Transgender people in Singapore have a substantial history and have developed a vibrant subculture. Not immediately apparent to Singapore's mainstream society is the fact that the gay community sees itself as a totally separate entity from the various transgender communities which include cross-dressers, trans women and trans men. Each constitutes an individual subculture with many different priorities and concerns.
(For scientific and slang words in Singapore's four official and other minority languages used to describe transvestites, transgender people and transsexuals, see Singapore gay terminology)
- 1 Mak nyah
- 2 Venues
- 3 History
- 3.1 National Service
- 3.2 Early sex reassignment surgery
- 3.3 Increasing visibility in mainstream media
- 3.4 Legal reform
- 3.5 First transgender character in a local TV production
- 3.6 Further developments in sex reassignment institutions
- 3.7 Legalisation of transgender marriage
- 3.8 Closure and reopening of the GIC
- 3.9 Beautiful boxer
- 3.10 Evidence of British sailors' visits to Bugis Street in the 1960s
- 3.11 First pictorial documentary on trans women
- 3.12 First TV programme featuring local transwoman
- 4 Transgender organisations
- 5 Personalities
- 6 Books
- 7 See also
- 8 External links and references
- 9 Acknowledgements
A large body of research on the Malay transgender, cross-dressing and transsexual communities has been published by female sociologist Teh Yik Koon from the School of Social Development, University Utara Malaysia. It is detailed in her groundbreaking and seminal work, "The Mak Nyahs: Malaysian Male to Female Transsexuals" (Singapore: Eastern Universities Press, 2002, viii + 175pp., ISBN 9812102094). Many of the findings are also applicable to local mak nyahs as Singaporean and Malaysian Malays largely share a common culture. (Read a tabloid article about a contemporary mak nyah stage performer:
There is far less information available on trans men, that is, female-to-male transgender people, as they are much less visible. It should also be noted that not all trans women casually solicit sex or prostitute themselves, although it is sometimes the only paid work available to them.
Trans women generally cruise and congregate in different areas from gay men. They seek heterosexual men with whom they socialise, have free sex or perform sexual services for a fee. They also bond socially with each other at these venues.
- Main article: Bugis Street
One of Singapore's most famous tourist meccas since the 1950s, renowned internationally for its nightly parade of flamboyantly dressed trans women, Bugis Street attracted hordes of Caucasian gawkers who had never witnessed Asian queens in full regalia.
The latter would tease, cajole and sit on visitors' laps or pose for photographs for a fee. The amount of revenue that they raked in was considerable, providing a booster shot in the arm for the tourism industry. Veterans recall that the notorious drinking section began from Victoria Street west to Queen Street. Halfway between Victoria and Queen Streets, there was an intersecting lane parallel to the main roads, also lined with al fresco bars. There was a well-patronised public toilet with a flat roof of which there are archival photos, complete with jubilant rooftop transwomen. The earliest published description of Bugis Street found by Yawning Bread as a place of great gender diversity was in the book "Eastern Windows" by Ommaney, F.D. (1960. London:Longmans. pp. 39-45). Ommaney did not date specifically his description of the street but his book made clear that he was in Singapore from 1955 to 1960. Read a first-person account of Bugis Street in the 1950s by Bob, a visiting Australian sailor:
In the mid-1980s, Bugis Street underwent major urban redevelopment into a retail complex of modern shopping malls, restaurants and nightspots mixed with regulated back-alley roadside vendors. Underground digging to construct the Bugis MRT station prior to that also caused the upheaval and termination of nightly transgender sex bazaar culture, marking the end of a colourful and unique era in Singapore's history. Tourist and local lamentation of the loss sparked attempts by the Singapore Tourist Promotion Board (STPB) to attempt to recreate some of the old sleazy splendour by staging contrived "Ah Qua shows" on wooden platforms, but these artificial performances fell flat on their faces and failed to pull in the crowds. They were abandoned after a short time.
Bugis Street was immortalised in an English-language film made, ironically, by a Hong Kong film company which did employ some local talent in its production (see main article Bugis Street (the movie)).
