Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab covering education, youth, and aging. Her writing has also appeared in The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, and Smithsonian.
In response, the government has made organizing protests that much harder.
Though Hong Lim Park, an attractive two-acre green space in the middle of densely populated central Singapore, looks rather nondescript, it has a special status. It’s home to “Speakers’ Corner,” the only place in the Southeast Asian city-state where citizens can publicly air their opinions, often as individuals and sometimes as groups, with the state’s blessing. Even then, there are limitations. Because Singapore’s government is preoccupied with keeping the peace among the country’s various ethnic groups and religions, from Chinese Buddhists to Malay Muslims to Indian Hindus, it has made speaking on the topics of race and religion taboo.
This tug of war between freedom and constraint is common in Singapore. Globally, the city-state is known for strict governance and excessive punishment for peccadillos like selling chewing gum, failing to flush a public toilet, or walking around nude in one’s abode without the shades drawn. Yet spaces like Speakers’ Corner allow Singaporeans to push political and social boundaries—at least up to a point.
The annual Pink Dot LGBT rights rally in Hong Lim Park is perhaps the most visible manifestation of this tension. Though sex between men is illegal in Singapore, the government has historically looked the other way while volunteers have staged the event for eight years running. LGBT Singaporeans and any citizen or permanent resident who “support the belief that everyone deserves the freedom to love” gather on a June afternoon to enjoy live music, listen to speeches by local celebrities, and engage with LGBT-friendly organizations that set up booths in a “community tent.” Attendees wear pink clothing and wave pink lights or placards to form a massive pink dot that can be seen from the sky. (The moniker is a play on Singapore’s nickname, Little Red Dot, a reference to the fact that the city-state is often represented on a world map as a tiny red circle.) Pink Dot’s popularity has grown such that this year and last, the tens of thousands of attendees spilled out of the park’s environs.
This year’s June rally also saw an increase in support from foreign companies, with 18 firms—up from nine in 2015—providing funding. New sponsors included Facebook, Visa, and Apple. The rise in such visible foreign participation spurred the Ministry of Home Affairs to announce that international entities must not interfere in Singapore’s domestic issues, “especially political issues or controversial social issues with political overtones…LGBTI issues are one such example.” The government then instituted a rule that went into effect this month mandating that foreign companies must apply for a permit to sponsor events at Speakers’ Corner. At the same time, it made local firms, which have traditionally avoided sponsoring a controversial event like Pink Dot, exempt from this process.
Human Rights Watch commented that such a policy “sends a discriminatory message contrary to basic rights and global business standards,” and the Singaporean activist Jolovan Wham told The Straits Times that “the government is worried about the expansion of our civil and political space.” Google, a sponsor of Pink Dot since 2011, announced that it will apply for a permit to fund next year’s event. Other corporate supporters have not commented.
Despite this setback, Pink Dot’s planners say they will press on in their goal to promote inclusivity and diversity in Singapore. Organizer Prashant Somosundram adds that local companies could step in if foreign firms are blocked. “We hope more will come forward to support our local LGBT community,” he says.
Moreover, Prashant believes it’s just a matter of time—though “the path before us is still long”—before the LGBT community’s quest for the “freedom to love” gains more traction, particularly through a repeal of the law that criminalizes sex between men. (Though a 2014 Supreme Court ruling upheld the law, the government took a step forward by stating that it will not be proactively enforced.) Echoes Jun Zubillaga-Pow, the cultural historian and co-editor of Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures: “With the rise of globalization and technological development, the law against homosexual acts will eventually be repealed and the Singaporean citizen will be one who is cosmopolitan and opinionated.”
In such a future, Speakers’ Corner could be a free-for-all of unregulated ideas. But in the meantime, it will likely remain a space that often reflects the negotiation between Singaporeans who push the status quo and their government that pushes back.