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People Like Us (PLU), is a gay equality lobby group in Singapore. Having been twice rejected by the government board which approves or prohibits organisations, the Registrar of Societies, it is now in its third incarnation as "PLU3". The term "PLU" has also gradually become slang for "homosexual" amongst members of Singapore's gay subculture.

History[edit]

The information in this section is based on material from the PLU website and has been edited to enable it to conform to Wikipedia's NPOV (neutral point of view) requirements.

The early years[edit]

People Like Us began as a small discussion group, with a handful of friends in 1993 who felt that oppression of homosexuals stemming primarily from section 377 the Penal Code needed to be addressed. The first task it set itself was to build gay consciousness, and therefore much of its early work was devoted to preparing the ground.

For the next 3 years, to 1996, People Like Us held monthly Sunday forums. A topic would be chosen, a lead speaker found, but the best part was always the break-out sessions. Topics varied widely, and included coming out, the law, insurance for singles, housing and safe sex.

Attendance numbers increased exponentially. Within a few months, the forums could no longer fit into anyone’s home. The group regularly booked rooms at the Substation, an arts center, instead. Most Sundays, somewhere between 40 to 80 people turned up. This may seem few today, but was remarkable considering that it was before the Internet age, and its existence was only known by mouth, and the great majority of homosexual Singaporeans were probably too stigmatised to reveal their orientation. Many who came to the forum half-expected to be arrested by the end of each Sunday.

Government surveillance[edit]

The organizers were aware that they were being watched by the authorities. Two incidents in particular support this.

One involved a member of the Internal Security Department. At the end of one of the Sunday forums - either 1994 or 1995 - a slim, slightly effeminate person whom the members did not recognise, approached Joseph Lo, one of the organisers, and identified himself as being from the Internal Security Department. He later left quickly and revealed little except to leave a number. Russell Heng and Alex Au contacted him the following day and arranged to meet up.

To their surprise, they found him extremely nervous and shaken. The officer, who showed his warrant card, explained that he had been given a coded message just hours before PLU’s Sunday forum, to make his way to the Substation and observe the proceedings. He was not briefed, and did not know what to expect, but he explained that in his line of work, these urgent requests to observe something were not uncommon. He claimed he had no idea who sent the coded message. He also said he was shocked to realize he was sitting amidst a gay group.

In the course of the conversation, he offered his advice that People Like Us should move their activities to Malaysia or Batam. This was thought to be an absurd idea, given PLU’s objectives, but it was also considered strange that he volunteered a suggestion at all.

Up to the present day, neither Russell Heng nor Alex Au are certain what really happened. The theory which seemed least implausible was that the effeminate officer was a victim of a prank by his fellow officers. This would account for his hurried exit from the forum and his visible nervousness at the meeting with Russell and Alex afterwards. Of course, if one was an officer tasked to monitor an underground group and then went out to have drinks with members of that group, that might itself be reason for nervousness, since that might constitute breaking departmental rules. But that would still beg the question why he was choosing to break departmental rules.

The panic in him looked real, and he probably felt that the coded message sent to him was a cruel way of telling him that someone in his department knew he was gay. In those days, to be outed while in the employment of the government was as good as the end of one’s career.

The reason why he met Russell and Alex was unclear. He had no message to deliver. If PLU had not contacted him to meet up, the meeting would not have happened. So the meeting was not part of his task. One can only speculate today that in a moment of panic, he looked for any assurance he could find that he was not alone in this world.

While PLU was convinced that his appearance at the forum was not part of the surveillance operation, it was undeniable by then that the Internal Security Department knew about their regular meetings. It is almost a certainty that there would have been another undercover officer in the forums.

The license plate case

A few months later, a forum attendee reported that his mother had questioned him about where he had been the previous Sunday. The mother used to work for the police, and still had a close friend working there. Apparently the mother had received a telephone call from her ex-colleague and friend, in which the friend told her that her car, identified by its license plate number, was seen parked near the Substation that Sunday. The friend just wanted to warn her that they were running a security check on her car. The mother recalled that her son had borrowed the car that Sunday, and was worried that he might be involved in a police investigation, so she talked to him about it. And he promptly reported it to the committee.

Other evidence surfaced, and there were a huge number of imagined sightings of police officers around every corner, but the two former incidents were enough indication that PLU was under close scrutiny.

