“But They are Like You and Me”: Gay Civil Servants and Citizenship in a Cosmopolitanizing Singapore



In July 2003, Singapore's then-Prime Minister triggered public outrage by declaring that the state would now employ openly gay Singaporeans as civil servants. Besides questioning how such a seemingly inconsequential statement could generate such controversy, I also interrogate why the state had reversed its previously homophobic stance. I argue that, as a city-state with aspirations to become a global city, Singapore attempted to market the “difference” of its sexual minorities to appear cosmopolitan and attractive to the “creative class” of professional labor. By contradicting the sexual exclusivity inherent in normative notions of citizenship, however, this cosmopolitanizing drive triggered the moral outrage. Furthermore, I assert that despite its apparent message of tolerance, the state's declaration remained an empty marketing ploy. While it has enabled homosexual Singaporeans to assess their status as citizens, the state has neither legalized it nor struck down existing anti-sodomy legislation that fundamentally contradicts it. By exposing the declaration as only an exploitative façade that discursively conscripted gay and lesbian Singaporeans into cosmopolitanizing the country for the state, I highlight the limits of discourses of difference in Singapore.


“Singapore,”Leong writes, “appears to be the last frontier in the Asian region for positive gay and lesbian developments” (1997:142). Although repression and sexual perversion characterize orientalist discourses (Screech 2000), Leong's assertion is not entirely ungrounded. Despite its economically developed status, Singapore remains a country with draconic laws. In 1992, it banned the import and sale of chewing gum to ease the cleaning and maintenance of trains in the newly built metro system. Two years later, it also controversially caned an errant American teenager and his friends for stealing road signs and vandalizing expensive cars. However, on 4 July 2003, Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong dropped a bombshell of an announcement in the main local English newspaper The Straits Times. He declared, “In the past, if we know you're gay, we would not employ you. But we just changed this quietly.” Now, the state will employ gay and lesbian Singaporeans in “certain positions,” even sensitive ones, provided that they openly declare their sexual orientation (The Straits Times 2003a). Expecting much indignant resistance from conservative quarters, Goh attempted to placate angry citizens by resorting to essentialist notions of sexuality. He added “we are born this way and [gay people] are born that way, but they are like you and me” (ibid).

“In the past, if we know you're gay, we would not employ you. But we just changed this quietly”

Reactions to the statement varied. One very irate reader of The Straits Times made it clear exactly what straight and narrow view he had on the issue: “I am a heterosexual man, married to a heterosexual woman and we have four heterosexual children.” Invoking the Judeo-Christian God, His hatred of the “sin of immorality” and dubious historical theories, he warned of the national ruin that the statement would bring: “the Government has shown quite clearly by its action that it has lost moral authority. . . . History has shown time and again that great empires fell because of failing human values and shaky moral principles” (The Straits Times 2003d). Others commented more moderately. A pastor admitted that while he used to believe in the utter sinfulness of homosexual acts, he had come to see gay people as normal human beings even though their sexual orientation differs from his (The Straits Times 2003e). The public debate became so heated that Goh had to order the local media to stop reporting on it a month later in August during his annual National Day Rally speech.

To those of us more experienced in the politics of sexuality elsewhere, the moral outrage of the adamantly heterosexual man seemed misplaced. Religious fundamentalism had undoubtedly motivated his homophobic protest, but Goh merely offered to employ openly gay Singaporeans. He did not legalize same-sex marriages as had happened in Toronto earlier that summer. Neither did he follow the U.S. Supreme Court's lead and strike down Singapore's anti-sodomy laws (The Straits Times 2003c). In any event, there have always been gay civil servants because the civil service does not actively screen out gay-identified applicants (closeted or otherwise) in its recruitment process. Hence, Goh's welcoming gesture could only result in a gay-friendlier working environment within the civil service. Why then the public fury?

I begin my analysis with this moral outrage. It appears at first glance rooted in the public resentment towards Goh's flouting of existing anti-sodomy laws. Even though they have already been decriminalized elsewhere in the British Commonwealth, same-sex acts remained chargeable offences in Singapore under Section 377A of the Penal Code in 2003. These statutes threaten to punish “gross indecency” with life sentences. Hence, in the first section of this essay, I will examine the legal bases for the criminalization of homosexuality and its impact on the lives of homosexual Singaporeans. In the remainder of the essay, I argue that the outrage stemmed beyond the anti-sodomy laws from deeper struggles over the meanings of Singaporean citizenship at a time when the state had called for greater efforts to cosmopolitanize. Despite its seeming message of tolerance for sexual minorities, I locate Goh's announcement within a recent trend of city branding (van Ham 2001). In this global trend, Seattle, Manchester and other second-tiered cities with aspirations to become global cities like Tokyo find themselves increasingly conscripting previously shunned sexual Others into the process of urban renewal. These cities aim to cosmopolitanize and develop venues of cultural differences to demonstrate their new tolerance. Manchester, for example, built a highly successful gay village (Quilley 2002). In doing so, they seek to attract a “creative class” of globe-trotting professionals in whom, Florida (2002) argues, rests the key to future economic prosperity. Singapore, too, desires to become a global city to maintain its pivotal position in the global capital and information networks. However, its authoritarian reputation hinders this endeavour. In this light, Goh's gay civil servant statement serves as a state attempt to demonstrate its tolerance towards sexual minorities.

