‘DIY until we die’? LGBTQ rights group on what Singapore’s new leadership means for its movement

LGBTQ people have long had to chart their own paths in the face of discrimination on bread and butter issues, like housing and employment. Pink Dot campaigners tell the Eco-Business Podcast their hopes amid a political leadership refresh.

Pink Dot 16 Media Launch - Letters to PM

The city-state’s new prime minister Lawrence Wong, who was sworn in last month, has lost no time in setting up two new working groups to engage Singaporeans more widely on climate action and mental health.

But despite polls by global market research firm Ipsos released earlier this month reflecting a growing public support for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer (LGBTQ) rights and legal recognition for same-sex couples, Wong has remained quiet on these issues. 

The recent cancellation of a talk on sex and gender featuring an academic, a drag queen and an LGBTQ counsellor at the government-affiliated Science Centre, after a conservative group mobilised its members to voice their disapproval of the event, also reveals where divisions continue to exist in the deeply conservative country.

Two years since Singapore struck down its gay sex ban, Pink Dot, the country’s largest LGBTQ movement, has reported that many LGBTQ people in the country, especially transgender individuals, continue to face discrimination on bread and butter issues, like housing, employment and family planning. This year’s rally, which will take place this Saturday at Hong Lim Park, the sole space in Singapore for legal protests, aims to spread awareness about the continued barriers to inclusion post-repeal.

The event will also invite participants to pen letters to Wong – who articulated a vision of “a society where every Singaporean matters” in his swearing-in speech – to share their hopes for a more inclusive Singapore for LGBTQ people. Last year’s edition, which tackled traditional family values, attracted a record political attendance, with two members of the ruling People’s Action Party, Eric Chua and Derrick Goh, opposition member Hazel Poa from the Progress Singapore Party as well as Louis Chua and He Ting Ru of the Worker’s Party, the country’s main opposition camp.

Pink Dot 2024 - Letters to PM

Compared to other SIngaporeans, LGBTQ people are half as likely to be confident of meeting basic needs like healthcare and housing, research from Pink Dot shows. These findings, along with written letters, will be sent to the city-state’s new prime minister in the coming weeks. Image: Gabrielle See / Eco-Business

We can go out and make a promise for a more inclusive Singapore… but what does it actually mean when you say “we want to include everyone”? I think there’s some implied inclusion and exclusion of which communities to bring into the fold.

Clement Tan, spokesperson, Pink Dot

Joining the Eco-Business podcast to discuss what the future holds for LGBTQ rights amid a leadership refresh and how to deal with tensions inside and outside of the community, are Pink Dot’s spokesperson Clement Tan and the group’s communications lead Rachel Yeo.

Pink Dot - Clement Tan and Rachel Yeo headshots

Pink Dot’s spokesperson Clement Tan (left) and communications lead Rachel Yeo (right). Images: Pink Dot SG and LinkedIn

Tune in as we talk about:

  • Measuring the success of Pink Dot’s past campaigns
  • Has the Pink Dot movement been too homogenous in the past?
  • What changes are expected with Pink Dot’s leadership leadership refresh?
  • Why has Pink Dot chosen not to focus on legalising same-sex marriage post-repeal?
  • How Pink Dot sponsor numbers have changed over the years and tackling corporate “pink-washing”
  • Key asks for Singapore’s new generation of leaders on LGBTQ issues

The transcript in full:

Last year’s rally looked to dispel the notion that LGBTQ equality was a threat to family values and expand the narrow definition of family. How successful do you think Pink Dot was in doing that?

Rachel Yeo: I would like to point to the fact that I think we’ve played a role in shifting sentiments over the years, not just last year. We’ve introduced the fact that our families are just as valid in early years as well.

If you look at recent surveys, it’s pretty impressive shift, especially among the younger generation. This year is Pink Dot’s 16th birthday and there’s a whole generation of young people who have grown up with us in Singapore, and it really reflects in their views. There are a lot of Gen Z’s, for example, who think that we are just as deserving of legal protections. Those numbers speak for themselves.