Risk of press exposure[edit]

As months passed, and ever more forums held without incident, confidence increased. It was gradually becoming clear that at that level of activity, while PLU was watched, they were not being stopped.

However, the wild card was the press. It was always likely that if a newspaper got wind of the Sunday forums, they would find it irresistible to run an exposé, perhaps on their front pages. This would lead to an outcry from the public and the government would have their hand forced, leading to a crackdown.

In fact, PLU came extremely close to being the subject of a press story. A few days before one forum (April 1995), word came to the committee from an inside source that the New Paper was on their scent. True enough, on that Sunday reporters and photographers showed up. Fortunately, word had been passed out to members that the forum would be cancelled.

By that time, The New Paper had already acquired a reputation within the gay community for being rather homophobic.

Rascals[edit]

Yet, there were small indications that an organised gay group could make a difference, and an early episode gave considerable impetus to the fledgeling PLU.

On 30 May 1993, the police conducted a raid on Rascals disco (Pan Pacific Hotel, Marina district). It was a Sunday night, and a known all-gay night. When the lights came on, patrons were lined up, shouted at, and asked to show identification. Those who did not have identification with them were taken to the precinct station. However, they were released in the morning without being charged, which indicated that it was an act of intimidation.

A group of 20 people, mostly the same people involved in PLU then, sent a letter of complaint to the precinct police station about the harassment.

Quite unexpectedly, the reply from the police contained an apology, not for the raid itself, but for the rudeness of the police officers.

The impromptu pride march[edit]

PLU organised a Christmas party in December 1993 at a little cafe called 'Smiling Orchid' on Boon Tat Street. They made it a fancy dress party, and almost all the people who came -- over 100 men and perhaps 30 - 40 women -- lived up to their promise to dress creatively. There are angels and devils, cops, soldiers, Hawaiian damsels with coconut-shell bras, imperial Chinese gentry, Malay uncles, priests and probably most original of all, a samsui woman. The straight waiters had never seen anything like that before, their jaws dropped, they couldn't tell the guys from the gals, and they stayed resolutely behind the counter.

The turn-out was so overwhelming, the party soon ran out of food. The only way to stave off hunger was to go to Lau Pa Sat, a few hundred metres away at Raffles Quay, for supper. Thus some 40-50 of them set off and instantly became a pride march. At the supper market, more heads turned and jaws dropped. Then one diner from the crowd there got up from his table and approached the group. He asked them whether his family could pose for a photograph with the fancy-dress group, and so a photograph was taken. Then another family approached and wanted a photograph too, and another was taken. And a third, fourth, maybe even a fifth.

Somewhere in a few families' photo albums are pictures of PLU's first pride march, though at that time, no one knew what in the world they were. They probably thought it was some theatre troupe out for a lark.

PLU's first registration attempt[edit]

With the near-miss of the New Paper exposé in 1995, the committee decided that PLU had grown to the point where it could not much longer operate clandestinely. Sundays, the growing crowd was spilling into the street. PLU’s monthly newsletter, The Thing, was being passed around quite freely.

A decision was made to register People Like Us formally as a society.

Singapore’s Societies Act required a minimum of 10 persons, but these 10 persons had to declare not only their names, addresses and ID numbers, but also their employers’ names and addresses. Considered by some to be intimidating, it made it extremely difficult for PLU to find ten persons who would be willing to put their names and careers, at risk.

In the meantime, Alex Au made an attempt to get a MITA licence for a newsletter, in his personal name, the intention being that this would regularize the position of The Thing.

Au had an existing MITA licence in his name, for a company newsletter, and had been publisher of this newsletter for a few years without hindrance.

Still, the reply from MITA for this additional application was a straightforward No.

It took a year between making the decision to register as a society and actually finding 10 persons. Eventually, PLU had 6 gay men, 2 lesbian women and 2 straight women signing on.

The application forms were lodged in November 1996. A few days later, three plainclothes officers came to Au’s home at close to midnight Saturday, to deliver a request to go down to the police station on Monday morning to give a statement to the police.

The process was no different from taking a statement from a criminal, with questions about why the people involved were doing what they were doing, how long it hand been going on, who else was connected with the activity and so on.

Another signatory, Debbie Han, was also asked to go down to give a statement.

In March 1997, the reply from the Registrar of Societies came back. The answer was negative.

