Lim Chi-Sharn was the first Singaporean to describe publicly and in great detail his experience of serving National Service as an openly gay man. In 2002, he penned the following series of three articles on SiGNeL, the Singapore Gay News List. Shortly after, they were published on Fridae and Yawning Bread, where his mother, writer Suchen Christine Lim, added her reflections.
- 1 Serving Singapore as a gay man
- 1.1 Part One: The First Doctor
- 1.2 Part Two: The Second Doctor
- 1.3 Part Three: The Result, A Mother's Reflections
- 2 See also
- 3 References
- 4 Acknowledgements
Serving Singapore as a gay man
Coming out to the military - this is an issue all gay Singaporean men grapple with one time or other as all male Singaporeans must complete two to three years of full-time National Service. A young Singaporean man shares his experience of disclosing his homosexuality to the Singapore Armed Forces.
Part One: The First Doctor
My name is Lim Chi-Sharn. I am 23 years old and I am a gay Singaporean man. I first entered the Singapore Armed Forces in 1998 and was in the middle of Officer Cadet School when I temporarily disrupted my National Service in mid-1998 to study in university. Four years have passed since then and I have returned this year, July 2002, in order to complete my National Service. Having disclosed my homosexuality, I have been instructed that my NS liability would be served out in the Ministry of Defence. My officer cadet training has thus been terminated.
What follows is an account of my experience disclosing my sexuality to the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) in July 2002.
There are two major reasons why I disclosed my being gay to the SAF.
The first reason is personal: I have been "out of the closet" (i.e. been open about my sexual orientation) for a long time now. This Coming Out has been gradual and has come to encompass all areas of my life - my family, my work, my friends and even my mother's friends. I believe gay people, including myself, have the same rights and responsibilities to be as free and open about who they like as anyone else can be. I do not intend to go back into the closet on any grounds because I choose not to. It is a personal choice to Come Out and the decision to do so should be made with due consideration. This report does not claim to advise how this choice should be reached.
The second reason is that I wanted to find out more about SAF policy and procedure toward gay people in general. When I decided to go through with this act of disclosure, I tried to find out more about the possible challenges I would face within the SAF as a result of disclosure. The information I obtained was word-of-mouth and not first-hand and the information available online was mostly from discussion boards and sketchy at best. I wanted to partially fill this lack of publicly available information by documenting my own experience.
A Brief Description Of National Service (For The Unfamiliar)
In Singapore, all male citizens (or male immigrants applying for citizenship) must complete 2.5 years of full-time National Service (serving in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Police Force or Civil Defence, see link below). It is currently not mandatory for women to serve NS, but they may volunteer to serve.Before enlisted persons are assigned, they must undergo a medical examination to ensure that they are healthy enough for physical training. The SAF conducts a standard procedure for medical examination. Most medical examinations are carried out at the Medical Classification Centre, a department of the Central Manpower Base (CMPB). The conclusion of this medical examination and classification is the assignment of a fitness status. For example, you may be classified as medically fit for all forms of service, or medically unfit for all forms of service. Based on your medical classification, the NS man will be assigned various duties accordingly. Suffice it to say that if you are certified medically unfit, you won't be joining those running around with rifles.
When I first enlisted for NS after my A Level examinations (at the end of the 12th year of public school), I said I was not homosexual. I was given a military medical classification (the Physical Employment Status, PES) that stated I was fit for most operational vocations. After Basic Military Training (it's like boot camp), I was posted to the Officer Cadet School.
After some 3 or 4 months of being in the army, I temporarily discontinued my training in Officer Cadet School to begin life as a university student. After graduating from university, I returned to Singapore in July 2002 and re-enlisted to complete the rest of my NS.
The first step in re-enlistment is scheduling a medical review at CMPB. This is the same as the medical review conducted before you first enlist at 18 (or 16 � for voluntary early enlistees). The conclusion of this review is again the assignment of a Physical Employment Status (PES).
Before I met any doctor, I had to fill out a form with many common medical pre-consultation questions. Some of these questions asked whether any of my family members or I had heart disease, mental illness or whether I was allergic to any drugs.
Towards the bottom of the form, I was asked whether I had any "social problems (e.g. homosexuality)" which I wanted to privately inform the doctor. I ticked "yes", but wrote down: "I don't think it's a problem!"
