Furthermore, as part of Singapore's economics-driven liberalisation drive, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had promised in August 2004 that indoor talks would no longer need licences from the police, and the gay community felt that it was time to test this promise and use the opportunity thus afforded.
Equally importantly, the gay community felt that it was necessary to reiterate that LGBT Singaporeans were also part of the nation, and not to surrender the word "nation" to the discretionary and exclusive use by the State.
Credits were also due to the owners of Xposé Bar & Restaurant, Mox Café and Utterly Art who let the organisers use their venues free-of-charge, and to Kelvin Wong and Charles Tan for archival videotaping. Kudos were heaped upon other organising team members like Ethan Lim and Nick Lum for enduring much stress, and to Vernon Voon, Miak Siew and Tin for chairing individual sessions.
The PLU3 and Yawning Bread websites ran the blurb: "This year, there'll be no Nation Party in Singapore. Instead, there'll be IndigNation, a collection of events to celebrate Pride Month. IndigNation is a gay community response to the unreasonable ban on parties for gays and lesbians and heavy censorship of publications serving this community. The events in the IndigNation calendar are contributed by various organisers to Singapore's Pride Month. It is a demonstration of the initiative and spirit of grass-roots civil society that the authorities say they want to encourage, but then go out of their way to suppress."
IndigNation raised its curtains on 29 July 2005 with an exhibition of openly-gay artist Martin Loh's illustrations for children at the Utterly Art gallery, 208 South Bridge Road, #02-00, Singapore 058757. It was held from Thursday, 28 July 2005 to Sunday, 7 Aug 2005 and was entitled "Cerita budak-budak", which means "Children's stories" in Peranakan Malay. The organiser-in-charge was Kheng Hock (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Loh, known for his male erotic and Peranakan paintings, was venturing into the genre of book illustrations for the first time. His work - colourful, naive fantasies - was used to illustrate the book Malaysian Children's Favourite Stories. Besides being on display for public appreciation, Loh's paintings were also for sale, at prices ranging from several hundred to over a thousand Sing dollars.
Dr. Tan, who had conducted extensive research into Chinese civilisation, challenged the notion that same-sex love was contrary to Asian culture. He traced and explored various ancient classical Chinese texts on same-sex love to demonstrate that same-sex love had been an integral part and parcel of Asian life.
There was initial concern on the part of the organisers whether they would face any trouble with the licensing authorities despite Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's promise in August 2004 that indoor talks would henceforth no longer require a police permit. The promised proved to be real. Where in 2004 and all the years prior to that, any talk with gay themes was routinely banned, in August 2005, Dr. Tan's lecture was held without interference, although undercover policemen did attend to monitor the situation. In fact, Dr. Tan's talk, "Same-sex Love in Classical Chinese Literature" was originally prepared for the Lovers' Lecture Series in March 2004, but not delivered then because the government rejected the application for a permit. Effectively, through IndigNation, the ban on that particular lecture had been reversed.
Other sources of angst surrounding the historic talk were the fact that Dr. Tan was scheduled to leave the country that week for good, and that Tin who chaired the lecture had to leave halfway because his grandmother had suddenly suffered a minor stroke that night.
A lengthier review was provided by Charles Tan, who recounted that Dr. Tan's talk drew an estimated crowd of 80 people, packed into a relatively small venue. Even though the event started half-an-hour later than advertised, the audience was attentive and broke into laughter whenever Dr. Tan amused them with humorous anecdotes. His talk drew on well-respected Chinese texts including sources from novels, biographies, excerpts from poems, and official books to validate his point. Presenting his talk chronologically by era and dynasty, Dr. Tan demonstrated how same sex love in China stretched back to the earliest periods in its civilisation and how widespread it was, with a prevalence among emperors, intellectuals and commoners alike. It was never considered criminal nor taboo. The lecture touched upon the evolution of homophobia which can be traced back as early as to the Song dynasty when revered scholars introduced "sexual morality" and reinterpreted Confucianism. This was further aggravated and reintroduced by the invasion of the Western imperialists at the end of the Qing dynasty. In the question-and-answer session, participants followed up with questions on the prevalence of drag, definition of male beauty, strength of the quoted text in withstanding scrutiny, pervasiveness of male prostitution, and social structures inherent in ancient China which allowed same-sex love to flourish. At the end of the talk, Dr. Tan clarified that the aim of his talk was to dispel the fallacy that traditional Chinese values forbid same sex love and that we should recognise that homophobia was a predominantly Western concept.
