Daryl Yang contemplates about the state of queerness in Singapore, and whether or not it is time for queer Singaporeans to put down their feet and leave a country that frequently mistreats them. He speaks to Singaporeans who have emigrated or are thinking of doing so, revealing queer disenchantment at an increasingly hostile society.
Over the past few months, as the country debated whether or not to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, many young queer Singaporeans must have wondered to themselves whether there is a place for people like us in this country.
From survey findings that a majority of Singaporeans disapproved of same-sex relationships to religious authorities who warned of the devastating consequences of our deviant lifestyles, we were constantly reminded that we were unwelcome and undesirable.
At about the same time, the Institute of Policy Studies released its findings from a 2016 survey that found that about 1 in 5 young Singaporeans wish to emigrate, while almost a third would consider the possibility of doing so within the next five years. How many among those who wanted to leave Singapore were queer and wanted to leave because they could not bear being treated as second-class citizens in our own country?
This emigratory sentiment was echoed in a Facebook post by public intellectual Donald Low, who lamented: “I’m afraid it’s time for all of us liberals to exit from this place, and I’m sure we won’t be missed.”
Yet, leaving Singapore is easier said than done. After all, this is the place most of us call home and often the only place we have ever known. Apart from these perhaps homonationalistic intuitions, there is also the question of whether leaving means that we are giving up. Do we have a moral duty to create the change we want to see in Singapore, even if we might never live to see the day it accepts us as equal citizens to our heterosexual peers?
Is this home, truly?
During the 2007 parliamentary debates over the repeal of Section 377A, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that queer people “must have a place in this society”.
“We should not make it harder than it already is for them to grow up and to live in a society where they are different from most Singaporeans,” he exhorted.
However, it is not exactly because we are equal citizens who deserve dignity and respect. “We also do not want them to leave Singapore to go to more congenial places to live,” he explained.
Anthropologist Chris KK Tan has described this as the “Janus-faced state’s hypocrisy”.
“Queers are welcomed for their economic productivity, but their [inability] to partake in reproductive marital life renders them partial citizens,” Tan wrote.
When PM Lee said that queer people have a “place” in Singapore, he was referring to specific domains in society. As the older Lee remarked:
“They tell me and anyway, it is probably half-true that homosexuals are creative writers, dancers, et cetera. If we want creative people, then we [have] got to put up with their idiosyncrasies so long as they don’t infect the heartland.”
As problematic as this conception of queerness as an infectious contagion may be, it comes as no surprise. In an essay titled “Both Cure And Contagion”, political scientist Simon Oberdorf quoted gender studies scholar M. Jacqui Alexander, who said that queerness poses “a profound threat to the very survival of the nation” because it rejects and refuses to comply with the state’s vision of the ideal citizen.
In Singapore’s case where fertility is a matter of national concern, academic Leong Wai-teng has also highlighted that “homosexuality constitutes a threat and an aberration to the paternalistic state because same-gender unions usually do not result in procreation.”
To remain in Singapore then is to accept our status not only as second-class citizens but also as moral and demographic aberrations.
Where I belong
The idea of leaving Singapore was first planted in my mind two years ago when I spent two months in San Francisco as an intern with a queer equality advocacy group. I stayed with a Singaporean who had moved there to be with his husband. They live in a beautiful home with their teenage daughter and a cat.
They were the first gay parents I have ever met. The thought of having children had never crossed my mind before I met them. The notion that two men cannot make good parents had embedded itself deep into my consciousness and was never challenged because I have never seen any gay parents anyway. Now, it has become a real possibility.
However, it is a real possibility only if I leave Singapore. Legally and practically, raising a child as a gay couple would be ridiculously complicated. This then was the dilemma: if I wanted to have a family, I have to leave Singapore.
There are other more fundamental reasons for leaving Singapore too. I interviewed Kay, a 23 year old who identifies as bisexual and agender. After spending 7 months in Toronto, Canada for a semester abroad, they have been thinking about leaving Singapore too.
“Being in Toronto reminded me that being queer didn't mean a lifetime of being the Other. Call it homonormativity if you like, but I'll say that I experienced a sense of freedom that I never had before,” they shared.
“I didn't have to leave the house worried that I would look too butch to enter women's spaces, like bathrooms. I didn't worry that people would stare if I kissed the girl I was dating on the street. In Toronto, I learned that being queer wasn't something to be ashamed of.”
While I was in San Francisco, I also met Ghee, a 49 year old gay man who moved to the US when he was 15. He had returned to Singapore to fulfil his National Service obligations (NS) before deciding that he “had to leave”.
