Singapore is known to be a vanilla nation. This diamond-shaped country with square ideals has prospered under a unique democracy run by the same political party for as long as it has been independent. Most of what you’ve heard about Singapore is true – it’s clean, it’s green, we have one of the best education systems in the world, a low crime rate and an obedient society. What few are deigned to admit is that we born-and-bred locals have also been engineered to behave like self-censoring robots, rejecting anything unorthodox and alternative; so paranoid that this might bring chaos to the sanctum of rigidity we’ve built and respect – but trap ourselves in.
Meet the ‘forever 27’ year-old radio DJ and ‘culture rebel’ X’Ho, who you know, judging by his name alone (he officially changed it), is not one to conform. Dubbed by the local press as a ‘Damaged Lone Ranger’, X’Ho has spearheaded Singapore’s alternative music scene since the early 90s and his oft-perversely titled works spanning films, books and music (Cum Suck My Nazi for instance) frequently poke fun at this culture by satirising local personalities and politicians.
One of X’Ho’s most notable short films, titled Allen Ginsberg Gives Great Head has made rounds across other cities, from the 2008 Rotterdam Film Festival to the Tel Aviv Gay Film Festival, but has yet to be – and probably never will be – recognised by his own country.
‘I knew it would be banned! Why bother?’ he says, adding that the only way to deal with a frustrating authority is ‘to be ridiculous, because logic has already been hijacked by them (the government).’
Singapore is a country with an official blueprint to become a ‘global arts hub’ by 2015 through investing in arts education, cultural festivals and shiny new museums. Yet with a confined national mindset, its endeavours will only remain skin-deep. No substance, no style.
As a gay man who has worked in various creative fields and is currently running a nightclub frequented by young professionals and similar industries, my agenda has been to challenge the status quo. But one colourful deviant cannot do it alone. How are we to lead or even develop creatively if we are not tolerant of a wild imagination, much less anything that pushes the envelope? For us to keep progressing, learning to accept the alternative is necessary.
And what’s more alternative than being gay in this cosmopolitan city-state? Having the guts to speak your mind comes close.
In any other leading city – whether London, Sweden or Thailand - few will blink an eye whatever your sexual preference. Here in Singapore, being a male homosexual is considered an alternative lifestyle and, according to Section 377A of our penal code, one that could land you two years in jail if you’re caught in an act of ‘gross indecency’.
Many creative people are gay. I don’t have actual statistics but it is stereotyped for a reason. Look at who designs the clothes, the interiors, the art works you love, your hair, the philosophy you adhere to - chances are, they’re queer or have gay leanings. Oscar Wilde, Leonardo da Vinci, Alan Turing, Jil Sander, Michel Foucault, Christian Dior, Ellen DeGeneres… Just to name a few.
If Singapore wants to cultivate a truly creative community, it needs to accept and attract like-minded people (the constant flow of inspired minds into New York or London is telling) and it can only do so by underscoring openness and diversity. With such social restraints in order, even creative heterosexuals are at risk of being put off.
Currently, its intolerance sometimes borders on the absurd; the local censorship authorities once went as far as banning an Xbox videogame titled Mass Effect due to a lesbian scene. Having grown up playing The Sims, I’d be curious to know how they’d react if they discovered locals, including myself, directing our characters in homosexual acts with other human and extra-terrestrial creatures.
Even the works of notable international artists are not spared the strict filters of the government. Take the work of the British-born Japanese gay artist, Simon Fujiwara. His installation exhibited at the Singapore Biennale 2011 titled Welcome to the Hotel Munber was censored without his consent, (stripping the installation of much meaning or artistic merit.)
Mainstream shows like Desperate Housewives televised on our local channel can even be grating to watch, with all the pivotal gay plots unforgivingly snipped out, rendering storylines incohesive. The censored gay scenes are not even graphic. I can accept two men kissing being cut, but to erase the whole gay aspect of the show goes beyond homophobic - it’s almost misanthropic. No one should be left confused watching campy comedy-dramas.