The event was advertised on local LGBT websites thus: "It is time we recognized that gay people make significant contributions to life and society in Singapore. Much of our arts scene would come to a standstill if not for these gay men and women. And yet many of our most talented performers have had to remain closeted or ambiguous for fear of having their livelihoods threatened. But things are changing. Come for a night of poetry where some of our openly gay and upcoming poets read you the beautiful words they have penned birthed from within the ecstatic, the agonies and even the mundanities of their lives. Wine and snacks will be served."
In contrast to Dr. Tan Chong Kee's lecture, the poetry recital required a permit, because it was not classed as a talk but as an arts event. Even so, the Media Development Authority expedited the permit despite a very late submission of the application. The MDA gave their approval little more than 24 hours after receiving the e-mailed request.
Charles Tan, in his review, recounted that the last-minute rush to obtain a license for the staging of “Contra/Diction - A Night with Gay Poets” in no way diminished the quality of the performance that included an acoustic set of folk rock songs, acting and poetry reading. If anything, it lent it an air of breathless anticipation. This was one poetry reading that could not wait to happen. The evening, which attracted a capacity crowd of about 70 spectators, started out with Shirlyn and Jack belting out acoustic covers of well-known tunes such as "Tom’s Diner" (originally by Suzanne Vega, though sung with an alternative set of lyrics); and the Indigo Girls' "Closer to Fine", that had the audience fully enthralled, relaxed and in the mood for more introspective and mature readings, which were made all the more pleasant by snacks and wine that were passed around, bathed in the dim comfortable lighting in Utterly Art.
Alfian Sa’at and Ng Yi-Sheng opened the evening with a series of contrasting pieces. Ng’s pieces, done slam poetry style, were animated readings which saw him gyrating his hips and exploding in fitful outbursts. Sa'at was far more restrained but equally effective, delivering his poems, including the poignant "Anthem", in that familiar slow drawl of his. The other poets who read their poems to an appreciative crowd included Sabrina Koh, with “November” and “Her Timeless Replies”, Dominic Chua, with “All will Turn Back to Pumpkin, Mice, etc.” and “Midnight Swim for Two”, Zhuang Yi Sa with “Imagining You” and “Drift”, Bernard Koh with “National Service”, and Adrianna Tan. Another published Singaporean poet, Cyril Wong, unfortunately did not get to read as he did not submit his name for the licence application. However, his poems “Point of Arrival” (accompanied by Daniel Tung using sign language), “To Meet Your Sky” and “A Bluer Sky” were read out by his peers.
In his review, the organiser-in-charge of the event, Clarence Singam, wrote that Rai kicked off the event with his talk to a crowd of more than 90 people at Mox Bar and Café. The IndigNation organisers were indebted to Rai for responding to the challenge of speaking on this topic. It had been quite a challenge finding a speaker because not many in Singapore seemed to have researched the topic in any detail. Rai however stepped up to the plate quite admirably to undertake the research and present the very enriching talk. Rai’s talk was based on classical texts from the Indian sub-continent starting from as far back as the Mahabharat and the Kama Sutra. It was quite assuring to hear that LGBT people had existed in every epoch of Indian history as shown by the texts of those periods. For the audience and particularly the Indian gay men and women there that night, it was an amazing experience to be able to hear that gay Asian people were truly a people with roots - that they were celebrated by the ancient Indians, the Moghul emperors and even the mystic Sufis; that they were not some corruption of Western colonial influence but that same-sex love, both male and female, had been celebrated throughout in the histories of their ancient civilisations. Instead it was the arrival of the British that brought homophobia into Indian society.
The event was advertised on local LGBT websites thus: "Today we head to the internet and a cluster of clubs, saunas and Maxwell Market to be with one another. But where did gay men and lesbians go before? What was gay life like 40 years ago? Where exactly did queens go to reign? Come and hear activist, academic and out gay man Russell Heng share his walk through gay history in Singapore. Mox will be serving one-for-one house pours and specials on jugs."
Heng had actually been shuttling in and out of the country on speaking engagements. However, he still took the time and opportunity to present the talk with no hesitation whatsoever despite the additional work he had to do, being offered neither remuneration nor even a small gift.
