Thursday, July 27, 2017

14 Singaporeans React to That Gay Tank Top

Thanks, Dear Straight People, for publishing this article.
In this opinion piece, I hope to begin a national conversation by giving the responses of different Singaporeans to my tank top.

I met them in various public spaces, mostly cafés and restaurants, in the course of the week after my Facebook post about the complaint went viral.

They are not a representative sample of Singaporeans, but they can be trusted to give their honest response. In fact, when I asked them for their views, I told them that mixed feelings were welcomed. I think, in the current debate about gay equality, it is important to listen closely and understand one another before we reply. Read the reactions.

Saturday, July 22, 2017

Get the Viral Tank Top!

4 tank tops to go to the 4 highest bidders! The tank top that got me into trouble with Singapore's SAFRA gym. Designed by Mark Yeo. Gently worn, freshly washed, lovingly ironed. Get a memento of the gay tank top affair. Wear it about proudly. It's a talking piece. Support gay equality. All proceeds benefit Singapore Unbound, a NY-based literary non-profit that champions freedom of expression and equal rights for all. Opening bid: USD50. Let the bidding begin. Please help to spread the word. Thanks!

Friday, July 21, 2017

Running with Strippers

Cake Theater's "Running with Strippers" last night was one of the most exhilarating pieces of theater I've seen in Singapore. It took great risks and brought them off beautifully. Director Natalie Hennedige selected her artist-performers carefully and then freed them to do what they wished in stunning sets specially created for their work. C.O.P. (Cult of Personality) had fantastic costumes and wonderfully synchronized movements. Rizamn Putra's "Trip the Light Fantastic," a romp through the artist's personal entanglements with dance, was funny and painful, shadowed by a blown-up drawing of an x-ray of his injured spine. I cried during Cyril Wong's "Disassembly" when he sang live to a recording of his own voice, and made us wonder which voice, if any, would survive us. When I reached Zul Mahmod's sound installation "March On," I found the dull thuds of the 16 solenoids on hanging sheets of white paper strangely consolatory. The artist meant to critique the harsh pace of society by recreating the drum beat of progress, but after Rizman and Cyril's performances, I was looking to the machines for salvation. Go see it. It's playing this weekend.

Tuesday, July 18, 2017

SU Fellowship Award Event Tonight

I'd gone back and forth about whether I should wear my gay tank top at tonight's Singapore Unbound Fellowship Award Event. Singapore Unbound is the NY-based literary non-profit I founded to build cultural exchange between Singapore and the USA. It is not solely about gay rights. Would I be misrepresenting the organization by wearing something with so personal a statement, and so informal as a tank top? Would I be identifying the organization too closely with me?

But the tagline that summarizes the values of Singapore Unbound is, after all, "Freedom of Expression. Equal Rights for All." It is echoed in the back of my shirt: "Equality for All" and in the act of wearing the shirt freely in public. Although Singapore Unbound is not solely about gay rights, it is about human rights. And the discrimination, including torture and murder, against LGBT people around the world is a very pressing global issue now, and must be fought with every weapon we have. Singapore Unbound is not just about freeing Singapore from oppression and inequities, but also releasing Singapore to be a champion of freedom and equality around the world. We can do so much more.

As writers and artists, we have a part to play in the fight. Tonight, when we come together to celebrate the award of the very first SU Fellowship to Nur Sabrina Binte Dzulkifli, I'm doing my small part by wearing my gay tank top. I'm additionally encouraged to do so in honor of Sabrina, who will be presenting an excerpt of a play that casts a light on lesbianism in the Malay Muslim community in Singapore, a topic seldom discussed in local theater and literature. Her fearless courage in dealing with hot-button issues, including race, religion, and post-natal depression, is one huge reason why she has been selected for the fellowship, to come to NYC for two weeks.

I very much doubt that any of tonight's guests, most of whom are artists and writers, will be put off by my tank top. The arts must stand for something beyond itself. The arts have the capacity to change society. I don't mean to try to change anyone's religious convictions or social values, but if we can all agree to develop the public realm as a pluralistic, welcoming, and respectful space, we would all have taken a big step forward.

And part of that step, I think, involves an agreement that 377A, the anti-sodomy law, discriminates unjustly against the LGBT community, and that it must be struck down in the interest of fairness. The state has no business interfering with the sexual relationship of two consenting adults. And society has no business to get the state to do so, to impose its own set of values on everyone. We can believe in what we believe in--freedom of conscience and worship is also a human right--but we cannot deprive others of their freedoms and rights when those freedoms and rights do not impinge on the freedoms and rights of others. To strike down the anti-sodomy law does not compel anyone to practice sodomy. To each their own.

Singapore Unbound wants to expand the space for everyone to be free and equal. Join us if you want the same. As for the tank top being too informal for an award event, why the need for formality? It's stuffy.

Cartoon and Reflections

I've inspired a cartoon! Lol. Wish I look like that. Thanks, toastwire!

https://www.instagram.com/p/BWotdzRDDmM/

My brief piece of reflection  on SAFRA's statement. Thanks, Sean Foo, for soliciting and publishing it on Dear Straight People.

Friday, July 14, 2017

SAFRA Responds

SAFRA came out for fairness. They did not give in to homophobia. Thank you, SAFRA! Your statement proves that Singapore is ready for diversity.

