On 14th June 2016, just two days after a horrific mass shooting at a gay nightclub in Orlando (Florida, U.S.A.), Singapore’s Minister of Home Affairs and Law, K. Shanmugam, announced in The Straits Times — in a way that might seem expected or unsurprising to many outside this part of the world — that the government would not stand for such violence and that all Singaporeans would be protected “regardless of race, religion or sexuality.” Conservatism takes on different forms depending on what part of the world you are in and how you define it at any given time; it might get a little complicated in places like Singapore that is, on one hand, self-consciously urban, hyper-modern, pragmatically cosmopolitan, and on the other hand, clinging on to vague-yet-adaptable notions of “traditional values” in an uncritical way. As far as I can remember, the first time I heard anything about homosexuality in the local media was in 2007, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a speech in parliament during a debate on Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises gay men. Since then, Singapore’s overall ideological progression, broadly speaking, has been — in my mind, anyway — like a surrealist tango: three steps forward in the direction of inclusiveness and an open-minded liberalism, then two steps back as when sudden restrictions and modes of censorship are introduced (e.g., plays banned, artists denied funding, pulping of library books). In the larger scheme of things, any historian might say, Look, there is progress if seen from a distance ... But whilst in the thick of things, synchronically speaking, it can be difficult to see the wood for the trees. One could argue that to be acknowledged publicly as somebody worth protecting by the powers that be sounds like a step in the right direction. These days, I choose to be neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but merely watchful.
The announcement of queerness coupled with its eventual acceptance remains the challenge, both politically and privately. A patriarchal, queer-phobic, hyper-religious, exclusionary brand of conservatism, many say, is spreading across the world, even in parts of Europe (what comes to mind now: tens of thousands of Italians gathering for an anti-gay rally in Rome in Jan. 2016) where once-seemingly-enlightened societies seem to be devolving. So where else can we turn to now for paragons of inclusive cultures (other than the States, which has long lost its romantic shine)? Do we or have we already been working all alone now, without foreign models to inspire us, as we inch towards becoming more enlightened societies? As writers, editors, artists, activists, social workers, etc., what infinitesimal changes are we enacting that make it all worthwhile and our individual lives worth living? Small to pyrrhic victories aside, perhaps the cliché still holds true: it’s enough simply to try, even to die trying.
And while we’re spending all that time trying, to support each other as well, even as to go as far as to renegotiate and revise definitions of queerness from time to time. We always never know who we might be excluding at any given time. Queerness is a category that can still divide us between those who wish for its significance to remain radical, and others determined to be embraced by humdrum social normalcy. The point is to discuss, converse, talk and keep on talking, writing, wearing that badge, posting on social media, signing that petition, joining that interminable march into the future. From pride parades to pink dots to speaking out at opportune moments, at home, in the office or in parliament, everybody is overcoming fear and making some kind of difference—in the same way that this journal is performing its humble but necessary agitations—regardless of how tides might turn in the future, buoying us along or obliterating us all in its wake.
Cyril Wong. ‘Editorial Note’. Queer Southeast Asia: a literary journal of transgressive art Vol. 1. no. 1, October 2016.