Blocked at every turn by a stubbornly conservative government, Singapore's gays are playing a subtle game of social subversion as they work towards recognition and acceptance, stepping around their opponents rather than resorting to the confrontational clashes that have elsewhere marked the fight for gay rights. Tim Cribb reports.
The beach, if you can call it that, is a dusty strip bordered by barely lapping water of dubious chemistry, but the sun's hot and there is a breeze of sorts, and there are families picnicking under the lush trees while young men in short shorts and gleaming with sweat hurl themselves about the dirty sand.
Sid, 19, a Singaporean Chinese who speaks with an American accent, swigs from a bottle of cold water and wipes a wet palm across his smooth brown chest.
"Being gay in Singapore, you have to be discreet, but I'm enjoying life," he said.
This Sunday afternoon on the beach at Sentosa, a man-made islet and theme park in the lee of Singapore's hulking oil refineries, are some 30 gay men belting around volleyballs. There are no banners announcing that the weekly gathering is organised by Adventurers Like Us, a GLBT social group set up in June 1999.
Less than 100 metres away, the Ministry of Finance Family Day outing is oblivious to the fact that there are no women watching this group of men, though the shrieking might suggest otherwise to the near-sighted.
"We're just playing volleyball," said Sid. "It's not like we're having a mass orgy on the beach."
It is not actually illegal to be a homosexual in Singapore, but Section 377 and 377A specifically make sexual acts between men a criminal offence, punishable by up to 10 year's imprisonment (see box).
Thomas, sitting out a game at Sentosa, said there now "appears to be an unwritten government policy that if it's in private between two consenting adults" then homosexuality will be tolerated. And only if gays keep quiet about the laws.
"Don't think we have not tried to talk about it," Thomas said, pointing to an attempt by the informal gay and lesbian activist group People Like Us in May 2000 to get permission to hold a public forum on gay issues. The government denied the permit, but the issue attracted local and regional publicity, effectively achieved its objective.
"Homosexuality is a taboo in Singapore, but people are opening up to gays and everything," Sid said. "Right now, honestly, I'm pretty closeted. But I hang out with gay guys and we go to clubs and I don't feel too restricted."
Sid, on weekend leave from the compulsory two-and-a-half years of national service in the Singapore armed forces, said he hasn't told the army he's gay, mainly because that would have landed him in a clerical post and he likes rappelling out of helicopters as Ranger.
Nor has he come out to his parents and family, but that is more a question that goes as much to being a young gay man as being Chinese, which carries with it two major taboos - no-one talks about death or sex.
"I'm the youngest in the family, the only son, so it's pretty difficult for me to say 'Hey mum, hey dad, I'm gay'. It takes time. You have to plan certain things and tell them at the right time. I'm 19, coming on 20, so I don't think it's the right time to tell them yet."
He doesn't consider his parents to be conservative. "Generally, that's the Asian culture. Chinese from the older generation expect you to marry. My parents are not that conventional. They are liberal about certain things. They don't really push me about getting married and having babies and giving them grandsons and granddaughters."
Sid said Singapore is changing, but it could take "another 10 years for the government to say 'we can accept there are homosexuals'".
However, he has no plans to live overseas, unlike other gay Singaporeans, who feel they would be more accepted in the United States or Australia. "I'm satisfied with Singapore. It's my home and I don't see why I should emigrate."
The official line in Singapore is that gays will be tolerated so long as they don't openly challenge the conservative status quo that, on the surface, strictly regulates behavior in the tiny city state.
Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew, the founding father of modern Singapore and an outspoken advocate on the world stage of "Asian Values", made his position clear in response to a question on CNN in 1998 from a gay Singaporean, who asked how he fit into the big picture.
"It's not a matter which I can decide or any government can decide," said Lee. "It's a question of what a society considers acceptable. But what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on other people. I mean, we don't harass anybody."
Stuart Koe, the 29-year-old publisher of the Asian gay and lesbian web magazine fridae.com, said Lee's answer was "just an excuse" not to push for changes at the judicial or government administrative level.
"There's no reason to doubt what he says. That may be what he believes, but it isn't necessarily true about Singapore society, which is a lot more tolerant than you may be led to believe."
After seven year's of education in the United States, Koe returned to Singapore in 1995 and said one of the first things that struck him was how young the gay scene was, literally: "They're all boys, there are no gay men - everyone was in their early 20s."
"Now these people are in their early 30s," Koe said. "This is the first cohort of gays and lesbians who are in a position to be out, who are in a position to be comfortable enough with themselves at an early enough age, that Singapore has seen. Of course there are exceptions, but this is the first major cohort."