Formerly located between and parallel to Queen Street and Victoria Street, and bisected by Ophir Road, it was the less well-known cousin of its glamourous counterpart, Bugis Street, just a stone's throw away. It was the seedy haunt of transgender prostitutes who solicited sex from locals, away from the glare of Western tourists. No photographs or media attention were focussed on this street of ill-repute; only a no-frills approach to an economic exchange.
The former location of Johore Road to the north-east of Ophir Road, now transected by the Victoria Street Wholesale Centre. The carpark behind the Victoria Street Wholesale centre, also where Johore Road used to be. The unnamed park next to the Bugis MRT station where the half of Johore Road south-west of Ophir Road used to be.
It was one of the few roads to be completely erased from the map of Singapore after a fire in the late 90s, to be replaced by an unnamed park next to the Bugis MRT station and the Victoria Street Wholesale Centre.
Singapore's only drag queen cabaret nightclub and thought by many also to be Singapore's only real national institution in the same uninhibited spirit as the original Bugis Street. It is the namesake of John Lee Hooker's legendary blues club in San Francisco, shooting to international fame when the postmodernist magazine Wallpaper called it "our top pick for a good night out in all of Asia!"
Originally established by owner Alan Koh in 1993 at 4 New Bugis Street in Bugis Village, it later relocated on 2 April 2000 to the second floor of the old 2-storey Chui Eng Free School schoolhouse at 130-132 Amoy Street, Far East Square (10 min walk from the Raffles Place MRT station). The new venue, which was reputed to have the best Singapore Sling in town, had a restaurant downstairs for informal and outdoor dining.
Its overwhelming attraction were the risque comedy routines by local drag superstar Kumar who took no-holds-barred digs at topics close to the hearts of Singaporeans. He was aided by his coterie of flamboyant, dazzlingly costumed, cross-dressing backups, nubile toyboys and other straight stand-up comedian/comedienne friends.
The first performance debuted on 18 August 2000. There were 2 shows each night and outrageous wisecracks, in raw Singlish which made the banter difficult for tourists to understand, were interspersed with DJs playing the latest chart tunes. Members of the audience sitting next to the stage ran the highest risk of being drawn into the performance.
It closed after 12 years on 15 January 2005 to enable its artistes to move on to fresh creative pursuits. However, many thought other reasons were that the shows were getting stale, the drag queens were getting old (Kumar was 36) with no fresh blood to carry the torch and the existing ones not having what it took, and the club's poor location. It spawned a spoof version called the Bang Bang Room at Changi Village which held late night performances every weekend.
Desker Road vicinity
A well-known area for men seeking the services of real woman prostitutes in the Serangoon or Little India area for decades, it attracted many of the transgender street-walkers from nearby Johore Road after the latter was erased from the map by a fire in the late 1990s.
Unlike their genotypically-female government-regulated counterparts who are on display, usually seated on armchairs or sofas in well-lit rooms, reminiscent of a low-class back-lane version of Amsterdam, the trans women of Desker Road, in contrast, cruise while standing or strolling. This is done to render their activities, which are considered illegal, less vulnerable to Vice Squad raids. The seedy atmosphere of the whole vicinity has largely disappeared due to massive redevelopment around Mustafa Centre.
Popular with trans women since the early 1990s and the straight men who go there to ogle at them, chat them up or use their services.
A "heartland" park smack in the middle of a Housing Development Board satellite town which has recently gained notoriety for the activities of transvestites, some of whom reportedly rather aggressively solicit paid sex from casual passers-by. (Read a report by The New Paper:)
Located on level 2 of the rear block of Orchard Towers along Orchard Road, it is Singapore's second drag queen cabaret nightclub, a joint venture between Kumar, 37, and partner Gwen Koh, 45, who also owns the 3 Monkeys Restaurant in Orchard Towers. Together, they spent $50,000 to open the venue in July 2005, 6 months after the closure of Boom Boom Room.