Cosmopolitanism, however, necessarily contradicts the sexual exclusivity inherent in normative notions of citizenship

Cosmopolitanism, however, necessarily contradicts the sexual exclusivity inherent in normative notions of citizenship. As Hubbard (2001), Valentine (1993) and others have pointed out, these notions implicitly assume that citizen practice “good” sex that involves both emotional and material exchange based in procreative sexual intercourse within the confines of the nuclear family. Conversely, homosexuals and such “scary” heterosexuals as sado-masochists, fetishists, prostitutes and voyeurs are deemed “bad” and denied the full range of rights and privileges granted to their “good” counterparts. Indeed, in Richardson's (1998) parlance, gay men and lesbians only make “partial citizens” because they still owe taxes and other obligations to the state despite this denial. The task of policing these “deviant” sexualities often falls on the state and its apparatuses of surveillance and discipline. By offering gay and lesbian Singaporeans employment, however, Goh validated them and allowed them to enter the moral space of the state as civil servants. This, in turn, cast doubts over the state's own morality and triggered the public outcry.

Finally, I question the efficacy of Goh's statement. Using data gathered during summer field research in 2004, I argue that its actual social impact had been minimal. Although it enabled gay and lesbian Singaporeans to assess their status as sexual citizens, the state has neither given it legal authority by making it into a law nor struck down the existing anti-sodomy legislation that fundamentally contradicts it. As such, the statement presents only a cosmopolitan façade. Indeed, I conclude that the statement serves as a state apparatus of exploitation because it conscripts gay and lesbian Singaporeans into doing the state's work of cosmopolitanization without giving anything substantial in return to these citizens.

Fieldwork methods

During my field research, I attempted to ascertain what homosexual Singaporeans thought of Goh's statement. In the summer of 2004, I interviewed sixteen predominantly gay and lesbian consultants whom I got to know mainly via the snowball method. Of these sixteen, there were ten men and six women. Seven among them worked as civil servants and all seven were employed prior to Goh's announcement. I considered it paramount to include them in my consultants' pool because the announcement concerned them most. These seven civil servants included two who self-identified as heterosexual (straight consultants numbered three in my sample). I had deliberately included straight people because I wanted to sample how the heterosexual majority would consider Goh's statement and its potential impact on their lives.

I conducted my interviews mainly in Singlish, the local creole. Reflecting its origins in the language contact between the English of Singapore's British colonizers and the diverse languages of the colonial subjects, Singlish syntax resembles that of the southern varieties of Chinese. The lexicon consists of mainly English words. Malay, Hokkien, Cantonese (both popular southern Chinese languages in Singapore) and, to a lesser extent, South Asian languages like Tamil and Hindi, have also made significant lexical contributions. A grammatical description and socio-linguistic analysis of Singlish is beyond the scope of this paper, so I will highlight its main features instead. Kang (1992/1993) characterizes Singlish by its use of local expressions (e.g. kena arrow = to receive an onerous task), code mixing/switching (e.g. You siao ah? = Are you crazy?), discourse particles that modify a sentence's meaning or tone but not its grammaticality (the most famous being lah, a particle that simultaneously asserts a position and entices solidarity), and direct translations from local languages. An example would be You see me no up, from Mandarin Ni kan wo bu qi, meaning “you look down on me.”

Platt and Weber (1980) regard Singlish as a speech continuum that ranges from the basilect to the mesolect to the acrolect, with each lect corresponding to the educational background and socio-economic status of its speakers. The higher the lect, the closer the Singlish resembles Standard English. Kang (1992/1993) also characterizes Singlish as domain-sensitive. Despite the state's demonization of Singlish as sub-standard English and subsequent attempts to eradicate it (with little success) through the ongoing Speak Good English Movement (Rubdi 2001), Kang finds that most Singaporeans remain generally well-disposed towards this creole, especially when they use it in such familiar and intimate domains of talk as the interviews I conducted. In more formal contexts, Singlish (especially in its basilectal form) is only acceptable for the less educated. Considering my consultants' educated backgrounds, we conversed mainly in mesolectal and acrolectal Singlish.

Criminalization of homosexuality

As I have stated above, the moral outrage over openly gay civil servants appears to spring from the state's criminalization of homosexuality. Other members of the British Commonwealth have already decriminalized same-sex acts – Britain and Australia did so in 1967 and 1975 respectively – but Singapore still retains its anti-sodomy legislation. Homosexual acts used to be chargeable offences in Singapore under Sections 377 and 377A of the Penal Code. (After legal reforms in 2007 that decriminalized oral and anal sex for consensual heterosexual couples only, they are now chargeable under Section 377A only.) The two Sections read:

Section 377 (Unnatural Offences): Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.

Explanation: Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this section.

Section 377A (Outrages on Decency): Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years (Singapore Statutes Online).