Koe said it is heartening to see now that gay Singaporeans are more accepting of themselves at 15 and 16, due in no small part to the Internet, which has helped show them "there is a whole world of gay men out there" even before they step into their first gay bar. "They don't feel the isolation that I felt, many of us felt, when we were growing up," Koe said. "This is in less than one generation after mine."
Koe reckons that acceptance of gays in Singapore society will come with time, and that thinking underlies his strategy of dealing with being gay in a country that technically make him a criminal.
"Gay life in Singapore is flourishing. It's far from being underground anymore, and slowly becoming widely accepted by the mainstream. And really, that's the best strategy for the survival of the community in Singapore. It's to say, look, we nothing hide. We contribute to the economy like anyone else. We just so happen to be gay or lesbian. Accept us as part of society because we are living amongst you anyway. Don't shut us out because we are all citizens of Singapore and our sexuality really shouldn't make a difference."
Koe said that rather than challenge the laws head on, gays need to secure public recognition that "yes, we do exist".
"Legal recognition will follow. But for now, I don't accept that 'society is too conservative'. Gays and lesbians are better accepted by Singapore society than our leaders care to admit."
Koe acknowledges the efforts of political activists like Alex Au, head of the activist group People Like Us (PLU), who prefers a more confrontational approach.
Au, who has stridently campaigned for recognition in the courts, has argued: "The further away you move from money towards speech, the more defined the restrictions coming your way."
Koe said his approach is "a very tai chi, Zen kind of thing - it's hard to describe - using their weapons against themselves. You don't want us to be in your face or make a public issue of it: fine. You don't want us to break the rules: fine, we'll play it by your rules. It's impossible to have so many rules that homosexuals in Singapore are 'ruled' out of existence. We are law-abiding citizens in every way except in what we do in the privacy of our own bedrooms.
And even then, it's illegal only by archaic laws inherited from Victorian England when Singapore was a British colony."
He has a healthy respect for the government.
"If the Singapore government is put in a position where they have to respond to pressure, they will probably not compromise on their principles even if they run the risk of appearing conservative," he said. "They're not shy about making unpopular decisions. And that's been proven time and time again. I've been trying to tell people don't try to confront the government, don't try to force them into action by using the media to pressure them. It won't work."
Koe certainly does not see the need for a Stonewall or a Sydney Mardi Gras type confrontation with the authorities, the open and violent clashes with police in the late 1970s that broke the early ground in the fight for equal rights.
"It will be revolutionary in a different way," he said. "We are revolutionary, but not in an in your face kind of way. It will still take individuals who are willing to push those boundaries, whether they are perceived boundaries or actual boundaries.
"This is something that is very peculiar to Singapore. We have so many perceived boundaries that we are told we are not supposed to cross. So we have to overcome this pavlovian training to do it. They say 'you shall not cross that line' and so no one does. And when someone actually does, hey, its okay, because the line was imaginary."
One of the biggest obstacles is the fact that Singapore is, after all, populated and ruled by overseas Chinese. Travel writer Jan Morris calls it "one of the greatest Chinese cities". Of its 3.5 million people, fully three-quarters are of Chinese ancestry, speaking Mandarin and the Hakka, Hokkien or Cantonese dialects.
China and its 5,000 years of tradition has a far more powerful influence in Asia than the West can ever hope for and so, whatever happens in mainland China will have far reaching implications for Singapore.
"What governs gays in China is the same thing that governs most Asian gays and lesbians, and that's family," says Koe. "But what we are learning from the West is a growing sense of individuality, or individualism, and not being afraid of being yourself. The first major step we have to take is to understand we are not making our families lose face because we're gay.
"That's something I had to deal with in my family. The first time I was interviewed in a magazine there was a full-page picture and my parents said 'why do you have to be so public about this'. I told them it was because I think it's my social responsibility to do it, because no one else is going to do it.
"You can't continue to hide behind a screen and expect people to accept you. I'm not looking for acceptance from my gay peers, I'm looking for acceptance from mainstream Asian society. And I want to show them and everybody else that we are not weirdoes, we are not perverts, we are really just like everyone else. I hate to be average, but we are really just like everyone else. Normal, whatever that is."
Koe has been something of a social activist throughout his gay life.
"I used to live in Minnesota. I went to school in Minneapolis. And Minneapolis is a pretty mid-west , lots of blonds, it's pretty conservative. It has its roots in the farming community. And my boyfriend and I were the only gay couple among the whole group of friends that we have.
"Being gay alone was one thing, but many people didn't realise that gay people have stable relationships, that gay people live normal lives and everything else. I think we changed many people's perceptions of what being gay was about.