“When I came back to serve NS, I decided that Singapore was too conservative for me after having coming out in San Francisco. Furthermore, while I was living in the US, I discovered my kinky identity. Given that Singapore was unwelcoming towards gay people, I concluded that life as a kinkster in Singapore would be unbearable,” he shared.
For Sabrina, a 33 year-old queer woman, living in the US for the past 7 years as a graduate student has been “the most amazing chance to just be myself.”
“There are two main reasons. Firstly, having community resources like university LGBT offices and a much more open and queer-friendly culture was crucial. Also, it was certainly the physical distance between me and the repressive culture of Singapore, and my family - I was just so physically far away from my old life, and on my own for the first time,” she said.
“I could just be queer and be myself, and feel safe and normal and supported.”
There’s no place I rather be
Not everyone has the privilege to think about emigration. As immigration is closely tied to socioeconomic class and educational qualifications, it is usually only those who have enjoyed a university education and earn a certain income who can qualify to migrate to other developed countries. To leave the country would mean that we are simply giving up and leaving the rest who cannot leave in the lurch.
However, do those of us who can afford to contemplate leaving Singapore also owe a moral duty to the larger queer movement and community to stay and champion a more inclusive Singapore? As someone who has been involved in queer activism for several years now, there is obviously some part of me which believes that we should all stay and fight the good fight.
Kay struggles with the question as well. “It weighs on me sometimes - that I'm a privileged enough person to say hey, we need to change things and have people listen, and yet I'm saying I want to leave,” they said.
“But, do I live my life for the "greater good", and dedicate decades to living in a country that not only despises me, but has made me into a person who grew up thinking the worst of themselves?”
“For now, I need to think of my own needs, because this country will not. And my needs involve being in a place where I don't have to live like a second class citizen, afraid of being outed at work because there are no laws that say I can't be discriminated against. My needs involve being in a country where the populace, in general, isn't going to be hostile if I decide to hold a girl's hand.”
Perhaps local poet Alfian Sa’at puts it best when he said, “If you care too much about Singapore, first it’ll break your spirit, and finally it will break your heart.”
Quite apart from the abdication of our moral duty, leaving Singapore also entails leaving everything that we are familiar with behind. For Sabrina, who has lived in Boston for several years now, this means things like the food, family, and the weather.
“In some strange way, Singapore is still always home to me. I'm familiar and comfortable with the culture, the discrimination, the strange quirks, the languages, the public transportation system. I know how to deal with racism and bureaucracy in this country,” she shared.
Having left Singapore for several decades, Ghee cautioned against being too idealistic about wherever one may be thinking of migrating to. As the saying goes, the grass always looks greener on the other side.
“Depending on where you choose to immigrate to, you need to realise that your new adopted home is not perfect. Even if you immigrate to a country where English is the primary language and you speak very good English, you still have to contend with learning a new culture. You will feel like a minority. At times, you might even face discrimination.”
Tomorrow’s here today
The question of whether to migrate to another country is obviously a difficult one, whether one is queer or not. At this stage, I remain ambivalent about leaving Singapore though I know I want to keep my options open if I decide to leave eventually. As I continue to ponder my decision to stay in Singapore or leave, I also asked Ghee and Sabrina about any advice they had for me and other young queer Singaporeans.
Ghee suggests that it is useful to equip ourselves with “a solid education and strong employable skills” since educational qualifications and professional experience are chief considerations in most countries’ immigration policies. Given growing protectionist and xenophobic sentiments in other developed countries, it may also become increasingly difficult to migrate.
He also noted that it is important to try living wherever we want to move to for a while prior to making the decision to do so permanently. One way to do so is to pursue graduate studies, like what Sabrina did.
It is also sensible to acquaint oneself with the country’s immigration policies. For instance, Sabrina highlighted that she cannot apply for a green card in the US while she is on a student visa. To do so, she would need to first secure employment.
Finally, there is the question of whether to renounce one’s Singapore citizenship. This would not be an issue if one is merely residing abroad on a work visa or a permanent residence visa. However, this question becomes salient if one decides to acquire citizenship elsewhere since dual citizenship is not permitted in Singapore.
For Sabrina, this question is still a difficult one and she remains undecided about giving up her Singapore citizenship.
After all, to her, Singapore is still home, truly.
Daryl Yang is a final year student reading a double degree in law and liberal arts at Yale-NUS College and the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore. He co-founded and served as Executive Director of the Inter-University LGBT Network, a network comprising five student-led organisations across Singapore’s universities with the aim to foster safer and more inclusive campuses. He was also previously a two-term Coordinator of The G Spot, Yale-NUS College’s gender & sexuality alliance.