Despite having a human rights record that has faced significant criticism, Singapore has been developing a grassroots gay rights movement since the 1990s.
In a lecture entitled “Singapore’s Gay Rights Movement: Past, Present and Future,” Lynette Chua, an assistant professor of law at the National University of Singapore, spoke about the evolution of the gay rights movement in Singapore before approximately 50 students and faculty in Linsley-Chittenden Hall Wednesday evening. Chua, whose research concentrates on the relationship between law and the gay rights movements in Southeast Asia, traced the movement from its beginnings in the early 1990s to the present, emphasizing the guerilla tactics gay rights activists in Singapore have had to employ to advocate their cause while simultaneously placating the ruling Singaporean party.
“Gay rights activists in Singapore have learned to deal with the political and social norms and signals — the stuff that’s not written in the books,” Chua said.
Chua, who interviewed 100 gay rights activists in Singapore as part of her research, said activists there have had to adapt their advocacy to national political climate. As the movement evolved over the years, she said, members of the LGBTQ community in Singapore have learned to employ “pragmatic resistance” — a process that entails looking out for shifts in Singapore’s political culture that might allow the movement to further its aims.
The Singaporean ruling party derives its legitimacy from economic prosperity, Chua said, adding that any movement that calls into question the country’s stability will be sanctioned by the government. Chua said one of the major challenges gay activists in Singapore face is advocating their cause in a manner that will not threaten the ruling party.
“If you want to get somewhere without ending up in jail,” Chua said, “you have to employ non-confrontational tactics.”
She added that Singaporean gay rights activists address LGBTQ issues by focusing on specific problems rather than by advocating a general change in mindset. Chua raised the example of the 2010 Tan Eng Hong case, which challenged the constitutionality of Section 377A of Singapore’s penal code — legislation that criminalizes sexual intercourse between two adult men.
Though the law remains in place, Chua said, the fact that 21 members of parliament debated the issue was a victory for the Singaporean LGBTQ community.
“The shifting attitude — from the police raiding gay bars only decades ago to the government acknowledging the presence of gay people in Singapore — is a step forward for the gay rights movement,” she said.
History professor George Chauncey GRD ’89, who organized the event, said he hopes the lecture will provide the Yale community with a more nuanced, fuller understanding of the gay rights movement in Singapore. He added that the lecture was not meant to address the controversy about the establishment of Yale-NUS College, the liberal arts college that Yale is establishing with NUS in Singapore, though he said he thinks the campus debate about Yale-NUS would inevitably provide a context for the event.
One of five students who met with Yale-NUS Dean of Faculty Charles Bailyn to discuss the rights of LGBTQ students at Yale-NUS College said he found the lecture informative, adding that it was interesting to learn about how gay rights activists organize in a country where homosexuality is criminal.
“I think [Chua] managed to explain a lot of the basic assumptions in Singapore, which are hard for us to put into words, because they’re so much a part of our lives,” Singaporean graduate student E-Ching Ng GRD ’13 said, adding that watching for signals and pushing boundaries is part of everyone’s life in Singapore.
The lecture was sponsored by LGBT Studies at Yale.