Clarence Singam, in his review, explained that Dr. Russell Heng's talk on contemporary local gay history followed the one by Sheo S. Rai only after a short hiatus. As was to be expected of an event that was cobbled together by a loose collection of people from any community, the organisers had to make a last-minute shift of venue to Bianco as the power point connections were not working in the original venue at Mox. But the glitch gave the audience time to mingle and socialise, which really was what a community is about. Heng commenced his talk by saying that his discourse was one of “living memory” - a recollection by gay men and women who were still very much with us. He pointed out the need to excavate memories of days long gone by briefly illustrating how same-sex love was quite openly mentioned in ancient Javanese literature. He pointed out that while much research had been done on same-sex love in classical Chinese literature and increasingly on Indian literature, the issue had hardly been researched in terms of ancient South-East Asian literature. Heng then commenced his talk with none other than Bugis Street. He traced the evolution of the social interaction of cross-dressers with “real men” at Bugis and explored some of the rules for that interaction. He then proceeded to take the audience on a tour of Orchard Road with its gay cafes and bars followed by a rendezvous along some famous cruising spots. Having Heng flash photographs of venues long torn down at familiar sites evoked once again a sense of history and nostalgia. Gay and lesbian people were not an aberration of the 1990s but had been there in the country from the very beginning even before independence. Heng demonstrated cogently how the evolution of gay spaces mirrored the evolution of the Singaporean gay community itself - from venues where gays and lesbians just hung out without any clear sense of community to contemporary places that carried with them a strong sense of identity and community. He noted also how sometimes some of the venues came about because entrepreneurs (e.g. the owner of Niche) were just willing to take a risk and test a boundary, which in the end turned out to be unproblematic. In the case of Niche, it was just a matter of allowing same-sex dancing which till then had been viewed as out-of-bounds by gay-friendly clubs. Without Niche’s willingness to take a step to explore this possibility LGBT people might even today be dancing in mixed-sex groups using the opposite gender to mask the fact that the group really was a bunch of gays or lesbians.
It was a 2-artist joint exhibition, featuring works by Ong Jenn Long and Steve Chua, both young, emerging talents. Ong's works gave a sense of mystery, evoking the audience’s imagination through the clever execution of light and shadows. The seductive visual style of his works tempted the audience to examine the subject closer and left it entirely to their interpretation. Chua's graphic design background was significant in his works as they reflected modern day consumerism and the effect of commercials. His intention was, in Chua's words, to "focus and deal with the notion of desire / image / identity", and the effect of consumerism upon the self.
It was advertised thus: "In a world where there are so few models and much suppression of open discussion, it is pretty hard to figure out just how Christian gay and lesbian persons should live as sexual beings? Is only sex after marriage permissible? But we aren't allowed to marry! How do I re-connect with my body, which I have rejected all these years? I feel guilty each time I feel sexual. Is sexual experimentation acceptable? And then what about relationship models - is monogamy the only option? What about recreational sex for the single gay person? If sex is not just for procreation, why not just recreate? Come and hear our panel of straight and gay persons (which include a retired bishop and a newly married gay man) share their views and answer your questions."
Alphonsus Lee, in his review, wrote that the forum started off with a sing-along session of hymns and pop gospel. The panel comprised 5 individuals - a straight man who had been married for 50 years and who with his spouse had stood up for gay people at much personal cost, 2 lesbians and 2 gay men.Each of the panelists had different perspectives on sexual ethics ranging from "sex is no different from drinking tea" to "sex is a sacred institution via which God can be experienced". The discussion became quite vibrant whenever panel members shared honest and heart-felt personal opinions on sexual practices. Several topics were discussed in rapid succession, such as whether the Bible supported practices of monogamy or polygamy, whether men were more able than women to separate the act of sex and emotional intimacy in a relationship, and whether an open relationship was acceptable. There was a rather languid agreement and acceptance of the panel's opinions, but the general lethargy was broken by one panel member's sharing of a bible study session. He said that it was easy to see the manifestation of God in the intimate sharing between two partners through sex, but it was much more difficult to accept that there could be an equally intimate sharing between two strangers through sex in a sauna. However, the panel member pointed out that in his experiences at a sauna, there have been instances where he had encountered a willingness between strangers to give respect and tenderness in the act of sexual sharing, and that it was possible to glimpse God in that act. He went as far as to say that perhaps Jesus can manifest himself even via the person one encounters in a sauna. A pointed question was also raised on what sex meant to the individual. The forum had quickly concluded that sex was NOT merely an act of procreation nor solely an act of pleasure, so the important question was: What does sex really mean? Was it a way to know God? If God had given us every part of our existence, and each played an equally important role, why does sex wield a powerful motivation in our lives? The answer is simple: Sex is the deepest, most sincere and intimate form of communication between two persons. While the pleasurable aspects of it are often deemed sinful and taboo by the church, the healing and bonding that takes place in the act of sex is often neglected or diminished. We are called to celebrate this purest form of communication as Christians responsibly and with due respect to the welfare of the persons we share it with.
