Gay Star News talks to one of the organizers of Singapore's Pink Dot, an annual LGBT awareness-raising festival
‘The first Pride in X country’ makes headlines around the world, but what if country creates their own LGBT pride event from scratch? That’s what activists in Singapore have done with Pink Dot.
Instead of a rainbow striped Pride parade demanding rights, Pink Dot uses the one place in Singapore where protest is allowed – Speaker’s Corner in Hong Lim Park – to spread awareness and acceptance of LGBT Singaporeans’ ‘Freedom to Love’.
‘Singaporeans are very opposed to protest, very opposed to parades and demonstrations. They don’t want to get into trouble, so a gay pride parade would not work in Singapore,’ says Paerin Choa, one of Pink Dot’s committee members who started the event in 2009. He talks to Gay Star News about the background, aims and affects of this wholly home-grown festival.
What was the background of the first Pink Dot in 2009?
Back then homosexuality was very very taboo: parents don’t want to know if their child is gay; everything was confined to gay clubs and bars; it was a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ society at work – people have double lives.
We have section 377A that criminalizes sex between two men. It’s something that we inherited from our British colony days. The UK repealed it in the 1960s. Hong Kong in the 1990s. But we still kept it and it contributes to the stigma.
The worst of all is our media censorship laws. Content that justifies, promotes or glamorizes gay lifestyle is banned. So basically if a gay person finds love and lives happily ever after – that story is banned. Brokeback Mountain is allowed, because the gay person dies and lives a sad lonely life. So you have very skewered portrayal of gay people in local mainstream media. It leads to an ignorance about what being gay is about in the general public.
How did Pink Dot take shape?
We have a space in Singapore called Speaker’s Corner, which follows the model of Speaker’s Corner in the UK, where you are allowed to go and speak about anything you want. But before 2009 the law was that if you wanted to speak at Speaker’s Corner in Singapore you needed to get a license. And no one really did it so it was a dead space.
In 2009 they relaxed the law so that you only need to register and you can speak, perform or hold a demonstration. There was a press conference and a police officer said ‘you can even have your own gay Pride’.
So we thought, let’s start something and give the liberal voice a platform to support gay rights.
Singaporeans are a very apathetic bunch. They are very opposed to protest, very opposed to parades and demonstrations. They shy away from all this because they don’t want to get into trouble.
So a gay pride parade would not work in Singapore and back in 2009 there was no way it would work because no one would bother or even see the point.
But we wanted to rally people and needed something that is non-confrontational. We needed that would disassociate ourselves from Pride which is deemed to be a Western import.
So we needed to create something every uniquely Singaporean so we came with the idea of asking people to come to the park dressed in pink to form a human ‘pink dot’.
Who did you target the campaign to?
We’re targeting open-minded Singaporeans, whether you are gay or straight. As long as you have a gay brother, a gay sister, gay son, gay daughter, gay friend, gay colleague, you can come and support.
Gay people back then were afraid to come out in the open, because Pink Dot was the very first open event. In gay clubs you are kind of insulated from the outside world. This was out in the open so some gay people were scared to come out.
We made it all very family-friendly. We had parents with their kids, and grandparents. Open-minded families. And we had a very universal tagline: ‘supporting the freedom to love’, because you can’t argue with love.
How many people did you get coming along?
In the first year, 2009, we weren’t sure who would come because it was untested ground. We were hoping for maybe 200, but we had a fear that it might be just 20 – a very small dot. But we had 2,005 people come out.
Then we did it again in 2010 and had 4,000 people coming. We saw the numbers almost double so we were quite encouraged. The third Pink Dot was what I call a miracle year. We jumped from 4,000 to 10,000 people.
What did you do to attract so many more people in the third year (2011)?
Firstly we changed the format of our campaign videos. Our campaign videos for the first two years were very documentary style interviews. The third year we decided to change the format to more advertisement style.
That video [see below] went viral over one weekend. People watched it and it resonated with them and they shared and shared and shared. We reached over 200,000 people. It was made by Boo Junfeng, one of our committee members who is a filmmaker.
Who is on the Pink Dot committee?
The Pink Dot committee is made up of volunteers from different professions, bringing with them their expertise and taking charge of different aspects of the campaign.
We have lawyers, doctors, educators, PR people, media, advertising people, filmmakers, photographers… The whole committee is around 10 to 12 people but it varies.
There is no hierarchy in our structure. Everyone has a say and we just argue to the death until we agree on a point.
Have you attracted any corporate sponsorship?