Aiming for the high-end market, Gold Dust boasts professional dancers with flamboyant mardi gras-type costumes and real women dancing alongside drag performers. Kumar's trademark provocative jokes are still the main focus, but now framed in a classier and more streamlined show. He aims to capture the cozy feel and stylish look of New York-style theatre bars. Thus, the 3,000 sq ft club has no dance floor and all the chairs and tables face the stage. It can hold 180 people, and has the feel of a 1970s glam disco, updated for the new generation. Instead of young National Servicemen and students, who formed a significant part of the Boom Boom Room client?le, Gold Dust intends to target a slightly more upper-crust crowd.
The main aim of the theatre bar is to showcase talent. In addition to the cabaret dances and stand-up comedy staples, it is considering expanding the shows to include mime, monologues, plays and singing.
Partner Kumar decided to open the venture because he needed a steady income stream, as well as a home base for his stand-up performances. Although the bar is located in the back block of Orchard Towers where Harry's Bar and Jason's supermarket reside, some felt that the idea of a bar next to the infamous '4 floors of whores' may not appeal to some patrons. However, Kumar felt that Orchard Towers was always known to be a controversial place, and since he was also a controversial performer who pushed the boundaries, it made sense for the bar to be based there.'
For the first time, Kumar's show incorporates 2 female professional dancers, Samantha Kan, 24, and Aslinda, 23. There were only male dancers at the Boom Boom Room. He always felt that the latter was lacking something and now he realised that it was girls.
Opening hours are from 8pm to 3am on weekdays, and from 8pm to 4am on weekends. Entrance charges, inclusive of 1 drink are $22 on weekdays and $28 on weekends. Only patrons 25 years and above are allowed. Dress code is smart casual- no shorts, singlets or slippers. Website:
- Main article: Singapore transgender history
National service was implemented in 1967, whereby all 18-year old males were required to train full-time for two or two-and-a-half years, depending on their educational attainment. Transgender was listed as a condition in a Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) 'Directory of Diseases' and recruits who outed themselves to the examining doctors at the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) at Dempsey Road had their 'deployability' denied in sensitive positions. They were classified as snigger-worthy Category 302 personnel, downgraded to a Public Employment Status of 3 (PES3) and assigned only clerical work at army bases.
Early sex reassignment surgery
- Main article: Sex reassignment surgery in Singapore
As Singaporean gynaecological surgeons became more skillful, leaders in the field like Prof. S Shan Ratnam were authorised to perform male-to-female sex reassignment surgery (SRS) at Kandang Kerbau Hospital. The first such operation in Asia took place here in July 1971. However, before patients could go under the knife, they first had to subject themselves to an exhaustive battery of tests and be given a clean psychological bill of health by chief academic psychiatrist Prof. Tsoi Wing Foo.
"The first sex change surgery in Singapore was successfully performed on 30 July 1971 at the Kandang Kerbau Hospital. The operation involved a 24-year-old man and was the first procedure of its kind performed in Singapore and in Asia. There had been previous “sex change” operations performed in Singapore, but these mostly involved patients who had both male and female genitalia (hermaphrodites) and the removal of one set of genitalia. The 1971 operation was regarded as a first because it involved a surgical conversion aimed at functionally changing a person’s sex.
Patient and diagnosis
The patient was a 24-year-old Singaporean citizen of Chinese heritage. Her name was kept secret, but her background was later made public in a book. The eldest son in a family of five with two younger sisters, her father was a dentist who was often physically violent with his wife, which caused the patient psychological trauma. As a child, the patient was raised by her grandmother, who dressed her as a female. In her teenage years, she associated with other cross-dressers before frequenting the transsexual and transvestite scene at Bugis Street as an adult.
From the age of 16, she worked as a sales assistant, a housemaid, in a bank and as a public relations officer. She later won second prize in a beauty contest and became a model. While working as a part-time model, she joined a cabaret and was known as “Mama Chan”. She also ran a social escort service.