Prosecutors seldom evoked Sections 377 and 377A, but the acts that could be construed as unnatural offences ranged very broadly. Court decisions in the 1990s implied that with the exception of vaginal sex, all other sexual acts like rape, anal sex and mutual masturbation were considered unnatural and punishable under Section 377. Consensual fellatio is legal, but only if it leads to vaginal sex (Leong 1997).

While Section 377 targeted both heterosexual and homosexual couples, Section 377A applied specifically to men. Court cases resulting from police sting operations in the late 1980s and early 1990s gave it precedent to include oral sex between men, mutual masturbation and touching another man's genitals. During the worst of these operations carried out on 9 and 10 March 1992, the police made eight arrests at the popular cruising grounds at the East Coast Parkway beach. Reporters from the local tabloid The New Paper, curiously present at the scene at that time, photographed the entire operation. The consequences of the raid went far beyond the S$1,000 fine that each of the eight arrested men received. Of the four men whose incriminating pictures The New Paper published, one felt so ashamed that he committed suicide (Leong 1995).

Section 377A also enabled the state to harass gay men in other ways. In the moral panic that followed the first official case of AIDS-related death in 1989, the state attempted to suppress homosexuality on the misguided belief that this would somehow halt the spread of this so-called “gay cancer.” It was believed that the state forced the closure of a number of gay nightclubs, including the very popular “Niche,” by refusing to renew their liquor licenses. The nightclub owners could not protest the state's move, lest the real reason for the clubs' closure be made publicly known (Heng 2001).

The legal discrimination of homosexuality extends to the traditional media that strictly suppressed positive gay and lesbian representations. The Media Development Authority (MDA) administers a series of guidelines for both traditional media such as television, and new media such as the Internet. One set of guidelines, the Free-to-Air and Cable TV Program Codes, stipulates that any television programming must be congruent with such national objectives as the observation of societal and moral standards, and the promotion of positive family values. The MDA misleads by using “guidelines” to describe its codes. By definition, “guidelines” are suggestive but not legally binding. Yet depending on the severity of the violation, any breach of these codes can attract fines ranging from S$1,000 to S$50,000. In October 2006, for example, the MDA charged cable TV provider Starhub Cable Vision (SCV) for airing an episode of the American reality TV program Cheaters that featured footage of women engaging in ménage à trois and bondage sex. Although SCV aired the heavily pixilated footage at midnight when most children would have gone to sleep, the MDA still found it guilty of promoting lesbianism and fined it S$10,000 (about US$6,500 then) (The Straits Times 2006).

The media suppresses lesbianism, but the courts have never actually convicted lesbians

The media suppresses lesbianism, but the courts have never actually convicted lesbians. Section 377A applies only to men and the courts have only punished men for same-sex acts. This does not, however, legalize lesbianism. In principal, certain lesbian acts are prosecutable under Section 20 of the Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act that punishes, with fines not exceeding S$1000 or imprisonment not exceeding one year, “riotous, disorderly or indecent behavior” in a public setting (Leong 1997). In reality, the impact of the legal omission of lesbianism goes beyond court cases. Leong (1995:14) writes:

The legal omission of lesbianism amounts to the symbolic annihilation of lesbians: officially, lesbians do not exist in Singapore. Silence, or the absence of discourse on lesbianism is no better than the legal oppression of male homosexuality: it is representative in itself by way of denying the existence of another form of human sexuality, thought and behavior.

Singapore as a cosmopolitan city

Despite Singapore's strict laws, the state has solidified the country's nodal position in the global circuits of capital and information in the past forty years, partly because it realized very early that it must provide a business-friendly environment to attract the foreign capital necessary for economic survival. When Singapore became independent in 1965, high rates of unemployment and under-employment plagued its domestic economy along with a rapidly growing population. Having no natural resources to develop and facing potentially hostile neighbors in Malaysia and Indonesia (Turnbull 1989), the state promptly set in motion an economic development program that not only orientates all government activities to secure and maintain continuous economic growth, but also portrays the concomitant rapid (and not necessarily welcomed) social changes as natural, necessary and realistic. Indeed, Kong and Chan write, “even the most private matters of social life, such as reproduction, can be subject to administration if it is thought to serve this goal” (2000:507) of securing economic prosperity. For all its strict laws, Singapore remains staunchly pragmatic in its economic policies (Chua 1995).

Recent changes in the global economy, however, threaten Singapore's nodal position. The rise of China as an Asian economic powerhouse poses considerable challenge to Singapore. The recent global recession, triggered by the 1997 Asian financial crisis and sustained subsequently by the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the dot.com bubble burst in 2001, and the SARS outbreak in 2002/2003, endangered Singapore even further. The country faced such a dire economic situation that it witnessed an unprecedented 4.4 percent unemployment rate in 2002. This prompted Simon Elegant (2003) to play on Singapore's Malay name Singapura (literally “Lion City”) to refer to the country as “The Lion in Winter” in a Times Asia article by the same title. Here, former Prime Minister Goh spells out his plans to cultivate entrepreneurship and creativity among Singaporeans to revitalize the economy:

“We can't be hanging on to the manufacturing sector [if] the semiskilled jobs can be done better in China and elsewhere,” Goh says. “So we have got to move up the value chain into higher-skilled jobs.” Goh and his colleagues say the city-state can be remade from the top down by steering the economy away from its dependence on multinationals and into niche areas that the country is uniquely suited to exploit: financial services like banking and insurance, for example, or specialized and high-tech areas like medical care and biotechnology. The trick will be to foster creativity, entrepreneurship and the ability to take risks in a business culture long accustomed to following orders.