PLU asked for the reason for his decision. The Registrar said that under the law, he was not obliged to give any reason.

PLU wrote again, saying that even if he was not obliged to give any reason, it did not mean he was not allowed to divulge the reason. They asked whether he could use his discretion and explain his decision.

The same answer was given, that is, he was not obliged to give a reason.

Meanwhile, as provided by law, PLU had two weeks to write an appeal letter to the Minister for Home Affairs, Mr Wong Kan Seng, which they did. Shortly thereafter, the answer from him (via the Registrar of Societies, on his behalf) came back. Again, it was negative.

PLU then wrote to the Prime Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong, asking him to relook at the matter, and giving many reasons why it would be in the interest of Singapore to liberalise, and to grant registration to PLU as a symbol of the direction to take. Yet again, the answer was negative.

By May 1997, the registration attempt had clearly run out of options.

Moving to cyberspace[edit]

In November 1996, with the lodging of the application for registration, the Sunday forums were discontinued. It was felt that it would have been unnecessarily provocative to continue while waiting for a decision from the government.

In any case, by then a number of smaller support groups, small enough to fit into homes, had been formed, and these were of a more suitable size for personal discussion on issues such as coming out, dealing with family, the workplace and religion. These support groups, some of which continue today (see 'Achievements of the Singapore gay community as a whole' below), carry on the community-building mission of PLU.

Discussions about social and political issues were moved into cyberspace, where People Like Us launched an email list called the Singapore Gay News List (SiGNeL) on 15 March 1997. That was the time when the internet began to take off in Singapore. SiGNeL has proven to be a far better platform for discussion about such macro issues than the Sunday forums could ever have been, for it enabled participation by Singaporeans abroad and others who might have found it too daunting to walk in to a Sunday forum at the Substation.

Moderation has kept SiGNeL as a serious forum, not one reduced to chat or potshots.

Soon after, in 1998, the women felt they needed a safe space free from patriarchal influences to empower women. Responding to this need, in September 1998, Eileena Lee set up the RedQueen![1] mailing list.

The CNN interview[edit]

A date that has to be marked in local gay history was 11 December 1998. That night, Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew was being interviewed by Riz Khan on CNN. People were asked to call in with their questions.

An anonymous caller (but known to PLU as he had attended a few PLU gatherings) got his chance to make his point:

'I am a gay man in Singapore. I do not feel that my country has acknowledged my presence. As we move into a more tolerant millennium, what do you think is the future for gay people in Singapore, if there is a future at all?'

Mr. Lee paused for a moment, furrowed his brows and replied:

'Well, it's not a matter which I can decide or any government can decide. It's a question of what a society considers acceptable. And as you know, Singaporeans are by and large a very conservative, orthodox society, a very, I would say, completely different from, say, the United States and I don't think an aggressive gay rights movement would help. But what we are doing as a government is to leave people to live their own lives so long as they don't impinge on other people. I mean, we don't harass anybody.'

The significance of the answer was that the lid on the gay issue was blasted apart, with a senior minister going on record as saying the government left people to live their own lives and did not harass anyone.

PLU2[edit]

Pseudo-liberalisation and the forum attempt[edit]

Soon after PLU’s application attempt was rejected (it now became referred to by some as PLU2 or Plutoo), Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong made a speech to Parliament on 5 June 1997, painting the vision of a new opening up. He said,

'We need a new vision for Singapore, an ideal, a fresh mindset. We need to move beyond material progress, to a society which places people at its very centre...a Singapore where people make the difference, in which each citizen is valued...We have to move beyond tolerance, to respect the different cultures in our midst, and to gain strength from diverse ideas.'

Thus began the tortuously slow process of liberalizing Singapore, so tortuous that some people remained skeptical of the government’s true intentions.

The skeptics expected a looming farce when, in 1999, the government launched the “Singapore 21” exercise. The cynical regarded it as a stage-managed consultation process where the result was commanded in advance. A coffee-table book was eventually produced to show that these pre-specified outcomes had wide support:

  • Strong Families : Our Foundation and Our Future
  • Opportunities for All
  • Active Citizens : Making a Difference to Society.

Nonetheless, People Like Us 2 felt that they could try to take them at their word and see what happened. Since the government wanted active citizens, and wished for every Singaporean to matter, and (in a 1997 speech) believed in moving beyond tolerance, respecting different cultures and gaining strength form diversity, PLU2 decided that it was time to hold a public forum titled, "The place of gay Singaporeans in the context of Singapore 21".