One of Singapore’s prolific filmmakers, Boo Junfeng, whose films have been known to make people with the coldest of hearts sniffle (ie: me, who will then sheepishly blame it on a sinus infection to maintain a pseudo cold aura), faced an act of merciless censoring with his short film based on the 1993 arrest of 12 gay men. Dubbed by many as one of his greatest works, Tanjong Rhu was given an R21 rating and was instantly denied a government grant without any explanation – two unfortunate firsts in the 29-year-old’s career. Despite the government’s passive aggressive efforts to silence the film, Tanjong Rhu managed to get external financial backing and made its debut at the Berlin Film Festival in 2009 and was shown in over nine different film festivals, garnering numerous awards along the way.
How can the government disregard the gay population, when what we have here is a heady and socially diverse mix of butch queens, circuit partyboys, bears, jocks, gipsters, old wayers, new wayers, activists, art fags, gaylebrities, gay-listers, twinks and trannies?
Back in 1990, when I was 20-years-old and drafted to serve time in the military (all able-bodied Singaporean men are required to serve two years), my assigned post was storeman of the clothing warehouse for the Officer Cadet School. I was largely in charge of issuing uniforms to the many officer-cadets-in-training. I got to see many young fit adult men, in various state of undress, trying out their army gear. At the time, I hadn’t a clue about what I was. With no Internet then, getting to see so many naked army boys everyday must have helped define this physical attraction I was starting to have. Is it any wonder that it was during this time that I met my first boyfriend? Yes - clichéd and ironic as it may sound - the army made me gay.
And if my Grindr feed today is of any indication, there is a thriving population of homosexuals in Singapore roaming the many gay venues scattered throughout the city, and although the law is not really enforced, the authorities seems reluctant to repeal it – hinting at an insincere gesture to change. They like to utilise their favourite excuse: ‘Singaporeans are not ready.’ Is the government paranoid because society is intolerant, or is society’s intolerance a result of a paranoid government?
‘It’s a chicken and egg situation, but for me it is more important to enlighten the people,’ Boo points out, adding that, ‘change in societal attitudes is not something you can shout about in Singapore.’
Boo also makes accompanying shorts for PinkDot, an annual family-oriented LGBT picnic occasion that supports the freedom to love. Since its inception in 2009, PinkDot has gained momentum and thousands of supporters, making it a staple event on the calendar and leaving the press no choice but to acknowledge the LGBT population in the news and, for the first time, in a positive light. Subtlety is effective at re-educating any publics’ myopic perception.
Singapore’s resistance to the alternative even spreads to their choices in clothes. Miuccia Prada did say they’re ‘instant communication.’ I can never forget the disparaging stares I get in public when I wear my so-ugly-they’re-beautiful pair of black patent leather Raf Simons cut-out sandal boots, or my black polka-dotted padded Comme des Garçons nylon jacket. There was even a time where I was judged for wearing something as basic as a pair of skinny jeans.
The fashion choices of most Singaporeans can be as muted as their mindset, often emulating the street style seen in other cities, or surrendering to the hot weather with t-shirts and flip-flops. Like everything else, for fashion to move forward, someone needs to challenge what’s acceptable and put it in everybody’s agenda.
‘Our philosophy is that you’ll never know until you try,’ quips Nat Ng, the 24-year-old one third of Mash-Up, an unusual local design label known for their surrealist and wild approach to street fashion. The first item to sell-out from their debut collection was surprisingly one of the more outlandish pieces – a unisex voluminous bat-wing shirtdress that featured colourful contrasting panels and cartoon-like eyes appliquéd on the pockets.
‘We thought they wouldn't sell because of all the colours and silhouette,’ he added, showing that it pays to stick to their instinct and design integrity.
I hope that difference will first be welcomed in fashion, then the country. By setting our own momentum, we will form fresher ideals and a free environment conducive to the innovations we dream of.
Although this article might suggest that I hate my country, it’s actually quite the contrary. This is more akin to being in a loving but disappointing relationship – ‘I’m only upset because I love you.’