Clement Tan: Last year’s messaging around family values resonated with a lot of people in the public, I think due to its timeliness in response to some of the rhetoric we saw in Parliament, where our policymakers were talking about LGBTQ rights in opposition to family values.

We also saw the debut of several community groups around supporting rainbow families, like Proud Parents, which is a support group for LGBTQ couples who are raising kids in Singapore. After repeal, a lot of them have felt comfortable coming out to one another and they’re actually doing things like organising playdates, clothing swaps, excursions and outings, but also sharing legal resources with one another. 

Rachel Yeo: I would like to add that last year we worked with Oogachaga and a few other community groups to launch the My Family Matters support group, a tea session for families. Since then, multiple sessions have been held. It shows that there is demand, that there are families, parents and siblings who want to know how to support their LGBTQ family members and friends. I see that as a win.

Pink Dot 2024 - Families

A family-friendly event, Pink Dot welcomed participants of all ages to join in the rally. Apart from youths, parents with young children also showed up to express support for and solidarity with the LGBTQ community in Singapore. Image: Yang Yajie / Eco-Business

What then sparked off the theme this year, of “No One Left Behind”?

Clement Tan: In 2024, what we thought was going to be on people’s minds was more of what’s going to happen in the future. 2024 is going to be a very big year in terms of leadership change and bread and butter issues. Those don’t just impact regular Singaporeans, they impact queer people too. We have a stake in this country and we have important questions to ask our government stakeholders. A lot of whom have spent the past couple of months articulating their vision of what Singapore should look like in the future.

Times of uncertainty mean people need reassurance. Queer people want to be assured that there is a place here that we can call home, that we have a future here worth staying and fighting for. Yes, we’re doing important work to slowly bridge that gap. But that gap might widen. As we race to bring the country into the future, are we being left behind yet again?

Rachel Yeo: Implicit in the theme is that we are left behind, right? Even some of our allies, people who we don’t have to win over, don’t know what we’re facing after Section 377A has been repealed. They have some vague idea that we are still being excluded. But if you ask them what ways we’re being excluded, I don’t think they’d be able to tell you.

So this campaign is our way of also increasing that awareness of what the specific challenges are and I think you saw that when you were at our media launch. One of our panellists summed it up really well, when he said we have to DIY everything ourselves. We have to chart our own path. We have to find our own resources and form our own communities to meet our own needs.

Panel at Pink Dot 16 launch

LGBTQ panellists of diverse backgrounds shared stories about challenges they continue to face in school, housing security, employment and healthcare at Pink Dot’s media launch last month. From left: Bhuvan Daniel, trans youth activist, Mental ACT; Bozy Lu, volunteer lawyer, Same But Different; Shania Yusof, volunteer, The T Project; Charles Ho, peer facilitator, Aging Forward. Image: Pink Dot SG

Where’s this fear of being left behind coming from?

Clement Tan: We can go out and make a promise for a more inclusive Singapore. I think everyone can get behind that. But what does it actually mean when you’re saying “we want to include everyone”? I think there’s some implied inclusion and exclusion of which communities to bring into the fold. 

In the government’s own “Forward Singapore” report, a 180-page manifesto that consulted all communities, like women’s groups, disability groups and racial and religious groups, there was not a single mention of the LGBTQ community. A vision of the future that doesn’t even include us is already off on the wrong foot. 

The second thing is that within our community, some people are more fortunate than others. One in two Singaporeans who are LGBTQ face discrimination in their job search or at work. You could ask an LGBTQ person, “have you ever been discriminated before?” And they could say no. That doesn’t mean that the community isn’t being discriminated. They could be the very lucky one in two that has not encountered discrimination yet.

So it’s also a reminder that we can’t be on an equal footing if I don’t acknowledge that as a cisgender gay man, I may have certain privileges. Transgender people experience way more job discrimination than I ever will. So, our reminder is for our own community to not leave ourselves behind.