In accordance with Singapore law, where any public forum required a Public Entertainment Licence from the police, Alex Au applied for such a licence in April 2000.

It was considered by PLU2 to be a no-lose gambit. If a licence was given, there would be a forum where PLU2 could bring gay issues to the public’s attention. If a licence was refused, PLU2 reasoned it would be evidence of disingenuousness on the part of the government, and the negative publicity would exact a toll on their PR efforts.

PLU2’s survey 2000[edit]

While waiting for the decision, PLU2 organized a survey of the public’s attitudes, led by Dinesh Naidu. With very limited resources, it could not be a rigorously scientific one, but it would still give a good flavour of public attitudes.

More importantly, unlike the few other surveys done, PLU2’s survey avoided judgemental questions, such as whether one “approved” or not “approved” of homosexuality, or emotionally-laden ones, such as whether one would be “disappointed” or “shocked”. PLU2’s survey asked people to reflect for a moment and say how they might relate to family members or colleagues who were gay, and how they felt broader principles of equality should apply to the gay question. The results of this survey can be found in the Facts and Figures section of the PLU3 website ([2]and [3])

It was also notable that a number of straight friends helped out with the survey, standing at street corners handing out questionnaires, putting themselves at risk of other people assuming they were gay too.

Since the trend, in Singapore and worldwide, is for gay persons to come out of the closet, so increasingly, Singaporeans will get to know gay friends and family members in their midst. Findings of the landmark survey indicate that attitudes in the general population are likely then to shift to being more "liberal" towards gay people as a result.

Mixed messages[edit]

In May 2000, the police responded to the application for the forum. The letter said,

'I regret to inform you that your application is unsuccessful. The Police cannot allow the holding of this forum which will advance and legitimise the cause of homosexuals in Singapore. The mainstream moral values of Singaporeans are conservative, and the Penal Code has provisions against certain homosexual practices. It will therefore be contrary to the public interest to grant a public entertainment licence.'

Many gays thought the reasoning was highly faulted: once something was against the law, it was no longer permissible to talk about it.

But it was surprising when 17 and 18-year-old school students took up the issue, soon after the refusal to grant a licence for the forum. At a seminar for Pre-University students, entitled "Fostering the Renaissance Spirit", someone from the audience asked Minister of State Lim Swee Say this question,

"Do you agree the Government should relax its control and allow Singapore to truly realise the Renaissance spirit? Some examples of control are the ban on smoking and chewing gum, and the gay forum which was denied a permit."

Part of Lim Swee Say's answer regarding the gay forum was:

"….. As for the gay forum, I do not believe that a single group of people in Singapore has the right to publicise its lifestyle and impose it on others. I am an avid golfer, but I do not hold a forum on golfing to say how much I love golf and convince others it is good."

It was thought that the government's position was becoming incongruent. They were confusing who was imposing upon whom, and they equated not wanting to talk about golf with not allowing others to talk.

But given the political culture in Singapore where the media self-censor in the presence of official discomfiture, the topic soon faded from view.

Going public[edit]

Yet, things had changed considerably since 5 years previously. Some PLU2 members were publicly out. The Internet was becoming a useful medium for spreading the word beyond the Singapore gay community.

Foreign journalists also took up the issue from time to time, and PLU2 now had outspoken persons prepared to be interviewed. Kelvin Wong was featured in Time magazine; Alex Au in Asiaweek (March 2000). Au was also interviewed on BBC and Australian radio.

Also about this time, PLU2 began to feel its way towards a new relationship with the local media. Instead of shying away from them, PLU2 felt that they should try to work with them to further their cause. An informal lunch was arranged with the two seniormost editors of The New Paper, which Joseph Lo and Au attended. Nothing concrete was expected out of the lunch; it was meant as a confidence-building gesture. On another occasion, Heng and Au met with the Chief Editor of the Straits Times over dinner, and asked him what his paper's position might be over the gay issue. His opinion was that "some things are best left to evolve by themselves."

Book published[edit]

After a gestation of 3 years, the book People Like Us: Sexual Minorities in Singapore (edited by Joseph Lo and Huang Guoqin; Select Publishing) was launched in March 2003. It contained papers presented at 2 closed-door forums that Joseph Lo organised in 1999, held at the Substation.

