SHINER: Gay night in Singapore

“You know that Sunday night is gay night, right?”

My friend wanted to make sure I knew what I was getting into. I didn’t, but no matter. Three Sundays ago, a group of Yalies and I proceeded to Clark Quay, Singapore’s premier nightlife district, and owned the dance floor in a club at least three-quarters full of gay men. For young Singaporeans, Sunday night is gay night.

A group of Yale professors has drafted a resolution demanding that Yale-NUS College “respect, protect, and further the ideals of civil liberties for all minorities, the principles of non-discrimination and full political freedom.” Part of the debate has concerned Singapore’s climate toward homosexuality and its potential effects on Yale-NUS.

I applaud the Yale faculty for doing what any group of intellectuals ought to do in response to an undertaking as significant as Yale-NUS College: debate the merits, take positions and defend them. It’s disappointing, though, that the draftees’ defense and the ensuing dialogue in the News have mischaracterized Singapore as a place exceptionally intolerant of homosexuality. Moreover, the implication that the U.S. stands far ahead of Singapore in this regard reveals either blindness to — or denial of — the American reality.

Yes, section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code bans homosexual conduct between males. But let’s not forget that as of 1970, sodomy laws prohibited homosexual acts in every state in America except Illinois. In 1986, the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws in Bowers v. Hardwick, a decision overturned only nine years ago. And even today, The New York Times says Kansas Statute 21-3505, a criminal sodomy law, is “used as justification to harass and discriminate against people.”

Did these laws render 1960s, ’70s and ’80s America unfit for liberal arts education? No. Did the Yale faculty abandon its pursuit of light and truth in 1986, when our highest court ruled against its ideals of openness and tolerance? Of course not. Has Yale severed ties with Kansas? Why, then, should section 377A preclude liberal arts education in Singapore?

Perhaps some critics have conflated national policy and campus climate. The debate thus far has misleadingly compared Yale students’ and professors’ attitudes toward homosexuality with Singaporean law. Because the Singaporean government funds Yale-NUS, one may worry that, even beyond gay rights, national policies will dictate the campus climate at Yale-NUS. They won’t. Yale-NUS students, like the many NUS students who openly debate and criticize government and university policy in class and in publications such as the Kent Ridge Common, will make sure of that.

Just like America, Singapore has laws and norms of which I disapprove. A vibrant gay party scene doesn’t mean that gays have equal rights — they don’t. Yet Singapore has seen notable liberalizations over the past 10 years, including the launch of high-profile gay rights organizations and government approval for large-scale gay festivals and gatherings. Notwithstanding its historical restrictions on free speech and assembly, I applaud Singapore’s steps toward equality.

Now consider the American climate. I am proud that eight states have legalized gay marriage. But in recent months, millions of Americans have cast their Republican primary ballots for Rick Santorum, who says that “if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy … you have the right to adultery. You have the right to anything. Does that undermine the fabric of our society? I would argue yes, it does.”

With this man as a serious contender for the presidency, how can anyone idealize the U.S. as a beacon of enlightenment? A vast swath of America remains deeply committed to intolerance. I’m not aware of a Singaporean politician who has campaigned for the nation’s highest office on the premise that homosexuality is wrong and that family values can fix the country’s ills.

In this respect, I cannot see how Singapore is any more regressive than America. Santorum’s bigotry does not justify intolerance in Singapore, but it does make clear that the liberal arts can thrive in environments sometimes hostile to their principles.

As a straight man who moved here only six months ago, I’m no expert on gay life in Singapore. But just as Yale promotes understanding and tolerance in America, Yale-NUS will do the same in Singapore. I support the ideals expressed in the professors’ resolution, but not the American exceptionalism and distortions of Singaporean society that have grown out of it.

Austin Shiner is 2011 graduate of Ezra Stiles College and an admissions officer at Yale-NUS College.


  • The Anti-Yale

    “if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy … you have the right to adultery.”

    Why are MALES so obsessively tidy about what OTHER MALES do with one-square-foot of their bodies?

    It seems theirs is a fixation on the need to insure that the activity of the loins always seen through a theological filter, just as Mae West in her eighties refused to be seen on film or photograph without wrinkle-smoothing filters on the cameras.

    At all costs we cannot allow our children to be raised in a world in which they think that physical pleasure in that one foot-square area of the body is a natural, universal gift.