How connected is the LGBTQ community with other advocacy groups? For example, at last year’s Climate Rally, they had community booths which weren’t just focused on environmental issues and were also focused on climate justice and workers’ rights. Is that something that Pink Dot has explored?

Clement Tan: It’s very much in our DNA to recognise that the queer struggle is very connected to women’s movements and critical race movements. Some of the groups that we have featured at our community booth, which has been a mainstay at Pink Dot, include those focused on women’s rights and groups that look at human rights justice, like Transformative Justice Collective (TJC) and MARUAH and the Humanist Society. Sex worker rights are also intrinsically tied to the queer movement.

In recent years, we’ve seen religious queer groups emerge. They do important work at disrupting this binary a lot of people have in their minds, that pit LGBTQ equality with racial and religious rights, because religious queer people exist. It sounds so banal and trite to say that, but a lot of us belong in these communities and we shouldn’t have to pick and choose which of our identities are more important.

In terms of other intersections that we can go into, we acknowledge that there are always these bridges we can build. But intersectional work takes time. It takes many years of establishing trust and rapport, and aligning of tactics, goals and values. What we want to resist is the idea that things should be visibly intersectional on the surface, when they are not really deeply intersectional.

Pink Dot 2024 - Community Tent

This year, Pink Dot’s community tent hosted a record 29 groups supporting LGBTQ people across different life stages. The two new booths present were Queer Friendly Chers, a group of educators creating inclusive classrooms and PFlag, a support group for parents of LGBTQ children. Image: Gabrielle See/Eco-Business

I wanted to discuss the cancellation of the Science Centre talk on sex and gender after a group called Protect Singapore, which describes itself as a group that aims to protect the values of marriage and family, mobilised its members to voice their disapproval. How do you see your role in reducing that binary paradigm when we talk about such issues where people have varying views?

Rachel Yeo: My first observation is that polarising the issue is a very powerful strategy that was potentially a conscious choice they made. Because it’s easy to see things in black and white. What we are trying to do at Pink Dot is to bring as many people together and to expose the common ground that we have as humans.

Clement Tan: I think the proof is in the pudding because we’ve done this for 16 years, and hopefully we’ll continue this for many years to come. The reason we’ve been able to accumulate our following and we’ve become fairly trusted for the things that we say is because we do it in a way that brings everyone together.

Elements of public advocacy are bound to be emotional, because we want to appeal to people’s hearts. I think it’s easy to rally people around anger, outrage and indignation. But we’ve never done that because anger as an emotion is very easily exhausted. The emotions that we try to appeal to are a sense of hope. That’s more constructive because that galvanises people to action that isn’t knee-jerk.

I find it interesting that groups like Protect Singapore use similar language to Pink Dot to reference Singapore’s “live and let live” approach and “pro-family” values. There seems to be commonality on the surface, but why is the outcome that both groups want so different?

Clement Tan: You are right that as much as we try to appeal to people’s sense of commonality, there is going to be disagreement. Contention and controversy are the byproducts of living in a society where diverse people exist.

The success of Pink Dot is never going to look like everyone agreeing. The maxim of “let’s agree to disagree” might hold true, but I wish to push further. For us at Pink Dot, it is not so much about getting to a point where we disagree and we move our separate ways. But actually, how do we disagree?

To go back to the Science Center issue, something that I wished to have seen in a mature society, is not to shy away from disagreement. Have people put up the talks that they want to see, challenge those views on your own platform, or attend those talks and form your own opinion. Because that is how as a society, we can reach a new consensus together. Rather than calling for things you don’t like and do not comport with your worldview to be taken down.

I guess even within the organising committee of Pink Dot, what do you think are healthy differences to have?

Clement Tan: Well, less on disagreements within the committee, but I think we position ourselves as representatives of the community whenever we engage with the government or other stakeholders. We don’t have that mandate to do so, unless we believe that we are reflective of the diversity of the community.