In highlighting Singapore's risk-avoiding habits, Goh echoes the observations that Cherian George (2000) made who claimed that Singapore's social environment has been engineered to such a high degree that he likens the country to an “air-conditioned nation” from whose comfort zone Singaporeans feel reluctant to leave.

Goh proposed that Singapore must attract a class of “creatives” that holds the key to future economic growth

As a solution, Goh proposed that Singapore must attract a class of “creatives” that, as detailed by Florida in The Rise of the Creative Class (2002), holds the key to future economic growth. Peck (2005) has done an excellent job dissecting Florida's thesis into its various intellectual component trajectories, so I will only present a brief archaeology of Florida's thesis here. Essentially, despite enthusiastic predictions in the 1990s by globalization guru Ken'ichi Ohmae (1995) that regional economic blocs would soon replace the nation-state, globalization has only transformed the state from an agent of distribution of available resources to a promoter of enterprise (Marcuse and van Kempen 2000). Just as neo-liberalism has re-constituted the individual into an active, risk-reducing and choice-driven subject who relies on her own entrepreneurship rather than paternal forms of welfare for her subsistence (Stevenson 2003; cf. Rose 2001). States (especially the local ones) are increasingly expected to attract their own capital investments instead of depending on the central government for economic aid. Indeed, writing on the rise of the “brand state,”van Ham (2001) argues that local states must now act entrepreneurially and actively market themselves to attract foreign capital investments.

Similarly, Florida (2002) argues that cities must attract the creative class to secure economic prosperity. He arrives at this conclusion by correlating the wealth of certain North American cities to the concentration of the creative class residing there. Not unlike what Isin and Wood (1999) call the professional-citizens, this class consists of bankers, lawyers, architects, managers and other professionals who emerged in the late twentieth century to identify with a cosmopolitan imaginary centered on consumption practices. More importantly, these professionals have become less concerned about their national interests and may be more loyal to their jobs than the city or state they reside in. This makes them highly mobile, but also unlikely to gravitate towards those places deemed lacking in diversity. Florida advises cities to make themselves more desirable to these professionals by fostering spaces of cultural diversity. In particular, he uses what he calls the “gay index” to measure how much a city embraces difference. An editorial article in The Straits Times (2003b) explains:

The idea is simple: Tolerance creates an open, diverse society that welcomes everybody, whether mavericks or buttoned-down conservatives. This milieu attracts the kind of innovative, creative talent critical to economic growth . . . Professor Florida singles out gay-friendliness as an indicator of tolerance. “To some extent, homosexuality represents the last frontier of diversity in our society and, thus, a place that welcomes the gay community welcomes all kinds of people.” Just as industries should have low entry barriers to allow new companies to enter and compete, so cities should have low entry barriers to people, so newcomers of all stripes are accepted quickly into social and economic arrangements. “Openness to the gay community is a good indicator of the low entry barriers to human capital that are so important to spurring creativity and generating high-tech growth.”

The creative class flocks to those cities they deem most tolerant of diversity. This flexible loyalty inevitably forces cities to compete against each other in the arena of what Tsing (2000) calls “the economy of appearances.” Here, success demands that competing cities set up gay villages, ethnic enclaves, cultural festivals, hi-tech corridors and other sites of cultural diversity. As a practice, the commodification of difference is not new. Rushbrook (2002) points out that by the late 1800s, New York's entrepreneurs were already offering guided tours of Chinatown, the Lower East Side and other spaces of exotic and dangerous queerness to the white bourgeoisie. These encounters with the racial Other enabled tourists to affirm their own middle-class identities and values (Stallybrass and White 1986). Rather, the novelty of the economy of appearances lies in the paradox that cities must first build their sites of cultural spectacles to appear successful before they can actually attract the creative class that will make that success a reality. This, Bell and Binnie (2004:1814) observe, inevitably gives rise to a trend of “me-too-ism” where every city that considers itself a player must have the requisite sites of cultural difference. The spectacular economy brooks no alternatives; not having these features means not being in the competition at all.

To stay in the race, the Singaporean state has built many of the requisite sites of cultural difference that include ethnic enclaves at Chinatown and Little India, the annual Singapore Arts Festival and a scientific research hub in the southwestern part of the island at Buona Vista. The pragmatism that guides Singapore's economic policies demands the conscription of gay and lesbian Singaporeans into the race despite the political backlash such a move would unleash. Indeed, the state used the same language of pragmatism to try to douse public fury over its hiring of openly gay civil servants. In an editorial article in The Straits Times (2003b) entitled “It's Not about Gay Rights—It's Survival,” the writer reveals that having these servants will make Singapore more tolerant of difference and desirable to the creative class. The article argues that,

tolerance, unlike technology or even talent, cannot be centrally planned or attracted with tax-incentives. It has to be practised not by economic planners, but by all and sundry. It requires changing not the hardware but the software of mindsets.