Before visiting the doctor, I went through what everyone else goes through - I was herded from station to station where my teeth, eyesight and general health were checked. When a doctor finally saw me, I pointed out that I had something to tell him as I had ticked "yes".
"Doctor, I'm gay," I said. His response was of muted surprise. His movements skipped a beat and I suppose I was the first gay person who had 'outted' himself that day because he looked puzzled for awhile, then got up, went to another room and brought out a thick, dog-eared manual. He flipped to a page with both Homosexuality and Transsexuality listed and started to read it.
"Looks like I'm making you earn you keep doctor!" I remarked.
"Yes..." he quietly replied, still studying the procedures mentioned in the thick manual.
Part Two: The Second Doctor
He proceeded to ask me a few simple, if slightly perplexing questions: Dr: Have you had sex with men? Me: Yeah. Dr: Do you cross-dress? Me: Yeah.
I was then given PES D (temporarily unfit for deployment, pending further review) and scheduled for a medical review by an SAF "psychiatrist" at a later date.
For the medical review, I was asked to bring one parent and my school report book. How perplexing, I thought. Well, just to give part of the punch line away, you don't have to bring your report book if it's not relevant (maybe it's for those involved in gang activity or something else - I don't know), you can reschedule the appointment if you or your parents are unavailable on that day, and you DO NOT have to disclose your sexuality to your parent if you do not want to. You can do the last thing by telling the doctor that you would like to speak with him/her alone, without your parent's presence.
At the next medical review, I was asked to fill out a pre-check-up form. One of the questions asked for my perception towards serving National Service. The doctor asked me this question once more verbally later.
The medical review (to see how homosexual I was) was conducted by Capt. Julian Tan. My mom and I were sitting in the small waiting room outside the office. However, he called me into the office alone (this is when I may have wished to tell the doctor that I did not want to out myself to my mother).
I asked him whether he was in a rush. He told me that he usually spent about 10 - 15 minutes per patient. However, he was not in a rush. My mother and I had prepared a list of questions for him and I wanted to make sure we had time to ask them. When asked why I had questions, I told him that we wanted to know the full consequences of disclosure (my right as a patient) and SAF policy towards gay people in general. Naturally, he wanted to get his job out of the way and proceeded to ask his questions for me.
In general, the appointment was not a psychological review by a psychologist. Rather, it was a person asking a set of questions, set by procedure.
Capt. Tan: How do you feel about NS? Me: I feel it is unavoidable. Capt. Tan: Are you homosexual? Me: Yes. Capt. Tan: Do you cross-dress? Me: Yes, for fun. Capt. Tan: Do you cross-dress at home? Me: Not that I know of. (I saw that he wrote down 'no'.) Capt. Tan: Do you have a boyfriend? Me: No. Capt. Tan: are you the man or the woman? Me: Huh??! That question is irrelevant for me. Capt. Tan (in response to my previous answer): Do you have anal sex? Are you active or passive? Me: Yes, Both.
When Capt. Tan was done with his questions and his task was over, I asked my mother (who was waiting outside) to join our discussion. I gave Capt. Tan a copy of the questions before we began and mentioned that if he wished to speak in a private capacity (as opposed to being a representative of the SAF) all he had to do was tell me before giving his response. (See Appendix for the list of questions.) The Interview: Deplorability
In this section, the label 'gay' only refers to those who have disclosed their homosexuality.
According to Capt. Tan, the purpose of the interview is to ascertain the "deployability" of the national serviceman. I presume that not only those who disclose homosexuality may be involved in a review such as this; for example, those who are/were gang members may also be reviewed. Specific to the gay NS man, Capt. Tan said that issues such as living with other men, and sleeping in the quarters as and bathing with other men - basically, questions of whether the gay NS man may fit in - play a part in the review.
However, note that the procedural set of questions above did not ask me whether I was comfortable or uncomfortable with working in close proximity with other men. Whether this procedure and set of questions is to protect the gay NS man from harassment, or to protect non-gay NS men from harassment (or both) is unclear.