Having lived as a woman for some time, she first consulted Professor S. S. Ratnam, a senior lecturer in the University of Singapore’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, in 1969. She had been suffering sexual and emotional problems, which had led to two suicide attempts. Ratnam explained to her that he had no experience in sex change surgery, but she continued to visit his clinic weekly. After researching the subject of transsexualism and sex reassignment surgeries, Ratnam familiarised himself with the surgical techniques by practising on cadavers.
The patient underwent a psychological analysis by a team of psychiatrists who confirmed that she was a transsexual who required surgery. A diagnosis of transsexualism requires that the patient possesses a continuous sense of inappropriateness about his or her anatomic sex, a desire to discard his or her genitalia and live as a member of the opposite sex, and the absence of physical intersex symptoms or genetic abnormalities. As well, his or her gender confusion (gender dysphoria) must not be caused by other disorders such as schizophrenia. The patient was also cautioned that the surgery would be irreversible, potentially involved a number of complications and required a prolonged follow-up period.
Legal clearance for the operation was then sought from the Ministry of Health and granted. After consideration of the patient’s psychological profile, the medical expertise involved and the approval of the Ministry, the decision was taken to proceed with the operation.
Operation and impact
The operation was performed by Ratnam and two other surgeons from the University of Singapore’s Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Associate Professor Khew Khoon Shin and plastic surgeon R. Sundarason. Photography of the operation was not permitted. Ratnam later described the three-hour operation as a success, with an uneventful post-surgery recovery. He later founded the Gender Identity Clinic specialising in sex change surgeries at the National University Hospital.
After her successful operation, the patient went on hormone treatments and was functionally a woman, with the exception of being unable to conceive or menstruate. She later married a French man and owned a travel agency in Paris, before moving to England.
The July 1971 operation paved the way for sex change surgeries in Singapore and in the region. Singapore’s first sex change operation on a woman took place three years later, between August 1974 to October 1977 (female-to-male conversions are a more complex process and involve several surgical stages). In the 1970s and 1980s, hospitals in Singapore accepted numerous sex change patients from other Southeast Asian countries, with foreigners making up around half of all surgeries performed."
Increasing visibility in mainstream media
The first substantial mention of Singapore's transgender community was a groundbreaking 4-part feature by The New Nation entitled, "They are different..." It was published on 4 consecutive days from Monday, 24 July to Thursday, 27 July 1972 (see main article Singapore's first newspaper articles on the LGBT community).
In the years following the operation, a number of legal issues arose for transgender individuals who had undergone a sex change. In 1973, Singapore legalised sex reassignment surgery. A policy was instituted to enable post-operative transsexual people to change the legal gender on their identity cards (but not their birth certificates) and other documents which flowed from that.
The Registry of Marriages implicitly recognised marriages involving a sex change patient, as it required only an identity card to prove the different genders of the couple. There was no specific provision in the statutes which allowed the Registrar to do this, so it existed probably only at the level of a policy directive. However, for over 20 years, this policy seemed to have operated smoothly.
However in 1991, a marriage between a sex change transsexual man and a woman was declared void from the beginning by the High Court, officially making such marriages illegal in Singapore.
It was only in 1996 that the government amended the Women’s Charter to allow transsexuals to legally marry (see below).
First transgender character in a local TV production
In 1991, a Singapore Broadcasting Corporation (SBC) Channel 8 Mandarin fantasy period TV serial entitled "最后一个大侠" (literally "The last knight") featured a man named Sima Qinyun who could transform his gender to become an evil villain named 紫罗刹 (the purple killer) and also revert back at will (see YouTube video of theme song). This was groundbreaking, even though the storyline is thought to have been adapted from a wu xia novel by Jin Yong (Louis Cha), and even pre-dated the well known 东方不败 played by Lin Qing Xia in the eponymous hit Taiwanese film.
