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Singapore’s gay rights (and blogging) pioneer speaks

Singapore’s gay rights (and blogging) pioneer speaks

During his lifetime Alex Au has witnessed Singapore’s gay scene move from the underground to the public eye, police tactics move from entrapment and ‘pogroms’ against gay men to ‘non-enforcement’ of the anti-homosexuality law and seen the internet develop from self-coding to microblogs. His blog, Yawning Bread, which he started in 1996, is still going strong.

Gay Star News meets Au in Singapore to ask him about the development of the gay rights movement from the 1950s to today.

What was it like growing up gay in Singapore in the 1950s and 60s?

Singapore was a very different place when I was a young boy. We were very much a third world country. And for many people, including my parents, survival was really at the top of the agenda. It was a small city. Not the big cosmopolitan metropolis that we see today. The various communities were still very routed in their traditions and their original cultures. Singapore was not as Westernized as it is today. English was not as predominant.

Nonetheless I was fortunate in that my parents were both educated in the English language. So they from a young age had been exposed to the world. Language opens windows. And the English language in particular opens more windows than most. They could listen to the BBC radio. They could read magazines – Life, Time.

So by the time I was in my late teens and would normally be expected to be dating they had become the kind of liberal parents that did not impose social pressures that other more tradition-bound parents might. So it was a whole lot easier for me than a lot of gay and lesbian people of my generation.

Did you ever come out to your parents?

For a lot of that time when I was a young man I kept one life separate from the other, but I wasn’t making a particular effort to hide it. I kind of assumed that they were so uninformed that it wouldn’t occur to them.

As it turned out a totally wrong assumption because later on I would find out from my father that he had known the whole time. He said ‘I’ve never seen you date a girl and I can put two and two together’. Between his own exposure to the world and his education he figured it out, and he figured it out in a way that didn’t particularly upset him.

Of course I went to an all boys school which reeked of homosexuality, as all boys schools do. It was very easy to spot the teacher who himself had a limp wrist. And it was very obvious to me that certain of my classmates were of a similar persuasion. You hear these stereotypical stories about growing up in isolation. Nothing could be further from the truth. I didn’t grow-up in isolation.

And then of course I had my string of boyfriends. Some of which my father noticed. My mother however was quite blind to it all. She never once figured it out. She thought I was a very sociable young man with lots of friends but she didn’t figure out that there were other dimensions.

When you got older were you part of a burgeoning gay social scene in Singapore? 

There was a scene, burgeoning might be putting it too strongly. It was generally underground, but a lot more spicy for that! And probably no different from the scene in the UK, maybe not at that time but maybe 15 years earlier. The scene in Singapore in the 1960s might have been like the scene in the UK in the early 1950s, when they were still going after Alan Turing, for example.

There was an element of persecution. Certainly a degree of danger. But there were underground social networks and cruising places which I soon enough grew familiar with. 

And then fast forward you established the first blog in Singapore about gay rights in 1996, how did that come about?

In 1996 the internet was only just coming to Singapore. And by that time I had been involved in gay activism for about three or four years. At this point our little group, People Like Us, decided we should be publishing a monthly newsletter.

We already had a ‘samizdat’ – that’s a Russian word for underground newspaper – that would pass from friend to friend. But we thought, this is too labor intensive and we should have a proper newsletter inspired by gay groups in America.

But in Singapore then you need permission to publish a newsletter. So I applied for a license under my personal name, because our organization was not even a registered organization so I couldn’t use the organization’s name. But I applied under my personal name. It was rejected.

They probably has been monitoring me for three or four years. And they knew it was an extension of my participation in People Like Us. So they turned down that application so we were denied a license to publish a newsletter.

Then someone on the editorial committee suggested the internet. The law had not caught up with the internet. The law was silent on electronic newsletters. Eventually it wasn’t so much a group effort but a personal effort on my part to learn how to code in html. So instead of being the voice of People Like Us it became my personal blog Yawning Bread.

What did you write about?

I those days it was very much driven by my gay activism. When I think back to the first five years it was embarrassingly puerile. I was basically arguing the usual things that any gay rights sheet would be arguing about. About freedom, about rights, about it’s not a choice and what’s wrong with your interpretation of the Bible.

However I did realize quite early that I can’t divorce gay issue from the overall society and politics of a place. And it so the writing focus of Yawing Bread soon expanded to encompass civil rights and politics in general.

It’s become a blog that argues a liberal point of view with a disproportionate interest in LGBT aspects. But it’s no longer a particularly LGBT site.

In the process of widening the focus of Yawning Bread I ended up with a readership that is primarily heterosexual which is actually a good thing, because the last thing we needed was to preach to the same choir all the time. I created the opportunity of speaking about gay rights, in the context of human rights and politics in general, to a straight audience who might otherwise not think about gay rights.

