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18 May 2012

How LGBT-friendly are Singapore universities?

Ng Yi-Sheng, a regular Fridae contributor and openly gay creative writing teacher at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, looks at the state of queer acceptance in Singapore’s universities – and wonders if the opening of the new Yale-NUS college will improve things.

In July 2013, Singapore’s very first liberal arts college is opening up its classrooms on its Dover Road Campus. It’s the result of a collaboration between the National University of Singapore (NUS) and Yale University from the USA, hence its wildly imaginative name: Yale-NUS.

But there’s a controversy brewing over the project. Many Yale staff have expressed major concerns about setting up a college in Singapore, given the state’s lacklustre track record on human rights, including LGBT rights. In a recent faculty resolution, they stated: “We urge Yale-NUS to respect, protect and further principles of non-discrimination for all, including sexual minorities and migrant workers.”

Christopher Miller, a Yale professor of French and African-American studies, was even more pointed in his essay “Yale in Singapore: Lost in Translation”. “Most immediately troubling to me as a gay faculty member, male homosexuality is illegal in Singapore,” he wrote. “Yale has no business establishing a campus in a state where some of its own faculty members are subject to arrest because of who they are.”

I’m personally thrilled that Yale academics are so concerned about us Singapore queers. But as a Singaporean university employee myself, I can’t help but wonder if they’ve an exaggerated view of how bad LGBT oppression is here.

Several times, during my creative writing classes at Nanyang Technological University (NTU) , I’ve deliberately mentioned the fact that I have a boyfriend. This has never been a problem. I’ve also many other openly queer friends teaching and studying at NUS and NTU, in some cases in rather lofty positions.

In fact, I’ve always had the impression that Singaporean universities are some of the most queer-friendly workplaces in the country. Miller’s vision of us getting arrested for our orientations therefore felt more than a little ludicrous (though I understand he was talking more about the principle of the thing than the danger of enforcement).

My experience, however, is limited. So, in preparation for this response, I quizzed friends and acquaintances on their recent experiences in NUS and NTU. As you might have guessed, the truth isn’t as rosy as I thought.

Queering the campus

Before I launch into the problems with LGBT acceptance at NUS and NTU, I’d like to stress that there are actually some really cool pro-queer initiatives happening right now on our campuses.

For instance, there’s a new student group set up by folks in NUS’s University Scholars Programme called the Gender Collective. On their website, they declare their mission: “to draw together people of all genders and sexual identities for discussion in a safe space.” A longer-term goal is to establish a campus-wide support channel for victims of sexism, homophobia or transphobia in any form.

NTU isn’t getting left behind. It should soon be offering a minor in Gender and Sexual Studies, headed by openly queer American professor Brian Bergen-Aurand. I interviewed him in his office, festooned with posters and stickers advertising local LGBT community initiatives: Sayoni, SinQSA, IndigNation, PinkDot, and discovered he was rather satisfied with the freedom he’d been given to teach his ideas.

“I can’t think of a single thing in my classes that’s been censored or questioned,” he said. “In the Gender and Sexuality course I teach, we do everything from the intersection of queerness and nationhood to indigenous nationhood, to body theory, feminist theory, cyborg theory.”

He’s especially pleased with the NTU library: how it’s acquired heaps of films and books that explore issues of race, class and gender – even the 2004 film Georges Bataille’s Story of the Eye, which features mixed-race bondage scenes and multiple cumshots. He’s also pleased to report that none of his students have come to him with outrage or disdain for the same-sex relationships they see in their films.

It’s also worth noting that this year’s NUS Arts Festival featured not just one, but two performances with gay and bisexual content: Checkpoint Theatre’s student-devised play City Night Songs and Zulkifar Ali’s dance piece in Face 2 Face II.

But what’s more important is that the majority of my respondents claimed that they hadn’t suffered discrimination or homophobia in school. Their colleagues, classmates and advisors had been comfortable with their sexual identities, as well as the queer subjects some of them explored in their work.

Fear and ambivalence

Yet not everything’s perfect in the world of academia. Those of you who’ve read my coverage of the Handsome: IVSG exhibition will know about Faisal Husni, a student at NTU’s Arts Design and Media school. He’s encountered censorship when attempting to exhibit homoerotic artworks – even images of men simply kissing. Oddly enough, he’s found far more openness in the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, where he takes writing classes.

Another NTU student told me how students tend to have differing degrees of homophobia depending on which faculty they were in. “If they come from Wee Kim Wee School of Communications, it’s totally fine there. The ideas totally open them. But in the Engineering department, you have words going around, people talking behind your back, unnecessary attention. It’s not easy or convenient.”

Zuni Chong, a Philosophy major at NUS, reported how she’s encountered prejudice even in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, especially among Christian groups. “Hatred isn’t very strong. It’s mostly a sense of fear of homosexual people – you’ve got this sense of people being uncomfortable around homosexuals. People think they’re some other species that cannot be empathized with.”

Transphobia, of course, is also a problem. The artist Marla Bendini, who’s enrolled at NTU, still has to endure a routine of insensitive stares – though she claims the environment is no worse than the rest of Singapore.

Oddly enough, what troubles me the most is an interview I had with Robin Loon, an assistant professor at NUS’s theatre department. While he’s happy with his work and has never been challenged over it, he describes a rather troubling culture among the faculty that involves an “unsaid code of don’t ask, don’t tell” .

“The climate here is really quite ambivalent,” he says. “Nobody challenges you, nobody outs someone else. It’s not nudge-nudge wink-wink; there’s no need to talk about it. No clarity, no spelling out of rules and regulations.”

While I understand that a university might find it hard to control its students’ homophobia and transphobia, it can and it should dictate a culture of acceptance towards queer staff. Not outing oneself is not a fair option: if a straight professor can talk about his wife, a gay one should be able to speak just as openly about his boyfriend. If people in the theatre department can’t understand that, what hope does any other faculty have?

Based on this informal study, Singapore universities seem to be generally tolerant, yet levels of acceptance vary wildly between faculties and communities. Some parties are driving the institutions to open up, but others are still weighed down by prejudice.

I’m aware that this is an incomplete picture – for instance, I was unable to get feedback about life at Singapore Management University. I’m hoping that readers will share their own perspectives in the comments section.

The promise of Yale-NUS

It’s at this point that I’d like to turn back to the case of Yale-NUS. However problematic its establishment may be to Yale staff, there’s every reason to believe that it’s going to be good for Singaporean queers.

You see, Yale has a non-discrimination policy that covers both sexual identity and gender expression. I’ve spoken to Yale-NUS Dean of Undergraduate Admissions Jeremiah Quinlan, and he’s given us the following statement:

“The College seeks a diverse student body that will bring various perspectives and backgrounds to its campus and the College's admissions office operates in ways consistent with Yale's and NUS' policies on non-discrimination. Therefore, like Yale, Yale-NUS does not discriminate in admissions against any individual on account of that individual's sex, race, color, religion, age, disability, or national or ethnic origin; nor does Yale-NUS discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity or expression.”

This spirit of non-discrimination isn’t just rhetoric. I’ve a friend who’s taken up work on the Yale-NUS staff after years in the education sector. As a lesbian woman, she says it’s the first time she genuinely feels comfortable being out in the workplace.

As for actually creating a queer-positive campus, Quinlan’s also stated his belief that students would be welcome to set up an LGBT group. And while this is great for the college, it could have implications for activism in the whole of Singapore, and even beyond.

Consider the 1969 Stonewall Riots in New York: a revolt by gay bar patrons against police forces that kick-started the modern struggle for LGBT rights in the USA. A lot of the tactical planning that turned those riots into a political movement took place in the Student Homophile League at Columbia University – the world’s first queer student association. College queer groups can have, and often have had, an important part to play in national struggles for queer liberation.

If by chance anyone reading this is going to enroll or has enrolled in Yale-NUS, I’d urge him or her to start such a group – and to think big. It won’t be enough just to cater to the needs of Yale-NUS students. The group should ideally be open to young people in all tertiary educations, since many of them won’t have officially recognised groups of their own.

Furthermore, the group should get politically involved, not just in Singaporean queer rights, but also in movements abroad. Malaysia, for instance, needs as much support as it can get from inclusive, outward-looking, courageous young people.

But the onus to take action doesn’t just fall on Yale-NUS students. All of us who’re involved in educational institutions should do what we can. Universities, after all, aren’t just about exams: they’re places where young people are given the space and power to do something with their ideals.

They’re places where students can rehearse the responsibilities and tasks that they’ll take on in their adult lives. They’re places where change begins – and we can be part of that change.

Reader's Comments

1. 2012-05-19 07:04  
Conceding Singapore could stand for some liberalization on it's human rights record, probably one of the few things it doesn't need is its "very first liberal arts college". Art and Social Science courses like "African-American studies" mentioned in the story sound nice on paper, but they're really of very little practical use in the career world.
2. 2012-05-19 08:40  
Let's face it - Singapore is and will not be tolerant of LGBT in the years to come.

Doing so will only cause the government's policies to promote marriage and higher birth rate to backfire.

The Yale-NUS college, in my opinion, is just a groundbreaking academic collaboration between Singapore and the States. It is NOT Yale and vice versa. I hope the students heading there get this straight. It will never be and never match the reputation of Yale alone.
3. 2012-05-19 10:30  
You're right that Yale-NUS will not be Yale and it won't be NUS. It will be a unique entity and that's a very good thing. As for the majors, don't worry about majors such as "African-American" studies being in the curriculum. They won't be. Actually, NUS already has the Singapore equivalent of such majors with Malay Studies, Chinese Studies and South Asian studies. There's no need to include those at YNC. The focus of YNC will be on breadth of the courses each student takes and on critical thinking and the approach will be quite distinct from what is currently offered at NUS. YNC will also definitely have gay faculty. I will be heading up the psychology program at YNC and I know of gay faculty at Yale that are strongly considering spending time at YNC. I also expect that there will be other gay YNC faculty as time goes on. There may already be gay faculty among the new hires that I don't know about. Both the Yale and NUS administrations know I'm gay because a) I've told them and b) that fact along with the fact that I live openly with my male partner has been published in both the Yale Daily News and Chronicle of Higher Education. There is every intention to make YNC a gay friendly place.
4. 2012-05-19 13:54  
I realise I forgot to add the issue of spousal benefits. Many American universities will allow a same-sex partner to be awarded spousal benefits even if gay marriage is illegal in that state. Singapore universities, as you'd expect, don't have this measure. (No idea if Yale-NUS will provide these - tiger_george, what do you know?)

Also, Tommy Lai, an architecture grad student, says this:

"I agree with what you have mentioned in the article. The acceptence level is very high in FASS [Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences] and the Design Faculty in NUS. There are lecturers and student [who] openly declared their sexual orientations and there are no discrimination about them. I believe the students and staff understand that it is the work they do and their ability in delivering their knowledge to the students. Not who they like and love in live that is important."

5. 2012-05-19 15:33  
Be extremely aware of the ego of the insecure chinese. They will allow you as much freedom as they think you need to indulge yourself and bring some level of kudos to them. But if you overstep their boundaries or if the situation changes and its more expedient to them to appear less liberal, then you get the axe
6. 2012-05-19 19:06  
I'm not involved in the HR aspects of YNC. As such I can't say anything about same-sex spousal benefits. Given that YNC is government funded and that NUS does not have same sex spousal benefits I seriously doubt that such benefits would be given. In my own case such benefits are somewhat irrelevant since my partner has his own benefits through his job. That, of course, may well not be the case for other couples. It would be nice if such benefits were available to same-sex couples but I'm not holding my breath on that.
7. 2012-05-20 11:09  
John Buck: Oh yes, that's right, I forgot. Education has no purpose other than training people to be good little obedient corporate drones. But no matter, that's fine, you're entitled to your opinion. Liberal arts schools will continue on and there will always be that minority of students who want to learn something just for the sake of learning. They don't need your approval to do so.

Just a contrary opinion from a PhD in music composition, who is very happy he didn't listen to people who would have advised him to follow a conventional, "practical" career path.

Anyway, one comment struck me in the article -- that the engineering department was more homophobic than other departments. That's not unique to Singapore. I did my graduate studies at Duke U., which boasts a highly regarded engineering school. The engineering department there also had a reputation for intolerance.

That's strange -- I would have thought engineers would be interested primarily in making things work, and not give a crap about the characteristics of the person who is making those things work. IT is very open and tolerant this way. Why not engineers?

More of a side comment, but wanted to mention it.
8. 2012-05-20 22:35  
@ ddw_music: its no surprise to me that engineering students have a much higher level of intolerance towards gays.

Unlike those in the humanities and social sciences, engineering students absorb knowledge that deals more with technicalities and the hard sciences. This reduces their ability to analyse things critically and thus makes them less "soft" than their counterparts in the arts faculty.

Also, i suspect that due to their seemingly heavy and tedious workload, engineering students hardly have a life like arts students do. Hence, less exposure to the outside world and a much more myopic perception of gays.
9. 2012-05-20 22:50  
True that! But I did speak to one transgender researcher who works in a university - he said there's so little social interaction in his workplace that they don't even care about his sexual identity!
10. 2012-05-20 23:36  
i am an engineer and i fully understand why engineering students are more homophobic.
Engineering is a very male centric faculty. we deal with hard facts, calculations, science. everything we learnt are fixed. rules can't be changed as formulas are determined by research and confirmed. with so many males in engineering, it is inevitable that there is a sense of macho-ness. just stepped into engineering faculty and you will see a drastic difference between the students and those from the arts stream. arts students are more at ease with themselves. they tend to express themselves readily not only in their works, but also in their dressings and communication. I took some arts and business modules while in NUS and we were taught to write whatever we think is right, as long as we can justify the reasons. Everything is grey in this sense. for engineering, there will only be one right answer to questions. it is no wonder that engineers tend to be more insistent on their views and cannot accept deviant views. once a homophobic engineer determines that it is wrong to be gay by order from god, you will find it very difficult to change his/her perception.
11. 2012-05-21 04:30  
Yi-Sheng - I have enjoyed reading your article. But why do you continue to use the word "queer"? What is "queer" about being a member of the LGBT community? Frankly, there is nothing "queer" about us at all. The only "queer" issue is that "queer" in this day and age it is a highly disparaging word to use. Do not demean our community. Please treat us - and yourself - with greater respect. Thank you.
12. 2012-05-21 23:15  
It's an interesting dichotomy. Does a university that values freedom of association refuse to go along with legal sanctions against gay people and gay groups, and pull out, as Warwick University did, or does it engage constructively like Yale, in the hope that such such sanctions will not be applied, and that they can help improve things?

I believe that the removal of 377a and of the refusal to register groups like PLU ( and why are any groups required to register in the first place?), would do a lot towards smoothing the path of such collaborations.
Comment #13 was deleted by its author on 2012-05-21 23:16
14. 2012-05-22 01:13  
The real question of this article and situation isn't if the new university or other universities "are gay friendly" it is are they going to be "gay protective". If as stated at the begining of the article being gay is illegal will the new university stand up for their students' or faculties' rights if it comes in conflict with the government? If the government decides for some reason to come on campus and start asking about people's names and orientations what will be the campus' official and unofficial stance??

Seeing other articles on the news about how universities in singapore have dealt with speech issues doesn't give me hope, but maybe Yale will have an influence.
15. 2012-05-22 03:53  
@fountainhall : I know the word "queer" has really negative connotations for some people in Western English-speaking societies. But it doesn't for most younger people, and it doesn't at all in Asia.

I like the word "queer" for several reasons:

1) Unlike the term "gay", it clearly includes lesbian, transgender and bisexual people. Some of my friends, e.g. Brian, actual prefer the term to describe themselves!

2) Because of its use in certain academic and activist circles, it's taken on political connotations - saying you're gay or trans is just about sexual attraction and gender; saying you're queer suggests that you care about equality.

3) It is *so* much easier to say out loud than the politically correct LGBT (or LGBTQ2SI, if you want to be really inclusive).

I suspect that won't convince you, so we'll probably have to agree to disagree.
16. 2012-05-22 21:45  
@14, I understand the deal breaker for Warwick University was that they were told that students would not be allowed to have a gaysoc ( gay society), and this was too much of an infringement. Whether this concern has been addressed regarding Yale-NUS is an interesting question.
17. 2012-05-22 22:26  
@15, back to the article, Yi-Sheng, what consequences, if any, would there be if students formed a gaysoc at your university?
18. 2012-05-23 00:33  
@16 : I did not know that! But then it sounds like that was a teachable moment for the Singapore government. :)

@17: There would probably be rather few consequences. There are already groups like Young OUT Here which are open to queer youth. Informal groups have existed before in several polytechnics and faculties. I also mentioned NUS's emerging discussion group, the Gender Collective.

