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5 Oct 2009

Gay poet-playwright Ng Yi-Sheng axed as arts mentor

Poet, playwright and winner of the Singapore Literature Prize last year for his poetry anthology Last Boy, Ng Yi-Sheng has been dropped by the Ministry of Education as a mentor in the Creative Arts Programme one month into his mentorship.

The cloak that is "I don't have to give you any reason for my action" is very useful to those who wish to act unreasonably. It enables civil servants to abuse their official positions behind a shield of opacity.

Ng Yi-Sheng is the author of SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century and a regular contributor to Fridae.

We can't say that they have abused their position every time they wield such an excuse, but the point is, when they do abuse their positions, we won't know.

Acclaimed playwright and poet Ng Yi-Sheng has been terminated by the Education ministry from his role as arts mentor. He asked the ministry for a reason, and as The Straits Times reported, got none. 

It is a matter of public interest when someone is terminated like that, even if it is someone appointed for a casual position like Yi-Sheng's. The Straits Times obviously thinks so too. That's why they reported it. How can it be then that the reason for the termination is not of public interest, especially when it is an act of the state, paid by taxpayer's money?

Yi-Sheng himself believes that it has something to do with "his involvement with political and gay rights activism." The Straits Times, for its part, mentioned his play, 251, which portrayed Singapore's best-known porn actress Annabel Chong sympathetically.

"But of course they knew all this before they invited me," was his comment, packed with irony.

Either the ministry did know and was fine with his history before, but panicked when some anti-gay extremist complained [1], or the ministry really didn't know about Yi-Sheng's background and panicked when they found out. Neither possibility speaks well of them.

It may be some totally different reason, a few people might say. But if you are aware of the series of purges carried out by the Ministry of Education on gay people in the teaching profession, you will immediately sense that this is part of a pattern. His sexuality is the most likely reason.

I have been trying to document cases of the Ministry's purges that I have informally heard about. Unfortunately, many of the victims did not want to further jeopardise their careers even when they were inexplicably moved from a frontline teaching position (which they were passionate about) to a dead-end desk job. They nurtured the hope that they'd be able to go back to the classroom one day and did not want to make an issue of the injustice visited on them. Hence, they have generally been unwilling to reveal details of their case histories to me for documentation.

The problem is this: If we can't credibly document a series of abuses that show a pattern of discrimination, then how do we prove it? If we can't prove it, how do we end it?

Let me call upon anyone who thinks he has suffered job discrimination in the civil service on account of his sexual orientation to approach People Like Us with your story. Silence perpetuates injustice.

* * * * *

In any private company, when an employee is demoted or removed, it is recognised as only fair that due process should followed. The employee is given a reason and permitted to contest that reason. The Ministry of Manpower, on the Good employment practices and guidelines page of its website even says this:

Employers should adopt good employment practices such as: Recruiting and treating employees fairly and equally, without prejudice or discrimination.

The Manpower ministry also has an Industrial Arbitration Court to resolve disputes fairly. Employers are expected to be open and forthright about their reasons for action against employees, for if not, how can arbitration proceed? On the Manpower's website too is this statement:

If an employee was dismissed on the ground of misconduct and feels that it was without just cause and wishes to seek redress, he has to appeal to the Minister in writing for reinstatement to his former employment, within one month from the date of dismissal.

This is the irony: The Manpower ministry puts its weight behind the principle of due process, and as I have noted above, due process must include the employer providing an honest reason for his action.

Yet, this standard of due process has not been observed in Yi-Sheng's case. Nor was it observed in Alfian Sa'at's case a few years ago when he was terminated from his relief teacher's job, also without a reason [2]. As many readers would know, Alfian is gay as well.

* * * * *

Like I said Alfian's case, this is one more reason why we need a Freedom of Information Act. Such laws enable a citizen to ask the government for information and puts an obligation on the government to answer that question truthfully, so long as there is no overriding reason, such as national security, for that information to be kept secret. Of course, such laws also have a rule that governments should not be releasing personal information about anybody, unless it is personal information about the requestor.

In other words, even with such a law, I might not be able to request for details of Yi-Sheng's case, but Yi-Sheng himself or his attorney should be able to.

In fact, it is considered good practice to permit a citizen to ask government departments what information they hold about himself.

Why is it good practice? There have been cases in many countries where government departments have erroneous information on record about people. When these persons apply for a government job, a passport or some disability benefit, they find themselves inexplicably refused. If the government is allowed to simply say, "We don't have to give you a reason", then the erroneous information (e.g. that he was suspected to have donated money to terrorist groups, or to have imported child porn) that blackmarked his application will never come to light. It will never be cleared up, and the person will suffer unjustly for the rest of his life, slapped with one refusal after another, each time with no reason given.

A Freedom of Information Act that gives citizens the right to know what information is being held about themselves provides the little guy with recourse against the powerful. And if civil servants know that their actions cannot be hidden behind a cloak of willful opacity, they will be more mindful about being fair and non-discriminatory.

It can only be good for Singapore.



[1] I'm not being paranoid. I have a fast-growing list of incidents that point to a concerted effort by anti-gay campaigners to target gay people and gay events by making all sorts of complaints to the government. Actually, I grant them that freedom to do so. What I am annoyed with is the way the government reacts once they receive a complaint that someone or some event is gay. They swing into clampdown mode, without ever stopping for a moment to ask, "So what if this person or the event is gay?" These civil servants don't think, they don't uphold the principle of non-discrimination. They panic, or they blindly abuse their power because that's where their sympathies lie anyway. Then, when asked to justify themselves, they say: "We don't have to give you a reason." And we like to boast that Singapore is an exemplar of good governance.

[2] See Teacher unaccountably terminated and Teacher's termination still unaccounted for.


Alex Au has been a gay activist and social commentator for over 10 years and is the co-founder of People Like Us, Singapore. Alex is the author of the well-known Yawning Bread web site. 

Reader's Comments

Comment #1 was deleted by its author on 2009-10-05 19:40
Comment #2 was deleted by its author on 2009-10-05 20:19
Comment #3 was deleted by its author on 2009-10-05 20:19
4. 2009-10-05 20:28  
Not cool, not cool at all. =(

If the MOE is indeed discriminative, then shouldn't every gay student like myself feel the pressure as well? Or even, to exaggerate my generalization, every student belonging to a minority group, be it race, religion, or foreign backgrounds, feel the heat? My dictionary did not spell 'discrimination' as a 'bilingual' term. It shares a united definition of: if you say no to this, you have to deny the otherwise.

I do not believe it's a big margin we're talking about here when it comes to the difference between teachers and their pupils. Putting off gay educators won't do any good, in my opinion, particularly to the gay students.

There are students out there who may be struggling in coming to terms with who they really are, & if they were to learn that a teacher whom perhaps, they look up to, is put off because of his or her sexual orientation, then we seriously gotta big issue here.

I'm sickened by the consistent explanation of how issues regarding with homosexuality needs to be sensitively dealt with. Mr Goh Chok Tong cautioned us to "not flaunt our gay rights". How about flaunting our rights in the context of a citizen, an employee?

"The problem is this: If we can't credibly document a series of abuses that show a pattern of discrimination, then how do we prove it? If we can't prove it, how do we end it? ... Silence perpetuates injustice."

This needs to stop if it really is prominent. It's time to put what the MOE & the Singapore government has consistently groomed me to become - (the perhaps propaganda driven belief of) a citizen who believes in justice & equality - into action.
Comment #5 was deleted by its author on 2009-10-05 20:43
6. 2009-10-05 20:55  
And I admire The Straits Times for questioning the Ministry. The media has a huge responsibility that should never jeopardize the truth, even if it puts the government in doubt.
7. 2009-10-05 20:55  
It is about time that the Singapore government woke up to itself and stopped trying to appease its two Muslim neighbours; to grow up and to acknowledge its gay citizens. Sorry, the article makes me angry - i love SG but sometimes it is so frustrating!
8. 2009-10-05 21:07  

Why la this one also blame the Muslims?!

Apa kejadahnya nie?
9. 2009-10-06 01:48  
This is an unjust and terrible denial of liberty, and one which makes Singapore seem like in the stone age....it should be opposed by every means...

Comment #10 was deleted by its author on 2010-04-20 10:44
11. 2009-10-06 06:45  
It's time to remind them that these are our tax payers' money.
12. 2009-10-06 08:18  
Being employed is the most basic human rights. Termination of employment need to be justified with reasons made known to the employee. Even Country like China which we used to think how backward it is, upholds such human rights. It is a pity that Singapore who always like to be view as a young vibrant city can be so backward in dealing with employment issues. It will simply put foreign talents off....which in irony is trying so hard to attract.
13. 2009-10-06 13:29  
Singapore has to open up, loosen up more. I thought the Government wants to the world to see that Singapore has dropped the socialistic attitude. Goes to show Singapore has a long way to go.

Equal rights for all!
14. 2009-10-06 15:22  
The message seems loud and clear; you can be gay in Singapore as long as you don't bang the drum too loudly
15. 2009-10-06 21:12  
16. 2009-10-06 21:23  
I like comment #14.

It seems SG government's message to gay is very simple :
1. Work hard and spend your pink dollar (locally) to boost economy.
2. Stay invisible not to upset familys in the heartland but you are allowed to party once a while to show foreigners that we are quite a hip, cosmopolitan city.
3. Yes, we know you are gay, but can try to abstain from man sex (yes it is still illegal) cos we ain't gonna subsidise your treatment if you caught any disease ?
4. Shut up and be ignored !

In the era of post AWARE saga, it is no surprise that SG govt does not want any gay man to be a mentor to any teenager, fearing they may also "mentor" the kids' sexual orientation.
17. 2009-10-06 22:03  
Well, the rest of the world has the same old view of Singapore - "Great place to do business, but thank God I don't live there." Stories like this are just one more pebble on the beach that outsiders don't want to walk on or be involved with - I won't get into all of the reasons why Singapore, and her government, maintain their undesirable image in front of other countries (not least as Ireland is hardly some paradise of equality and openess itself), but it Is unfortunate that, for example, the Singaporean media seems to be so meek and timid.

That's what I work in, so I can't understand how the local press, there, just don't bother chasing stories - it's kind of, you know, the Point of being a journalist. If the government are doing something shifty or wrong, you start sniffing around to see what's the story (literally).

Not every journalist is going to be some fearless newshound - but, at the same time, the Singaporean press has either been bred into a state of docile meekness, or cowed into being afraid to question what the government does. Right? So it seems.

It's all a far, far cry from how the press works here - I think that Singaporeans would be shocked if they could see how Irish newspapers, journalists, cartoonists and commentators are relentlessly attacking our government every day, with extremely personal and insulting attacks on individual ministers, as well as policies - yet that's how Our press works. Like blood in the water, attracting sharks - once there's the faintest whiff of a story (and, Jesus, we have some HUGE bad news stories at the moment, as the country struggles in its worst period Ever), the Press start sharpening their knives. I just wish that the local press, in Sing, had some more bravery (or freedom?) to take the same antagonistic - and Questioning - approach to local stories.

Maybe then things would Begin to change for the better - not just for gay men and women's rights, but for the wider Singaporean society as a whole... (Shrug.)
Comment #18 was deleted by its author on 2009-10-07 02:38
19. 2009-10-07 02:39  

Let's look into some of the clues.

I suspect that Ng had been sabotaged by some extremist. The government is generally meritocratic. Ng had been invited in the first place because of his merit. His dismissal was likely caused by some back-stabbers' complaints. I suspect that Alfian's dismissal could have been similarly caused. If the government had a system to blacklist gays who've come out, both Ng and Alfian would be in the blacklist and never have gotten their respective appointments in the first place. These clues suggest that our government had, indeed, most probably NOT blacklisted gays.

If it's not the government, then, who are to blame? Let's not forget that while Ng's dismissal is unexplained, there was one similar reversal that was revealed as the result of the opposition of a famous anti-gay person in Singapore: Pink Picnic. She had done that before, so couldn't she or the rest in her gang do likewise again? While we can't point the finger at her or her gang without any evidence, the fact is, she had sabotaged us before, so this warrants our suspicion on her gang.

Recently, even exhibiting a lesbian-themed film had outraged her gang. The gang had declared a mission to protect Singapore's new generation of females from turning into all-lesbian. LOL! Even the slightest threats like this film couldn't be tolerated.

But thanks to the AWARE saga, we could finally assess their true strengths. Just how many people in Singapore have the passion, time, and other resources to take the War Against Gay Rights that far? Do most Singaporeans strongly demand the outlaw of gays? I gather that most of the really strong opposition has come from a small group of self-righteous extremists. Some chap among them even believes that secularism should be defined in such a way that THEIR ( not Everyone's) beliefs could influence it.

