Pragmatic Resistance, Law, and Social Movements in Authoritarian States: The Case of Gay Collective Action in Singapore


  • Lynette J. Chua

  • Funding was provided by the Social Science Research Council, National Science Foundation (SES-0962129), University of California, Berkeley, and National University of Singapore. I wish to thank Kristin Luker, Catherine Albiston, Calvin Morrill, Kim Voss, Mark Massoud, Indulekshimi Rajeswari, the editors and anonymous reviewers, and the audiences at the Law and Society Association, Chinese University of Hong Kong, University of Melbourne, Australian National University, and National University of Singapore, where earlier versions of this article were presented. Most of all, I am grateful to the study respondents. Please direct all correspondence to Lynette J. Chua, Faculty of Law, National University of Singapore, 469G Bukit Timah Road, Eu Tong Sen Building, Singapore 259776; e-mail:


This article draws from a qualitative study of Singapore's gay movement to analyze how gay organizing occurs in authoritarian states, and where and how law matters. Singapore's gay activists engage in “strategic adaptation” to deploy a strategy of pragmatic resistance that involves an interplay among legal restrictions and cultural norms. Balancing the movement's survival with its advancement, they shun direct confrontation, and avoid being seen as a threat to the existing political order. As legal restrictions and as a source of legitimacy, law correspondingly oppresses sexual conduct and civil-political liberties, and culturally delegitimizes dissent. However, when activists mount pragmatic resistance at and through law, it also matters as a source of contestation. Further, law matters as a trade-off between reifying the existing order in exchange for survival and immediate gains. Yet, by treating law as purely tactical, these activists arguably end up de-centering law, being pragmatically unconcerned with whether they are ideologically challenging or being co-opted by it.