Last year Google approached us and they wanted to come on as a supporter. We never ever thought of approaching corporations because we thought they wouldn’t want to be associated with something like Pink Dot in Singapore.
We were a bit shocked. It’s commendable is that they are willing to go on record to support a cause like this. It was unheard of in Singapore for any corporation to come out and say I support the LGBT community.
Google sponsored us in 2011 and this year Barclays came on board. They said they wanted to be the first international bank to support us.
It legitimizes the cause. It’s not so underground anymore, because it’s big multi-national corporations taking a stand with us. The issue can’t be ignored or swept under the carpet anymore.
Have you changed your message as you’ve become more successful?
For the first three years the message was all about love. It was all about being harmless. The mascot was a cuddly pink dot.
After we got 10,000 people coming last year we realized that we have a critical mass already and that it was time for us to make people aware of very real issues that gay people in Singapore have to grapple with every day.
Issues like not being able to come out at work, especially in the teaching industry. Parents don’t want their kids to be taught by gay teachers here. Section 377A, even though it’s not proactively enforced, the fact that it is there is discriminatory by nature. And it hinders a lot of education. So it needs to be talked about.
Why did you decide to form the dot at night rather than during the day this year?
Night dot was big experiment. We had three years in the day and we wanted to do something different. It’s something we had been toying with for sometime but we never thought we’d have the support or resources to do it.
This year we thought, let’s just take the plunge and see what happens, and it was beautiful. We provided pink cellophane paper so people could wrap it around their phone lights and we provided free pink torch lights with the Pink Dot logo on it.
We got everyone to turn off their lights and then we did a countdown from ten to zero and everyone turned on their lights. It was very beautiful.
What happens on the actual day?
For the last two years we’ve had concerts before forming the pink dot. The performers perform for free – people who believe in the cause, people who want to support us.
We also have a carnival/fun fair with stalls manned by LGBT community groups. It is also an opportunity for all these groups to come together on this one special day and bond, to form a community and to show the public what they do. We have Singapore Men’s Choir, the Queer Book Club, counseling services, the girls group. It’s a very festival carnival atmosphere.
We also have a sing-along. Every year we chose a song that will be our theme song for that year. This year it was True Colors by Cyndi Lauper so there was a big sing-along with people swaying their pink torch lights.
Any plans for next year?
Ever since last year we can’t form a dot anymore because we got too big for the park. Now it’s a pink blob.
We’re hoping to be able to move out of the park, that’s our dream. It will only be possible if we get approval from the government so we are speaking to them now.
We’ve sent off our application and it’s still pending approval, but they’ve been sitting on it for months. It’s very typical fashion. We don’t know how it’s going to turn out. But hopefully they will see our numbers and our track record and allow us to move out of the space.
We want it to be a very amicable process – with their blessings – so that it will be a safe place for participants to come.
What are the aims of Pink Dot?
Spreading awareness. Changing hearts and minds. We think that only with a change in attitude will there be a real change in policy.
I think Pink Dot goes beyond change in laws. Because laws may change but if people don’t accept the change in law then there’s really not much point.
Discrimination happens in day-to-day interactions so we need to change people’s attitudes so we cut down the day-to-day discrimination and misconceptions.
Have you seen any visible effect from Pink Dot over the last four years or so?
I think it is being talked about more now. It is not as taboo as it used to be. People are more aware.
Our campaign is mostly online because content that justifies or promotes the gay lifestyle is banned in the mainstream media. So they can’t even say ‘there’s a Pink Dot happening’. They will cover it after it happens but they won’t promote it before. So the only way to get people to come down is through our online efforts.
The spike in our numbers from the second to third year. We saw a lot more young people coming down. And we are looking at a new breed of Singaporeans who are more well-connected. Who go online to get their information. Who are exposed to Western media.
The younger generation are more fearless. They are not afraid to voice out their opinions or their support. They don’t see being gay as taboo as people from my generation or my parents generation.
I see that gay couples are more open on the street. A few years ago you’d see a gay couple walking down the street quite far apart because they don’t want people to know that they are a gay couple. But now they are walking closer, more coupley, you can tell. Some holding hands – but not a lot.
The gay community has opened up. The straight community has become more open-minded and accepting. Now you can talk about it. It’s accepted.
Singapore is generally not a homophobic state. They are just not fed the information needed because the media is so censored. So with Pink Dot people will hopefully start to understand what being gay is about.
Find out more about Pink Dot.
Watch Someday, the Pink Dot 2011 campaign video, here: