It would probably have turned out quite differently if the prime minister had not made his comments.
Just days before Pink Dot, Singapore’s most prominent LGBTI event, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong chose to downplay the level of discrimination against LGBTI people in the country.
Although Singapore still has a law that prohibits male homosexual sex, it ‘has not inhibited people from living’, Lee said. He pointed to Pink Dot as an example of how LGBTI people are able to gather every year.
‘When I heard what he said, my first thought was “He just doesn’t get it – they just don’t get it”,’ Clement Tan, one of Pink Dot’s organizers, told Gay Star News before the event took place on Saturday (29 June).
His sentiments were echoed by his colleague, Paerin Choa, spokesperson of the event. ‘It’s basically using us as a very convenient deflection, and paying very shallow, hollow lip-service to being inclusive and being a first world country,’ said Choa.
The Singapore government mischaracterizing the country’s LGBTI rights movement is nothing new. It has previously used the existence of Pink Dot to refute criticism of its LGBTI rights record from fellow United Nations member states.
The official theme of this year’s Pink Dot was ‘Stamp Out Discrimination’. The theme had been chosen not just as a means to highlight a problem faced by many in the LGBTI community, but also as a reaction to senior political figures who, over the past year, have perpetuated the myth that Singapore is effectively discrimination-free for LGBTI people.
Last year, Pink Dot directly called on the government to repeal Section 377A – the colonial-era law which criminalizes male homosexual sex – with the dot light-up reading ‘We Are Ready’. It was a bold and thoroughly-planned move, which had been around ten years in the making.
But this year, there was something else – a sense of frustration, disillusionment and an impulsiveness which previous outings have lacked.
Last year they were ready; this year they were angry.
The biggest protest in Singapore
From humble origins, the past 11 years has seen Pink Dot transform into Singapore’s largest protest event.
Each year’s Pink Dot sees tens of thousands of Singaporeans converging into a small park in the city center. The event requires hundreds of people to pull together; this year, 500 volunteers fanned out across the park welcoming attendees, handing out pink flashlights, and providing information or even medical attention, if needed.
Despite the urgency of its cause, Pink Dot has often avoided overt political activism in Singapore, opting to play the ‘long game’. Critics of Pink Dot have accused them of toeing the middle-ground and playing it safe, and in some cases not publicly supporting other activists who have come under scrutiny or pressure by the government.
But one thing that the critics could not deny was that on paper, this seemed to be working: Pink Dot brought the crowds. It made the headlines and had people talking. The event has even inspired spin-offs in South Korea and Hong Kong.
This goes hand in hand with studies which show that an ever greater number of Singaporeans – particularly young people – are becoming more and more supportive of LGBTI rights, a common trend seen in many parts of the world.
Pink Dot had made its stand in Singapore, and the movement working towards greater LGBTI equality in the country is gaining increasing momentum.
It was therefore especially galling for the organizers to hear the most powerful man in Singapore appropriate the movement to justify the continued existence of a law Pink Dot has put in so much time, work and effort to oppose.
‘The fact that Pink Dot exists is evidence of the fact that discrimination exists’
When asked if there was a disconnect between the Pink Dot movement and establishment politicians, Tan did not hold back.
‘Absolutely,’ he said. ‘For me and for the rest of the committee, when we hear statements like this it makes us feel that the message hasn’t really been received.
‘Pink Dot has always been about calling it out for what it is. As the LGBT community in Singapore, we face day to day discrimination and the reason why we gather here today is a celebration of accompaniments we have made in making the community more visible, but it’s also a show of our strength and our resilience in spite of this discrimination.
‘We are trying to campaign for change. The fact that Pink Dot exists is evidence of the fact that discrimination exists – we are not a poster child for inclusivity; we are not an example of how far Singapore has come. We are evidence of how Singapore has not come far enough,’ Tan added.
‘I think what the prime minister did a few days ago is a good example of how you don’t answer the hard questions,’ said Choa. ‘[It] is basically saying “You can come and work in Singapore — it doesn’t inhibit you. Look here: we have Pink Dot!”
‘But Pink Dot is not a Pride – Pink Dot exists because there’s nothing to be proud about, so we have to call it out.’
As the event kicked off, thousands of people dressed in pink made their way into the park. Community booths were set up to provide information on the various LGBTI rights advocacy groups working for equality in Singapore.
Among them was Leow Yangfa, Executive Director of LGBTI rights group Oogachaga, who was busy handing out stickers and badges near his organization’s stall. Speaking to GSN, Leow brought up the apparent disconnect between on-the-ground civil rights activists and senior lawmakers in Singapore.
‘Sadly, Pink Dot still has a place in our local community because we need to continue to remain visible to remind our elected politicians that we exist and we need to fight for equality and justice,’ Leow said.
‘If only any members of the parliament and if only any cabinet ministers would step down here to Hong Lim Park to see here for themselves what it means to be at an event like this, and to hear some of the stories of very real LGBT experiences of homophobia and transphobia, they would know how irrelevant 377A is.’
‘Tear down this law!’
Just prior to the lighting of the ‘dot’, the event organizers took to a small stage in the middle of the park to speak to the crowd.
When Choa took the mic, there was tangible anger in his voice. When he brought up the Lee Hsien Loong’s comments, the attendees booed.
‘[The] discrimination we face on a daily basis is born from Section 377A, and the trickle-down effects on the policies that govern this country,’ Choa shouted into the microphone. ‘Prime Minister Lee, we are near invisible. Because of 377A, we continue to be marginalized and lead incomplete lives.
‘Because of Section 377A, we deal with discrimination every day,’ he added. He then led the park to chant ‘Tear down this law!’ he added.
A short while later, the park lit up for its annual photograph. When the organizers released the official aerial photo soon after the event, one could see their message loud and clear: among the attendees’ pink lights were volunteers with white umbrellas spelling the words ‘Repeal 377A’.
Tan later told local media that the initial plan was to have the light-up reading ‘Together’ – this was changed at the last minute in response to Lee’s comments.