Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 34, March 2014

Audrey Yue and Jun Zubillaga-Pow (editors)

Queer Singapore:
Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures

Hong Kong: Hong Kong University PRess, 2012
ISBN: 798-988-8139-34-7 (pbk), ix + 254 pp

reviewed by David Gilbert

  1. Singapore is a fascinating and complex field of study: post-colonial, authoritarian, a key node in global neo-liberalism and, increasingly, an Asian queer capital. The publication of Queer Singapore is welcome and timely in deepening understandings of ‘queer’ in this politically and culturally complex site. Part of the Queer Asia series of Hong Kong University Press, at the vanguard of queer studies in the region, the book is divided into two sections: ‘Cultural citizenship and queer politics’ and ‘queer media cultures.’
  2. An introduction by Audrey Yue sets the theoretical frame of the chapters. The key category is illiberal pragmatism. Illiberal pragmatics draws attention to a paradox where homosexuality is illegal and subject to state censure (illiberalism) while at the same time tolerated and even promoted as a means of achieving economic development and status as a creative, global city (pragmatics).
  3. The first section consists of six chapters, covering history, law, civil society, the military, lesbianism and state regulation, in relation to queer subjects and cultures. This includes a lucid discussion by Michael Hor on Section 377a, the notorious law that criminalises ‘gross indecency’ between men. The question of law reform is particularly timely given recent High Court challenges in Singapore. Through the discussion of a number of cases, Hor argues convincingly that there is no legal justification for maintaining the law, and that more appropriate laws are already in place for instances where 377a has been applied in the past, such as public indecency, molestation and underage sex.
  4. The final chapter of the section, by international relations scholar Simon Obendorf, does the most to explain and elaborate on the concept of illiberal pragmatics. Obendorf outlines tension between creative and cosmopolitan Singapore, aspiring to be a global city that is queer-tolerant, and Singapore as a sovereign state preoccupied with security and order, illiberal and intolerant of queer subjects.
  5. Section two contains six chapters covering queer geography, print media culture, cinema, lesbian-related censorship, race and new media and the prominent queer web business Fridae. A highlight of the essays in the second section is the use of personal experience, auto-ethnography, as data. The section starts with a photo essay by Roy Tan, who is active in Singapore’s queer community as an organiser and archivist. Tan provides detailed background on public and commercial gay sites in the city from the early 1970s onwards, including his own hang outs. Loretta Chen, a scholar and director, discusses lesbian-related film, TV and theatre censorship. The theatre case study is of a 251, a play she directed. She identifies a paradox where lesbianism lacks any legal prohibition (unlike male same-sex sex) but is nonetheless the object of paranoid censorship by, what she satirically calls the Ministry of Discrepancies and Ambiguities. Robert Philips examines the dynamic of race and national belonging in the context of his fieldwork. He focuses on queer citizens of Indian-decent, who create communities of belonging online as a way of dealing with marginalisation in the city’s queer community.
  6. According to Yue, the focus on illiberal pragmatics stands the monograph this edited volume apart from other streams in queer Asian studies, particularly those focussed on social movements and those focussed on media, cultural studies and subjectivities: ‘By using the framing of governmental policy to consider the regulation of illiberal pragmatism, contributors show how LGBT subjectivities and their attendant claims to representations and cultural production are produced in and through a logic of queer complicity that complicates the flow of oppositional resistance and grassroots appropriation’ (p. 2). However, apart from discussion in the introduction, there is little elaboration on illiberal pragmatics as a theory that carries critical explanatory force on queer Singapore. While a number of writers refer to illiberal pragmatics in the book, it is often in passing to refer to a governmental regime of tolerance in some spheres, repression in others. In this context, the term lacks explanatory value.
  7. The focus on illiberal pragmatics to a large extent makes government and governance the subject of the book—reducing the voice and agency of queer Singaporeans in the study. The state, as an institution that produces and deploys illiberal pragmatics, is also referred to largely in the abstract, lacking clear empirical reference. Dense theorisation in some of the essays raises further questions regarding agency and objectification in research.
  8. A case in point is Zubillaga-Pow’s chapter, ‘The Negative Dialectics of Homonationalism, or Singapore English-Newspapers and Queer World-Making.’ Much of the article is a highly abstract discussion of queer and critical theory, with Singapore as a backdrop. The final section includes a brief discussion of ‘several’ newspaper articles, as evidence of ‘the queer world-making methodology and against the homonationalist discourse as corresponding to the representations of positive and negative dialectics within a Singaporean homosexual genealogy’ (p. 156). Zubillaga-Pow’s argument is largely made up of theoretical generalisations and his methodology and data are unclear, the preceding quote being an example of this.
  9. Queer Singapore is refreshing in its inclusion of writers within and beyond academia, including activists and artists, many of whom are Singaporean. This provides a diversity of methods and writing styles to the book. The book deepens understandings of key elements of queer life, culture and politics in Singapore. While the theoretical frame could have been more coherently outlined, some of the chapters do work to deepen the concept of illiberal pragmatics.


Published with the support of Gender and Cultural Studies, School of Culture, History and Language, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.
© Copyright
Page constructed by Carolyn Brewer.
Last modified: 25 February 2014 1451