I don’t think we’ve been very successful in doing so in the past. It was very white collar English-speaking, we weren’t very racially diverse, and even then, we had a lot of gay men and lesbian women, but we didn’t have a lot of trans representation. If you look at people involved in civil society in Singapore, they tend to be cut from that particular cloth, because it requires an immense amount of privilege to be able to do this kind of civil society work, without being worried about being fired from your job.

But we’ve recognised that not everyone can afford to be out. That doesn’t mean that they have nothing of value to bring to the committee or to the community. Expanding our ideas of access and bringing diverse voices into the fold is something that we’re committed to. We’ve been fairly successful so far in terms of bringing in new people to the committee. That’s the first thing that we’re actively trying to change in order to deal with any flare up of intra-community tension.

Rachel Yeo: I would add that intra-community tensions are extremely common. This is the result of being part of an extremely diverse community. Within our community, there are people with very different political leanings. So for us, we never say certain differences are healthy or unhealthy. Their style of advocacy is just as valid as ours. We may not choose to work with each other as closely, but it doesn’t mean we take away their right to exist.

With the conversation about more conservative groups wanting to shut things down, that’s what they’re trying to take away. They’re trying to take away our right to exist. To me, that is not right.

I read from Rachel’s chapter in We Are Not the Enemy that some of the original Pink Dot organising committee members have stepped down. Has that changed the direction of the organisation?

Clement Tan: To the extent that Pink Dot is focused on equality and greater inclusion for the LGBTQ community, that direction will never change. If anything, I think we are becoming a little bit more focused. 

Our work is not measured just in terms of legal change, policy change or even social change. We’re trying to be better at community building to focus on the people who are most vulnerable. Not to rest on our laurels and be like, okay, repeal is done, what else? Or like, let’s go for marriage next. Because that only benefits a segment of the community. But what about everyone else? What about people who are still in schools? What about people who are having difficulties finding a job because they’re trans?

Rachel Yeo: In terms of very concrete things that we are doing differently, last year and this year, we put up survey statistics. We’ve never done that in the past. But we know research is an important tool to go and engage stakeholders with. So this is something that we would be doing a lot more of, also because it’s good for us to understand the people that we are serving.

We’re also working a lot more collaboratively with other groups, which we didn’t do so much of before. We know that in the past, people might have seen us as a very “cis Chinese gay man” type of movement. So we are a lot more conscious of that today and we seek to reflect the diversity of the community in the work that we do.

Some countries around Asia, like Thailand most recently, are legalising same-sex marriage. I suspect that some people in the community might be like, why is Pink Dot not explicitly proposing that since we have already repealed 377A? Is that like something that has come up quite a lot?

Clement Tan: I want to contest this idea that immediately after 377A, the next horizon is marriage. A lot of the things covered in our campaign this year are very critical bread and butter issues. What’s the point of being married if you can’t get a job? You need to have housing, you need to make it through school without being harassed and bullied, and need to feel safe on the streets.

There are a lot of basic living essentials in Singapore, like housing, that are tied to the institution of marriage. So it’s important for us to recognise that LGBTQ groups have a responsibility to keep pushing a constellation of issues, rather than just a singular issue.

There are advantages and disadvantages of that kind of tactic. An advantage of a singular issue is that it concentrates a lot of effort and generates a lot of buzz, but it does drain a lot of resources that in this moment, can be better deployed. Resources not just in terms of financing and sponsorship, but in terms of activists, time, energy, and effort. I would say, right now, marriage isn’t something that’s going to make a difference to a lot of people.

Rachel Yeo: What I would add to that is, towards the end of last year, we did consult a lot of community groups to understand where their heads were at. Right now, that’s not their most pressing need. I think we will know when the time is right to signal certain messages, or to have that conversation with stakeholders and policymakers.