Let's fathom their motives. Many of them are highly educated. They can see the trend around the world. England, Canada, Australia, the United States and, recently, New Delhi, had removed their anti-gay laws. Some even enact laws to specifically protect gays from discrimination. The new generation have largely become more tolerant of gays and of other less-usual things (I hate to call them 'abnormalities'). Most know at least one gay friends and certainly do not think that these gay friends should be put behind bars for being who they are and having sex with persons of the same gender. As the society opens up, and with the advent of new media technologies, people are able to see a much broader spectrum. This necessarily widens most people's range of tolerable practices and culture.

Today, we see a wave of normalization of the less-than-usuals, including effeminate males (eg. Auntie Lucy, Liang Popo) and iron ladies, in the media and corporate world. These characters have definitely become tolerated. Men are no longer required to be masculine, and women are no longer expected to play only the role of a submissive housewife. When the old generation who grew up without this array of new media technologies pass on, the new generation will definitely not buy their story that homosexuality is abomination. They see it in human society---those people around them---and in the animal kingdom. Hence, these extremists understand that time is not on their side.

In an attempt to turn against this global wave of libralization, they first associate homosexuality with some new age abominations, since their out-dated notion that homosexuality itself is an abomination is becoming less convincing. Second, they also try to slow down the process of normalization of homosexuals in the society.

We have seen them done a lot on the first area. They have warned the society on the following threats of the 'homosexual agenda':
2)social fabrics torn
3)entire generation become homosexuals

To slow down the process of normalization, they would spoil the gay community's attempts to demonstrate that we are just like everyone else. For example, when a Pink Picnic was organized to demonstrate that gays also had our fair share of family activities, it was opposed. Correspondingly, acceptance of an open gay as a teacher or an arts mentor may be perceived by them as our attempt to demonstrate that gays, too, can become good role models in the society, another effort of normalization.

Hence, we can expect more such sabotages to happen in the future, especially on those open personalities in our community. As explained, it's their attempt to slow down the process of normalization. The well-known figures in the gay community should, consequently, watch their backs. These extremists wouldn't give up any opportunity to strengthen their position by casting a negative light on you so as to associate the entire community with the above-mentioned new age abominations, including: HIV, promiscuity, failure in life and work, chaos in family.

This is why I admire our beloved openly gay brothers who have the guts to stand against these bullies. You are really courageous. Many of you have encountered countless setbacks in life. I believe that what had been reported of Alfian and of Ng is merely the tip of the iceberg. I heard that Otto, an MOE-salaried teacher who blogged about his sexual orientation, had since left his job. I am not sure whether that has to do with the disclosure of his orientation. Again, these few mentioned individuals are also the tip of the iceberg: there are many other gays who have encountered many difficulties as a result of having disclosed their orientation.

On this wise, may I suggest that those who wish to come out to do so in a more calculated manner. To survive, most of us need either a job or a passive income stream. I am not discouraging you from coming out. What I am saying is, you know that you may have to face some difficulties like Ng and Alfian after you make this move. So, shouldn't that warrant some careful planning? Your survival shouldn't be threatened. The best insurance against survival problem is to build up a substantial reserve early in your working life. If you don't need to worry whether your rice-bowl will break, then you are in a much safer position when you come out. And, this is what I really hope more in the gay community can accomplish. We need more people among us who aren't worried that their rice-bowls will break after they come out. By having more savings, we can afford to 'heck-care' whether we will be asked to leave when our employer finds out about our orientation.
20. 2009-10-07 08:38  

All gay men are paedophiles

All gay men are in the business of recruiting young innocent children into their evil lifestyle

The facts that 90% of paedophiles are heterosexual and that sexuality is a congenital condition seems to have eluded the brilliant minds of the MOE
21. 2009-10-07 18:05  
There's no freedom of the press in Singapore. And when the question is asked, "Who among the 80 will stand for the 20?" The answer has always been very very few. So the regime stands and has little accountability. Not much hope here......
22. 2009-10-07 21:08  
The Singapore government has no taste..Such a lovely intelligent guy .The best mentor...
Do intelligent people ,who can ,still leave Singapore in droves ? Is the government also still trying to do a version of the biblical flood ? Forcing couples to couple on honeymoon boats ??
23. 2009-10-07 21:08  
The Singapore government has no taste..Such a lovely intelligent guy .The best mentor...
Do intelligent people ,who can ,still leave Singapore in droves ? Is the government also still trying to do a version of the biblical flood ? Forcing couples to couple on honeymoon boats ??
24. 2009-10-07 22:01  
This is such a shame for Ministry of Education !
Pure discrimination !
Is this what it is all about in Singapore ?
"Regardless of race, language or religion"
It's all saying and not put to practise.
MOE had lost a talented mentor !

