gay community hungry for forbidden fruit. In 1996, I-S Magazine’s publishing license was suspended for one issue because of gay content appearing in the personal ads section. The latter had steadily grown in popularity over the past few years as an avenue for homosexuals to meet up.
It was against the backdrop of this deterioration in public image and treatment that a Singapore gay equality movement emerged.
The most revolutionary factor which surfaced to facilitate the development of a sense of community amongst Singaporean gays was the widespread availability of the Internet and affordable access to the World Wide Web in the mid-90's.
For the first time, gay surfers could e-mail messages in the blink of an eye to complete strangers, both locally and abroad, who shared the same interests. They could also anonymously make their displeasure about official discrimination known to the Government, who was previously unaware of the feelings of this 'invisible' population, via mainstream discussion groups such as soc.culture.singapore and Sintercom. Astute activists such as Alex Au, one of the pioneers of People Like Us, the first gay equality organisation in Singapore, saw the potential of the Internet as a vehicle to unite the gay community and foment intellectual discussion. The Singapore Gay News List (SigNeL) was started on 15 March 1997 and has been instrumental in discussing and formulating strategies to achieve the goals of the homosexual populace. On Oct 15 1998, RedQuEEn!, an e-mail list for queer-identified women was established. Au also launched his Yawning Bread website in November 1996, to which he would contribute the most thorough analyses of issues facing the local gay community. It concomitantly served as a detailed, annotated chronicle of evolving Singapore gay history.
On the leisure front, LGBTs could visit foreign websites to remain updated on gay news from around the globe or even view and download pornography, thus effectively bypassing Singapore's Undesirable Publications Act.
On 13 December 1995, American John C. Goss set up the Utopia website in Bangkok, Thailand. It was a groundbreaking Internet enterprise with daily updating of information about LGBT culture in the countries of the Asia-Pacific region, including Singapore. At the time of its launch, such information was hard to come by, even for LGBT citizens within their own nations. Since then, Utopia has pioneered new businesses, published seminal books and forged relationships to emerge as a potent unifying force for Asian LGBT people.
To enable censorship of undesirable sites, all Internet traffic into and out of Singapore was required to be routed through local proxy servers. As a token of this restriction, to placate especially religious fundamentalists and ultraconservatives, access to prominent straight porn websites such as Playboy and Penthouse was blocked, but gay sites, pornographic or otherwise, were left for the most part untouched, to the glee of LGBT surfers. The official line was that the Government wanted to curb immoral influences without unduly hindering the development of the Internet. However, websites of local origin were monitored more closely than those from overseas.
Web services like IRC and ICQ allowed locals to engage in online chat not only with fellow gay Singaporeans but also with the international gay community. What started out as a communication tool for like-minded university students soon became a key "gay space" with the entry of players like Singnet and Pacific Internet which provided reasonably-priced internet access services. Notable IRC channels which fostered gay dialog included #GAM & #GSG.
One of the most important LGBT events of the decade took place in 1996 when Alex Au submitted the first application for registration of People Like Us (PLU) as a society, together with 9 other signatories after a year of painstaking effort to solicit their willingness. The application forms were lodged with the Registrar of Societies on 7 November 1996. However, the application was rejected the following year on 9 April 1997 with no reason given. PLU's appeals all the way to the Prime Minister's Office met with no success. This rejection was reported by news agencies around the world.
For over two decades, post-operative transsexuals had been discreetly lobbying to be given the right to have their new sex reflected in their identity cards (but not their birth certificates) and to get married to opposite-sex spouses. They were finally granted their wish on 24 January 1996 via an announcement by MP Abdullah Tarmugi without much public fanfare or opposition.