On the question on where a gay NS man may serve out his NS (the question of "deployability"), Capt. Tan mentioned that "sensitive" areas are probably out-of-the-question. He did not elaborate on what "sensitive" may mean. Combat vocations were probably out-of-the question as well, and, judging solely from my experience, neither is training to be an officer. (If I did not disclose my homosexuality, I would definitely be back in Officer Cadet School.)
From my observation, this is similar to the experience of women who work in the SAF, in its early days. In the past, women in the SAF in combat or command positions were virtually unheard of. They were far less likely to serve in combat vocations and were more likely to be in administrative/medical vocations away from frontline duty.
Whether there was an explicit, written policy towards the employment of women in the past is something I do not know as yet. However, the proportion of women in combat positions in the past, compared to the proportion today (coupled with the fact that the SAF actively welcomes women to join their team today), suggests some form of systemic discrimination against their being hired by the SAF for combat or command positions in the past. The difference for gay men today is that it is clear that there IS a written policy towards their employment, evidenced by the different treatment of gay men during the medical review process.
Today, to be precise, only the Navy carries an anti-gender discrimination statement within the FAQ-file on their website. Capt. Tan mentioned that female-to-male transsexuals who wish to serve NS may not do so. Capt. Tan did not mention any policy toward homosexual women.
On the other hand, male-to-female transsexuals (in any stage of their transformation) are treated on the same scale as gay men. Capt. Tan said that one of the purposes of the review was to "gauge how gay you are." On this (misguided and highly inaccurate) scale, hetero-men are on one end of the scale and women are on the other end of the scale. Gay men who are masculine (i.e. who are "top", and do not cross-dress) are closer to the hetero-men end of the scale, while if the gay NS man cross-dresses, cross-dresses at home, is "bottom" or if the NS woman is a male-to-female transsexual, then you are closer to the women end of the scale.
I hope it is redundant to state that male-to-female transsexuals are not gay men, and gay men are not women.
According to Capt. Tan, homosexuality is not considered a disease or a mental illness. However, homosexuality and transsexuality are two conditions that are listed in an SAF "Directory of Diseases", he said.
When asked whether the gay NS man was seen as a liability, Capt. Tan stressed that I was not seen as a liability or a security risk. However, as mentioned above, he proceeded to contradict himself by saying that some "areas" are deemed "sensitive" and therefore a gay NS man cannot serve there. There was no further elaboration. This is a separate issue from whether gay and straight (i.e. heterosexual) men can live and work together.
Since sexuality is an identity in almost constant flux for some people, I asked Capt. Tan whether you could change your sexuality on record with the SAF. He said yes, and said that all you had to do was inform the nearest medical officer. I do not know if there is any more procedure aside from the act of informing a medical officer.
If you disclose being homosexual, the information you provide is, according to Capt. Tan, strictly between you and all the Medical Officers in the SAF. This may be true in theory, but I have personally had friends who had gone through NS tell me that other people may have access to this information as well, so this confidentiality may not exist in practice. Additionally, Capt. Tan assured me that future employers, government agencies like HDB etc, would not have access to my SAF medical record.
As mentioned before, I was told that I had to bring one parent with me (and my school report book). However, I did not have to disclose my sexuality to my mom if I did not wish to. I could have requested to speak to Capt. Tan in private. In fact, Capt. Tan asked me to enter his office alone in the beginning, and my mom joined the discussion only when he was done with his set of procedural questions and I asked her to enter the room. If I were not out to my family, I would have had to invent an excuse for my mom's benefit to explain why she had to accompany me, and not have the doctor speak with her.
I think it is reasonable for a gay NS man to maintain a silence surrounding his sexuality to his family, even though he wishes to disclose his sexuality to the SAF. This is a matter of anyone's right to privacy.
Capt. Tan mentioned that some conditions require parental confirmation. I did not ask what conditions would require this added measure.
Finally, Capt. Tan said that a counsellor would be assigned to me and I would be able to contact them should I require any support or advice. The medical officer at the unit I am posted to would also be party to my medical record. In other words, this counsellor and the medical officer would be two sources of support, should I need SAF assistance as a gay NS man. Whether the counsellor or medical officer is gay-friendly, or knowledgeable of gay-specific healthcare is not known to me.