    Physical pleasure there must be seen as a divine responsibility associated only with the sanctity of monogamy and procreation. It is a reward to be enjoyed only after D ivine-pleasing behavior. (Preferably a dvinity of Roman Catholic or Protestant origen).

    Thiis is all superstitious skinner-box theological clapatrap designed to produce the kind of behavior sanctified by certain religions.

    Heavens to Betsey.

  • River_Tam

    In 2004, the Singaporean government banned hit film Formula 17 for normalizing homosexuality.

    What is the American analogue to this censorship?

  • commentator

    River_Tam, the point of the article was that certain things were banned in this country and other democratic countries not that long ago (i.e. during the second half of the 20th century) — under obscenity laws books by James Joyce, Voltaire, and Nabokov were banned… the liberal arts didn’t disappear because of that. And speaking of the current situation, I am still amazed that in this country you can see people’s heads being blown up in primetime, but you can see a naked female breast at any time, day or night, on television. I guess it normalizes the female body, not to mention sex…

    • River_Tam

      Would you be willing for Yale to establish a campus in an apartheid country? (Jim Crow ended after Joyce, Voltaire, and Nabokov were read in America)

      Would you be willing for Yale to establish a campus in a country where women don’t have the right to vote? (1920 is not that long ago… certainly far after Yale was founded and flourished!)

      Would you be willing for Yale to establish a campus in a country with legalized slavery? (We have a college named for John C Calhoun, and tour guides brag that Yale did not send home southern students – surely we had a ‘liberal arts’ education then too.)

      It’s not about the damn liberal arts. I couldn’t care less about the liberal arts. It’s about human rights and basic freedom of speech. We are already complicit in the abuses of the Chinese regime (far worse than Singapore’s one-party state) with President Levin bowing and scraping to the CPC. We already breed Yalies who go to Beijing and don’t think twice about the fact that the people of China are living under the thumb of an authoritarian regime.

      I don’t give a crap about the “liberal arts”. It’s about human rights, plain and simple.

      • commentator

        You are still missing the point. The restrictions on civil liberties in Singapore (while deplorable) are far more like those which existed in countries we would call democratic without much hesitation, i.e. 1960s Britain. It’s not Saudi Arabia, and it’s not apartheid South Africa.

        As for human rights, the legal status of gays is Singapore is exactly the same as their legal status was in, let me see…, Michigan circa 2002. Hardly the dark ages.

        As for censorship, while in this country the federal government doesn’t bother to ban books, there are plenty of other mechanisms at work. One just needs to think of the constant pressures to which public libraries are exposed from various (usually conservative) groups and local authorities, not to mention the fact that TV & film content in the US is severely censored. You just need to compare the version of Sex and the City broadcasted on cable here with what you can see on public television in other countries.

        One respect in which Singapore looks indefensible is their barbaric penal system, but then again, the US system is pretty much barbaric by the standards of the free world.

        • River_Tam

          > As for human rights, the legal status of gays is Singapore is exactly the same as their legal status was in, let me see…, Michigan circa 2002.

          In theory perhaps. In practice, no.

          > As for censorship, while in this country the federal government doesn’t bother to ban books, there are plenty of other mechanisms at work.

          Are you really comparing Carrie Bradshaw on TBS to Throwing People Into Jail For Criticizing Their Government?

          Is the FCC now Big Brother?


          • dso23

            “In practice, no.”

            The 377A is not actively enforced in Singapore. Please elaborate.

          • River_Tam


            I wasn’t referring to 377A, but to Formula 17 being banned for having gay themes.

          • dso23

            Sorry! Did not immediately associate that instance of censorship with the legal status of gays. Singapore is becoming more liberal on social and political fronts. One sign of this liberalization is the 2009 release of “The Love of Siam.”

      • dso23

        What do you say about the CIA’s use of extraordinary rendition then? Is that not within the last two decades?

        • River_Tam

          I am opposed to export-for-torture, but I hardly think that extraordinary rendition, even if a violation of human rights, is the moral equivalent to the Singaporean regime.

          Every country in the world does SOMETHING wrong. Britain and Canada, for example, punishes so-called “hate speech”. As Sharansky poses the question, it’s really about whether we’re living in a fundamentally “free society” or not. Singapore is NOT a fundamentally “free society” and the US, despite its warts, is one of the freest societies in the world.

