Celebrating Singapore Television 50 Years of Success through a series of exhibitions
by Xiao Yan & Diana Toh
The portrayal of queer identities in Singapore’s mainstream television, are often two-dimensional onscreen characters notably in drama and film, usually employed for comedic relief. Effeminate characters are notably more novel compared to the rest of the cast in dramas and film, and are memorable for delivering witty or funny dialogue and antics. Crossdressing characters such as Liang Po Po, Moses Lim and Kumar are seen more as a comedic spectacles, rather than threatening to the state — they are able to get away with being in drag as long as they made no references to homosexuality. Homosexual relationships and characters are never as fully fleshed as multi-faceted characters on television serials, or as empathetic, as their straight counterparts.
Jack Neo, most famous for crossdressing as ‘Liang Si Mei’ and ‘Liang Po Po’, from comedy television to films.
Although in recent years there has been significant loosening of laws such as allowing openly gay people to take up sensitive positions in the public sector, large-scale pride events such as InDIGnation and Pink Dot and the changing attitudes of people towards queer individuals, the portrayal of LGBT individuals in media are still tightly controlled — some reasons owing to the government’s adamant stance to retain Singapore as a heterosexual society that promotes family and procreation instead, and also the conservative backlash of certain religious groups who are against homosexuality. It could also be the least provocative option by preserving the status quo given the diversity of religions and attitudes towards homosexuals.
Pink Dot Singapore, the largest event in support for LGBT individuals since 2009.
Most glaringly, we can see the state’s media’s refusal to acknowledge the social realities of homosexual relationships in Singapore that could be functioning as well as its heterosexual equivalent. A gay relationship must not present itself as an acceptable family unit in the media.
The MDA free-to-air Television Programme Code states this very explicitly:
“Information, themes or subplots on lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transsexualism, transvestism, paedophilia and incest should be treated with utmost caution. Their treatment should not in any way promote, justify or glamorise such lifestyles. Explicit depictions of the above should not be broadcast.“
This reflects the state’s fears of meagre population growth; besides the fact homosexuals are perceived as “abnormal” they are also non-procreative, hence they could be threatening national survival. The economy, workforce, the military, civil service would be at stake. Straight couples are then seen as more ‘useful’ as they could contribute back the country via fulfilling their civic duty — procreation — with various policies to support these families.
Hence portrayal of the homosexual minority has been largely been negative and homophobic through the years, ranging from anti-family sentiments, deviants of society, directionless individuals, psychologically ill, products of moral decadence to simply, just being, “abnormal”.
– A Bright Future (1992)
One of the first instances of introducing homosexuality in local dramas was in a 1992 Channel 8 show, ‘A Bright Future’ by then Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC). Lee Nan Xing played a handsome masculine model, Yufeng, who was the love interest of an effeminate gay man called Ken, portrayed by Lin Yi Sheng. It was considered groundbreaking at that time when Singapore was still very conservative as it featured sexy close up shots of Lee Nan Xing’s muscular body in the gym, and lascivious lip licking and touching from the gay character, before Yufeng’s girlfriend and actor Chen Han Wei (Yufeng’s brother) barged in and condemned the act. In the storyline included an attempted homosexual rape scene of oral sex and dance shots in a gay disco.
Interestingly enough, Yufeng’s girlfriend referred to the gay character as ‘transexual’ which reflects society’s inability to understand that there is a difference between being gay and effeminate, and and they are simply deemed as ‘abnormal’.
The response to the homosexual scene was negative, with numerous letters of complaint to SBC, and spawned articles in the Chinese press, causing the station to shelve gay subplots for many years.
– Gay Crunchtime drama-documentary (May 2003)
A decade ago, Singapore had seen the first gay protagonist in ‘Crunchtime’ a locally-made television series shown on Channel U, featuring the turning points of lives of 12 people including a drug addict and a loanshark. It was supposedly based on a true-life account, but ultimately received flak for promoting a bigoted and homophobic perspective of gays instead.
The protagonist Shaohua, is portrayed as coming from a dysfunctional family with unresolved fatherly love issues and found out that he was interested in men at an early age, which led to him cruising for partners in swimming pools. Because of his sexual deviancy, Shaohua found himself mostly alone with only one other gay friend to confide in, who eventually left the country because he would rather be in another place where he feels accepted. This sent a signal that Singapore at that time was still extremely conservative and did not tolerate homosexuality, despite it being a social reality and it was better to conform to the status quo.
‘Opposites attract” is no longer a given in today’s world. Instilling in our youngsters sound values on sexual issues is a pressing matter and should not be taken lightly.”
This implies that homosexuality is a product of decadent and decaying morals, threatening to the development of a society, a perspective which is held by conservatives.
The documentary reinforced a lot of misconceptions, here being homosexual is depicted as a ‘psychological’ illness, a problem that be corrected, rather as in-born trait. The protagonist goes to CHOICES, a counseling service that promises to show gay people the ‘correct and normal’ , more socially accepted lifestyle. After which he tries to integrate back to society and meeting with women. Another misconception that the documentary held is that homosexuals are just lost, directionless individuals.
