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15 May 2009

Joining the pink dots

Acclaimed poet and playwright Alfian Sa’at of Asian Boys Trilogy fame shares his thoughts about acceptance, diversity and community as he went around Singapore with the Pink Dot placard persuading people to pose with it.

Beginning of last week, I told my friend Junfeng (who produced the two promotional videos for Pink Dot) that I didn't want to be part of Pink Dot.

This was due to my personal politics. I thought that the event would be meaningful, and it was pitched at a tenor which I felt was powerful enough to demystify the stereotype of the militant, aggressive, 'forcing others to accept their lifestyles' homosexual.

But I couldn't help but feel that there was something hollow about the campaign's pro-diversity message. One of the most inspiring images that I took away from the whole AWARE saga was the Old Guard lineup - consisting of women of various ages and ethnicities.

I wondered if the gay community in Singapore, as we have right now, could boast of a similar diversity within its ranks. As it is, the active committee does not consist of a single lesbian woman, and only two ethnicities are represented - Chinese and Malay. I don't subscribe to the CMIO (Chinese, Malay, Indian and Others) framework myself but it did make me wonder about the undeniable hegemony of English-educated Chinese males within the gay community.


From the top: Caption: Zizi Azah, theatre director, with her husband Izmir Ickbal, security analyst; Aishah Ashburn, Zhang Wenjie and Yuni Hadi from the Singapore International Film Festival Committee; Ivan Heng, Artistic Director, W!LD RICE; Lynette Chua, academic and Alfian Sa'at. Click here to view more photos.
A few days later, I had a change of heart. I think it had to do with carrying the Pink Dot placard around, persuading people to pose with it. At first I did this almost half-heartedly. But later, as I reviewed the photos, I couldn't help but notice how beautiful the people in them were. They were smiling unreservedly, unabashedly, with such sweet conviction, Singaporeans doing something that so rarely happens: standing behind a cause.

I continued lugging the placard around, and used it as an opportunity to reconnect with many old friends. There was Juliana, an installation artist in cancer remission. There was Isrizal, who was in jail a few months back for wearing a kangaroo T-shirt near the Supreme Court. Through Ellen, I found myself eavesdropping on a gorgeous group of lesbians whose conversations consisted of various repetitions of the words 'cat', 'jealous' and 'closure'.

There were Zizi and Izmir - a married couple. Zizi had asked me in Malay before I took a shot of them: “Alfian, is it sinful if I do this?” A minute later, she said: “I don't even know why I asked that. Nonsense lah.”

At a few instances, I was afraid that I was imposing - especially among my straight friends. I'd rarely discussed my sexuality with them - it's clear as day, and for me to suddenly whip out this placard and assume that I'm not violating their comfort zones was sometimes a risk.

The fact that all of them responded so readily moved me. I knew that they tacitly accepted the fact that I was gay, but then it always seemed to me to be an acceptance where my gay identity was subsumed under other identities - as fellow artist/writer, Malay/Muslim. It was a place that they overlooked, even ignored.

'Acceptance' of my homosexuality among these friends used to be: 'You know it doesn't matter to us.'

But when they held that placard up, close to their hearts, I also heard, 'I know this matters to you. It matters to us too.'

And that was why I came back into the fold. I know there are many housekeeping issues that need to be done within the community. I used to be the 'only gay' in school. And there will be times when I am the 'only Malay' in the gay room. Once, a gay person asked one of my friends: “Why is Alfian writing all these gay plays? Isn't he Malay? Why doesn't he write about Malay issues?”

Well, that wasn't the only reason. I also knew I couldn't, in the final analysis, let dear friends like Ash and Junfeng down.


Looking back, I realised I wrote those gay plays because I was hungering for this idea of a gay community.

I believed, and still do, that people come to the theatre as individuals, but leave as a community. And that is because they have shared a collective experience together, embraced by voices that reach out in the darkness to touch the person sitting right at the back.

Of course there are places where gay people gather, but it never amounted to a real community to me. Transient moments - a singalong to a chorus, cheers as balloons fall, but you still could see the hierarchies of power and desire - cliques, factions, networks, beauty's pecking order.

I just want to say how inspiring it has been to sit at the table at the Fridae office, surrounded by people at the top of their fields, sharing from their own specialisations. Law, media, admin, PR, arts, entertainment, graphic design, photography, advertising, IT, networking, marshalling, and of course the hardest bit of all: actual legwork... it was civil society capacity-building unfolding in front of my very eyes.

I don't want to get carried away with self-congratulation, but I want to at least say that I think you've all been doing an incredible job. I just sit in awe as Izzie passes round the crisis management plan, as George lectures on copyright, as Alan picks up the phone and makes a call, as Roy confirms purchases and bookings.

I only wish it was a younger me, though, sitting there, because there were role models in outrageous abundance.

All I hope is that all this energy finds its way into the actual event on Saturday. I saw an almost utopian form of community developing around that table. To think of that community expanding, dot by dot, person by person, until it forms the mass display we're dreaming of at Hong Lim Park is what all this means to me.

