In March, staff reporter Rachel Siegel traveled to Singapore to examine LGBTQ activism at Yale-NUS and in Singapore at large. This is the first of a two-part series on the young liberal arts college’s evolving role in Singaporean society.
SINGAPORE — When a Yale-NUS student began filling out his medical intake forms for the Singaporean National Service, he was as healthy as any other 18-year-old ready to embark on two years of mandatory conscription. Without any significant physical or mental disabilities, there should have been no reason for him to lie about his medical history, except for the fact that he is gay.
Homosexuality is defined by the Singaporean government as a psychological disease. Gay men who declare that they are homosexual are at time relegated to National Service jobs with lower security clearances, such as being a storeman or driver as opposed to an officer or weapons supervisor.
Despite the typical treatment afforded to gay men in the National Service, the student — who agreed to speak on the condition of anonymity for privacy reasons — came out to some of his coworkers in the Ministry of Defence. He was surprised to find support from them.
Still, he was not yet out to his family back home.
“Even in the National Service, I was out to all my friends even though the army is thought to be a very homophobic place,” he said. “The unit I was in was very supportive. Even my officers knew about it.”
Such an inconsistency encapsulates a broader trend in Singaporean society — strict laws regarding homosexuality are kept on the books, while, increasingly, no one actually abides by them.
The social acceptance for the LGBTQ community is broadening in this city-state that Yale has, in some ways, adopted. While older generations still adhere to religious and conservative traditions, their children are adopting those beliefs less and less. Singapore is changing.
Of the 25 students from Yale-NUS and other Singaporean universities interviewed, almost all spoke to Singapore’s attitude towards gay rights as one plagued by contradictions. Same-sex couples comfortably hold hands in public, yet many are not out to their parents or close relatives. Even students at Yale-NUS — a college known locally for its liberal culture — freely pursue gay-rights activism on campus but are wary of appearing in Facebook posts that might betray their identities.
“Many in Singapore are still ambivalent about homosexuality,” the anonymous student said. “It’s like, ‘You can be gay, but as long as my children are not, that’s fine.’”
Singapore’s proscription against homosexuality dates back to before the country’s independence, with multiple versions of the law existing previously across former British territories. In 1955, Section 377A was codified into the Singaporean Penal Code, criminalizing sexual acts between men.
In Singapore, the traditional family structure is a deeply rooted cultural norm, one that enjoys sanctification in the form of government policies. Unmarried Singaporean citizens, for instance, do not qualify for heavily subsidized government housing until they turn 35, yet gay marriage is illegal in Singapore. Sex education in schools is administered by six government-hired agencies, four of which are linked to conservative Christian groups.
For gay men and women, these norms — and their codification in Singapore’s laws — mean that they also cannot adopt children.
These anti-gay laws have fueled some of the major attacks waged by faculty and thought leaders against Yale’s Singaporean experiment.
Professor of French and African American Studies Christopher Miller said Yale should not have set up its first franchise campus in a place where such a law still presides. Political science lecturer Jim Sleeper said the legalization of gay sex would improve the attitude of most to Singapore, but would also be insufficient to make up for the suppression of free speech in the city-state.
But, in a touch of irony, students across Singapore described Yale-NUS as a vanguard for gay rights, pointing to the college’s institutional support for activism. Leaders of the college’s main student group raising awareness on issues of gender, sexuality and feminism, The G Spot, said the Yale-NUS administration has never once clamped down on initiatives deemed to be too controversial.
At Yale-NUS, nestled in a corner of NUS’s massive campus, The G Spot is free to host events such as Ally Week, held last month to promote allyship among various communities. But beyond the walls of Yale-NUS, students must conduct their advocacy discreetly.
Natalie Tai — a student at NUS who is graduating this fall and coordinates the unauthorized LGBTQ student group Gender Collective — said this is certainly the case at her school.
“There is less support for LGBTQ activism at [the National University of Singapore], or really any activism at all,” Tai said. “At a bureaucratic NUS, you’ll be given a ‘no’ straight away except for environmental activism. I feel like Yale-NUS has been exceptionally accommodating towards G Spot.”