The state hopes that the hiring, as part of a larger liberalization movement that relaxed restrictions on busking and bungee jumping (The Economist 2004), will plant the seeds for a gay-friendly culture in the public sector. Once such a culture has taken root, it will hopefully spread to the private sector and, eventually, the rest of Singapore. This, in turn, will cosmopolitanize Singapore by encouraging more projects of tolerance towards other forms of difference.

The Singaporean state has presented here a form of cosmopolitanism that Binnie and Skeggs (2004) regard as the most common conception of the term, but such a vision remains far from being the only understanding of cosmopolitanism available. Binnie and Skeggs remind us that while the core meanings of the term center on an opposition to the fixed, the parochial and especially the national, notions of cosmopolitanism remain diverse. Delanty (1999), for example, sees it in three forms as constitutional patriotism, transnational communities and democratic cosmopolitanism. Others have envisioned the term in at least four different ways, i.e. as anti-national, a type of citizenship, a form of subjectivity and a form of consumption (Binnie and Skeggs 2004). In particular, the ideas that Cheah (1998) and Beck (2000) propose contrast strongly with those of Žižek (1997) and Brennan (1997). The former pair read cosmpolitanism as opening new ways of being with others, even with those opposed to cosmpolitanism itself. Vertovec and Cohen have invoked this logic in lieu of multi-culturalism as a means to “avoid the pitfalls of essentialism or some kind of zero-sum, all-or-nothing understanding of identity issues within a nation-state framework” (2002:3). In sharp contrast, Žižek and Brennen dismiss cosmpolitanism cynically as yet another insidious means to incorporate both disruptive and constructive differences into the capitalist system. Despite their sharp difference, Binnie and Skeggs (2004) argue, both positions remain undergirded by the notion that treats culture as something one can own and use to accumulate value in herself as she works to become a cosmopolitan subject. This idea, in turn, reflects a version of cultural capital as embodied disposition that Bourdieu (1986) proposed.

Sexual citizenship

The notion of tolerant cosmopolitanism appears benign, but critics have highlighted its inherent class politics and elitism

The notion of tolerant cosmopolitanism appears benign, but critics (e.g. Cartier 1999) have highlighted its inherent class politics and elitism. Binnie and Skeggs write that “to be a cosmopolitan one has to have access to a particular form of knowledge, able to appropriate and know the other and generate authority from this knowing” (2004:42). Hence, thinking of cosmopolitanism as tolerance immediately raises issues of access to the education, skill, knowledge and cultural capital that generate those tolerant dispositions. After all, to be cosmopolitan is to be educated. Without the worldly sophistication one accrues from education, cosmopolitanism becomes inconceivable. These issues of access have led some critics to reduce cosmpolitanism to a matter of consumption, best embodied in the emergent culture of the transnational capitalist class (Sklair 2001) whose globe-trotting lifestyles, connoisseur tastes and disembodied social networks have stripped cosmopolitanism of its social and political transformative potential (Beaverstock 2002; Short and Kim 1999). In fact, Massey (1993) sees these cosmopolitans as occupying the privileged, empowered end of what she famously called the power-geometry of time-space compression. Taking issue with this claim, Smith accuses her of misrepresenting the less privileged as “disconnected victims of global processes, entirely lacking in the dynamic connections to transnational flows that she assigns to place” (2001:108). Werbner retorts, “even working class labour migrants may become cosmopolitans if willing to engage with the Other” (1999:18).

For the rest of this essay, I will focus on cosmpolitanism's ramifications on sexual citizenship rather than delve deeper into its class implications. Arising out of the politics of state healthcare in the wake of the HIV/AIDS outbreak in the 1980s (Berlant 1997), the figure of the sexual citizen reminds us that “any notion of the political being must recognize, and attend to, the simple yet often-ignored fact that humans are undeniably sexual” (Brown 2006: 874–5). Scholars like Evans (1993), Hubbard (2001), Richardson (2000) and Weeks (1998) have explored the notion and its relevance in sexual politics. In particular, Bell and Binnie (2000), Lister (2002) and Plummer (2003) have provided exhaustive reviews of the notion, so I will only briefly outline its central points here. Plummer highlights sexual citizenship as a “sensitizing concept” (2003:13) in that it demands that we view sexuality as potentially “inflected” in all dimensions of citizenship (Bell and Binnie 2000). As such, any just accounting of the rights and obligations of a citizen must necessarily take sexuality into consideration (Lister 2002).