Wake up ! Embrace diversity ! You had not grown up ! It's 2009 !
25. 2009-10-08 11:01  
Singapore can be a very hypocritical country. The situation with Ng Yi-Sheng has no place in an outward-looking supposedly international country in the 21st century.
At the same time this appaling decision is made, Singapore dresses up soft-core pornography as prime-time entertainment on TV. On my last visit female beach volleyball was screening mid-evening: with it's oh-so-camp commentator/referee and constant references to "girl on girl action".
Now I see trailers for "Polo Boys" and almost naked young men soon to be paraded on prime-time TV. Gay venues will be empty that night!
And the MOE is afraid of one openly gay arts mentor??? Doesn't this country know the word 'irony'?
26. 2009-10-08 17:12  
As someone who knew Yi-Sheng personally I want to say I feel incredibly privilege to have known him personally and shared a room with him while on tour with school choir and to have seen him fufill all that burgeoning talent that was already evident at age 15. Its a pity that Singapore does not judge a person by their talent and ability but by their sexuality.

However, what makes you even more praiseworthy is the fact that you've chosen to continue to take on the fight and remained in Singapore even when I'm certain your talents would be appreciated much more elsewhere such as the UK where I have chosen to take refuge. So here's a toast to you! 3 Cheers for Yi Sheng!!!
27. 2009-10-09 00:14  
28. 2009-10-09 02:08  
I picked this up recently from Mark Twain: It is better to keep your mouth shut and look stupid then to open your mouth and remove all doubt."
Pretty self-explanatory for this case...
Why go remove a person that contributes to the society, despite his sexual orientation? Let's not even start on the cover up after you are done with that excuse of a reason.
No difference than a hate crime, in my opinion.
29. 2009-10-09 13:15  
#26, Yah it takes a gung ho attitude and an un-relenting belief to survive in our smallest of small local arts community. We should all try to support in ways that we can for our local Arts Practitioners. And whenever these kinds of discrimination takes place. Kudos to Alex Au and Fridae editors for the article.
30. 2009-10-12 05:37  
god, typical of the gay pseudo-intellectual crowd that simply decides that the most logical reason for someone being axed is by virtue of their being gay. maybe the authorities had just come to the realisation that Ng just WASN'T GOOD ENOUGH?...
31. 2009-10-12 10:35  
I doubt your opinion stays firm #30, if it happens to you.
32. 2009-10-13 16:13  
To post #19sunthenmoon: well-said! My advise to all gay Singaporeans is: Prepare & back-up. Don't be too rash or defensive...in fact, NEVER apologize for what you are, bt don't ever go to the other extreme & flaunt it @ every single opportunity...which, in my view, is one SERIOUS mistake many gay Singaporeans have made. Treat homophobia as a type of bacteria you can train to IMMUNIZE your body against.
Good luck & cheers. :-)

To Lokies #31: I say just ignore it...giving undue attention to such non-entities is a waste of time. God, isn't it very common of faceless cowards on fridae to jump @ some points & comments of an article & playing smart-ass for that 15-mins of fame? ;->
33. 2009-10-13 17:45  
Dear Bains - u r like a kettle calling the pot black. ;-)
Comment #34 was deleted by its author on 2009-10-13 20:52
35. 2009-10-13 20:55  
Oh no honey bjcub, I may be a coward, bt as you can see clearly I'm certainly not faceless ..and I definitely need not play smart-ass cause I AM one!!! :D Lighten up & take it with a pinch of salt will ya?

And..erm, the correct expression should be:
pot calling the kettle black, not the other way round :p
36. 2009-10-14 10:01  
to Bains # Bjchub

lol....... I think I understand why he use the expression the other way round.......lol
37. 2009-10-27 11:49  
we used to have a family down the street in Michigan named NG, their dad drove an old Dodge Ram truck from the 1970's... a cute little Chinese girl used to walk by our house everyday and my older brother told me this immigrant family was so poor they couldn't even afford to buy a vowel for their family last night

boy did me and my brothers terrorize her just because her last name was NG

anyway, she grew up went to Harvard got married to a Jewish guy named Finklestein and is the deputy mayor now

everyone has to figure out how to overcome obstacles in life

to this day i apologize to everyone with the family name NG

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