When Herman Lim YNUS ’18 first came to Yale-NUS last fall, he said he was unsure about whom he could be open with about his homosexuality. But although he was used to being reserved with his conservative Muslim family, he quickly learned that he could be more open at Yale-NUS.
“Here I found one of the strongest support groups in my life,” Lim said.
Three other openly gay Yale-NUS students interviewed echoed Lim’s experience. One of them, Hamid Roslan YNUS ’17, co-founder of The G Spot, said Yale-NUS exists as a bubble where students are out at school but not at home. Sherlyn Goh YNUS ’17, also co-founder of The G Spot, said members of the group are privileged because of the amount of institutional and financial support they receive from the administration.
Unlike at other Singaporean universities, students at Yale-NUS said their administration has never stood in the way of student organizing surrounding controversial issues. According to the anonymous student and Dean of Students Kyle Farley, student groups do not have to clear events with the administration but must simply fill out an event registration form one week in advance. Furthermore, each student group has a designated faculty and Dean’s Fellow advisor, and students said they regularly turn to staff members for advice and help advertising and funding.
“We didn’t give too many details on what exactly we were doing,” the anonymous student said of Ally Week.
Students interviewed also acknowledged the difference in climate between off-campus and on-campus spaces. Students said Yale-NUS and Singapore are not one and the same. Although it is not uncommon for same-sex couples to be seen holding hands on a public street, it is also not out of the question for them to get hostile stares — much like what could happen in some areas of the United States. But inside Yale-NUS, students said they never need to worry about being judged in this way.
Even the anonymous student, who is among the most outspoken LGBTQ advocates on campus, said his family does not know about his work with The G Spot. After coming out to his mother in high school, he said she brought him to therapy. His parents insisted his boyfriend had cast a spell on him, he said. After being forced to break up with his boyfriend, he lied to his parents and reassured them that consultations with the psychologist had turned him straight.
“We don’t talk about it anymore,” he said.
When Roslan and Goh founded The G Spot the summer before their freshman year, they knew that had they been enrolled at any other Singaporean university, they would have faced immediate administrative opposition because of their confrontational group name and mission.
But Yale-NUS was different. The first liberal arts college in Singapore, the school also bears the imprint of a school where progressivism is as much a hallmark of the campus as Gothic architecture.
Indeed, The G Spot has grown substantially at Yale-NUS. Roslan said that Ally Week — which took place in the beginning of March — is a testament to how much the group has grown.
The weeklong series consisted of six campus events addressing various issues across the LGBTQ community. One panel discussed how students could reconcile their faiths with support for the LGBTQ community, while a photo exhibition set up in the dining hall raised awareness of the Singaporean transgender community. A debate co-hosted by the Yale-NUS Debate Society grappled with whether porn empowers or denigrates women, and the closing event invited students to an open mic session to share their stories of personal identity and allyship. Almost every event was attended by Farley and other Yale-NUS administrators.
But although The G Spot can count on support from the administration, opposition to the group has come from an unexpected place — the student body itself. This has sometimes only come in the form of light criticism. The anonymous student described how many students were taken aback when The G Spot distributed condoms during move in and put up posters questioning gender norms next to bathroom doors.
But there have also been more serious attacks. On a Yale-NUS Facebook page which allows anonymous posts, students repeatedly lashed out against The G Spot for being too aggressive with their programming. One post read, “If you can take a dick you can take a joke. Something I felt was apt considering you guys can’t stop being controversial.” Another post mocked Goh for her “pseudo-feminist agenda.” The site even went so far as to out a student.
“[The posts] were overwhelming because they were anonymous and they kept coming,” Goh said. “Your friends tell you, ‘they posted something about your group again.’ As a queer person, this is just really scary because you don’t know who it is and you don’t know how many of them there are.”
In another incident, posters from the G Spot meant to explain when to use the word “transgender” were mocked by parody posters bearing words like “transformer” or “transfat.” Roslan said some students even protested when the mock posters were taken down, claiming this violated their right to freedom of speech.