Part Three: The Result, A Mother's Reflections
My National Service Assignment
I was not posted back to Officer Cadet School because of my disclosure of homosexuality. I was given a PES of C1, L3. This means that I may be excused to up to two static stations in the physical fitness test, e.g. pull-ups and sit-ups, and that I may be fit "for operational duties at bases only."
This result is a statement of what the SAF believes I am capable of. What this tells me is that the mere fact of being gay means that I cannot take up a front-line combat vocation and cannot be trained to be an officer in the SAF.
I hope my experience is helpful to those who want to know how gay men who disclose being gay are processed in the SAF. Remember, disclosure is a choice. There are many gay and bisexual men who have completed their NS without disclosure with little problem. If however you wish to disclose your sexuality, I hope my experience helps you be fully informed.
This report is a work in progress. Correction and critique are very welcome. If you wish to add your experiences to this report, please email me at limchisharn@m... . Complete confidentiality will be respected and maintained instantly upon request. Future generations of gay NS men, their parents and friends may benefit from your contribution.
The SAF Interview: A Mother's Reflection
Like any mother, I was concerned about what might happen to my son when the SAF finds out that he is gay. My son has chosen not to live his life in the closet, and I, who taught him that truth is superior to falsehood, cannot but support his decision to disclose himself to the SAF. The NS enlistment form had a question that asked: Are you a homosexual?
The SAF requested that a parent be present at the interview. So I went to the interview with my son with my list of prepared questions. We waited for the doctor. When he finally arrived, he was friendly, a little guarded and professional. I thought he answered our questions as best as he could, and did not withhold information unnecessarily. His approach was: if you ask it, I will answer it. The other side of the same coin is that if you don't, you will never be told voluntarily. Therefore, one thing I have learnt from this interview (my first with an army officer) is to ask questions to get the information you require. If you think you might feel awkward or tongue-tied, it is best to prepare a list of questions beforehand. Sharn and I thought that since we were going to be interviewed anyway, we might as well use the opportunity to find out as much as we could first hand about the SAF's policy (overt and covert) towards gay men in NS. Since you can read Sharn's report on the outcome of the interview, I will share with you my reflection on it.
The following is based on what I can remember of our interview with Dr Julian Tan.
Q1: Why am I here? What is the purpose of parental presence?
I gathered from Dr Tan's answer that a parent was required to verify his/her son's gender status and sexual preference. A parent's presence can reveal several things about the gay NS man such as (a) whether he has come out to his family, (b) whether his family accepts his sexual identity, and (c) other things that a trained counsellor / psychologist might observe during an interview with a client. I did sense that the doctor was observing how Sharn and I communicated with each other.
Q2: Will this information appear on any record, document, written or otherwise?
I felt somewhat reassured that there is some respect for privacy and confidentiality between doctor and client. (I refuse to use the term, 'patient' vis-�-vis the doctor since in this case, the gay man is not suffering from any illness.) I was further reassured when the doctor said that one's records could be changed in the future, and the procedure seemed pretty straightforward.
Q3: What will happen to my son? Will he experience discrimination? Will he be blacklisted as a security risk, a liability or a deviant?
The doctor tried to reassure us that there would be no discrimination although he qualified it by saying that there would be certain sensitive areas. What these were, he did not clarify and I did not want to press him for more details. As a mother, my first objective was to find out and also to send a message to the doctor that I was standing beside my son and the army would have to deal with me as well as him. For a mother, her son comes first before any armed institution in the world. For a writer, the person is always more important than the system. Literature celebrates the person; propaganda lauds the system.
Q4: Is My son considered/ perceived to be mentally ill by the SAF?
I wasn't and still am not clear how the SAF perceives gay men in this respect. My impression is that the organisation or the doctors have adopted a case-by-case approach. How the NS man is going to be treated would depend on a number of variables such as (a) his academic / school record (b) medical history (c) academic performance/ achievement (d) level of education (e) even how well he spoke and other personal traits (e) level of parental support (f) educational & income level of his family. This is speculation on my part and I could be wrong. My impression is that my son would be fairly treated even if he could not be posted to Officer Cadet School because his school records and academic performance are beyond reproach; and the doctor could see for himself that I was comfortable about his gender status (male) and sexual orientation (gay).
This article was written by Roy Tan.