"And similarly in Singapore, when I was in the civil service everyone knew I was gay. I didn't go around telling everyone, but I didn't hide it, I didn't deny it.
"It is about visibility. When we did fridae.com it was completely about visibility. We make no effort to hide who we are, what we do, at all."
But hiding in the closet has long been a gay defense mechanism, no less in Singapore, where the mere threat of punishment can be enough.
Eugene, an Australian-educated businessman in his early 30s, is not out to his family or his many straight friends. "It is very difficult, but life goes on," he said.
"Of course, there will be thoughts or suspicions." There is considerable pressure in Singapore to marry before the age of 30 and raise children, and he is still single.
As Singapore is exposed to more and more reports about gay communities elsewhere, "there will come a point when people will ask," Eugene said. "I'm sure that point will come among closer friends. I think some will accept me, some won't. I have plans to move overseas, whether for further education or for the expansion of my business. It gives me a reason to avoid facing such questions."
Eugene, like Koe, puts his faith in the importance of "market forces" in changing attitudes in Singapore, particularly as the country undergoes a self-examination about its future.
"Internally, the change I believe is taking place already, because Singapore is changing on a very large scale, not just in respect to the gay community but in many other aspects - the way we will progress in the next 20-to-30 years economically. We are rethinking everything concerning our education system, our political system."
He said that, from purely economic terms, the government will have decide whether it wants to retain the talents and skills of its well-educated gay community. "If they do want people like us to stay in Singapore, then some things will have to change. And I think the fear of the future, the fear of losing talent, the fear of losing out in terms of world competitiveness will lead them to rethink many things, including this issue of acceptance of gays in the community."
On the street, there is evidence of a large gay population, once you know how to look beyond what Morris calls " a purely modern, technological society, without slack or sentiment: semi-communal, half brain-washed, materialistic to the point of philistinism, but healthy, rich and enterprising".
James, an expatriate Australian, said that "if you open your eyes, you'd be surprised how many gay people there are in Singapore".
But for the former Sydneysider, who left to be with his Singaporean partner, gay life in the city state is pretty limited. "It depends what you're into. If you're into clubbing its fine, there are lots of gay clubs, lots of gay bars, lots of gay saunas. Outside of that, there's no real gay life as such."
Even so, "Singapore is unbelievable as far as cruising goes. It must be something to do with repression. It just makes it come out more."
Two sections of the Singapore Penal Code criminalise homosexual acts.
Section 377 (Unnatural Offences): "Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to ten years, and shall also be liable to fine. Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence in this section."
Section 377A (Outrages on Decency): "Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission by any male person, of any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years."
Both sections carry a mandatory punishment of jail. In practice, it seems that Section 377 has in recent years been applied mostly in non-consensual heterosexual cases, while Section 377A has been used to convict same-sex acts in public settings such as a parked car, and open-space parks etc. In 1991/92 the sentencing norm was 2-3 months, but from 1993 onward it was set at 6 months.
Determining the legal status of oral sex has posed a challenge for Singapore's judiciary in recent years, but a final position now appears to have been reached: "Oral sex is a crime unless it is followed by penile-vaginal sex, Singapore's Court of Appeal ruled [in 1997]. "The coitus of the male and female sexual organs" is natural and "unnatural acts" are permitted only as foreplay, the court said.
Certain lesbian acts are punishable under Section 20 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act which refers to "riotous, disorderly or indecent behaviour" in a public setting, liable on conviction to fine not exceeding $S1,000 or imprisonment not exceeding one month. There has been no case yet of lesbian acts having been tried.
The largest number of arrests for homosexual activities is initiated by the police acting as decoys. Most are convicted under Section 354 of the Penal Code for "molest", i.e. the "use of criminal force to outrage the modesty of a person", where the agents provocateur arrest their victims the moment they are touched on the buttocks or genitals. The crime carries a maximum jail sentence of two years, a fine, caning, or a combination of any two such punishments. Where the police decoy is not touched, he can rely on Section 19 (soliciting in a public place) of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, which covers both prostitution and soliciting "for any other immoral purpose". This offence carries a fine of up to $S1,000, doubling on a subsequent conviction, including a jail term not exceeding six months. Finally, if the victim uses a symbolic gesture to signal sexual activity with the police decoy, he can be tried under Section 294A of the Penal Code, which covers the commission of any obscene act in any public place to the annoyance of others (subject to a maximum of three months jail, a fine, or both).
Source: The International Lesbian and Gay and Association, World Legal Survey (http://www.ilga.org/Information/legal)