The main consequence, of course, is that queer youth in the university would be more assured that the campus would be a safe space to come out, and that straight youth would become familiar with the idea of out queers forming part of society.

Queer university groups CAN be hotbeds of activism - but whether they're effective or not remains to be seen.
19. 2012-05-23 12:54  
Lotusrootz - thanks for your comment and observations. Frankly, the word "gay" does not refer only to gay man. It refers equally to lesbian, transgender and bisexual people. And queer is nowadays accepted almost universally as being a derogatory term, a throwback to earlier times when there was huge discrimination about gays.

Just look up the word in dictionaries and here are some of the descriptions you get -

"Deviating from the expected or normal; strange"
"Odd or unconventional, as in behavior; eccentric"
"Of a questionable nature or character; suspicious"
"differing from the normal or usual in a way regarded as odd or strange"
"suspicious, dubious, or shady"

Frankly, I am not a deviant, nor odd, nor of questionable character, nor suspicious, nor strange, nor shady, nor dubious, nor different from normal - although I grant I am sometimes very slightly eccentric!

As you suggest, though, we'll just have to agree to disagree. I have lived in Asia for 33 years now, mostly in Chinese communities, but also in some years in Japan and here in Thailand. Not one of my friends - western and Asian - has ever used the word the word "queer" to describe himself or herself! Is this a description which is only used in Singapore, I wonder?
Comment edited on 2012-05-23 12:55:17
20. 2012-05-24 23:57  
Yi-Sheng, you say Singaporean universities are 'not that bad'. Well, they are (along with Singapore society) a mile off where they should be. I lived and studied at a Singaporean university (your university) and they are not welcoming to gay people - An indictment on the society as a whole. Amen, to your comments on the hate-mongering of christian groups in singapore. I hope the Yale faculty continue to try and get their voice heard :D
21. 2012-05-25 11:59  
Perhaps you've lived in Asia too long to be aware, then, that the word 'queer' has been reclaimed by the LGBT community, and that it means, as lotusrootz says, an active political engagement in equality issues, which connotations the word 'gay' does not have. 'Queer studies', for example, is the term used in academia now to describe gay readings of cultural products. I see nothing wrong with the word 'queer'. I think you might be a bit out of touch. :)
22. 2012-05-25 12:23  
buhauyise - I am sure you are right about my being out of touch - with western thinking, even though I travel to Europe a couple of times a year. I did point out that I was talking about here in Asia where a lot of Asians I know would be very displeased to hear themselves described as "queer". But that's a relatively small point.

I object to being called "queer" for the reasons I have stated. When I read some months ago about the Hong kong University Press Series of "Queer Studies", I wrote to them to complain about the derogatory titles. They did not reply!

So accepting I am out of touch and that young gay people in the west prefer now to be called "queer", does that mean they go to queer bars and queer discos, use queer travel agencies and, in some cases, travel on queer cruises? Or are these still called "gay"? If that is the case, then this is surely a bit of double speak. You surely also can't change "gay" into "queer" selectively!
Comment edited on 2012-05-26 16:49:43
23. 2012-05-25 22:54  
fountainhall, actually, I'm probably out of touch too, so you're not the only one. in so far as going to bars, discos, cruises bath houses etc is not a political activity, perhaps we can agree to call that 'gay'; in so far as academic studies, advocacy groups, marches for equality, rallies etc are political activities, perhaps we can call those 'queer'. It's not double speak, it's just different names for how political one feels.

After all, I don't always feel gay. sometimes I'm pretty pissed off or blue.
24. 2012-05-26 02:08  
@fountainhall: I can assure you that being transgender and gay are very different things. One describes gender identity, one of them describes sexual preference.

