State of the nation

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2005, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 02 August, 2005, 12:00am

Ever since a junior health minister expressed concerns that Singapore was facing an Aids epidemic and linked a rise in HIV infections in the city state to gay men, the backlash against gays has been palpable.

While homosexuality is still illegal here, the gay community had in recent years become more visible, with a slew of gay-friendly clubs, saunas, restaurants and fashion outlets targeting the powerful spending of this consumer group. Gay tolerance was first hinted at by then-prime minister Goh Chok Tong who said in 2003 the government had changed its policy on hiring homosexuals for the civil service.

Even property developers were targeting the pink dollar, with thinly veiled advertisements indicating a certain condominium would be ideal for the community. Singapore had started to present itself as a place where homosexuals could party en masse: the annual Nation party, started in 2001, billed itself as Asia's largest gay and lesbian event. It attracted 8,000 participants to Sentosa last year.

But Singapore's brief try at gay tolerance has turned sour. Whether linked to homosexual acts or not, the number of HIV infections hit a record high of 311 new cases last year, up 28 per cent from 2003. The government warned that if no action was taken, the number would rocket to 10,000 within 10 years.

The authorities quickly imposed controls on gay-led activities. Police disallowed a Christmas party planned by gay activists, saying the event went against the 'moral values of a large majority of Singaporeans'. The authorities also banned a concert planned for April by gay Christian pop musicians which would have raised funds for an Aids support group. The annual Nation party, organised by gay website - which was to take place this month - has also been banned. It will be moving to Phuket, Thailand, in November.

Down but not defeated, the gay community is reacting with IndigNation: Singapore's first gay and lesbian pride month. It opened with an exhibition by artist Martin Loh last week, and will be followed by a series of talks and poetry, and close with a members-only party.

Meanwhile, the PLU3 sexual rights group is planning to launch its first forum on August 23. Though the authorities had rejected a similar forum five years ago, thanks to a change in regulations last year, organisers of indoor talks and forums no longer need to apply for a licence.

Publicity materials emphasise: 'It's not a forum about holding a gay parade. It's a forum about being Singaporean and what gays and lesbians have to say about nationhood in matters important to both straight and gay people. It is about building a place we can call home.'