Sexual citizenship also appreciates the queer nature of sexuality by insisting that multiple forms of sexuality (and concurrent multiple relationships in the wider domain of gender) bear on politics. Well aware of the threats that these sexualities pose, most societies actively seek to regulate and contain them. These disciplining measures include Singapore's Sections 377 and 377A and other anti-sodomy laws, the so-called “don't ask, don't tell” policy in the U.S. military (Stychin 1995) and Cold War discourses that portray gay men as virus (D'Emilio 1992). These measures reveal the sexual exclusivity inherent within normative notions of citizenship. As Hubbard (2001), Valentine (1993) and others have pointed out, these notions implicitly assume that citizen practices “good” married sex. In Singapore's case, I argue that the public fury over openly gay civil servants stems from this partial citizenship. Most Singaporeans tolerate homosexuality as long as it remains invisible. Goh's cosmopolitan vision, however, brought it out of the margins of society into the public square of national discourse. Worse, the state had positioned itself as a morally pure space in order to police its homosexual citizens. In stressing the vital importance of gay men and lesbians in securing the country's economic survival, Goh not only validated their wayward sexualities but also allowed them to compromise the state's purity as civil servants. It is no wonder that the very heterosexual man in The Straits Times (2003d) letter protested the state's move by warning that the state losing its moral authority to govern.

The state had positioned itself as a morally pure space in order to police its homosexual citizens

Despite the importance of addressing the injustices of partial citizenship, to some sexual minorities, the necessity of ceding certain duties to secure rights (especially those concerning consumption) overshadow sexual citizenship as a political campaigning platform. Desiring to become “good citizens,” they attempt to assimilate into mainstream society by taking on heavy responsibilities that privatize, de-radicalize, de-eroticize, confine (both spatially and legally) or otherwise tame their dissident sexualities (Bell and Binnie 2000). This “new homonormativity,” as Duggan (2002) put it, has triggered debates over the dangers of pitching rights claims around the right of access to the trappings of heteronormative privilege. Indeed, Bell and Binnie (2004) criticize Florida's (2002) thesis as homonormalizing. They highlight how Florida, in a footnote on the census date he used to derive his “gay index,” admits that the data include only lesbian and gay men in same-sex partnerships. Ignoring single people, the index really measures respectability as it presents gentrified coupledom as the only appropriate form of lifestyle gay men and lesbians should have. Implicitly, other forms of homosexual sociality like public sex become questionable and must be suppressed. For cities heeding Florida's advice, this means that they must render existing gay zones safe and palatable to the creative class by purifying them of “abherrant” sexual practices. The Mardi Gras festival, Bell and Binnie (2004) argue, becomes the only acceptable gay presence in public space. As Rushbrook points out succinctly, “gay urban spectacles attract tourists and investment; sexually deviant, dangerous rather than risqué, landscapes do not” (2002:195).

In Singapore, nascent awareness of sexual citizenship enabled gay and lesbian Singaporeans to critique Goh's statement as untenable. In my conversations with them, several of my consultants stressed that too many internal contradictions riddled Goh's offer. One gay man reminded me that as long as the state retains Sections 377 and 377A, it must deem others like him as lawbreakers. This means that for openly gay men and lesbians to work as civil servants, the state must knowingly employ criminals. He highlights the sheer ludicrousness of the conumdrum:

You really have to have civil servants who are virgins working for the government . . . The law says that gay sex, or rather anal sex, oral sex, and any insertion of any funny items in any orifices of your body, are all against the law . . . So obviously since you can't have criminals in the government, [the openly gay civil servants] have to be virgins.

Echoing the need to decriminalize homosexuality first, others argue that the state had not done enough to realize Goh's promise because it seems to lack the political will to do so. For example, I started my conversation with Eileena, a lesbian activist from the gay rights advocacy group People Like Us (PLU), by calling what Goh said a “policy.” She protested loudly in Singlish my choice of words:

No lor, because it's not a policy lor . . . [The state] ask people to come out. There's no back-up plan as in, you know, you don't have regulations to prevent people from being discriminated. How do you expect people to come out? You expect people to come out and lose their jobs? That's not a policy. You need to have all these things set up to assure people that it's OK to come out. Then it's a policy. Have it written down, yeah. To do that, they have to get rid of the bloody Penal Code! [laughs]

Dinesh, another PLU activist, echoed the same sentiment by pointing out the lack of concrete details in what Goh said:

[Goh] just said that now the government is open to hiring openly gay people in some areas of the civil service, including some sensitive positions, but none of these positions were spelled out. I have heard rumors in the Ministry of Education that they are not open to hiring openly gay teachers. And that's a huge civil service employment sector, so without these things being spelled out, a person who wants to join the civil service or gay person in the civil service won't really feel any sense of safety because you wouldn't know (emphasis are Dinesh's).

Indeed, in the years after Goh made his offer, the state has never made further elaborations about it. In fact, when I asked my civil servant consultants whether their individual ministries or statutory boards have implemented any scheme to realize the statement, the replies were a uniform “no.”