For example, one of my interviewees was a gay transgender man: i.e. he used to be a straight woman, but he's always felt male. So he had surgery, and now lives as a gay man.
25. 2012-05-26 16:48  
Thanks lotusrootz22 - I am indeed well aware of the differences, and of the difficulties in finding an all-inclusive word for LGBT. I have read on the internet of various groups in the USA using, or trying to use, it over the last 20 or so years, and attempting to persuade others to use it. But from that limited reading, it seems queer is used where it has specific activist associations - as suggested by buhauyise - not general everyday ones.

But then, I am curious. I was at the Taipei Gay Pride Parade last year (an event fridae barely gave notice to - for some unknown reason). That was a fantastic afternoon with the Parade attended by upwards of 30,000 mostly in their teens and 20s. I have gone through the many hundreds of photos I took. Nowhere can I find the word "queer"! Yet, that Parade had an activist theme, to persuade the Mayor to fulfil the promises he made to the LGBT community. Why not, I wonder, unless use of "queer" in Asia only helps to reinforce the negative feelings about the LGBT community which many peoples in Asia have, due to historical, cultural and religious traditions? Yet, you say in #15 this is not the case and that "queer" has no such connotations "at all in Asia." With all respect, I really do dispute that!

I have also heard it said that "queer' has come into the language with some specific LGBT associations - as with the expressions "Queer as Folk" (the title of the famous TV series in both the UK and USA) and "Queer Street". But neither of these ever had anything to do with the LGBT movement. "Queer as Folk" is a shortened form of the English phrase "There's nowt so queer as folk" - meaning, people often act in a strange way - whereas for hundreds of years "Queer Street" meant to be in financial trouble.

I also have a friend who a transgender Thai and now lives with her wealthy boyfriend in Monte Carlo (lucky lady)! She would die before calling herself queer. She regards herself as a lady who happened to be born a man. Now she is just a lady - neither gay, LGBT, queer or whatever! And you say that your interviewee "lives as a gay man". I'd have thought you'd say "as a queer man" :-)

I'll accept that others don't fully share my views. But I will be offended if someone calls me "queer", whereas I am perfectly happy when they call me "gay". And, sorry to say, I will continue to speak out against the use of "queer". As I said before, it carries far too many negative associations.
Comment edited on 2012-05-26 17:10:07
26. 2012-05-28 23:23  
It may well be empowering for some people to reclaim the word "queer" and use it in a positive light, so it loses it's negative connotations. But I don't think we are there yet. I don't like it, and I would be as uncomfortable with a university course called "Queer Studies" as I would be with one called "N***** Studies" instead of Black or African American Studies. If one day a university dares to name a course using the N word, in order to "empower" African Americans, then I may rethink my opinion.
27. 2012-05-29 10:54  
Thanks Tim1975 - I'm glad there is at least one other member who feels the same. Never having come across this issue until the fridae review on the Queer Studies book on Japan last year, I find I am quite upset by it - to the extent that I want to become part of an activist group (if there were one!) to campaign against the use of the word 'queer'. It's really rather pathetic, in my view, to try and turn the clock back. If that's the aim, then how far back do the 'queer' activists want to go? As we know, 'queer' had no homosexual connection until bigots started using it. If activists want to go back to using 'queer' in just one of its many older meanings, then surely they have also to give up the word 'gay' and let the rest of the world get back to using it as it was in the 1920s and 1930s?

If the LGBT community in the USA want to use 'queer', they can do whatever they like, as far as I am concerned. I live in Asia and I know that 'queer' in this continent offends a lot of people and merely reinforces old stereotypes. Rather than advancing a cause, its seriously negative connotations actually send it backwards!
Comment edited on 2012-05-29 11:17:43
28. 2012-06-07 13:11  
Wish in Jakarta & Bali, Indonesia be like that !
Comment #29 was deleted by its author on 2012-06-10 11:01
30. 2012-06-08 14:38  
Thank you Yi-Sheng for this great overview piece on the ever-unfurling state of academia in Singapore!

Having grown up in Singapore myself, I am under no illusion's that the collaboration between Yale and NUS will somehow transform the consciousness of Singaporeans overnight. Nevertheless, that this dialogue is even happening at all necessarily precipitates that BOTH Yale and NUS humble themselves to the challenge of integrating the very best of what both institutions can give to (indeed, are obligated to host for) their students, faculty, and all their mutual stakeholders.

I have no doubt that, difficult as this beginning may well be, that this is a step in the right direction.

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