          See also:

          • dso23

            I cannot help but feel that you are simplifying the situation. Singapore has a unique history has made it such that repression of the freedom of expression was, to a certain degree, necessary to ensure stability of the social fabric. She is an incredibly tiny island surrounded by much larger neighbors of different political, social, and religious ideology. Invasion by her neighbors has always been a possibility and the fact remains that she would be especially vulnerable to attack if there was civil unrest. Our priorities have been different from those of other larger/more developed countries which have a greater capacity to recover from internal unrest. In return for compromising these freedoms of expression, other important freedoms have been more or less secured (safety, gender equality, religious freedom, freedom from corruption, economic stability etc.).

            I DEFINITELY DO NOT agree that all cases of repression in Singapore’s history are justified. Yet, as a Singaporean, I can understand the basic need for social stability. Without such stability (and by nature of our geographical position, racial-religious composition, and size), it would be very difficult for Singapore to preserve any “fundamental” freedoms of expression. [We would most likely be subsumed under Malaysia, perhaps forced to adopt the Bumiputra policy etc….]

            It is precisely my point that there is something wrong with each country. There is some trade-off that has to be made at each point in time, in each country – sometimes, these trade-offs are plain wrong and sometimes, they are (at least partially) necessitated by circumstance.

            The trade-off I have outlined defines Singapore’s past. Looking forward, we are in a much better position to pursue a greater level of freedom of expression. While Singapore has undergone significant change in the past few years, it is my hope that both the government and people pursue the freedom of expression more aggressively. Perhaps Yale-NUS can be a catalyst for Singapore’s liberalization. Anyhow, I don’t see Yale’s involvement in Singapore as legitimizing the repression of freedoms when Singapore’s government is in the process of granting greater freedom of expression.

            You may say that Singapore is “NOT a fundamentally free country” but she possesses several freedoms that I would consider fundamental. Yale-NUS is a courageous attempt at aiding Singapore’s liberalization. To remain in power, the government has to be responsive to the demand of the populace and it is in the means of Yale-NUS to help shape what the youth demand.

  • The Anti-Yale

    How did Walt Whitman, Allen Ginsburg and Lillian Hellman slip by the censors?

    It seems like a gulag , the terror evoked in gay people’s hearts by American prudery and the insane busy-body-ness of sodomy laws.


    • basho

      isn’t the point that it isn’t actually a gulag?

      people aren’t being thrown into jail for it

  • branf

    YES. Thank you for writing this, Austin.

  • The Anti-Yale

    ” . . .to make a prison-cell of my mind . . .” says Oedipus.


  • Vee

    *”Singapore has seen notable liberalizations over the past 10 years, including the launch of high-profile gay rights organizations and government approval for large-scale gay festivals and gatherings.”*

    Could you provide examples of organizations, festivals and gatherings that have obtained government approval within the last decade? To say that “Singapore has seen notable liberalizations over the past 10 years”, then just substantiate it with a sweeping statement like that is not very responsible.

    Also, i don’t really understand the point you are trying to make.
    So because Singapore ‘isn’t as intolerant as you think’, Yale should not be making an issue out of this?

    Yale-NUS is poised to push the frontiers of education in Singapore, so how is doing what is right – laying down a stand on these issues – a case of “American exceptionalism” and ‘distorting Singaporean society’?

    This is a typical argument of ‘you can have parties so things aren’t that bad so let’s just be quiet about it’. I find it laughable that you compare Singapore to the US in the 1970s and then say it’s acceptable.

  • Cheong

    Back in the 60s, the Singapore government has exiled the blossoming existence of local music bands and sentenced liberal Singaporeans who had a different approach to politics. This has inseminated fear on Singaporeans, thus shaping a sheltered culture that has not experienced any form of political freedom and civil liberties till this day.

    Do you think the Singapore government would allow Yale’s liberal arts program to make a CHANGE in their dictatorial ways? All I hear in your editorial is the resonant sound of ‘gay rights, gay rights’ – take into consideration the other cultures and attitudes in Singapore and you’ll discover that ‘gay rights’ is not the only obstruction against liberal arts. Come on, do your research, take a breather, think again. One gay-night of partying does not stand for your ridiculous comparison between America and Singapore.

    If you still feel very strongly about your opinion, I suggest you apply for PR and stay put in Singapore for the next 20 years.