Clement Tan: We are very happy for Thailand. Very few Asian jurisdictions recognise same-sex marriage. Taiwan was the first, Nepal was the second. So it makes them number three. But it makes them number one in Southeast Asia, which is an incredible deal.

One thing that hasn’t been as widely reported in the mainstream media is that Thailand, unlike Taiwan when they first passed same-sex marriage, is allowing binational and foreign national couples to get married, which is a big deal. It makes a difference to some couples here in Singapore. I think it feeds into a lot of Singaporeans’ anxieties about the future. Should I stay? Should I go? Where do I want to live out the rest of my life? I think for a lot of us, it’s a soul search. It’s not just about marriage. It’s about everything that we have to build and do for ourselves; everything that we DIY, until we die.

I did want to ask about how the sponsors have changed over the years and how they’re looking this year?

Clement Tan: Since 2017, there’s been a tightening of the rules as to which kind of corporate bodies are allowed to sponsor Pink Dot. But I don’t think the rules have stopped us in material ways. If anything, they’ve just turned the attention to local companies. But I wouldn’t just look at the sponsors as a marker of success. What we’ve also seen proliferate in this space are further conversations about what businesses can do to rally around the goals of inclusion for the queer community.

Rachel Yeo: We raise money each year to cover the amount that we need. We don’t have the luxury of trying to raise much more beyond what we need. But what we need is changing every year. Inflation has hit us hard. The event doesn’t get cheaper year on year. So each year, it does get a bit harder.

In the last two years or so, since we’ve come back from Covid, we’ve started holding the event at Hong Lim Park again. We are also fundraising in a very difficult economic environment where businesses, especially small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), which make up the bulk of our sponsors, are grappling with a difficult operating environment.

Clement Tan: For a lot of companies that used to sponsor Pink Dot that can’t now because of the 2017 rules, it’s not that their support has dropped. They’re still committed to LGBTQ inclusion. They’ve channeled their resources to other organisations that provide direct services, life-affirming, urgent, critical resources, to the community. Everything from giving tuition to trans kids that are out of schools, to counseling, therapy and emergency hotlines for people who are experiencing suicidal ideation or self harm.

Nowadays, during Pride Month, you see a lot more brands also being very public about their support for the LGBTQ community. That’s also really good to see. Inclusivity In the workplace starts inside, like looking at what the employee policies are. Are there anti-discrimination or anti-bullying policies that are in place? Are the benefits equitable? Do they have fair and non-discriminatory hiring practices? Do they have training and education awareness programmes or leadership programmes? 

Companies are starting to realise that it’s not just about changing their logo to rainbow or saying that they are a Pink Dot sponsor. They want to back it with actual changes. So I don’t see it as always fully extractive, that they are the ones that are just giving us resources and we then do the work. The work is actually done by multiple people, multiple players in a very diverse ecosystem.

You guys also mentioned during Pride Month, corporates change the logos to rainbow. Is “pink-washing” (i.e. the practice of supporting LGBTQ rights for profit or to distract from other harmful practices) something you’re increasingly seeing or concerned about?

Rachel Yeo: I wouldn’t go so far to say that we are concerned about it, because we have so many pressing concerns. But this is something that Q Chamber, an LGBTQ Chamber of Commerce in Singapore, addresses. There are more voices now pushing back on pink-washing. There are also a lot of employees and employee resource groups that are pushing for actual structural change, whether it be equal partner benefits or making those benefits more known to their colleagues.

Clement Tan: I would recommend if any brand is out there thinking of starting a journey of inclusion, don’t let small steps turn you off. If you feel a little bit lost or you need some guidance, LGBTQ groups can offer the expertise.

Have any political parties or individuals associated with these parties, engaged you guys to get your views on things, especially with elections coming?

Clement Tan: Since 2022, we’ve had politicians come in their official capacities to Pink Dot. Who knows, we might see them again this year.

Just like how they want to know the concerns of everyday Singaporeans by talking to hawkers to find out the cost of ingredients or speaking to business owners to find out what are their struggles, they should be speaking to LGBTQ Singaporeans. This is the one day in which you get to meet LGBTQ Singaporeans and find out what their lives are like. So please come. 

Beyond the rally, we do some engagement, but this is more on the ministry level. There are a few ministries we have slightly closer engagement with, because we have a shared interest in a particular topic. This could be because they lack insight into the community. For example, they don’t know how many LGBTQ Singaporeans have been discriminated in the workplace, so they can’t consider crafting any policy around anti-discrimination in the workplace.

Pink Dot 2024 - PAP parliamentarians (cropped)
Pink Dot 2024 - Opposition parliamentarians from PSP and WP

A record number of nine parliamentarians showed up at this year’s Pink Dot rally. Clockwise from top left: The incumbent People Action Party (PAP)’s Eric Chua, Carrie Tan, Darryl David and Derrick Goh; Progress Singapore Party’s Lim Cher Hong and Jeffrey Khoo; Jamus Lim, Louis Chua and He Ting Ru from the main opposition camp Worker’s Party (WP). PAP’s Chua and Goh as well as WP’s Chua and He also showed up at last year’s event. Image: Pink Dot SG

Under our new prime minister, do you expect these discriminatory hurdles to be lessened? Are there any concrete asks that you have for the new leadership?

Clement Tan: Actual legal changes here in this country, as repeal has shown, happens after social attitudes change. The government often tends to look for a very majoritarian consensus that things are unacceptable before they step in and use the law as a way to enshrine that attitude.

It means that our job is to convince someone who is not LGBTQ, these issues that impact an LGBTQ person matter to them too.

My hope is that at least the government acknowledges that LGBTQ people here have a reason to stay, that there is a future here they have a stake in. That doesn’t have to come from a legal change today. It can come from a statement or a quote. At the start of this year, at the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) conference, senior minister of state Janil Puthucheary said something very similar, but he is one person in the government. It would be good to see more people coalesced around this idea that there is hope for the LGBTQ community. 

Rachel Yeo: I think my first reaction is we hope for a lot, but we expect nothing. Some of us have been disappointed by the way things have gone. Whether it is leaving us out of the workplace discrimination law or the fact that after all this time, we are still in Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) classifications, classified alongside things like necrophilia and pedophilia. 

So I think I speak for many of us when we say we hope for a lot. We hope these things will change. It can be incremental, as is the preference of our society and our government, but it has to change.

Pink Dot 2024 - Drag performance including Kira

This year’s celebrations featured a dance item by the drag performance group Singapura Drag Royalty. The dance crew included one of Pink Dot’s soapbox speakers Kira Moon, who shared about her experience as a victim of a queerphobic assault. Image: Yang Yajie/Eco-Business

The Ipsos survey that was issued earlier this month did show that more than half of Singaporeans in favour of same sex marriage or at least having some sort of legal recognition of same-sex unions. Is that something that matches what you’re seeing on the ground?

Clement Tan: Anecdotally, yes. Firsly, attitudes are changing across all demographics. Secondly, attitudes are especially being driven by the younger generation. The third insight cannot be gleaned from this report, but what I would like to see in future years which I think would corroborate my own sensing, is that change is not only going to happen year on year, but change is going to accelerate.

A lot of it is driven by demographics. Representations of queer people are everywhere in pop culture and they will be growing up and entering schools and the workforce with an expectation already that discrimination shouldn’t exist. It doesn’t mean that there are no challenges ahead of us. And our job isn’t to sit around and wait for some of these demographic shifts to happen. We are here to accelerate that change.

Rachel Yeo: We can’t be complacent. Because for every year that our education system doesn’t change and our censorship laws don’t change, that is another person who will be growing up and beating themselves up for who they love. I don’t think that we can sit around and just wait for the tide to turn. It’s really about accelerating that change. That’s what we’ll be doing in the years to come.

This transcript has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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