It was advertised thus: "The issue of what St. Paul taught about homosexuality has become one of the most divisive theological issues of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The Center for Reflexive Theology (CRT) is pleased to announce a series of lay workshops on methods of Biblical interpretation using Paul’s statements on homosexuality in Romans. We will start with a textual analysis of Romans in August exploring what the text of Romans itself says. In following months, the CRT workshops will focus on an historical analysis of ideas and concepts that influenced St Paul, followed by a contemporary reading of Paul and ending the series with a summary of various approaches to Paul’s view of homosexuality. The objective of the workshops is not to defend or speak against homosexuality but to explore how to approach an ancient text so that it can remain relevant to the 21st century. Come and be enriched."
It was conceived by Au as a dialogue open to all citizens about what it meant to be Singaporean and was the inaugural session of what was to become, as the name implied, a quarterly affair.
The talk was advertised thus: "Singapore was born from contention. Our short period in Malaysia 1963-1965 was marked by racial tensions and riots. Has this made our society oversensitive to contentious social issues and identity politics? Do we overreact to differences of opinion? Does our history warp our perception of cosmopolitanism that we only see ethnic cosmopolitanism and no other dimension, rendering us blind to the social forces of the future? What have been the chief social issues in Singapore since 1965? How has the government responded to the challenges they raised? How do we ourselves see these issues through the filter of our memories (if we have lived through them), or through the filter of what we've been told (if we're too young to remember). How have they made Singapore what Singapore is today? We will talk about ethnicity, language, the baby bust, immigration and other broad issues, how and why they happened and how we have been personally affected. This will be as much a conversation as a talk - a collective sharing of memory and viewpoints, exploring what it means to be Singaporean, on the occasion of the Republic's 40th anniversary. More about The Quarterly: This is not a forum about being gay. It’s a forum about being Singaporean and what gay and lesbians have to say about nationhood in matters important to both straight and gay people, issues that burn our Singaporean hearts. It is about building a place we can call home."
There were noticeably fewer people at IndigNation's fourth week event than at the Rai/Heng double-lecture. While organised by People Like Us 3, an effort was made to include straight people in the audience. Several came and spoke at length, too, as the entire discussion was about Singapore and not about being gay. Perhaps the LGBT community had an inkling from the advertisement that the seminar would not focus primarily on gay issues and this reduced the turnout. Whatever the reason, Au put up a remarkable performance and must have spared no effort in preparing for the inaugural forum of the series. The range of topics was intentionally broad. Actually "broad" is an understatement - it covered almost every controversial issue under the sun, and then some, about Singapore except for gay rights. But the latter topic was intentionally reserved for future fora. There were contributions aplenty from members of the floor, especially Ng Yi Sheng, who apologised for hogging the mike, and Dominic Chua. At the end of the 2-hour forum, the entire room rose to sing the national anthem "Majulah Singapura", a symbolic gesture to signify the gay community's loyalty to Singapore.
S.A.D. (Singapore Affective Disorder), CoccoLatte's regular mid-week party was conceived and promoted as the alter-ego of Singapore's most well-known gay bar-cum-disco, Happy. The alternative venue presented "AlieNation" on a S.A.D. night as its contribution to the IndigNation celebrations. The party was advertised on Coccolatte's website thus: "As part of IndigNation and Singapore Gay and Lesbian Pride Month, S.A.D. (Singapore Affective Disorder), is proud to present "AlieNation". S.A.D. is a monthly mid-week party held at CoccoLatte. It might best be described as a polysexual night since it's open to people of "many persuasions" even though it is essentially gay. S.A.D. entertains anybody and everybody who comes with an open mind and an open heart and is ready to have fun. S.A.D. DJ's are from the U.S., UK and Singapore. Expect an eclectic mix from the likes of The Smiths, Soft Cell, Joy Division, Happy Mondays, etc. with original video work and live guest appearances by such celebrities as 'The Japanese Housewife'...there will be a guest appearance by a surprise celebrity at approx. 11pm. Entry to S.A.D. AlieNation is free and drinks are usually 1 4 1. See the website www.veritygold.net/sad for further details."
Celebrity DJ Chris Ho was at the helm to spin a well-balanced mix of feel-good hits. Unfortunately, owing to unforeseen circumstances, the event's highlight, a video-projected spectacle, had to be cancelled. Taking its place was a dramatic entry by artistic director Nick Charnley, wearing a large marshmallow-like head reminiscent of a Roswell runaway, in keeping with the night's theme. His pet dog wearing pink wings accompanied him, to the audience's delight. The event was attended by a mixed crowd of gay and straight pub-crawlers.
