Rascals was a discotheque located on the Basement 1 level of the Pan Pacific hotel in Marina Bay in the early 1990s.
It held gay nights on Sundays and was patronised by a moderately large clientele.
On Sunday, 30 May 1993, the disco was raided by several plainclothes police officers. Patrons without their identity cards were detained and brought to the police station, something which the police had no legal right to do.
After a letter of complaint by a gay lawyer and some friends, the police apologised - a hitherto unheard of result.
The Rascals incident is regarded by veteran gay activists as Singapore's Stonewall.
On Sunday, 30 May 1993, gay lawyer Wilfred Ong and his friends went to Rascals at the Pan Pacific hotel for the regular Sunday gay disco night. It started out like any other Sunday night, when the disco attracted a regular crowd of gay men. People were dancing, drinking, and enjoying themselves.
Suddenly, the music stopped and the lights were turned up. Out of the corner of his eye, Ong saw a senior partner at his law firm try to hide himself in the crowd.
“Shut up!” “Police raid.” A plainclothes officer in a striped polo T-shirt warned everyone to keep quiet or, he threatened, “I’ll knock your heads.”
He and other officers divided Rascals patrons into those who carried identification documents on them and those who did not. Ong was carrying his identity card, so he was allowed to leave the club.
But his flatmate did not have identification and was detained. Ong rushed home to fetch his flatmate’s card and hurried to the Beach Road police station.
There, he found his flatmate huddled together with other detainees taken from Rascals, all made to squat outside the station. Ong produced his flatmate’s identification to the police and had him released. The rest were released in the morning without charges.
Letter of complaint
Ong’s encounter was common in the authoritarian Singapore of the early 1990s. The Marina Bay and Beach Road areas came under the jurisdiction of the Beach Road police station and the popular strip of several gay bars and clubs at the time were frequently raided by the police. What transpired after the raid of 30 May 1993, however, was far from common in the island state and former British colony.
Angered by the night’s events, Ong looked into Singapore’s legislation. He discovered that the police had no authority to detain a person who did not carry his or her identification card unless they had reasonable belief that the person had committed some wrongdoing, which he did not think was apparent at Rascals. The recent law school graduate decided to write a letter to the police and looked around for signatories. The senior lawyers he approached refused to co-sign the letter. After much effort and persuasion, he finally managed to collect 21 signatures from among Rascals patrons and submitted the letter to the police and the ministry of Home Affairs, its parent ministry.
The letter cited the relevant statutory provisions that supported Ong’s allegations and went on to say:
It is particularly disturbing to find Singapore law enforcement officers behaving rudely towards and verbally threatening citizens who have not committed any offences. It would also be in the public interest to clarify the legal powers of police officers (plainclothes) to demand the production of personal particulars in cases where no offences have been committed. (Rascals letter, 31 May 1993)
A month later, the assistant superintendent of the Beach Road police station called Ong:
He said, “Look, we’ve received your letter. What do you want us to do? Basically, what we have done internally was that we have educated our police officers that what they did was not in accordance of [sic] the law.” They had told [their officers] that they cannot do this in the future. So I said, “Fine. I want your assurance that there will be no more future occurrences.” . . . And he gave me that assurance. (Ong)
A few days later, Ong received a letter from the Central Police Division Headquarters, signed by its acting commander, explaining that the police had received complaints of overcrowding at Rascals and had suspected some patrons of providing false identification. Then it went on to apologize:
Due to the confusion at the initial stage, our officers had difficulty controlling the large crowd at Rascals. Some of the patrons became unruly and our officers had to raise their voices. We apologise for their lack of tact in dealing with the situation. We will take steps to prevent a recurrence and to caution the officers concerned. (Police reply to Rascals letter, 29 June 1993)
"If you’re talking about gay men being “attacked” very openly, very visibly, it happened. If you’re talking about gay men organizing themselves, it happened. If you’re talking about gay men fighting back, it happened. So for all intents and purposes, it was our Stonewall."
Sunday, 30 May 1993, Beach Road, Singapore
Veteran gay activists often hail Rascals as Singapore’s Stonewall, crediting the raid for galvanizing a fledgling gay movement that was quietly taking shape in the early 1990s in Singapore. Of course, these activists are speaking of Stonewall the myth —hat it started everything (D’emilio 2002) - rather than Stonewall the socially and historically contextualized event. many of them were mere toddlers and some of them were not even born when the notorious riots happened. The famous new york City incident did not single-handedly launch the movement in the United States that had deep roots in earlier decades (D’emilio 1998; Armstrong 2002). nor does their Rascals campaign bear much resemblance to the events that ensued after the police raids in June 1969. In the Stonewall narrative, the name of the famous bar is associated with open confrontation and street riots. In contrast, the absence of open confrontation and the reticence of angry protests on the streets epitomize the Rascals story.
In 2008, Singapore's first LGBT advocacy group, People Like Us, thought that it was time to honour the best Singapore LGBT research work periodically. For that, they instituted the Rascals Prize, named after the Rascals incident, with a cash award worth S$2,000, for the best work - not just by students, but also open to any independent researcher, regardless of age, nationality or occupation - related to sexual orientation or transgenderism, and Singapore.
The winner of the Rascals Prize was decided by a jury of four highly regarded academics, all of whom were independent of People Like Us. They academics chosen for the inaugural award presented during IndigNation 2009 were:
- Professor Michael Hor Yew Meng, NUS Law Faculty, also Chief Editor of the Singapore Journal of Legal Studies. He had written extensively on criminal law in Singapore.
- Associate Professor Quah Sy Ren, Acting Head of the Chinese Division, School of Humanities and Social Science, NTU. An essayist and playwright, he was actively involved in the arts and civil society.
- Dr Sharon Siddique, a partner in a regional research consulting company based in Singapore. Prior to that, she was Deputy Director of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies where her research interest covers issues of culture, race and religion.
- Dr Kenneth Paul Tan, Assistant Professor of Political Science at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS. He specialised in Singapore studies, focusing on topics such as democracy, civil society, media, multiculturalism, and meritocracy.
- Lynette J Chua, "Mobilizing Gay Rights under Authoritarianism", Chapter 1 in the book, "Mobilizing Gay Singapore: Rights and Resistance in an Authoritarian State", Temple University Press, 2014, ISBN: 978-9971-69-815-7,.
- Wilfred Ong, "Singapore's 1993 Stonewall: The police raid at Rascals disco", Yawning Bread, April 2004.
- Alex Au, "Academic freedom and the Rascals Prize", Yawning Bread, 9 October 2008.
- People Like Us, "A guide to your legal rights", Yawning Bread, 1993, archived April 2004.
This article was compiled by Roy Tan.