Before the 1990s, local homosexuals had to journey all the way to Bangkok, Thailand to experience the pleasures that gay saunas offered. It became more convenient in the early 90s when an establishment called Ryu, meaning 'dragon' in Japanese, opened in Taman Pelangi near the Pelangi Complex in Johor Bahru, Johor, Malaysia. Realising the immense pent-up demand, pioneering gay entrepreneur Max Lim opened Singapore's first gay sauna in 1997, naming it after the Roman gladiator, Spartacus. It was located, humorously and coincidentally but not intentionally, at 69 South Bridge Road. Spartacus' facilities included a daily gay disco on the ground floor fringed by an overhead observation deck, and showers, a gym and a sauna above that. It was strict about sex at first, displaying signs which read, "No obscene acts allowed", but the rule was gradually relaxed after everyone realised that the police did not bother to harass its patrons.
On 11 December 1998, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew responded to a gay man's question about the place of homosexuals in Singapore, live on CNN International by saying, '...what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on other people. I mean, we don't harass anybody.' These momentous words would set the tenor for official policy on homosexuality for many years to come and may be regarded as the most significant event, as far as gay rights are concerned, of the decade, if not of the century (see main article: Lee Kuan Yew's views on homosexuality).
The following day, on 12 December 1998, Paddy Chew became the first Singaporean to come out as a person living with HIV/AIDS (PLHIV). He made the announcement during the First National AIDS Conference in Singapore held at the Singapore International Convention and Exhibition Centre, 4 years after he was diagnosed with HIV, thus giving a face to a hitherto anonymous affliction which mainstream society had considered remote from possible encounter.
In 1999, Ng King Kang stunned Singapore with "The Rainbow Connection", possibly the first upfront, unapologetic non-fiction book about gay people in the country. Written as his Masters thesis at Nanyang Technological University (NTU), the book used a combination of firsthand accounts and sociological analysis to describe how Internet access was transforming Singapore gay culture.
In March 1999, Dominic Yeo who was then a National Serviceman set up a personal website called "Singapore Boy Homepage". It was later renamed SgBoy and became renowned for its gay Singapore city guide, classifieds and online discussion boards which enjoyed a high degree of participation and dealt with a diverse array of topics. It also hosted a birthday bash every year to commemorate its founding. It was the first and initially the most popular LGBT web portal in Singapore, managing to introduce a whole new perspective on Asian gay culture to the world at large.
(See main article: Singapore gay history: the 2000s)
(See main article: Singapore gay history: the 2010s)
(See main article: Singapore gay history: the 2020s)
- Homosexuality in Singapore
- Singapore gay equality movement
- Singapore gay venues: historical
- Singapore lesbian history
- Singapore transgender history
- CM Turnbull, "A History of Modern Singapore 1819-2005".
- Irwan Martua Hidayana, "On gender diversity in Indonesia", The Conversation, 12 September 2018.
- Ah Eng Lai, "Peasants, Proletarians, and Prostitutes: A Preliminary Investigation Into the Work of Chinese Women in Colonial Malaya".
- An archive of Dr. Russell Heng's paper on Singapore gay history from the 1960s to 1998 entitled, "Tiptoe out of the closet", published in the Journal of Homosexuality Vol. 40 Nos. 3/4 2001 Special Issue - Gay and Lesbian Asia: Culture, Identity and Community, edited by Gerard Sullivan and Peter Jackson, pp. 81 – 97:.
- Russell Heng, Yawning Bread article "Where queens ruled! - a history of gay venues in Singapore", August 2005:.
- A 2005 Fridae article by Alex Au on the importance of documenting Singapore's LGBT history entitled, "Remembering our histories":.
- June Lee and Gary Kitching, "A contradiction in terms", I-S Magazine (reprinted by Fridae), 17 September 2004, .
- "LBT", Women's Action, AWARE.
- Brian Wong, "Homophobia Is Not an Asian Value. It's Time for the East to Reconnect to Its Own Traditions of Tolerance", Time magazine, 7 December 2020.
- NewspaperSG, an online digital archive of contemporary and historical Singapore and Malaya newspapers published between 1831 and 2009 set up by the National Library Board:.
- Wayback Machine Internet archive:.
This article was written by Roy Tan based on his personal experiences, verbal accounts and articles provided by friends, information on Yawning Bread, Fridae, SiGNeL, Blowing Wind and other Internet news sources.