The overall opacity of Goh's statement provokes questions as to who it really benefits. The statement has already persuaded some to improve their opinions of the country. The very popular international gay tourist guide Spartacus used to describe Singapore as a homophobic state, but it has ceased to do so. In its 2005/06 edition, the guide writes that Singapore now welcomes gay tourists because it is now “keen on shedding its conservative image and embracing diversity” (Spartacus, 2005/06:799). In comparison, the gay and lesbian civil servants, which the statement targets, have not benefited, because they already seem to face little discrimination in the civil service. All seven of my civil servant consultants reported that the service does not actively screen out gay and lesbian applicants in its recruitment process. Among those gay-identified in this group, some had even attained positions of some sensitivity. One, for example, held the rank of staff sergeant in the army. Although he outed himself willingly to those colleagues and immediate superiors who asked, he claimed that he was neither harassed nor did he encounter problems commanding respect from his subordinates. In fact, the army discharged him honorably in 2004. This treatment did not stem from a gay-friendly environment in the Singaporean military. Homophobia afflicts it as much as it does the armed forces in other countries. Rather, the military seems to take a pragmatic approach towards its gay soldiers. Singaporean laws oblige all able-bodied male citizens to at least two years of military service when they turn 16 years of age, so gay men inevitably get recruited (the gay staff sergeant was a career soldier though). Judging from my own experiences as well as conversations I had with other gay soldiers, the military seems to tolerate its gay recruits as long as they produce results and do not hinder its operations. Unlike the U.S. military with its “don't ask don't tell” policy, gay Singaporean soldiers may be relatively open about their sexuality. Their superior officers may encourage them to make this declaration official, but military laws do not require them to do so.

Gay Singaporean soldiers may be relatively open about their sexuality

Other civil servants echoed the gay staff sergeant's sentiments about the tolerance for sexual minorities already existing within the civil service. In my conversations with them, none of them felt particularly discriminated against at work because of their sexuality. While this tolerance provided no guarantee against dismissal, one of my civil servant consultants felt that homosexuality would at best constitute only one reason for dismissal among others like incompetence. By itself, homosexuality was not reason enough for the termination of one's service. Hence, Goh gave a false impression that the civil service neither employs gay men or lesbians nor possesses a gay-tolerant culture.

The fact that Goh's statement benefited the state more reveals its true function as a discourse of exploitation. The state has incorporated lesbians and gay men into doing its work of cosmopolitanizing using the statement, but it has given nothing concrete in return. The state is not obliged to do so, since the statement carries no actual legal weight. This, however, will not prevent the state from using the statement as part of any future advertisements of its supposed tolerance for difference. In this light, Eileena the PLU activist rightfully dismissed the statement as nothing more than what Singaporeans call a wayang show. Originally meaning “performance” in Malay (as in wayang cina, or Chinese opera), wayang is now used in Singlish to denote something that has more bells and whistles than actual substance. Pragmatic Singaporeans prioritize their material well-being over ideology, so the statement must reap economic benefits first before it can convince the larger Singaporean society of the benefits of accepting homosexual citizens. Perhaps a straight-identified female consultant said it most succinctly:

This is not a policy of acceptance, of open arms, kind of “we welcome you, homosexuality is now legal.” It's not that, you know. It's more, like I said, an economic rationale, and I think Singaporeans are smart enough to draw the line between something very driven by economic consideration as opposed to a real societal change.

The gay civil servant statement can be considered mostly a failure, but it has done good in at least one aspect. Previously, Singaporeans talked about homosexuality only in negative tones, if they did so at all. Doing otherwise, they feared, might attract the state's displeasure. Goh broke this taboo with his announcement. Most of my consultants regarded it as a step towards the full recognition of Singapore's gay and lesbian citizens. Eileena thought of the statement as “a good thing for us, as a group of activists from PLU. That was like a springboard for us to jump from, to bring it further.” Kelvin, another PLU activist, acknowledged that PLU can only push for sexual citizenship rights when the state signals its permission to do so. Without this consent, any unruly behavior would likely result in the activists being hauled to the police station as troublemakers one should not publicly associate with. Indeed, emboldened by Goh's statement, PLU attempted to register itself legally as a society a second time, after the Registrar of Societies had rejected its first application in 1996 without justification. However, this second application was also rejected. According to the letters of correspondence that PLU published on its website, the Registrar had deemed PLU “contrary to the national interests” and likely “to be used for unlawful purposes or for purposes prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order in Singapore.” Despite this failure, Goh had nevertheless publicly acknowledged the presence of gay and lesbian Singaporeans and the contributions that they may make to the country. As Eileena said, Goh “gave gay people a face . . . suddenly gay people exist in the country when we never existed before.”

Goh's statement also enabled Channel U, a local TV Mandarin language channel operated by the now-defunct MediaWorks TV, to portray homosexuality positively in its 30 July 2003 episode of “OK, No Problem.” The first half of this two-segmented hour-long local current affairs program featured a 30-minute sitcom scripted to prime the audience to the actual discussion in the second. Here, instead of inviting panelists to the studio, “OK” 's producers elicited responses directly from the common people by setting up the studio at one of the many food courts that dot Singapore's urban landscape. Quan Yifeng, the show's hostess, began by interviewing food court patrons for their thoughts about having openly gay civil servants. Many gave stereotypical responses. One man, for example, thought that gay men were effeminate and wore tight T-shirts. He later corrected himself by saying that some gay men were also very much “men.” Quan then proceeded with a game. Three men were led out and the audience was to vote for the one they thought was gay. Of the three, the first was Malay and he wore a short-sleeved shirt. The second was Chinese, tall, muscular and wore two earrings and a tight T-shirt. The last one was also Chinese, but smaller in built, fair and looked soft. He also wore a tight T-shirt. The Malay man garnered the most votes, but in a brilliant twist, Quan revealed that none of the three were gay. In fact, two of them even had their girlfriend and wife at hand to prove their heterosexuality.

