Book review: Queer Singapore, by Audrey Yue, Jun Zubillago-Pow

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 April, 2013, 5:00pm

Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures

edited by Audrey Yue, Jun Zubillago-Pow

HKU Press

This compilation of thematic essays explores the challenges of being LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered) within a society where broad-ranging official discrimination remains a legal fact.

How LGBT people negotiate their everyday lives in Singapore - officially illiberal and yet, paradoxically, socially more tolerant than is generally understood - is the overarching subject of this (for the most part) worthwhile book.

Basic realities common to Hong Kong, as well as Singapore, are covered. Gay people are the subject of widespread discrimination when adequate legal protection is not ensured; societies that emphasise traditional family structures struggle with the individualism implicit in many homosexual lives; Christian fundamentalism, and its pernicious influence on official policy-making, is a political fact that needs to be sensitively managed as well as comprehensively challenged.

But these points are subsumed within a welter of pseudo-profound, ultimately self-defeating theoretical claptrap. Eyeball-crossing chapter titles such as The Negative Dialectics of Homonationalism, or Singapore English Newspapers and Queer World-Making (whatever that means) make this tragically clear.

The title alone ensures that those who would benefit most from reading this book - that section of the population for whom their LGBT fellow citizens remain a separate and, frequently, lower sub-set of humanity - will never pick it up.

Seminar room polemics about "reclaiming the language of the oppressor" - which justify the reiterated use of that nasty old term "queer" - are all very well in the academic environment, but when they are exported to real-world situations in the furtherance of broader public understanding, they go nowhere fast.

Turgidly expressed "discourse" politics significantly hinder the achievement of genuine civic rights objectives; in Hong Kong, the stymied public debate on anti-discrimination legislation makes this point clear.

As with other contentious "heritage" and "identity" subjects (racial and gender politics, minority rights, and cultural and architectural legacies), when much-needed public conversations get ever smaller and more self-referencing, those who need to become positively engaged to effect any substantive change - society's majority population - tune out. They can hardly be blamed for doing so.

Viewed cynically, works such as Queer Singapore principally exist to advance the career objectives of individual contributors, rather than help further the broader cause of knowledge and understanding. And ultimately, that objective is what a publicly lived intellectual life is meant to achieve.