Date/time: May 16, Sat, 4.30pm
Venue: Hong Lim Park, Singapore
You can register your attendance on the event's Facebook page: The first-ever official LGBT public gathering in Singapore! For updates, visit Pinkdot.sg

Alfian bin Sa'at is an award winning Singaporean writer, poet and playwright. He published his first collection of poetry, One Fierce Hour in 1998 when he was 21. A year later, he won the Singapore Literature Prize Commendation Award with his first collection of short stories, Corridor. His second collection of poetry, A History of Amnesia, won him both the inaugural National Arts Council-Singapore Press Holdings Golden Point Award and the National Arts Council's Young Artist Award for Literature in 2001. He is best known in the LGBT community for his Asian Boys Trilogy [Asian Boys Vol. 1 (2000), Landmarks: Asian Boys Vol. 2 (2004) and Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol 3 (2007)].

Reader's Comments

1. 2009-05-15 17:05  
To Aflian Sa'at:

Chanced your blog
Change me life.

Thanks! :-)
2. 2009-05-15 18:24  
Great article.

Have bought my first ever pink shirt to wear on Saturday by way of moral support from a distance on the other side of the planet; partner is still selecting his (more fussy about clothes). Maybe we will also attend IDAHO for first time on Sunday and wear them there too.
3. 2009-05-15 18:37  
But tmr, pls be very, very careful; I hear the psychologically unstable Thio Li Ann has not given up & is now trying to smear NMP Siew Kum Hong:

SINGAPORE: After being accused on the Internet of pushing the gay agenda, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Siew Kum Hong now finds himself defending his professional conduct following his active role in the recent Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) saga.

TODAY has learnt of an email seeking clarification on whether Mr Siew — a non—practising lawyer — had contravened the Legal Profession Act by rendering pro—bono legal advisory work.

It was sent to four bodies: The Attorney—General’s Chambers (AGC), the Law Society, the Singapore Corporate Counsel Association (SCCA) and the Singapore Academy of Law.

Neither the AGC nor the Law Society, which govern the conduct of lawyers, was able to respond by press time. SCCA president Angeline Lee said her association was "looking into this matter".

Corporate counsels are not considered to be practising lawyers, who need to renew their practising certificates every year. Section 33 of the Legal Profession Act prohibits any person without such a certificate from providing the services of an advocate or solicitor.

Offenders could be fined up to S$25,000, or jailed for a maximum of six months.

When contacted, the sender of the email, Mr Tongel Yeo, 51, stressed that it was "not about Siew Kum Hong", but the wider question on the extent that corporate counsels could "represent to people that we are legal advisers".

Mr Yeo, himself a corporate counsel who sits on the board of the charity group Methodist Welfare Services, said he had been a passive onlooker in the AWARE saga. He did not attend the extraordinary meeting on May 2, but read the subsequent newspaper reports.

He said: "That’s when I read that he was reported to have claimed he was a legal adviser and going to his website, it appears that’s what he was doing — advising them."

In response, Mr Siew, who is seeking a second NMP term, was confident he had not breached any regulations.

Reiterating that he was "at all time, cognisant of the fact that I do not hold a practising certificate", Mr Siew said: "It was the members of the Old Guard of AWARE who described me as their legal adviser. I did not hold myself up as such."

He did advise them "on a variety of matters, including my own views on the Constitution of AWARE".

But he stressed: "I believe that all in—house counsels — and in fact, all trained lawyers — do from time to time, state their views of what the law in a specific situation would be, in the context and capacity other than being an advocate or solicitor."

He added: "I hope this is not part of what seems to be an ongoing, orchestrated campaign to target me."

While the legal bodies have not yet sought Mr Siew’s response, he said he was considering writing to them to express his position.

— TODAY/so

4. 2009-05-16 21:27  
HOMOSEXUALITY, as a nebulous, abstract concept invokes a whole spectrum of reactions ranging from "Dirty fudgepackers" to "Not my problem." But once it's given a human face, name, hands, eyes and feet, it becomes a different entity altogether as this article proves. People's positions, opinions and politics are usually changed one VOTE at a time, one person at a time by real human contact. A response to this challenge is a reason for which PINK DOTS is to be praised.
5. 2009-05-17 13:29  
I was very move with the proposition and motive with this whole campaign. Love this so much!!!!
6. 2009-05-17 13:34  
supported the event and the spirit of it by wearing pink on saturday
thou due to work reasons was unable to rush down for the event.
I deeply appreaciate those non-LGBT pple whom support the identity and recognise us. Touched~
7. 2009-05-17 21:52  
Sadly, i couldn't attend. However, i wore pink to work :)
8. 2009-05-18 09:51  
heartfelt and thought-provoking, as always. TQ alfian.
9. 2009-05-18 17:25  
thanks for being our role model Alfian....never give up hope...someday....this pink dot will grow and be like the old guard of Aware......if we only believe!

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