The highlight of the episode featured a live interview with a gay man called Anthony. Quan had Anthony literally come out of a closet that was previously set up at the site. In the emotionally charged interview that followed, Anthony revealed how he knew he differed from the other boys since childhood. During a visit to a gay bar overseas, he realized for the first time that other gay men existed. He finally decided to come out because he could no longer live his life according to what others expected of him. His loving parents accepted him, but he added that many others had been driven from their homes or driven to committing suicide in despair. Barely able to hold back his tears, Anthony urged his fellow Singaporeans to accept gay people and allow them the space and dignity to live in their country. Anthony's interview moved everybody. At one time, Quan too had to fight back her tears as she struggled to regain her professional decorum. The show ended with the camera panning a teary and solemnly contemplative audience.

As a watershed event in Singapore, this episode of “OK, No Problem” revealed the deep-rootedness of common stereotypes of homosexuality in the national imagination. Quan's game, however, demonstrated that physical appearances alone present no guaranteed means to determine another person's sexuality. More importantly, Anthony put a human face on what was previously an invisible group of subalterns with his unprecedented coming out on national television. In doing so, he helped dispel some of the negative attitudes Singaporeans have of gay men and lesbians. Had Goh not made his statement, this episode of “OK, No Problem” would most likely not have been possible.


4 July 2003 marks a watershed event in Singaporean gay history. On that day, former PM Goh Chok Tong announced that the state would reverse its previous stance of not hiring openly gay Singaporeans as civil servants. For an event so seemingly inconsequential compared to other more gay-affirming events occurring in Toronto and Texas that same summer, the resulting public furor was considerable but not entirely unexpected. After all, Singapore still criminalizes homosexuality. Heng summarizes how the state used Sections 377 and 377A to harass and persecute its gay citizens:

Where legality is concerned, Singapore has very punitive laws against the homosexual act inherited from the British colonial government. This is written in Sections 377 and 377A of the Penal Code. The first of these imposes a penalty of up to life imprisonment for “carnal intercourse against the order of nature” which technically covers any act of sodomy or oral sex between gay or straight couples. Section 337A is more specific and prohibits “any male . . . in public or private” from engaging in “any acts of gross indecency with another male person and imposes a maximum sentence of up to two years imprisonment. Although life imprisonment has not been meted out to anybody convicted of homosexual acts and criminal prosecution has always targeted sex in public places and not in private, the laws are still psychologically intimidating. They expose gay people to police harassment for doing no more than drinking or dancing in a bar or sitting in the park. Defining homosexuality as a crime also makes it easier for the authority to close down gay places at their whim because the proprietors of these places would not dare to demand an explanation or challenge the action in court. The closing of Niche in 1989 was one such example. The laws make for a chicken-and-egg problem. In order to work towards decriminalization, the gay community has to get organized but organizing to defend a “criminal act” in turn makes gay people and their supporters cagey. (2001:pp.90)

Singapore wants to conscript the sexual minorities it once shunned into the process of urban transformation

Despite initial fears that Goh's statement would advance gay rights and somehow lead to national decline, the state never construed it to be an altruistic gesture towards its gay and lesbian citizens. Like other cities such as Manchester that aspire to become global cities, Singapore wants to conscript the sexual minorities it once shunned into the process of urban transformation. This, Singapore hopes, will help attract the creative class that Florida (2002) purports to herald economic prosperity. This thesis, however, provokes unsettling questions about the meanings of citizenship. First, Florida (2002) uses his “gay index” to measure the tolerance for idiosyncratic behavior that often accompanies economy-driving creativity. This formulation, however, favors respectable gay coupledom over elements of gay public life that society deems dangerous and undesirable. As such, it reifies heteronormative tendencies present in neoliberal capitalism that trade equal access to social rights and resources for the individual ability to consume in private. Second, although the statement has enabled gay and lesbian Singaporeans to re-assess their sexual citizenship, this reconsideration has also revealed the hypocrisy and exploitation lying at the heart of the statement. The state deems gay and lesbian Singaporeans necessary for economic growth, but it has yet to reciprocate concretely for the help these citizens have given. Indeed, it cannot do so without compromising its own moral authority to govern and changing the normative meanings of citizenship. The state knows that it must cosmopolitanize, but the embracing of difference contradicts the sexual exclusivity inherent within normative notions of citizenship. The resolution of this contradiction presents an important challenge that Singapore has to face in the future.


  1. Acknowledgments. I wrote this essay over the course of four years, having submitted it first as a term paper for a class on Foucauldian govermentality before refining it as part of my qualifying exams. Throughout this time, many people have helped me. I would like to take this opportunity to thank my advisor, Martin Manalansan, and the other members of my qualifying exam committee, Kris Lehman, Janet Keller and Alejandro Lugo. I would also like to thank Ethel Hazard, who steadied me in my initial shaky years in the doctoral program, as well as my consultants for this project. Thank you so much for tolerating my inaptitude with the microphone and the tape recorder. Last but not least, I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers from City & Society for their invaluable advice on how to improve my essay.