On 15 July 1996, the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) issued Notification no. 2400/96 which specified a Code of Practice which covered not only the Internet, but also all broadcast media, including television. The foreword to the Code of Practice stated:
Among the material to be prohibited were:
Owing to the ignorance of the SBA that homosexuality and lesbianism were not 'sexual perversions' according to prevailing international medical opinion but variations of the norm, and widespread public dissatisfaction with the vague, inaccurate and unnecessarily restrictive wording of the Code of Practice, it was revised on 1 November 1997 to state:
While being a quantum leap from incorrectly labelling homosexuality a sexual perversion, the non-specification of what exactly "advocates homosexuality" made it a taboo subject for television documentaries for 7 years following the first issuing of the Code.
The penalty for media licencees flouting the Code was a hefty fine, as Channel i, the now-defunct English-language sister channel of Channel U, discovered after it aired an interview with Anne Heche in 2003. During the interview, Heche spoke about her lesbian relationship with Ellen DeGeneres, amongst other things. Channel i was subsequently fined $15,000 by SBA, the broadcasting watchdog, for "justifying, promoting and glamourising homosexuality".
It was only in May 2003 that the very first locally-produced television documentary dealing with homosexuality as its main subject was broadcast on Singaporean airwaves. It was a homophobic, 30-minute episode in a Mandarin-language series called "Crunch Time 2" shown on Channel U, a television station owned by Singapore Press Holdings. The series was advertised in The Straits Times which promoted it as one that featured the turning points in the lives of 12 people including a loan shark, an unwed mother and a drug addict.
The particular program featured actors re-enacting the supposedly true-life account of a young, masculine gay Singaporean man cruising for sex in public swimming pools and toilets. It reinforced the misconception that homosexuality resulted from having an unhappy home, parents who constantly fight, and being sexually abused. In this case, the protagonist was only 6 years old when he was asked by an adult female to perform sexual acts with a girl his age. The episode wound up with an interview with a spokesman from Choices, a Christian counselling group from the Church of our Saviour (COOS) in Queenstown which helps "straighten" out gay lives, which was the eventual outcome for the gay man in the story. He was depicted as having been "successfully'" converted through counselling from a dissatisfied, unfulfilled homosexual to a man happily married to a female spouse and producing a son.
The negative and stereotypical depiction of homosexuality in the program prompted an online petition which garnered more than 200 signatories over the ensuing weekend. It probably had a significant effect as the episode was the last time a homophobic documentary was aired in Singapore. However, the overwhelmingly influential factor in ending televised homophobia was Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's statements in Time magazine in July 2003 about reversing anti-gay hiring policies in the Civil Service.
In a 180-degree turnaround just 2 months after the above documentary, which aimed to encourage homosexuals to turn straight, Channel U aired a groundbreaking episode in the info-tainment hands-on series "OK, No Problem" at 7:30 p.m. on 30 July 2003. This time, it sought instead to educate the public that one could not judge a man's sexual orientation merely from his external appearance and to foster understanding and acceptance of homosexuals. Popular compère Chuan Yi Fong was filmed in a hawker centre in Ang Mo Kio where she asked random diners about their opinions on homosexuality. A range of positive and negative views were offered.
A live telephone interview with Dr. Tan Chong Kee, who was introduced as having written a thesis on homosexuality in Taiwan, was interpolated during a voting session by onlookers. The latter were asked to pick which, amongst 3 chosen men, they thought were gay, judging from externalities. After the votes were cast, it was revealed to the audience's surprise that none of the 3 were gay. In fact, one had brought along his wife and baby son.
The highlight of the episode was the appearance of an actual gay man named Anthony who was initially hidden behind a black curtain. After a suspenseful emergence to face a wall of curious onlookers, he spoke emotionally about his own struggles as a homosexual and how he hoped society would accept them. He also publicly thanked Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong for his recent announcement that openly homosexual individuals would now be employed in the Civil Service. Anthony choked back his tears as he spoke, causing the compère's eyes to also redden, and members of the audience to listen sympathetically. For his courage, Anthony was presented with a bouquet of flowers and received a huge round of applause.
Later, on the same night of 30 July 2003 at 8:30 p.m., the Malay-language channel Suria aired another documentary on homosexuality in its Detik (meaning "a second in time") series. The particular episode was entitled "Haruskah golongan Homoseksual diterima?" (Should Homosexuals be accepted?)
It featured interviews with a Malay gay man named Helmi and a Malay lesbian named Zac in which they recounted their self-discovery and personal relationships. People on the street were asked whether they could accept homosexuals and a diverse range of negative to positive opinions were expressed.