At the end of the documentary, Shaohua is shown married to a woman and raising a son, the picture-perfect epitome of the Singaporean heterosexual nuclear family, of which the state advocates — more productive, and ‘morally correct’ for the nation.
“Shaohua and Xueni trod a part unimaginable by outsiders. Now they are married and have a son. We can decide our fate most of the time. There are things beyond our control but that is no excuse for not facing up to reality.’ (Narration)
‘Reality’ is the dominant heterosexual society and the rejection of gays in the country, so homosexuals should make their lives easier by correcting their problem of sexual deviancy to integrate back to society and function harmoniously with the rest of the ‘normal people’.
This was the last homophobic documentary aired in Singapore.
Homophobic presentations re-surfaced again in two of Mediacorp’s Chinese dramas in 2007, this time playing on anti-family sentiments and the anomaly and unnaturalness of such relationships.
Homosexuals which are seen as ‘abnormal’ is a construct by the dominant heterosexual majority in Singapore.
The wife is interrogated by the police for murdering the gigolo that her husband was seeing. Condemns homosexual relationships as anti-family, breaking up marriages and families, gays portrayed as ‘the bad guy’ of the show, money-minded and materialistic.
Dear, Dear Son-in-Law (2007)
Father does not approve of the relationship of his daughter and her boyfriend, who is accused of being gay. Again, homosexuality is seen as a ‘psychological problem’. Gays seen as just ‘abnormal’, echoes a lot of sentiments from conservatives and older generations. ‘Gays’ and ‘transvestites’ (Ah Gua, in colloquial slang) used interchangeably, despite it being two completely different terms, therefore clumping the gays and transvestites as just abnormal people in society.
From the above illustrations, we are almost certain the provocation of any out lashings with any hint of positive portrayal of homosexuality. Any hint of it will be labelled as gay agenda. Surely, comic relief by drag has fulfilled its potential. Otherwise, alternative media will take effect in reaching out to the public.
Campaign to raise funds for appeal against 377A
Both Boo Junfeng and Loo Zihan produced a campaign video to raise funds, for which Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee appeal against Section 377A. The entire amount of USD $50, 000 was raised within 18 hours of launch.
The overwhelming response:
With rules and regulations in favor of censorship, does the question of offense necessarily lies on homosexuality as a topic as a taboo, or as a matter-of-fact to be criminalized and defamed for homosexual individuals, or simply… An insult to Singaporean’s level of maturity? Can we trust enough for citizens to judge and discern? We must not forget that in today’s context, being constantly plugged in, we exist in the Matrix and doubles the profile as netizens.
Student challenges gay education on Channel News Asia
Melissa Tsang wonders if the counsellors would present negative view of homosexuality, with the reminder of state law against consensual sex between men.
Some questions are left open-ended. For the better, it comforts the tortured intellectual souls.
Here are laws that prevent us for speaking up and talking about homosexuality. With reference to Rev. Miak Siew’s speech in Hong Lim Park parallel with IndigNation 2013, Singapore’s LGBT pride month, any positive portrayal can be construed as promoting homosexual lifestyle, and MDA will hunt down. For mere engagement of dialogue and conversation on the issue, watchdogs are faithfully present and will shut down. If we go on like this, how are we able to allow for penetration of authentic expression, for even the most basic understanding of human rights are now withheld? It is about our identity and embracing diversity that transcend beyond sexuality, classes, races and religions or any cultural boundaries. We should always remember to recognize inherent worth and life in every single human being. We must continue to question and seek the truth for these rights is no simply LGBT but about human.
Wijeysingha believes that Section 377A of the Penal Code(Singapore) will eventually be repealed.
Through alternative media, hopefully majority goes through paradigm shift in understanding and if not acceptance, tolerance, so that may influence law-makers and political leader to affect rules and regulations limiting public engagement of queer issues in local television. The neutralization of LGBTQ’s identity, forgoing the notion of normalization, will in time take effect, regardless of religious gay-haters’ outcry. In a manner of speaking, we are expecting constraints to ease and allow for more understanding of the queer through a more comfortable portrayal.
As of now, we are still far from the frontier for a breakthrough in respectful and depth in queer characters. In time to come though uncertain of the how long more it is going to take, we are waiting for acknowledgement before even dwelling into issue of acceptance. The focus of policy-making decisions centers around the majority inevitably favoring majority. It will be an affair where both socio-political climate’s shapeshifting and television broadcasting come hand in hand. After all, Mediacorp is state-owned.
Rev. Miak Siew. To Russia with Love. IndigNation 2013. Aug. 24, 2013. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZpfkRv8rC5w
Inquirer News. Jul. 2nd, 2013. http://newsinfo.inquirer.net/437043/with-law-against-him-singapore-pol-says-hes-gay
Fundraising for 377A Constitutional Challenge. http://www.indiegogo.com/projects/fundraising-for-s377a-constitutional-challenge?c=activity
Obendorf , S. (n.d.). A few respectable steps behind the world? Gay and Lesbian rights in contemporary Singapore. Retrieved from sas-space.sas.ac.uk/4809/1/08Obendorf.pdf
Yi-Sheng, N. (2008, May 3). Homophobia part 1: The mda censors the family. Retrieved from http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2008/05/homophobia-part-1-the-mda-censors-the-family