Further developments in sex reassignment institutions
Later, the more technically demanding female-to-male sex reassignment surgery was also offered at Kandang Kerbau Hospital and at Alexandra Hospital, performed by gynaecologists such as Dr. Ilancheran. A Gender Identity Clinic (GIC) and Gender Reassignment Surgery Clinic were set up at the National University Hospital two decades later. It was headed by Prof. S Shan Ratnam until his retirement in 1995, after which leadership passed to his nephew, Dr. Anandakumar. In fact, for 30 years, Singapore was one of the world leaders in SRS, performing more than 500 such operations. This gave a new lease of life to the many transgender individuals whose bodies did not match their gender identity. As one consequence of this, Bugis Street and Johore Road started to become populated with a range of transgender people from transvestites to iatrogenic intersex individuals to fully transformed women.
Legalisation of transgender marriage
Since the mid-1970s, post-operative transsexual people had been discreetly lobbying to be given the right to get married to opposite-sex spouses. In 1996, a bill was presented before Parliament and the Women's Charter amended to read:
- Avoidance of marriages between persons of same sex. 12.
- (1) A marriage solemnized in Singapore or elsewhere between persons who, at the date of the marriage, are not respectively male and female shall be void. [30/96]
- (2) It is hereby declared that, subject to sections 5, 9, 10, 11 and 22, a marriage solemnized in Singapore or elsewhere between a person who has undergone a sex re-assignment procedure and any person of the opposite sex is and shall be deemed always to have been a valid marriage. [30/96]
- (3) For the purpose of this section
- (a) the sex of any party to a marriage as stated at the time of the marriage in his or her identity card issued under the National Registration Act (Cap. 201) shall be prima facie evidence of the sex of the party; and
- (b) a person who has undergone a sex re-assignment procedure shall be identified as being of the sex to which the person has been re-assigned. [30/96]
- (4) Nothing in subsection (2) shall validate any such marriage which had been declared by the High Court before 1st May 1997 to be null and void on the ground that the parties were of the same sex.
The minister moving the bill argued that since 1973, the government's intention was for people who had changed gender/sex to live a life according to their new gender, including the right to marry. Through an oversight, the law relating to marriage had not been re-aligned with the official policy to recognise sex reassignment surgery. Now that the courts had illuminated this inconsistency after a landmark case in which a wife sought and won the annulment of her marriage to a transman (Lim Ying v Hiok Kian Ming Eric), it was necessary to amend the Women's Charter to ensure that the original intention was not undermined. Transgender people were officially granted their wish on 24 January 1996 via an announcement by PAP MP Abdullah Tarmugi without much public fanfare or opposition.
Closure and reopening of the GIC
In April 2001, the Gender Identity Clinic at the National University Hospital, which was an offshoot of the original subsection of the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology at Kandang Kerbau Hospital and which helped to build Singapore's reputation as a top destination for sex change operations for the past 30 thirty years, the last hospital in Singapore for such procedures, closed without any fanfare. The official explanation was that the gynaecologist in charge had left for private practice, and without him, the clinic did not have the skills to perform SRS. However, as early as 1987, the Ministry of Health had been directing hospitals to stop doing such operations on foreigners. It also discouraged them for Singaporeans, saying 'the increased danger of AIDS with such patients poses unnecessary risk to hospital staff'. However, some believe that the increasing number of Christian doctors filling the administrative ranks of Singapore hospitals over the past decades had a part to play in its shutting down as cross-dressing and sex reassignment are proscribed in the Bible.
This dismayed transgender people seeking to have their operations performed locally. The online edition of the now-defunct newspaper Project Eyeball carried out a survey in June 2001 asking, "Should sex change operations be resumed in Singapore?" 39% of respondents said, "Yes, they are people with valid medical needs, like infertile couples" and 35% said, "Why not? It is legal here, as are transsexual marriages". The results showed that Singaporeans were generally quite supportive.
The transgender community's petition was successful, with the clinic discreetly resuming it services in 2003, helmed by Dr. Ilancheran. However, owing to the discrimination against transgender people in Singapore even within some segments of the medical community, the high financial outlay involved and the necessity for psychological clearance, many preferred to have their operations performed sans the hassles in Bangkok, which had by then become the premiere centre for sex-reassignment surgery (SRS).