But the anonymous student said he actually thinks those who were attacking The G Spot for being too upfront were actually disrespecting their own freedom of speech.
“I know the school is more liberal and accepting than the other local universities, and I wanted to take advantage of that to organize more for queer youth activism,” the anonymous student said. “Why can’t we talk about whatever we want?”
A FAR CRY
Even though many students referred to The G Spot as the most recognized LGBTQ group at any Singaporean university, similar groups do exist elsewhere. And while each group differs in its exact mission, the most fundamental distinction between The G Spot and these smaller organizations likely lies in the inability to secure administrative support.
Tai heads the Gender Collective at NUS — one of the few groups concerning LGBTQ issues for the university’s nearly 40,000 students. She said the group has helped her find support in dealing with her sexual orientation.
The Gender Collective is not formally recognized by the university, she said. However, the group did register more informally through NUS’s University Scholars Program. Similar to NUS’s four residential colleges under which student groups can register, USP is a multidisciplinary academic program for NUS undergraduates.
“NUS doesn’t support LGBTQ organizing officially,” Tai said. “The NUS policy is like a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ because gay sex is still illegal. If I tried to register as a group I would probably just get a ‘No.’” For example, Tai said she wants to organize a dildo workshop through Gender Collective but is not even seriously considering proposing the event to the NUS administration. The anonymous Yale-NUS student, among several others, said that, were they to propose such an event, they do not think they would face obstacles.
In fact, Tai said, The G Spot is over-used as a selling point for Yale-NUS’s liberal culture.
“I feel like The G Spot has constantly been pointed to say, ‘Look how progressive Yale-NUS can be,” Tai said. “My personal view is that they sometimes use The G Spot to deflect tension since they are still subject to Singapore laws, but if The G Spot benefits then that’s great.”
Professor Tan Tai Yong, executive vice president for academic affairs at Yale-NUS and the former vice provost for student life at NUS, said NUS cannot be seen to promote LGBTQ activism.
“We don’t go out to say we want to promote a particular viewpoint or stance,” Tan said. “We create a safe environment so people don’t feel threatened because of who they are. We have students who want to pursue certain activities, and as long as those activities don’t break the law or offend somebody in a confrontational or adversarial way, they can do what they want.”
But as homosexuality remains illegal in Singapore, administrators essentially have their hands tied.
Tan said that as a national university, NUS cannot be seen formally advocating for activities which are against the law. But as Yale-NUS is also funded by the Singaporean government, it remains partially unclear as to why the government seems to have more influence over NUS than Yale-NUS.
Tan added that talks or panels discussing issues surrounding Section 377A are not disallowed, but blatant student advocacy would be more problematic.
Restrictions regarding LGBTQ organizing are not unique to NUS, according to students at the Nanyang Technological University and the Singapore Management University, the other two major research universities in Singapore.
An anonymous student at NTU, who heads the university’s LGBTQ-affirming group Kaleidoscope, said the organization has been advised against seeking official recognition from the university. As is mandatory for all NTU student groups, Kaleidoscope underwent a two-year probationary period after first being formed in 2011, but experienced trouble over approval for events for reasons its members deemed unfounded.
“They told us they didn’t feel that our club served a purpose for the student body anymore,” the anonymous NTU student said. “We weren’t just talking about LGBTQ issues, but also on gender and race because the club was pretty diverse.”
Now, the student said Kaleidoscope operates largely under the radar, screening movies and holding small discussions without any formal publicity or institutional support. She said she has experienced classmates making snide remarks and asking about “what sort of agenda [the group] was pushing,” adding that she has felt significant resistance to LGBTQ advocacy from the NTU student body.
At SMU, two members of Out To Care who wished to remain anonymous for privacy reasons said their group’s focus is not on activism. OTC is formally supported by SMU’s Diversity and Inclusion Committee as a social, and not an activist, group.
For the students, Yale-NUS is leading in the context of LGBTQ rights in Singapore.
“Yale-NUS is pushing the boundaries,” they said.