What you need to know
This year’s LGBT pride event took a baby step toward being a little more like a protest. Meanwhile, the government is trying to ban sponsorship by foreign entities of events at Hong Lim Park.
Once a year Singapore experiences a public display of love. People don pink shirts, trousers, dresses, jumpsuits, shoes, wigs, makeup — you name it — and transform a hot, small park into a giant Pink Dot in support of the “freedom to love.” The event is essentially a less “threatening” way for the public to say they want LGBT equality in the controlled and “conservative” (or so we are told) city-state.
LGBT equality has long been a controversial issue in Singapore. S377A of the Singapore Penal Code continues to criminalize sex between men, essentially criminalizing gay men in Singapore. Efforts to challenge the constitutionality of the law in the courts failed in 2014.
First launched in 2009, Pink Dot is the closest thing Singapore has to a Pride parade. Firmly pitched as a family event, it positions itself as fun and accessible. This approach has paid off: attendence has grown year on year, with as many as 28,000 people showing up last year. Organizers gave up counting this year, as the turnout had already exceeded the capacity of Hong Lim Park — the only space in Singapore where public demonstrations are allowed without a police permit.
For this year's event, held on June 5, Pink Dot decided to make a move to the use of 5,000 placards instead of the little pink lights that have marked previous incarnations of the rally/mass picnic. It allowed people to write their own messages, to insert their own voices into the movement. Many wrote about love, but many others also wrote about rights, about equality and justice. In its own way, the use of placards took Pink Dot a baby step toward being a little more like a protest: a demand for change rather than a suggestion.
But this is Singapore
Only Singaporeans and Permanent Residents (PRs) could hold placards; anything else would breach the rules of Speakers Corner, the only place in the country where people — I mean, Singaporeans and PRs — can gather for a cause. I wasn’t able to be there, but heard from people who were at the scene that identity cards were zealously checked, and multiple reminders about foreign participation issued. One non-resident friend was told that even if he were to hold on to a placard for someone, he could not hold it above his head. Another friend, a PR, had to vouch for his two little girls, too young to have ICs, before they were allowed their own placards. One Singaporean said she was required to write her message on her placard in front of the organizers so they could be aware of what she was writing.
I’m not pointing this out to blame the Pink Dot organizers. They are, after all, trying to make things work within the confines of the law. And the police have been known to investigate incidences of foreigners participating in activities at Hong Lim Park.
But set against the backdrop of events in the week before Pink Dot, it becomes a reminder of the constraints that everyone in Singapore operates under.
Three people were interrogated for hours last Tuesday, as part of police investigations into alleged breaches of Cooling-Off Day rules. Another person was interrogated, also for hours, on Wednesday. The homes/offices of all four were then searched, their electronic devices seized, thus giving the authorities access to their personal private data. All four were activists and/or bloggers.
The police did not need warrants for any of this
Breaking the Cooling-Off Day rules is an arrestable offence — the police can arrest, search and seize whatever they think they need for their investigations without the need for a warrant.
Add this to the list of worrying due process issues we have in Singapore; as we have all learned, there is no right to almost immediate or early access to legal counsel — the police only need to give an accused person access to his or her lawyer within a “reasonable time.” We were reminded of this by the heartbreaking case of Benjamin Lim. There is also no requirement for statements to be recorded verbatim. (I previously raised these issues in an op-ed here.)
The investigation of Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung (and members of The Independent Singapore), with the consequent knowledge that the police has the power to search your home and seize your personal electronic devices over a Facebook post posted at a particular time, brings a chilling effect that goes far beyond just those investigated. It makes you wonder what other offences don’t require warrants to arrest, search, or seize. It makes you wonder what the police are looking for when they look into one’s personal devices. It makes you wonder if your social media accounts, your chats with friends, your work and data are safe. It makes you feel like the state is so powerful, and you so very small.
And so you decide the best way is to not tempt fate, to not get into any trouble at all. Or give anyone any excuse to accuse you of having done anything. This is kind of like how the Pink Dot organizers were so, so careful to make sure the rules were followed to the letter.
But even Pink Dot’s best efforts to operate within the state’s confines haven’t paid off. Days after the event, the government announced it will take measures to prevent foreign entities from funding, supporting or influencing events held in Hong Lim Park — essentially putting an end to the sponsorship from corporations like Google, Barclays and Facebook that make Pink Dot possible.
There are many different causes in Singapore, but everyone operates under the same constraints: getting data from the state is near-impossible, public gatherings are banned except for a small, easily-forgettable corner of Singapore, the worry about being accused of having some ill-defined political agenda, or worse, interference from foreign elements. Add to that the fear, suddenly made more real by the past week’s events, that somehow more sinister motives will be attributed to one’s activities, and that “They” will do something about it.
When seen like this, it seems silly that many groups in Singaporean society — be it civil society, NGOs, arts or academia, among others — work so strictly on their pet issue, and only that. One might say Pink Dot has nothing to do with the investigations into Roy Ngerng and Teo Soh Lung, or that the death penalty is not connected to gender equality, or that migrant workers’ rights are a separate issue from Singaporeans’ Central Provident Fund, but the truth is that there are so many points of commonality, so many shared challenges and obstacles.
Take matters like police powers and due process, for instance. Migrant rights activists are already taking issue with police investigations concerning migrant workers. Death penalty activists like myself have heard alarming stories about police processes, as told by death row inmates to their family members. The LGBT equality movement should be concerned about Roy and Soh Lung’s investigation, because, guess what, S377A is also an arrestable offence. (Sure, the government might now say that S377A is not enforced, but as long as it remains on the books it could be enforced, just like the police could search your home, seize your property and even arrest you if an investigation were to be launched.)
The oppression of one, if tolerated, can easily become the oppression of all
I love Pink Dot, not because it motivates me to speak out for LGBT equality — I was already inclined to do so anyway — but because of the people and the atmosphere. To be surrounded by so many who are so ready to include, to accept, to love you for who you are. To feel free to simply soak in everything, to take a breath in a country that is often literally and figuratively too stuffy for you to do so.
But we shouldn’t feel like this only one day of the year; it is our right to feel like this every day of the year. We need more solidarity, more cooperation to get there. It is only when we are together that we are strong.
P.S. Again because this is Singapore, I feel like I need to add this postscript to say that I am not advocating for the overthrow/voting out of the People’s Action Party (PAP), lest the conversation be derailed by such accusations. I am specifically addressing problematic issues with police procedures, as well as the restriction of democratic rights. Voting out the PAP may be one way to bring about change, but I think it more important and productive to focus on protecting and promoting everyone’s political and human rights, regardless of the political party we are dealing with.