It revealed to the Malay community, the presence of websites providing support for Muslim homosexuals. Figures of authority queried for their views included Dr. Francis Ngui (President, Singapore Psychiatric Association) and Ustaz Fatris Bakaram (Assistant Mufti and Head of the Mufti Office, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, MUIS or Singapore Islamic Religious Council).
All in all, the programme tried its best to present a balanced view of homosexuality without moralising or injecting any subliminal message.
On 23 February 2005, Mandarin-language Channel U broadcast its third programme dealing with homosexuality in the 'Inside Out' current affairs series. The topic of the episode was "Do homosexuals have space for their activities?"
This programme was a landmark in that it was the first time that the views of leading gay activists, in this case Eileena Lee and Charles Tan from People Like Us 3 (PLU3), were given a relatively lengthy airing on primetime television. Artistic Co-Director Nelson Chia from Toy Factory Theatre Ensemble, a drama company which had staged several plays with homosexual themes and assisted in producing the episode itself, also presented a pro-gay voice for theatre in particular and society in general. Chia expressed, with great conviction, his disquietude with the contradictions between Singapore's liberalisation drive and the recent curbing of public gay spaces, despite the fact that he himself was a heterosexual family man.
An anonymous gay man named "David" was also interviewed at length, in which he doubted Singaporeans' general level of acceptance of homosexuals.
The programme was thought to have been produced to give an opportunity for the gay community to vent its concerns after an official clampdown on gay parties like Nation.04 and Snowball in 2004, presumably as part of a conservative backlash against the rampant spread of HIV infection within the community.
In spite of NUS sociologist Associate Professor Paulin Tay Straughan's assertion in the documentary that homosexuals in Singapore enjoyed almost everything their straight counterparts were entitled to, gay community leaders like Alex Au begged to differ.
There have always been a sizeable proportion of homosexuals in the broadcast media since the inception of television in Singapore. However, in the early decades, these individuals preferred to remain in the closet due to official policy which sought to restrict gay people from attaining managerial positions on Caldecott Hill. It was feared that they would introduce a gay-friendly angle into television broadcasts, which would have the greatest impact on mainstream society that any medium could achieve. (See the section "Past Restrictions" above).
However, as local television and society matured, gay men in the broadcast industry gradually became more assertive and less guarded of their sexuality. Producers began to explore the hitherto taboo topic of homosexuality by gingerly introducing stereotypical gay male characters into their drama serials. This was done initially in the Chinese language channels, as Singapore produced no English language television dramas in the early years. It was a creative progression as all the major role genres had been worked to death. It was also thought to be interesting to see how the public would react to such novel characters on a medium which penetrated vividly into their very homes.
One of the first such experiments was a mid-1980s Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) production on Channel 8, the only Chinese language television channel at the time. It was a daily Mandarin drama serial starring popular actor Li Nan Xing as the main protagonist. He portrayed a handsome, masculine, struggling model who was the love interest of a stereotypically effeminate gay man hopelessly enamoured of Li's male beauty and bent on seducing him. Groundbreaking scenes, never before seen in a local production, included sexily shot close-up sequences of Li's muscular body as he exercised on gym equipment, the lascivious lip-licking of the gay character as he watched Li exercising, the attempted resting of the homosexual character's cheek on Li's sweaty body (see video), staged disco scenes of gay men dancing, including a swimming trunk fashion show, two gay lovers having a tiff in a carpark and an attempt at oral sex by the gay character on Li in a car.
Audible grunts of apparent disgust could be heard emanating from some homes during the airing of these landmark scenes on primetime slots. In the following weeks, numerous letters of complaint were received by SBC and the serial's introduction of homosexuality spawned several articles in the Chinese press. These factors caused the station to shelve its experimentation with gay subplots for many years.
More acceptable to the general public were cross-dressing comedy skits, especially by superstar comedian Jack Neo and drag icon Kumar , in which the roles they portrayed were 100% female and in which there were no hints of masculine homosexuality. Effeminate mannerisms and behaviour by non-cross-dressing male television artistes, especially in comedic routines, were also well-received, provided they made no references to homosexuality. Over the years, many straight comedians, including portly Moses Ng, performed in drag on television without raising eyebrows.
With the introduction of cable television into Singapore, subscription non-free-to-air channels produced overseas, with their more liberal portrayal of homosexuality in news reports, documentaries and dramas, became accessible to local viewers . These exerted no small impact on the mainstream audience, whose previous parochial outlook was broadened to encompass a much wider horizon.
In 2003, Channel NewsAsia (CNA) pioneered a revolution when it uttered the English words "gay" and "lesbian" for the very first time on local television in its feature report on the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras. However, news of foreign gay events was covered more readily, while Singaporean developments were still firmly stuffed in the censorship closet.