In November 2001, Singapore-based Thai director Ekachai Uekrongtham announced his intention to produce a film entitled "Beautiful boxer" on the life of Thai male-to-female transsexual kick boxer, Parinya Charoenphol.
Evidence of British sailors' visits to Bugis Street in the 1960s
In November 2002, newly declassified UK naval documents revealed that possibly 50% of its servicemen had indulged in homosexual sex at some time in their naval service life and many had visited brothels in Singapore's then legendary Bugis Street in the 1960s as soon as their ship docked. A document written by the navy's medical director general in 1969, described Singapore's transwoman prostitutes as "very beautiful" and who "dress well and smell delicious" He added, "They perfect the female walk, stance and mannerisms and some even undergo surgery to complete the illusion".
First pictorial documentary on trans women
In April 2003, Select Books released Singapore's first pictorial documentary on transsexuals in Singapore and Thailand entitled, "My Sisters, their Stories", written by male-to-female transsexual, Leona Lo,.
First TV programme featuring local transwoman
On Friday, 7 January 2005 at 8:30pm Channel U broadcast Singapore's first television programme to feature a local transwoman entitled "Sense of Being". It interviewed 38-year old post-operative Malay male-to-female transsexual Amy Tashiana. Tashiana talked about her life as a former model with Carrie Models and performer at the defunct cabaret club Boom Boom Room.
- Main article: Singapore transgender organisations
- SgButterfly , - Singapore's first and largest transgender web portal and support group founded by a heterosexual man, Daniel Kaw.
- SgGurls , - singapore's second transwoman support group which seeks a higher social profile and aims to reach out to mainstream society.
- Sisters In Solidarity  - a transwoman support group formed by Marla Bendini and Tricia Leong in 2009 to combat discrimination against transgender women in Singapore.
- Transgender Alliance - an amalgamation of the 2 transgender social and info networks, SgGurls and SgButterfly, and a sister group, Project X, an advocacy group for transgender people working in the sex industry.
- Project X , - an advocacy group for transgender people working in the sex industry. Project X believes that sex work is a legitimate form of work and that sex workers should not be criminalised alongside murderers and thieves. As such, sex workers’ rights are also human rights.
- SgCrossDressers - a closed Facebook group created only for Singapore male-to-female cross dressers in 2013. It promotes and encourages like-minded individuals to interact and exchange ideas, share the journey of the cross dressing life and provide support in this very special community. The founders strive to make the group grow in a clean and secure environment. People with fake profiles and undesirable admirers are not welcome. To join, one needs to have a genuine face picture in one's profile. Its first administrator was Jamie Lee.
Cross-dressing gay artistes
Heterosexual part-time cross-dressing artistes
- Sisterhood by Leona Lo (Select Books, 2003, ISBN: 981047198X)- a personalised emotional expose of the local transvestite and transsexual community by an intellectual transwoman herself.
- My Sisters: Their Stories by Leona Lo and Lance Lee (Viscom Editions Pte Ltd)
- Cries from Within by S. Shan Ratnam; Victor H. H. Goh and Tsoi Wing Foo- a tome on sex-reassignment surgery and its attendant psychological considerations by two eminent gynaecologists and a psychiatrist.
- Yawning Bread's account of Singapore's transgender and sex-change history:
- Transgender Asia
- SgButterfly - Singapore Transgender Community Portal
- Tiffany Gwee, 'Danielle’s story: The Life of a Transsexual in Singapore', The Online Citizen, 3 February 2014.
- 'SG Transgender Sex workers represented in ICAAP', The Online Citizen, 26 November 2013.
- Ms Chor Lor.com, blog of a Singapore transgender.
- "In transit: the invisible lives of Singapore's transgenders", article in "Coconuts Singapore" blog, 23 January 2015.
This article was started by Roy Tan based on his personal experiences, verbal accounts provided by friends, and information on Yawning Bread, Fridae, SiGNeL and other Internet sources. Additional information was also contributed by transgender users of Wikipedia and SgWiki.