The book also contained essays contributed by others on diverse topics, such as the representation of homosexuality in theatre, an interview with playwright Chay Yew, interracial relationships, and Christianity.

The Time magazine watershed[edit]

In February 2003, unprompted by Time magazine which was interviewing him [4], Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong mentioned that the Singapore Civil Service now had gay employees, even in sensitive positions. This was meant as evidence of the Singapore opening up.

Although it was not exactly regarded as an effusively generous offering by many homosexuals, it opened the floodgates of public comment about the gay issue. This time, almost all thoughtful commentary in the media was for the government to do more. Most could see the contradiction between professed desires to have an open, cosmopolitan society with a vibrant creative class (a term used by Richard Florida) and the archaic sex laws that a conservative government would find difficult to update.

People Like Us 2 was re-energised, its committee re-constituted.

It helped Spaces, a counseling agency, to organize a public seminar and workshop for counseling professionals and teachers, in August 2003.

It began planning for another attempt at registration, though what the last few years showed was that PLU2 did not really need to be registered. They had reached a point where, unlike 1996, they need not fear a crackdown anymore. They felt that any crackdown now would tarnish the government’s credibility heavily.

Meanwhile it became clearer than ever before that the most vocal objectors came from a sectarian angle – the fundamentalist Christian rightwing.

The second registration attempt[edit]

People Like Us 2 made its second attempt to be registered under the Societies Act in 2004. The application papers were lodged on 25 Feb 2004. A sum of $400 was also raised from supporters in readiness for the Registrar's approval, at which time the sum would have to be paid as a registration fee.

The Registrar refused registration on 8 April 2004 on the grounds that the society would be likely to be prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order, and that it would be contrary to the national interest. An appeal was sent to the Minister for Home Affairs within the 30-day appeal period prescribed by the Act. The Minister (through the Permanent Secretary) turned down the appeal on 19 May 2004.

Oral sex and the Anis Abdullah case[edit]

In November 2003, police constable Anis Abdullah was found guilty of oral sex with a 16-year-old girl and sentenced to 2 years in prison. Although it was consensual, he was charged under Section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code ("carnal intercourse against the order of nature"), commonly known as the sodomy law, which applies regardless of consent. Many letters were written to the press, shocked that in this day and age, consensual oral sex was still a criminal offense. In response to the public outcry, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that they were reviewing this aspect of the law. In January, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ho Peng Kee, reiterated in Parliament that oral sex was under review, but at the same time he said that only heterosexual oral sex was being considered for decriminalization.

PLU2 wrote to the media expressing dismay at such discriminatory intentions. PLU2 also wrote to each and every member of Parliament asking them to consider how they would justify voting for such an amendment if they had gay sons and daughters. The MPs contacted by the Straits Times for their response gave conservative replies.

Speaking out some more, as PLU3[edit]

After the initial furore following Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong's new policy regarding gay civil servants, PLU2 heard from inside sources in the media that editors had been advised to minimise reporting of the gay issue. Consistent with these reports, the local media maintained a complete blackout on the Nation '04 party (a commercial event organized by fridae.com) even though the Singapore Tourism Board was giving it some support.

Nevertheless, activists from PLU2, currently renamed People Like Us 3 (PLU3) to demarcate a new phase in its history, continued to speak out whenever opportunities arose, making themselves readily available to both the local and foreign media. Various activists from People Like Us 3 spoke to the local press, such as the Straits Times and Today, as well as with foreign journalists, whenever approached. PLU3's activists Russell Heng, Eileena Lee, Kelvin Wong, Alex Au and others, have been quoted in The New York Times, Far Eastern Economic Review, Wall Street Journal, and dispatches by AFP, AP, Reuters and other news agencies. Alex Au was interviewed by Star TV, CNN, BBC, etc.

In March 2004, Alex Au gave a talk at a forum organised by the National University of Singapore Society, alongside Law Assoc Prof Michael Hor. In May 2004, Alex Au spoke to the Press Club at a luncheon.

Spin-off Gay and Lesbian groups[edit]

Towards the end of the 1990s, several members of PLU like Kelvin Wong, Eileena Lee and Clarence Singam took the initiative to form new LGBT civil and support groups to better cater to special-interest needs of the gay community.

See also[edit]

External links and references[edit]