26 Aug 2008

Indignation 2008: A recap

Unlike last year, Singapore's LGBT pride season Indignation which ended last week was not hit by any bans. Fridae columnist and event co-organiser Alex Au recaps the events organised by various community groups and individuals over a 3-week period.

"Look there," Jean said to me. "He's the undercover policeman."

The man in civvies was some 50 metres away.

"How do you know that?" I asked. I'm quite a stickler when it comes to pinning down the sources of information that I receive.

"He was counting us," she replied with confidence.

"How do you know he was counting us?"

"You can see his mouth move. He can't even count silently."

Top of page: A visitor at Ancestors on the beach - an art exhibition by Jimmy Ong. Above: Opening reception on Aug 1, happy picnickers at the Unofficial Pink Picnic and Heartbreak Heroes which featured four Malaysian speakers Farish Noor, Pang Khee Teik, Jac Kee and Jerome Kugan (left to right).
That was Saturday afternoon, at the Unofficial Pink Picnic, one of the events during Indignation, Singapore's GLBT Pride Season, now in its fourth year. It was called Unofficial because last year's Pink Picnic was officially banned.

Last year, the Botanic Gardens had written a stern letter to me saying, "As the events are advertised, they are considered organised gatherings. Permission from the National Parks Board will be required to hold them in our parks and gardens."

In our case, permission was denied. Not that we even applied.

But every day, people hold organised gatherings at the Botanic Gardens without ever seeking permission. Joggers, taichi practitioners, photography enthusiasts, tour groups and picnickers arrange to meet at the park and do whatever they had planned in advance to do. The absurdity of the letter's argument was apparently lost on the bureaucrats who penned it.

Still, last year's Pink Picnic went on in defiance of the letter, with plainclothes policemen circling us like birds of prey.

2008 and we decided we would do it again. Once more a pink picnic would be included in the Indignation calendar. Once more, plainclothes policemen were deployed, two this time. But perhaps the authorities were less panicky this year. There was no letter of warning and they deployed less than their best officers - the ones who can't even count without mouthing the numbers.

It couldn't have been easy for the poor bloke. There were perhaps a hundred people spread out on multiple mats, blending into clusters of other picnickers who weren't even aware they were sharing a lawn with lesbians and gays. Among us were infants and dogs. Wait a minute - you mean gay people have children? Should children be counted too? What about dogs?

We saw the officer make a few calls. Perhaps he was asking for instructions.


Attendance at other events too were noticeably up this year compared to 2007, even though the nature of Indignation (as things currently stand) is such that we don't expect it to ever attract large numbers. The kinds of events that can prove popular are all ruled out by Singapore's vice-like regulations.

Singapore cracks down harshly on any outdoor activities with the slightest whiff of the political, as the persecution of opposition politicians and Burmese dissidents so clearly show (Burmese expatriates who have organised small marches and vigils over the military crackdown last September now being deported.)

Another example: After Fridae's Nation party in 2004 was featured prominently in international media such as the Far East Economic Review and The Wall Street Journal, its year-end party SnowBall was banned at the last minute.

Even indoor events must be of the type that do not involve licensing risks. That rules out parties at venues, even gay ones, that worry about their liquor licences being cancelled the moment they are associated with gay activism.

Given these restrictions, Indignation, co-ordinated by gay advocacy group People Like Us, is a festival of art and knowledge, and 2008 continued in this vein, with talks, exhibitions and recitals taking centre-stage.

Jimmy Ong, a well-known artist now working in New York, showcased his latest life-sized charcoal drawings in his show Ancestors on the Beach.

TheBearProject, a group catering to big gay men, put up some exquisite artworks for auction to benefit the Necessary Stage's Triangle Project, a scheme that provides opportunities for the less privileged to watch theatre

An amazing number of writers, poets and singers crammed themselves into the program of ContraDiction IV. One of them, deejay X'Ho, recited a funny, tender but sexually explicit poem about making love to a native Borneo boy. In the audience of about 150, was a senior official from the National Arts Council. What did he think, I wonder?

Otto Fong, former physics teacher at a leading all-boys school, told a rapt audience what happened when he came out on his blog and why he did it. His 15 hits a day suddenly became tens of thousands and life was never the same again.

Filmmakers Loo Zihan and Boo Junfeng showed short videos touching on how parents cope with learning that their sons are gay.

The transgender group SgButterfly sprang a surprise, organising an event that had late-onset MtF transgenders speak openly about their coming out and transitioning experience. One of their speakers, Fanny, even brought her daughter to the event.

Oogachaga's contribution to Indignation was Cruising through History, a talk providing fascinating details about long-lost places where gay men and transsexuals used to meet. The room was so full, late-comers couldn't even squeeze in.

Four Malaysians came down specially from Kuala Lumpur to star in Heartbreak Heroes. Pang Khee Teik, Jac Kee and Jerome Kugan gave readings of their works while academic Dr Farish Noor gave a tantalising glimpse of sexual fluidity in the ancient Indonesian epic, the Hikayat Panji Samarang. This cross-border event was part of this year's theme "Building Bridges." Pang and Kugan are organising Seksualiti Merdeka, Malaysia's first "sexuality rights" festival from Aug 29 - 31 in Kuala Lumpur.

Also reflecting this theme was the number of heterosexuals taking part in the various activities. They were there at the picnic and in the audience of every event. On occasion, they were the featured speakers.

Sam Ho introduced his new group, the Singapore Queer-Straight Alliance (SinQSA). Psychotherapists Juliana Toh and Anthony Yeo gave their take on how parents react to their children's coming out. Constance Singam, President of women's group AWARE, displayed courage in deciding to speak to a full house of (mostly) lesbians at a Sayoni-organised talk, even though she was well aware many in her audience might be a little hostile about AWARE never speaking up for lesbian concerns.


Unlike in 2007, we were not hit by any bans. In fact, except for the police officer at the Botanic Gardens, the writer did not notice any other undercover officers at the other events. This was a change from last year when almost every evening saw at least one or two persons in the audience who were clearly there to monitor us.

"This is terrible," my friend Clarence exclaimed when I told him we weren't under such close surveillance this year. "We're becoming mainstream."