"In a statement sent to Channel NewsAsia, SAFRA said Mr Koh's attire did not contravene any of the gym's rules and regulations.

"We have also spoken to the gym users who gave the feedback. From our conversation with Mr Koh, we believe there was no intent to cause discomfort to other gym goers so we hope this can be resolved amicably," said SAFRA."

Thursday, July 13, 2017

SAFRA Mount Faber

A few users of the SAFRA Mount Faber Club Gym complained about my tank top to the gym manager. They accused me of trying to change a sensitive social policy or issue. My tank top says, “Gay But Not Yet Equal” on the front, and “Equality For All” on the back. I learned of their complaint when I arrived at the gym this morning. I have been using this same gym when I visit Singapore every summer. On this trip back to Singapore, I had gone to the gym three times; today was my fourth visit only. The gym manager had tried to call me about the complaint but could not reach me. He spoke to me on the phone in the gym.

I asked him how many people complained. He repeated, some, and elaborated, more than one but not many. He also said that “the social issue” was sensitive nationally, and that SAFRA could not allow any social advocacy. I explained that I was not trying to change any social policy, but I was just wearing a tank top specially designed by a New York designer. I should have pointed out, but I didn’t at the time, that the tank top did not refer to Singapore at all. I should have also said that I wasn't standing by the water cooler and passing out flyers, I was just working on my pecs and butt, like the other gym users. I did say that the complainants were not objecting to social advocacy per se. They would not have complained if my tank top had promoted a national heart campaign. They were, in fact, complaining about my being gay.

The gym manager agreed that the complaint was subjective, but said that he still had to take it into account. I said that although a few people complained, the majority of the gym users did not complain, showing they had no problem with my tank top. The gym manager pointed out that the majority could be dissenting quietly. I replied that they could also be approving quietly. He said, and I agreed, that we were not about to take a poll.

I asked him what he would like me to do. He said he was not going to ban me from the gym but would ask me to be sensitive to other gym users. When I asked him what that meant, he repeated himself, and then said that as the gym manager he had to mediate between the complainants and me. I told him I understood he had a job to do. He and his staff were totally courteous and reasonable throughout the 15-minute interview. I was feeling very conspicuous at the front desk, and was surprised to find my hand holding the phone shaking a little, more from the desire to say the right thing than for any other reason. He told his staff to let me into the gym dressed in my tank top as usual.

I don’t think this is the end of it. I suspect that the complainants will complain to the gym manager again, and if he does not take stronger action against me, they will turn to his boss, the manager of the SAFRA Club. SAFRA stands for Singapore Armed Forces Reservist Association. They provide, among other benefits, recreational facilities for National Servicemen and their families. I have done my National Service and Reservist training: I finished as an infantry company commander with the rank of captain. I had not come out as gay then. The Armed Forces require all self-declared gay men to serve National Service, and so it would be wrong to deny these gay servicemen, self-declared or otherwise, any of the benefits afterwards.

It would be an injustice to stop me from using any of the facilities of the SAFRA Recreational Clubs just because a few members do not like my tank top. Or, to put it more bluntly, just because they do not like gay people. And if I’m not allowed to wear my tank top to the SAFRA gym, would I be allowed to wear it walking about Singapore, or would the same people who complained to the gym complain to the police about my “social advocacy on a sensitive social issue”? It’s a tank top, for goodness sake. Would you want to take me in for a tank top? Singapore would be a laughing stock to the world.

Sunday, July 09, 2017

Singapore Diary

Saturday, conducted a Sing Lit Station workshop on revision with three participants. Andrea, an intern, made a valuable addition. Then attended the Migrant Poetry Evening at The Arts House in the tank top designed by Mark Yeo.


With Cyril Wong

With Annaliza Bakri

On Sunday, I heard Phillip Cheah perform at Victoria Memorial Hall (Dance Studio) with his collaborator and pianist Trudy Chan. They were terrific, as expected. Phillip is a good interpreter of art songs. I found the French tunes the most affecting in their combination of lightness and emotion. Many of Phillip's former teachers and classmates from RI came to support him. In the evening, I had dinner with YP and her family at Chapter 55, an Italian bistro in Tiong Bahru. The girls liked their presents. Hannah got an autographed copy of Naomi Novik's Temeraire series. She is beginning to collect books signed by their authors. I found the perfect present for Liesel at the Asian Civilization Museum, a book of watercolor paintings of the flora and fauna of the Malay peninsula, commissioned by the first British Resident William Farquhar, and done by Chinese artists using a mix of Chinese and Western painting techniques. Liesel loves to draw. She just drew an ant for art class.

Wednesday, July 05, 2017

Diary

Strange limbo while waiting to fly to Singapore tonight. I've packed, now waiting for my order of tee-shirts, and then the airport shuttle. Last Thursday, celebrated KM's birthday by treating him to dinner at Chomp Chomp. He has taken early retirement because of Parkinson's, and will be released from work next month. On Saturday, we had the Calatayuds over for dinner. Conversation flowed back and forth. Everyone seemed to have had a great time. Sunday, we spent on Christopher Street pier and got sunburnt. Undeterred, we went to Rockaway Beach on 4th of July. Very crowded, but good fun. We now have an almost straight train there, the A.