How did you build your readership to start with?

To start with it was mainly a gay audience. I had the advantage of being a fast mover. There were not many people who were coding html by hand and writing a blog before the word ‘blog’ was even invented.

I don’t know how many visitors I have. I carry no advertising on my site and I’m simply not interested. From the very beginning I told myself ‘you’ll just burn out if you focus on building volume. Perhaps at the expense of quality.

Have you had any memorable arguments with commenters over the years?

I have a tendency not to remember them – that’s how you stay young. Running a gay-ish blog certainly brings you into contention with the religious right. You get the odd comment from some ‘reader’ who is not there to read what you have just written but to blast off about how we are lecherous and bringing the wrath of god to earth.

It no longer upsets me anymore. It can’t if you want to be sane. It’s not even an argument.

Are you still involved in gay activism in Singapore?

Yes in most campaigns I’m still involved at least tangentially. Some campaigns I am directly involved in.

For example in 2011 the gay groups wanted to make sure that the gay angle was included in Singapore’s submission in the universal periodic review to the UN Human Rights Council. It assesses each country on its human rights record every four years.

Singapore’s appraisal came up in 2011. And what the process does is that it invites the government to send a report to the human rights council and then it invited civil society groups to write a report to the council discussing what they think are the shortcomings on human rights practice in their country. In 2011 i spearheaded the Singapore effort to write the Singapore report on LGBT protections or lack there of… mainly that we are still criminalized.

I see myself most effective now doing the kind of LGBT work that involves networking with politicians, diplomats, more behind the scenes and at the political level rather than on the street front – there’s a younger generation doing that.

Did you think that the campaign to decriminalize homosexual sex in 2007 was going to be successful?

I didn’t think so. I was hopeful but I never at any point rated the chances as much more than 25%. But I certainly thought it was a well-conceived idea and a huge step forward in pushing the idea into the forefront of the public consciousness. Not everybody agreed but they couldn’t avoid taking note of the issue.

Do you agree that Singapore society just wasn’t ready for it in 2007?

Actually I don’t. You can make a distinction between the politics and the social. Singapore society is relatively tolerant and accepting. In the average Singaporean company the gay employee will have no further reason to be in the closet. At a social level the employers probably couldn’t care less. I’m not saying they’re going to be celebrating it. But it’s going to be a non-issue for more Singapore employers at least in the private sector.

Even in the 1970s and 1980s I didn’t feel any particular discrimination in the workplace. There might have been a glass ceiling if you didn’t have a wife in tow. But until you get to the glass ceiling it wasn’t a big deal. I never needed to make any heroic attempt to be somebody else.

How does the criminalization of homosexual sex affect people?

There were mini-pogroms from time to time and People Like Us actually grew out of one such a pogrom. People were so incensed by a concerted campaign of the police to entrap that gay men got together, and they were men at that time, to say something must be done, we’ve got to organize. This was the early 1990s.

The law actually called for imprisonment and in the early 1990s the government somehow took the view that prison wasn’t a sufficient deterrent and they wanted to cane anyone who they arrested and sentenced. The problem was that the law didn’t allow for the whip for Section 377A. So they started to use a different law to prosecute the men they arrested. They started to use the ‘outrage of modesty’ law, which is really for molestation of women.

So men were arrested by decoy policemen in the bushes and other cruising grounds. And they were charged with outrage of modesty for having outraged the modesty of the decoy policeman. So several men were sentenced. They were so disempowered they all pleaded guilty. But were they shocked to discover that they would be subject to the whip, which was extremely painful and scarred you for life, I believe one or two even committed suicide afterwards.

At the time there was a lot of controversy about the excessiveness of the punishment and so one thing led to another and these witch hunts came to an end by the mid 1990s. That’s not to say the law was not entirely used, but certainly the witch hunt of sending decoys out and all that came to an end.

What’s it like nowadays, do you believe that the law is wholly not enforced?

I don’t believe that the law is not totally enforced. I think the law has been used at the fringes. Not so much to prosecute but to intimidate. And that is not good enough. It shouldn’t be there at all, let alone a weapon of intimidation.

What do you think is the chance of Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee’s constitutional challenge changing the law?

Well I’m certainly very happy that they have stepped forward to be the face of the challenge. My personal assessment is that the chances are better than even.

Why do you think Pink Dot has been so effective and successful?

Because they’ve put in a lot of work. People look at the final event and say ‘ah it’s so wonderful’ but they don’t realize that there was ten months of work behind it for a two-hour event.

They have kept the topic on the agenda. And that already is very important. Nowhere in the world do you get an overnight change of mind in any population. And merely by keeping it on the agenda, in a non-threatening way, made it possible to continue a momentum of social attitudinal change.