A woman wrapped in the rainbow flag is seen at the Pink Dot rally, Singapore’s annual gay pride rally, July 1, 2017. 

© 2017 Reuters

Plans for an annual festival in Singapore supporting LGBT rights came under threat last year when the government denied sponsorship requests from multinational companies. In the end, however, the Pink Dot festival went ahead with the backing of more than 100 Singaporean companies. In an email interview, Linda Lakhdhir, a legal adviser for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, describes Pink Dot’s significance and the challenges facing LGBT Singaporeans. 

WPR: What is the general human rights situation for LGBT people in Singapore, and how has it evolved in recent years?

Linda Lakhdhir: The rights of Singapore’s LGBT community are severely restricted. Engaging in consensual sexual relations between two male persons remains a criminal offense, and there are no legal protections against discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. Earlier this year, when Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong was asked what he thought of the country’s colonial-era sodomy law, which outlaws “acts of gross indecency” between two males, he responded, “I’m prepared to live with it until social attitudes change.”

The argument that LGBT issues are “sensitive” in Singaporean society is used to justify severe restrictions on the portrayal of LGBT individuals in the arts and even in advertising. Storylines involving LGBT characters are routinely censored from shows such as “Desperate Housewives,” and a stage version of “Les Miserables” was forced to delete a same-sex kiss in 2016. As an example of rules governing LGBT-related content, the television broadcast regulations, known as the Free to Air Television Program Code, state that “music associated with drugs, alternative lifestyles (e.g. homosexuality) or the worship of the occult or the devil should not be broadcast.” And according to the Board of Film Censors Classification Guidelines, “Films that depict a homosexual lifestyle should be sensitive to community values. They should not promote or justify a homosexual lifestyle.” In June of this year, the Advertising Standards Agency asked a shopping center to remove the phrase “supporting the freedom to love” from a promotional ad for this year’s annual Pink Dot rally in support of LGBT rights, on the grounds that it “may affect public sensitivities.”

Efforts by the LGBT community to organize are hampered by the refusal of Singapore’s Registrar of Societies to allow any LGBT organization to register. Without legal status, LGBT organizations find themselves unable to properly engage the government in improving the lives of LGBT Singaporeans.

Thus, despite the growing success of Pink Dot, the human rights situation for LGBT individuals in Singapore has not noticeably improved in recent years. 

WPR: Why did authorities ban foreigners from participating in this year’s annual Pink Dot celebration, how did organizers respond, and what does that response suggest about the level of support for LGBT rights within Singapore?

Lakhdhir: The authorities not only banned foreigners from participating in the annual Pink Dot festival, they also banned foreign and multinational companies from sponsoring the event without a permit. Both restrictions were justified as necessary to “prevent foreign interference” in Singapore’s domestic affairs. 

In June 2016, Pink Dot celebrated its eighth year in Hong Lim Park, with the sponsorship of corporations including Google, Barclays, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, BP, Bloomberg, Twitter, Apple and Facebook. A few days after the event, the Ministry of Home Affairs warned multinational companies to stop funding the event, saying such support constitutes “foreign interference” in domestic affairs. In October, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that, under newly promulgated rules, any entity that is not incorporated in Singapore and does not have a majority of Singapore citizens on its board is now required to apply for a permit to sponsor an event in Hong Lim Park. Although 10 multinational companies applied to do so this year, their applications were denied. 

In addition, in October 2016, the authorities amended the rules governing events at Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park, the only location in Singapore where such an event can be held without a government permit, to further restrict the participation of foreigners. Prior to that date, noncitizens could be present in the park during an event as long as they did not “take part in the demonstration.” Under the new rules, noncitizens are not permitted to “participate” in any assembly in the park. If they do so, both the noncitizen and the organizer of the event can face criminal charges. As a result, the police informed Pink Dot’s organizers that they would have to barricade the park and check the identification of every person entering to ensure compliance with the new rules.

The response of Singaporeans to both new restrictions belies the government’s position that the city-state is not ready for LGBT rights. More than 100 Singaporean companies stepped in to fill the funding gap this year, allowing Pink Dot’s organizers to surpass their fundraising target by May. Despite long lines to enter and the appearance of barricades, attendance was extremely high, with more than 20,000 citizens and permanent residents showing up to demonstrate their support for LGBT rights. 

WPR: How have tactics employed so far by LGBT activists differed from activists elsewhere in the region, and what does that say about challenges they face that are specific to Singapore?

Lakhdhir: One thing Singaporean LGBT activists have drawn on to raise awareness and increase visibility for their community is the support of companies—this comes both in the form of direct financial support for events such as Pink Dot, and in terms of broader messaging about diversity and inclusion, something the private sector has taken the lead on in recent years. Given Singapore’s status as a regional economic power house, LGBT rights activists across the region have taken cues from this type of corporate advocacy. They have similarly engaged multinational businesses and thought leaders to communicate to regional governments the impact that LGBT rights issues have on their countries’ reputations—not only in official human rights forums such as the United Nations, but also when it comes to economic development and investment. 

Similar to other LGBT activists across Asia, Singaporean groups are trying not to be provocative, but rather simply to tip the needle toward respect for their basic rights. The organizers of Pink Dot have been meticulous over the years about following the ever-more restrictive rules governing the event. They challenge perceptions without breaking the rules.