In protest-averse Singapore, where civil society activists rejoice when their events draw more than 500 people, the annual Pink Dot gay pride rally has become a stand-out affair for its ever-swelling crowds.
Now in its 10th edition, this year’s rally to be held on Saturday afternoon is expected to once again pull in a crowd of more than 20,000 people comprising the country’s lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex (LGBTI) community as well as many of their straight allies.
As in previous years, the event will be held in Speakers’ Corner, the country’s sole free speech park and the only place where authorities say Pink Dot can be held.
Organisers and members of the LGBTI community say there is much to cheer about, given rising concerns that gay rights advocacy in the country, where consensual sex between men remains illegal, might be plateauing.
Also being celebrated is the proliferation of Pink Dot events overseas – Hong Kong is among a handful of places that hosts similar rallies.
The steady rise in stature of Singapore’s Pink Dot was dealt a blow last year after government imposed new restrictions to keep out foreign participation.
Not only did this exclude foreigners from the rally, but it also barred prominent foreign companies like Facebook, JP Morgan and Google from sponsoring the event as they had done in previous years.
Alongside the new rules, police mandated tougher security checks, forcing organisers to set up barricades and security checkpoints at the event, known for its party-like atmosphere filled with many people wearing pink-coloured clothing and accessories.
In 2014, the event was forced to contend with a countermovement by Christian and Muslim conservatives called “WearWhite”, as it had become apparent that Pink Dot’s benign message – organisers say their only objective is to promote “the freedom to love” – had become an effective tool for gay rights advocacy.
Authorities stepped in, urging both sides to practise restraint.
“It is definitely a milestone, because we were uncertain if we could even reach 10 years … we have had so many things thrown our way,” said Paerin Choa, a spokesman for Pink Dot who has been volunteering with the movement since its inception in 2009.
LGBTI activist Jean Chong was equally effusive about the milestone. “10 years is an amazing feat for a country that still criminalises consenting sex between men,” Chong said, referring to Section 377A of the penal code, which makes the act illegal.
The law, which dates back to British colonial rule, makes no mention of lesbian sex.
While Pink Dot has tilted popular opinion slightly in favour of LGBTI rights, Chong and others in the community say the 10 years since the event’s inception has seen little social change because of the government’s apathy about their rights.
Some 53 per cent of Singaporeans “accept gay lifestyles”, but 55 per cent reject gay marriage, according to a survey conducted in 2013.
Premier Lee Hsien Loong had previously said he was prepared to live with the “uneasy compromise” of living with Section 377A “until social attitudes change”.
Along with the retention of Section 377A, which the government says it retains on the books for “symbolic” purposes but will not enforce, LGBTI people in Singapore say they are disadvantaged by certain policies aimed at incentivising heterosexual marriage and childbearing. In housing, for example, only heterosexual wedded couples can apply for subsidised public housing flats. Single people can only apply for such units after they turn 35.
“There’s no reason to get into a self-congratulatory mood just yet … 10 years of Pink Dot feels good, but little has changed policy-wise, and I don’t sense any urgency from within the government for change,” said a gay civil servant who has attended the Pink Dot rally every year.
Chong, co-founder of LGBTI rights group Sayoni, said: “The lack of a right to self actualisation for a LGBT Singaporean is a signal on how [the] government treats its vulnerable minorities.”
In Hong Kong, where the LGBTI community is celebrating a landmark court decision on dependent visas for same-sex couples in civil unions, the activist who “imported” Pink Dot urged her Singaporeans counterparts to keep plugging away.
“The situation in Hong Kong and Singapore is different because we have certain freedoms … we have our pride parade and so on to push for advocacy in a way that they [in Singapore] can’t … still Pink Dot’s achievements in Singapore is very impressive,” said Lee, a Singaporean who has lived in Hong Kong for about two decades and is among a handful of activists who have been hosting Pink Dot Hong Kong since 2014.
Smaller-scale Pink Dot events have been held in Taiwan, the United States, Malaysia, Canada and Japan.
This year’s Pink Dot Hong Kong is slated for October 21 in the West Kowloon Cultural District.
Said Lee: “Ultimately, its Pink Dot’s simple but powerful message that makes it effective in Hong Kong, Singapore or anywhere: ‘love is love and we should have the freedom to love who we want’.” ■