"Boys" was a new Chinese-English bilingual theatre project by Richard Chua, undertaken after Lover's Words - a play about heterosexuals in a homosexual society. It was an extension of Chua's belief that life should be led honestly and truthfully. In his quest to further meditate on love between people (in this case, between 3 boys aged 20-plus), he embarked on the project to push his collaborators to work in a space where they had nowhere to go, but to clean. Cleaning was an essential task that would bring these boys to the next phase of eternity. The story was about love - love that seemed to be defined differently by different people, with different perspectives, resulting in different outcomes. Each boy had a love story to tell.
It was generally felt by the audience that the 3 actors put up an admirable performance, considering that it was their maiden attempt, but that the play as a whole was too short, surreal and lacked an engaging climax.
It was advertised as promising "...an Xciting, Xtreme, Xperience...No hotbod beefed up body is needed for this party (though it would be nice) just come in your berms, let your hair down and have a great time. Keep that night free!" The charge was Sing$10 per person for food, with the first drink free. Subsequent drinks cost $2. The organiser-in-charge was Nick Lum (email@example.com).
The police tried to be tougher with Adlus' sixth anniversary celebration as compared to all the previous IndigNation events because of concerns that it would be another public gay party. However, Lum, the organiser, argued that it was a "BBQ-cum-potluck dinner similar to countless ones held every weekend at the East Coast Park, etc.", so a Public Entertainment Licence should not be required. The police eventually relented.
Alex Au, in his review, wrote that as befitting Adlus, an outdoors and adventure club, their sixth anniversary celebrations were centred on a barbecue and an evening in a beach-side chalet. The location they chose was perfect, and a little cheeky too. The barbecue pit they rented was at Pasir Ris, off Elias Road which was wonderfully quiet, yet breezy. There were about 50 people around the single pit, but there was still more than enough food and drink. Everybody seemed to know each other and the casual informality was refreshing. At about 10 pm, the group transferred themselves to the townhouse-type "chalet" they had rented about 300 metres away from the barbecue pit. It turned out to be a surprise, being part of The Home Team's (i.e. the Singapore Police Force's) resort compound. In the weeks prior to this event, the police had written to Adlus saying that a Public Entertainment Licence was mandatory, but the group managed to convinced the authorities that it was a private party for Adlus members. Even so, Adlus hung up a huge rainbow flag on the chalet's front verandah. No one else passing by could possibly have missed it. More participants continued to arrive way past 10, yet there was still food to spare.
At the chalet, a birthday cake was brought out, alcohol flowed, and banter got livelier. A little game was played at 11pm and won by Anne Cheng who was voted the most sporting personality. The socialising went on late into the night, with a small group going out in search of supper at 4am.
Other gay discos such as Happy picked up on the "Nation" suffix used by the organisers of the Pride Month and held their own private National Day celebrations, with equally witty names like "DetermiNation".
IndigNation was very satisfying for both organisers and participants. With only shoestring resources, but lots of enthusiasm from many LGBT groups and individuals, not merely those involved in People Like Us 3, it reaffirmed their sense of community and pride. It was generally felt that the celebration a great success. It was not just a series of events but also a set of tests for the LGBT community and for Singapore as a whole.
The other challenge was whether it would be able to garner media publicity. The latter was a proxy for the government's attitude to gay initiatives. For example, it was noted by many during August 2004, that while the foreign media were reporting on the Nation.04 party, not a word was mentioned in the local media.
For IndigNation, things were different. There was quite positive coverage in both The Straits Times and Today newspaper at the start of the pride month, and a week later, another report in Today for the poetry recital.
The third test was applied, not to the government and the media, but to gay and lesbians in Singapore. The organisers adopted the policy of allowing all events to be photographed or videographed. In most events, even the audience could be photographed, and no announcement on this would be made. It was felt important to treat IndigNation events just like other public events in Singapore, for there could be no meaning to "pride month", if the participants were not out and proud. It was heartening that almost everybody seemed undisturbed by being photographed, testifying to the maturity and confidence of the Singapore gay and lesbian community.
Much of the texts, photographs and video footage of IndigNation have been archived at Pelangi Pride Centre for public access and to preserve a record of the historical event.
The success and significance of the first IndigNation in 2005 encouraged its organisers, People Like Us 3, to make the event a tradition to be henceforth celebrated every year.
See the programme and reviews for: