Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific
Issue 36, September 2014

Sexual Citizenship in Singapore:
Heteronormativity and the Cultural Politics of Population

Natalie Oswin

  1. 'If you can't evolve, big as you are or prosperous as you may be, you die like the dinosaurs.' This quote from Singapore's former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong appears in a 2003 article in Time Asia magazine titled 'The Lion Winter.'[1] The article details the Singapore government's efforts to shake off the city-state's authoritarian image and foster an entrepreneurial, creative spirit in the face of changing global economic conditions. This effort to stay ahead by transforming Singapore's manufacturing-based economy into a post-industrial, knowledge-based economy is by no means surprising. Throughout the city-state's postcolonial history, its People's Action Party government has relentlessly pursued innovative economic policies to secure standing as a leading global city. But one section of the article signals a striking discontinuity with past trends in the city-state's governance:

      The city now boasts seven saunas catering almost exclusively to gay clients…something unthinkable even a few years ago…. Prime Minister Goh says his government now allows gay employees into its ranks, even in sensitive positions. The change in policy, inspired at least in part by the desire to not exclude talented foreigners who are gay, is being implemented without fanfare, Goh says. 'We are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me.'[2]

  2. This was an out of the blue and unprecedented statement that signalled the liberalisation of the Singapore government's approach to public expressions of homosexuality in the city-state over the last decade as it has taken on board Richard Florida's contention that 'tolerance' attracts 'talent.'[3] Gay and lesbian commercial establishments have been allowed to operate visibly, police raids on cruising grounds and bars that were not uncommon in past decades have largely ceased and queer cultural production in such realms as theatre and film has flourished. These are remarkable changes. But the government has also made very clear that there are absolute limits to this liberalisation, and legislative and policy changes to counter pervasive heterosexual bias have proven stubbornly out of reach. For instance, permits have not been granted for various public talks relating to gay and lesbian rights; the gay and lesbian activist organisation People Like Us has been refused registration as a society because its existence was deemed 'contrary to the public interest'; and perhaps most significantly, a 2007 lobbying effort to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, a statute that criminalises 'gross indecency' between men, was summarily dismissed. Thus, despite the recent dramatic moves toward tolerance of sexual minorities in Singapore, and the emergence of visible gay and lesbian subcultures, for those striving for social justice for sexual minorities there is still much critical work to be done, as Melvin Chng points out. Indeed, many scholars, activists and public figures are taking up the challenge and pushing for the rights of gays and lesbians in the city-state. In this article, I seek to contribute to this critical response. But rather than duplicating existing arguments that necessarily and usefully challenge discrimination against homosexuals in Singapore society, I go in a complementary but somewhat different direction.
  3. In what follows, I first discuss some work within the small body of scholarship on the politics of homosexuality in Singapore that has emerged in recent years. I then consider the government's consistent refrain in response to pleas for gay and lesbian enfranchisement that the family is a 'basic building block' of Singapore society. Here, I argue that while existing debates over sexual citizenship in the city-state focus on an apparent contest between a heterosexual majority and a homosexual minority, we can and ought to go further to interrogate the more general politics of intimate regulation of which this contest is only part. I argue, in other words, for the advancement of a critical queer approach not just to the exclusionary politics of homosexuality within Singapore, but also to the workings of heteronormativity in the city-state. I do so in order to take seriously the government's constant refrain that gays and lesbians must remain marginal because the family is the basis of Singapore society. Next, I consider the historical emergence of the family norm as Singapore transformed itself from a colonial entrepôt of single male migrant labourers into a nation of settled families, highlighting the ways in which the drive for 'quality' population to spur on national development has 'queered' many more than just gays and lesbians. Upon scrutinising the social construct of the proper family, it becomes obvious that heteronormativity in Singapore does not simply police a heterosexual-homosexual divide. Finally, I turn back to the Singapore studies literature to discuss existing scholarship that lays a strong foundation for critical analyses of the notion of the 'normal family' in the city-state. While much of this scholarship stems from feminist scholars and focuses on the family as a patriarchal institution, I suggest that we easily can and certainly ought to extend its insights to launch a critique of heteronormativity in Singapore. Bridging feminist and queer critiques helps us bring into focus the ways in which heteronormativity produces marginalisations along the lines of race, class, gender and nationality as well as sexual identity. As such, a queer and feminist critique of heteronormativity enables us to grapple more fully with the politics of sexual citizenship in the city-state than a focus on only the politics of homosexuality versus heterosexuality would allow.

    Sexuality and the city-state
  4. As a wealth of government, media and community discourse on the topic of homosexuality in Singapore has emerged over the first decade of this century, scholars have likewise begun to pay increasing attention to the issue. In particular, several have offered critical analyses of the government's liberalisation of its approach to public expressions of homosexuality in the city-state while it simultaneously maintains discriminatory legislation and policy that fundamentally excludes gays and lesbians from full citizenship. Lim Kean Fan, Kenneth Paul Tan, Meredith Weiss and Audrey Yue each examine the limits to the official discourse of tolerance that is bound up with strategies to attract the foreign 'talent' and capital that the Singapore government casts as necessary to ensure competitiveness in the global knowledge economy. Their arguments touch on a range of issues but they come to somewhat similar conclusions. Yue contends that the Singapore government's 'illiberal pragmatics' have enabled the emergence of a local queer culture in which gays and lesbians have 'reclaimed the shame of their deviant homosexualities and localised new embodiments of doing queer.'[4] Lim finds that 'the increasing room purveyed for the expression of homosexuality suggests that Singapore may indeed be growing into a city where multiple sexualities can not only co-exist, but also begin to respect one another.'[5] Tan argues that as gay activists develop 'the kinds of strategies that capitalise on the inherent contradictions and tensions within the official rhetoric' they might be able to 'find for their community…a legitimate, recognised, and respected place as gay Singapore citizens in the "mainstream".'[6] Finally, Weiss agrees that 'increasing gay visibility…may foster legitimacy and, ultimately, rights for the GLBT community' and she goes further to argue that 'Singapore's government may increasingly find that maintaining the discourses, norms and policies apropos an attachment to the cultural relativism of "Asian values" appears increasingly incompatible with the nation-state's cosmopolitan economic dreams.'[7]
  5. As I have already discussed, these commentators' observations that gay and lesbian public cultures in Singapore have flourished in recent years as a result of the government's new official discourse of tolerance are of course correct. The blossoming of queer activist, arts, social and commercial spaces are extraordinary developments that are surely changing Singapore's cultural and political landscape in untold ways. However, the hope that rights and recognition, in an official sense, might be on the cards has been dealt a blow by the government's firm rejection of the lobbying effort to repeal Penal Code Section 377A in October 2007. Since then, activist efforts have by no means ceased. People Like Us, though still not a registered society, remains active as do various other gay and lesbian community groups. The annual events, IndigNation and Pink Dot, prominently call attention to gay and lesbian issues in Singapore as does continued coverage in various mainstream and cyber-media outlets. Surely, more scholarly work on gay and lesbian issues in Singapore will follow as well.[8]
  6. So, although enfranchisement of gays and lesbians is off the table for now, the unprecedented debates over homosexuality of the last decade thankfully show no sign of abating in the years ahead. But my aim here is to build on the existing critical discourse around gay and lesbian issues in Singapore to think about sexual citizenship in a broader sense. I do so by focussing on a fact that all of the authors discussed above note but do not explicitly interrogate; that is, that gays and lesbians are disenfranchised in Singapore for the sake of 'family values.' As Tan succinctly notes, homosexuality has been cast as a 'threat to the traditional Asian family, which has been held up as the basic unit of Singaporean society.'[9] To confirm that this is an extremely important point, we can look to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's speech to parliament explaining why the sodomy law still stands. This is a fascinating speech not least because it suggests that what is at stake cannot be captured by a simple, fixed sexual binary.[10] While Lee rejected the repeal petition in no uncertain terms, he by no means painted a picture of homosexuality as abhorrent. Rather, he declared that the gay and lesbian community 'include[s] people who are responsible and valuable, highly-respected contributing members of society' and 'among them are some of our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters, or some of our children.'[11] Lee thus prescribed that 'they too must have a place in this society, and they too are entitled to their private lives.' Nonetheless, he insisted that, 'homosexuals should not set the tone for Singapore society' and laid bare a stark terrain with the declaration that, 'there is space, and there are limits.' While Singaporeans were encouraged by their head of state to adopt a 'live and let live attitude' in regard to gays and lesbians, 'the overall society…remains conventional, it remains straight.' It remains thus, he continued, not for the sake of maintaining an abstract dominant heterosexuality:

      The family is the basic building block of this society. It has been so and by policy, we have reinforced this, and we want to keep it so. And by family in Singapore we mean one man, one woman marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit…. It is not so in other countries, particularly in the West anymore, but it is here.[12]

  7. Similar appeals to 'family values' in the face of calls for a liberalised stance on gay and lesbian issues are exceedingly common within Singapore government discourse. Another significant statement of this position is found within the 2003 National Day Rally speech delivered by then PM Goh Chok Tong. In that speech, he clarified that his comments in the Time Asia interview earlier that year that gays would be allowed to serve in Singapore's civil service were not meant to 'signal any change in policy that would erode the moral standards of Singapore or our family values.'[13] Further, Minister Lim Swee Say explained the denial of People Like Us' 2000 application to a hold a public forum on gay and lesbian issues as follows:

      There are major implications in endorsing and encouraging homosexuality openly, and promoting homosexual behaviour to become an accepted social norm…. If more Singaporeans end up embracing this sexual orientation openly, the foundation of the strong family…would be weakened. This is why I feel it is better that we exercise great caution, be conservative, and stick to the basic concept of family and family values as much as we can, for as long as we can.[14]

  8. Returning to PM Lee's 2007 speech, as it is the most detailed existing government statement to date on the government's position on homosexuality and the family, his argument hinges upon two key points. First, he states that what is at stake is not the promotion of heterosexuality per se, but the maintenance of a specific heterosexual family norm. Second, he acknowledges that this norm has been produced through social processes; in other words, it is not a natural fact but has been accomplished through work. PM Lee deploys these insights in service of an assertion that the city-state's leaders have chosen the right heteronormative path as a foundational element of contemporary Singapore society. But I argue that these recognitions—that heterosexuality is not monolithic and that Singapore's heterosexual family norm is historically and geographically specific—beg a queer analytic.
  9. As does PM Lee, poststructuralist queer theorists argue that sexual norms and subject positions do not pre-exist the world. They are not stable, inherent or essential but unfixed, social and produced. Thus, we might use PM Lee's own logic to go in a radically different direction and pry open critical debate. Along these lines, while existing scholarship focusses on breaking down the boundary between homosexuality and heterosexuality in the city-state, I argue that displacing this binary from the centre of our analyses might productively yield a broader queer critique of Singapore's cultural politics. Going beyond homosexuality versus heterosexuality, heteronormativity comes into view. This concept 'refers to institutions, structures, and practices that help normalise dominant forms of heterosexual as universal and morally righteous.'[15] It calls our attention to the work that goes into making normative heterosexuality seem right—or, in other words, it moves us away from acknowledging heterosexuality as thing to interrogating heterosexualisation as process. The public debates over homosexuality in the city-state have opened up the topic of sexual citizenship for critical interrogation. In the next section, I turn to both archival and contemporary evidence of the establishment of a particular notion of the 'proper family' in post/colonial Singapore to advance my queer critique. Through this discussion, I emphasise that this 'proper family' has not been propped up only—or even centrally—to buttress heterosexuality from the threat of homosexuality. Rather, it anchors a heteronormative logic that differentiates heterosexuality into licit and illicit iterations as race, class, gender and sexual norms come together in the name of 'progress' and 'development.'

    Post/colonial development and the 'proper family'
  10. PM Lee's assertion, when rejecting the campaign to repeal 377A, that the nuclear family is 'the basic building block of this society' rings exceptionally true. In Singapore's 2000 census, 82.1 percent of all households were categorised as 'one family nucleus'; another 5.6 percent were described as 'two or more family nuclei'; and only 12.3 percent fell under the 'no family nucleus' distinction.[16] These statistics indicate remarkable demographic transformations since the period of colonial rule (from 1819 to the late 1950s) during which Singapore's majority population consisted of single male migrant labourers. This transition has been by no means been a 'natural' or inevitable occurrence. As Janet Salaff states, 'The intervention of the Singapore government in moulding a new family on behalf of its development program offers the best-known example in a market economy of a state restructuring society.'[17] Indeed, within both state and popular discourse, the modernisation of the family is recognised as an essential element in the city-state's extraordinary socioeconomic development.
  11. But the common characterisation of this transition to a nation of settled families as a postcolonial achievement is misleading. While the colonial administration did not concern itself with transforming the intimate lives of the Straits Settlements' inhabitants for most of its rule, shifts in colonial policies that moved away from a narrow emphasis on production and toward a broad approach to social reproduction are evident from around 1910. Over the remainder of the colonial period, infant and maternal health were prioritised, immigration policies were reconfigured in order to balance the sex ratio and encourage family formation and reunification, the family planning association was founded, the Department of Social Welfare was established and so on. Therefore, to understand how a heteronormative logic came to be put into place in postcolonial Singapore, we must go back into the colonial archives.
  12. In the archival record, explicit references to the threat of homosexuality are surprisingly rare and perfunctory. Some historians have found evidence that female prostitution was advocated by colonial officials to prevent the male population from turning to same-sex sexual activity, and coroner reports of anal syphilis attest to the latter's existence nonetheless. But records of public attention to the issue are scarce. Three Straits Settlements Annual Reports contain brief references to efforts to stamp out male prostitution, and, in the Legislative Council Proceedings, the Attorney General commented on the addition of Section 377A to the Penal Code by stating only that, 'it is unfortunately the case that acts of the nature described have been brought to notice.'[18] The positioning of homosexuality as a primary threat to the nuclear family is, it seems, a relatively recent narrative. In other words, it was not the primary impetus for the widespread efforts to transform this colonial entrepôt comprised of single male migrant workers into a modern nation of families that began to take shape in the early part of the twentieth century. The family ideal that lay at the centre of this heteronormative nation has always been about more than heterosexuality per se. To understand exactly what the postcolonial government seeks to protect by upholding Section 377A, we need to look beyond a narrow sexual referent to other colonial traces. Upon doing so, it becomes apparent that the set of initiatives that established heteronormality in Singapore's late colonial period were broadly aimed at correcting 'abnormal' population dynamics and 'backward' cultural practices.
  13. One area in which we can find evidence of these colonial traces is that of housing policies and programs. As is well known, the efforts of the governmental Housing Development Board (HDB) have been key to fostering socioeconomic development and governmental legitimacy in the postcolonial era. They have also, and concomitantly, been key in putting the nuclear family into place in Singapore's social and political landscape. This comes across clearly in the HDB's strictly enforced tenancy regulations. To purchase an HDB flat, applicants must be twenty-one years of age and 'form a proper family nucleus' defined as the applicant and fiancé(e); the applicant, spouse and children (if any); the applicant, the applicant's parents, and siblings (if any); if widowed/ divorced, the applicant and children under the applicant's legal custody; and, if orphaned, the applicant and unmarried siblings. Looking back to the colonial era, initial public housing efforts by the Singapore Improvement Trust (SIT, formed in 1927) were a central part of initiatives geared toward balancing the sex ratio and accommodating workers' families. But while the SIT, along with the rest of the colonial administration, was very interested in balancing the sex ratio and moving towards a nation full of families rather than single men, they did not take much interest in those families' compositions. In other words, they were not concerned about the size of families, about whether extended families lived together, about the number of wives that one man had and so on. Tenancy was available to 'five or more persons, including the applicant, who can be considered as forming a "family unit" having regard to the family customs of the community.'[19]
  14. This changed drastically with the SIT's postcolonial successor HDB. From its founding in 1960, housing was available for those in nuclear family forms only. The tenancy restrictions then look virtually the same as the present ones. Though this policy change has certainly had repercussions for non-heterosexuals in Singapore, as in the broader colonial archive, there is no overt discussion of homosexuality as a threat to heterosexuality in the archives of the SIT or HDB. Rather, what drove this change was contestation over notions of traditional versus modern subjects. Though it valued its own monogamous form of marriage above all others, the British administration left negotiations over marriage customs in the colonised populations up to its various communities. This was officially cast as a benevolent act but it served to perpetuate the secondary status of colonised communities—it ensured that they could never be modern subjects. But the postcolonial shift in emphasis did not come out of nowhere as a fully-fledged postcolonial development. Throughout the late 1940s and 1950s, a period during which self-rule was looking increasingly possible and thus the threat that imitation of colonial norms held for colonial rule was no longer a significant concern, both colonial representatives and selected members of the colonised élite conducted numerous studies on social and housing conditions. It is in these studies that we can see a shift in the conceptualisation of the Singapore family. We can see the emergence of the married, monogamous, heterosexual, procreative couple.
  15. For instance, in the Social Survey of Singapore, UK family composition patterns are offered for comparison and, on this basis, it is argued that only those households that 'have as their heads married men…may be taken to represent the number of households which are organised on a normal family basis.'[20] Further, in the study Urban Incomes and Housing, the normal family is more specifically characterised as 'a kinship group of man, wife and children.'[21] Looking at these and numerous other archival documents, it becomes apparent that intimate possibilities were narrowed in order to achieve what the colonial administration never could—a nation of subjects. And the postcolonial city-state government, in pushing these reforms ever further with independence, has shown a desire 'to be even more consistently modern than the former colonial masters were.'[22] Thus, postcolonial housing initiatives, and a battery of other initiatives intended to promote particular familial forms, are not simply about guarding against the threat of homosexuality. They are bound to a colonial impulse aimed at rooting out 'backwardness' in the name of development and progress.
  16. In the postcolonial period, as mentioned above, the extent of governmental efforts to produce a 'quality' population for the sake of national development has been extraordinary. Early family planning campaigns and anti-natalist measures were guided by overtly eugenicist ideas. Just two such examples of the latter during the 1960s and 1970s are financial incentives that were offered for the sterilisation of low-income women and a battery of reforms to deal with Malay families who had been labelled as dysfunctional due to high rates of divorce and occurrences of single parenthood. But these anti-natalist measures worked all too well and have been replaced since the early 1980s by pro-natalist initiatives aimed at particular Singaporeans.[23] Along with constant exhortations to marry emanating from the state-controlled media, various government ministries, and a battery of state-supported organisations, a range of policy initiatives have been put in place over the last thirty years that implore educated, professional people to have as many children as possible while encouraging those without considerable means and/or educational qualifications to continue to limit their family sizes. These efforts have made it abundantly clear that the Singapore state envisions a very particular sort of family as central to accomplishing its developmental aims.
  17. Despite these truly colossal state efforts to build and grow the city-state's families in these particular ways, the intended results have not been achieved and Singapore's fertility rate has been below replacement level for many years. As such, while continuing to promote marriage and procreation, in 2006 a new strategy for increasing the population was advanced. PM Lee signalled this strategy overtly in his National Day Rally speech as follows: 'If we want our economy to grow, if we want to be strong internationally, then we need a growing population and not just numbers but also talents in every field in Singapore…. as a society, we as Singaporeans, each one of us, we have to welcome immigrants, welcome new immigrants.'[24] Of course, postcolonial Singapore has long relied on migration flows to meet its human resource demands. But what has been unique since 2006 is the government's interest in 'welcoming new immigrants' by encouraging immigrants to become Singapore citizens. Recent policies concertedly encourage the naturalisation of suitable immigrants and aim to welcome those who are seen as the 'best talent' into the national family en masse. As a result of this shift in policy, the number of new Permanent Residents and citizens in Singapore has swelled in the last couple of years. But this policy towards 'foreign talent' contrasts strikingly with the policy framework that manages temporary 'foreign workers'—the other, and much larger, group of migrants that Singapore relies upon. In 2009, Singapore's foreign population numbered 1.2 million, approximately a quarter of its total population. Within this group, only around 170,000 are expatriate professionals (i.e. 'foreign talent') while the remainder are low-wage foreign workers.[25] Notably, while 'foreign talent' are being welcomed into the city-state because they are seen to be 'quality' additions to the population, 'foreign workers' are cast as external to the proper Singaporean family and are subjected to a series of regulatory measures that aim to ensure that such workers remain single for the duration of their stay in Singapore. The Employment of Foreign Employees Act outlines these measures:

      The foreign employee shall not go through any form of marriage or apply to marry under any law, religion, custom or usage with a Singapore Citizen or Permanent Resident in or outside Singapore…. If the foreign employee is a female foreign employee, the foreign employee shall not become pregnant or deliver any child in Singapore during the validity of her Work Permit/Visit Pass. The foreign employee shall not indulge or be involved in any illegal, immoral or undesirable activities, including breaking up families in Singapore.[26]

  18. Through these examples, which Eugene Tan discusses in further detail, we can see that the 'straightness' of Singapore's urban and national space is selective, and heterosexual privilege is not extended to all hetersosexuals. When we consider the range of ways in which family, kinship and domesticity have been central areas of governmental intervention throughout Singapore's postcolonial era, it becomes apparent that not just gays and lesbians have been 'queered' in the city-state.

    Beyond proper objects
  19. So while critical responses to the politics of homosexuality in Singapore have focussed on the homosexual-heterosexual binary, this binary is part of a much more complex set of norms that come together to perpetuate a multi-faceted heteronormative logic. I argue that we need to go beyond a literal sexual referent to advance a queer response that seeks to denaturalise the family norm that produces multiple exclusions in the city-state. Here my argument has resonance with much existing Singapore studies literature and in this section I examine some critical literature on the family within Singapore studies to demonstrate that the seeds of the sort of critique of heteronormativity that I advocate already exist. We need only get beyond reading homosexuality and heterosexuality as two coherent, oppositional terms to consider the regulation of sexuality as a central facet of governance.
  20. Much of the existing wealth of literature (particularly that which is policy-oriented) on the family within Singapore studies commends the government's efforts to reform the family, depicting its initiatives as facilitating the liberation of women and the creation of the reliable workforce that has attracted multinational capital to the city-state while fostering social harmony and responsibility. In contrast, considerable critical scholarship interrogates the ideology behind the government's family policies and their effects on Singapore culture and society. For instance, Chua Beng-Huat argues:

      In a country where the government explicitly eschews any social welfare support and relegates this largely to voluntary associations, these pro-family rules reduce the government's share of social welfare responsibilities. However, they are being justified ideologically as supporting the family as the basic social institution of the society and, in even more explicit ideological language, as maintaining the 'Asian traditions.'[27]

    Further, Christopher Tremewan states:

      Forced resettlement in [Housing Development Board] flats not only split up communities but, as the flats were designed for nuclear families, also split up generations and ensured that the nuclear family became the basic social unit. Thus, HDB residents were moved from an extended family context with an active community life of mutual support and a sense of local identity and security into serried ranks of self-contained concrete boxes.[28]

    But the most concerted efforts to denaturalise the government's common-sense discourse of family as a foundation of Singapore society come from the feminist literature within Singapore studies. I turn to a brief discussion of some examples of this work before elaborating the ways in which it might be extended to critique heteronormativity in the city-state and to what end.
  21. As Lily Kong and Brenda Yeoh pointedly note, 'the notion of the "family" is an ideological construct.'[29] The Singapore state takes pains to define and construct the 'normal' family while domestic formations that fall outside its parameters are cast as 'abnormal' and discouraged in a range of ways. Several critical feminist scholars have analysed this state of affairs in extremely productive ways. Teo You Yenn examines the battery of family-oriented policies aimed at maintaining the 'traditional' family. She argues that within the state's neoliberal, anti-welfare approach to governance, the family takes on supreme importance as a social institution. Indeed, she argues, the Singaporean subject is a familial one. Yet the state must reconcile the image that it wishes to project to footloose global capital, of Singapore as a 'free market,' with its extremely interventionist social policies. In Teo's analysis, it does so through the promulgation of family policies that are in fact gendered policies. In her words, 'Through its gendered approach toward the family, the Singapore state therefore establishes itself as an agent of change concerned with bringing about economic prosperity while at the same time establishing itself as "protector" of the people's treasured "values".'[30] In contrast to the state discourse of 'liberating' women through reforms to the family as a social institution, Teo finds that various policies position women in the primary caregiver roles:

      [This produces] their unequal status in the labour market and formal politics, and heightens the odd position of women as being both upholders of family values and threats to the long-term viability of the nation through the 'deviant' behaviour of late marriage and low fertility. Women are encouraged to participate in the formal work force, but they are also admonished to marry, raise families, and perform household responsibilities.[31]

    To put this argument another way, women must perform heterosexuality in particular, very confined ways and these gender norms are intertwined with sexual norms.
  22. Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan take on the infamous 'graduate mothers affair' of the 1980s. They unapologetically critique the state's efforts to encourage educated women to have children and to discourage uneducated women from doing so. They characterise the state's justification for these discriminatory policies as follows:

      Within a few generations, the quality of Singapore's population would measurably decline, with a tiny minority of intelligent persons being increasingly swamped by a seething, proliferating mass of the unintelligent, untalented, and genetically inferior: industry would suffer, technology deteriorate, leadership disappear, and Singapore lose its competitive edge in the world.[32]

    This attempt to regulate female sexuality, they quite rightly argue, is also centrally about class and race: the city-state's 'obsession with ideal replication' has led to a national aspiration for 'the regeneration of the country's population…in such ratios of race and class as would faithfully mirror the population's original composition at the nation's founding moment.'[33] Yet they conclude that this attempt to engineer the national family, both literally and figuratively, is fundamentally a gender issue insofar as both 'actual women' and 'other' races and cultures are implicitly feminised: 'Women, and all signs of the feminine, are by definition always and already antinational.'[34]
  23. In one final example of critical feminist work that takes the idea of the normal family to task, Lenore Lyons examines 'the ways in which non-reproductively oriented sexualities are excluded from dominant representations of the Singaporean nation.'[35] She argues that the state-perpetuated notion of the family as the foundation of the Singaporean nation creates a number of marginalised groups whose sexual/reproductive practices are cast as abnormal. Most obviously, gays and lesbians are cast as outsiders. Equally, many women fall outside the definition of model motherhood: 'Some women—notably the less educated—carry a heavier burden as workers. More educated women (particularly the Chinese) are required to perform a stronger role as mothers. The patriarchal family is the only site within which mothering should take place.'[36] Further, she identifies migrant workers as being cast as having 'alien sexualities.' She states, 'The state actively uses orientalist discourses about dangerous male sexuality (coded around the "dark" bodies of construction workers form the Indian sub-continent) and lascivious female sexuality (coded around the bodies of poor rural women from South and Southeast Asia) in debates about immigration and employment.' She concludes that the Singaporean state manages its citizenship regime through a narrow notion of family that reflects a gendered vision that is inflected by dynamics of race/ethnicity, class and sexuality.[37]
  24. These texts go a long way toward disrupting and defamiliarising the notion of the ideal family. They open up possibilities for interruption and reconfiguration of dominant discourses. Yet, they leave me with one nagging question. That is, why privilege gender? These authors default to gender as an analytical lens and explain the politics of family in Singapore as patriarchal. But, without naming it as such, they are also describing heteronormativity. After all, the social reproduction of the nation is what is fundamentally at stake. This point is, I suggest, by no means merely a semantic one. While sexual citizenship is cast as solely a 'gay issue,' analyses such as those above make clear that it is about much more than this. Heteronormativity is not simply an expression of the valorisation of heterosexuality over homosexuality. Rather, it is a set of norms that makes not just heterosexuality, but particular expressions of heterosexuality, seem right. As such, sexual regulation does not only affect gays and lesbians. It affects everyone who is either included or excluded from national belonging by the state's definition of the ideal family. Or, to put it another way, gays and lesbians are not the only subjects who are seen as 'queer' in the city-state. So are single persons who are not eligible to buy the public housing flats which house more than 85 percent of the population until after age thirty-five and only in the resale market. So are single mothers who are not entitled to full maternity benefits. So are persons without university educations who are discouraged from having more than two children through a series of financial disincentives. So are migrant workers who are allowed into Singapore as 'single' people only, are prohibited from marrying Singaporeans and, for women, are deported if they become pregnant. All of these figures, as well as gays and lesbians, have been deemed incapable of creating and sustaining a 'quality' population. All of these queer others are stranded in a state of arrested development, cast as hopeless drags on teleological narratives of heteronormative reproduction. By this logic, the 'gay issue' that has grabbed the spotlight in Singapore is therefore only part of the picture of heteronormativity, and, there is, despite PM Lee's contrary assertions, considerable scope for the incorporation of a critical queer response into more widespread critical examinations of the cultural politics of race, gender and class in the city-state.

    Concluding thoughts: 'queering' Singapore studies
  25. As Wendy Brown argues, 'When heterosexuals are urged to tolerate homosexuals…the powers producing these "differences", marking them as significant and organising them as sites of inequality, deviance or marginalisation, are ideologically vanquished.'[38] Focussing our analytic attention narrowly on the exclusion of homosexuals in Singapore makes the issue of sexual citizenship seem particular and exceptional when in fact it is much broader and more pervasive. Refocusing on heteronormativity, rather than heterosexuality, as the source of exclusion enables us to see the multi-faceted ways in which sexuality is relevant across a broad range of social fields. The institution of the family and the realm of the domestic are highly politicised, particularly in Singapore where the government constantly proclaims that people are its sole natural resource and that thus the 'quality' of its population is paramount to national development. Following this line of argument, there are useful connections to be made between feminist and queer political projects, connections that might reorient them both. Two brief examples will suffice to demonstrate what I mean by this.
  26. The first comes from the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE). The controversy in May 2009 over the sexual education program that the organisation developed for use in schools garnered much national attention. The program's portrayal of homosexuality as not necessarily negative spurred some members with Christian affiliations to try to take over the organisation. This attempt was thwarted through mobilisation from within the organisation, but AWARE was also subject to criticism from without. In particular, the Ministry of Education reviewed AWARE's program, deemed it inappropriate and pulled it from schools. In response, AWARE's president Dana Lam clarified the organisation's position as follows:

      Our stand, throughout the twenty-four years of our existence, has been identical to that of the Government. We agree that the heterosexual family is the norm for our society. But homosexuals are also part of our society and they should be able to live freely and happily, free of any discrimination. It must be made clear: AWARE has never promoted homosexuality.[39]

    This statement is not surprising given the pragmatic approach that the organisation has adopted throughout its existence to enable its survival.[40] This position is disappointing given that many lesbian women and gay men rallied behind the organisation when it was under threat. More than this, it is a stumbling block that limits AWARE's feminist activist efforts in a range of ways. The organisation's mission, as stated on their website, is to work towards 'a society where there is true gender equality—where women and men are valued as individuals free to make informed and responsible choices about their lives.'[41] But how can they do this without challenging the heterosexual family norm that limits the actions of women and men in the many ways outlined above? Current research projects that the organisation is undertaking concern 'work-life balance' and 'singles in Singapore.' Without challenging the state-sanctioned family norm, it is not likely that any significant difference can be made in these areas. Further, the issues of the ever-growing population of foreign workers, who suffer the injustice of separation from their families while serving the needs of Singapore's families (most obviously through domestic work but also by filling the low-paying, dangerous jobs that Singaporeans find undesirable) are not even on the agenda for this feminist organisation.
  27. The second example comes from the gay and lesbian advocacy organisation People Like Us. As part of its lobbying efforts to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, the organisation issued a press release in 2006. In response to the assertion that gays and lesbians are disenfranchised in order to protect the heterosexual family, it turned the tables to state that the maintenance of the sodomy law 'damages family and public life by encouraging deception and dishonesty when people try to avoid discrimination and social or family conflict' and 'creates pressure to emigrate, thus…splitting families when we say at the same time that stable and?supportive families should be the bedrock of our society.'[42] Amongst Singapore's pro-gay faction, this statement exemplifies a common refrain that gays and lesbians are not a threat to the family norm and can and ought to be integrated within it. This is a common-sense and strategic position. But again, this narrow identity-based and assimilationist stance is limiting. It fails to capture what is at stake in the maintenance of the ideal family—whether heterosexual or homosexual. It fails to facilitate the making of common cause with heteronormativity's other 'others' (the single, unmarried parents, migrant workers, etc.) to envision more fundamental political change.
  28. My intention in setting out these examples is not to be overly critical of these organisations that are doing much-needed work under difficult circumstances—threat of de-registration in the former instance and the refusal to allow registration in the latter. But, as PM Lee clearly outlined in his 2007 speech, the heterosexual family norm is a stumbling block for sexual citizenship in Singapore. Thus, within Singapore studies, there is an urgent need for scholars to go beyond particularising homosexuality. Only then can we incorporate analysis of sexuality along with well-established concerns with race/ethnicity, class and gender within Singapore studies and thus fundamentally challenge the universalisation of heteronormativity. The defining framework of the 'normal family' marginalises many and must be denaturalised, interrupted and reconfigured.


    [1] Simon Elegant, 'The lion in winter,' Time Asia, 30 June 2003.

    [2] Elegant, 'The lion in winter.'

    [3] Richard Florida, The Rise of the Creative Class: and how It's Transforming Work, Leisure, Community and Everyday Life, New York: Basic Books, 2002.

    [4] Audrey Yue, 'Creative queer Singapore: the illiberal pragmatics of cultural production,' Gay and Lesbian Issues and Psychology Review, vol. 3, no. 3 (2007): 149–69, p. 158.

    [5] Lim Kean Fan, 'Where love dares (not) speak its name: the expression of homosexuality in Singapore,' Urban Studies, vol. 41, no. 9 (2004): 1759–88, p. 1782.

    [6] Kenneth Paul Tan, 'Imagining the gay community in Singapore,' Critical Asian Studies, vol. 39, no. 2 (2007): 179–204, p. 200.

    [7] Meredith Weiss, 'Who sets social policy in metropolis? Economic positioning and social reform in Singapore,' New Political Science, vol. 27, no. 3 (2005): 267–89, p. 288.

    [8] In fact, People Like Us is actively fostering such work as the organisation has established an annual scholarship (named the 'Rascals Prize') for work on LGBT issues in Singapore. And the first edited scholarly collection dedicated to studying queer issues in Singapore has recently been published. See Audrey Yue and Jun Zubillaga-Pow (eds), Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures, Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2013.

    [9] Tan, 'Imagining the gay community,' p. 185.

    [10] Lee Hsien Loong, Speech to Parliament on reading of Penal Code (Amendment) Bill, 22 October 2007. While Lee's position on the matter can be read as the official ruling People's Action Party stance, it should be noted that debates over homosexuality in Singapore over the last several years have seen the advancement of a wide variety of positions by non-PAP politicians, scholars, activists and concerned citizens alike. However, debates over the fate of Penal Code Section 377A were particularly polarised. While an impressive repeal campaign was mobilised, it was overwhelmed by a wave of political and popular support for retention of the clause.

    [11] Lee, Speech to Parliament on reading of Penal Code.

    [12] Lee, Speech to Parliament on reading of Penal Code.

    [13] Goh Chok Tong, National Day Rally Speech, 17 August 2003.

    [14] Minister Lim Swee Say, quoted in 'All can be part of Singapore 21,' Straits Times (Singapore), 6 June 2000c, quoted in Lim, 'Where love dares (not) speak its name,' p. 1766.

    [15] Kate Bedford, Developing Partnerships: Gender, Sexuality, and the Reformed World Bank, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2009, p. xx.

    [16] Bee Geok Leow, Census of Population 2000: Households and Housing, Singapore: Department of Statistics, 2000.

    [17] Janet W. Salaff, State and Family in Singapore: Restructuring a Developing Society, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988, p. 261.

    [18] Straits Settlements, Proceedings of the Legislative Council of the Straits Settlements, Singapore: Government Printing Office, 1938, B49.

    [19] Singapore Improvement Trust Housing Register Information Quiz, National Archives of Singapore, HB 778/47/2.

    [20] 'Singapore,' A Social Survey of Singapore: A Preliminary Study of Some Aspects of Social Conditions in the Municipal Area of Singapore, Singapore: Department of Social Welfare, 1947.

    [21] Goh Keng Swee, Urban Incomes and Housing: A Report on the Social Survey of Singapore, 1953–54, Singapore: Department of Social Welfare, 1956.

    [22] C.J.W.-L. Wee, The Asian Modern: Culture, Capitalist Development, Singapore, Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2007, p. 20.

    [23] David Drakakis-Smith, Elspeth Graham, Peggy Teo and Ooi Giok Ling, 'Singapore: reversing the demographic transition to meet labour needs,' Scottish Geographical Magazine, vol. 109, no. 3 (1993): 152–63.

    [24] Lee Hsien Loong, Speech to Parliament on reading of Penal Code [Amendment] Bill, 22 October 2007.

    [25] Grace Baey, 'Borders and the exclusion of migrant bodies in Singapore's global city-state,' unpublished MA thesis, Queens University, Department of Geography, 2010.

    [26] Singapore Ministry of Manpower, Employment of Foreign Manpower Act (Chapter 91A), 2009, online:, accessed 23 December 2013.

    [27] Chua Beng-Huat, Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore, London: Routledge, 1995, p. 142.

    [28] Christopher Tremewan, The Political Economy of Social Control in Singapore, New York: St. Martin's Press, 1994, p. 50.

    [29] Lily Kong and Brenda S.A. Yeoh, The Politics of Landscape in Singapore: Constructions of 'Nation', Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, 2003, p. 11.

    [30] Teo You Yenn, 'Inequality for the greater good: gendered state rule in Singapore,' Critical Asian Studies, vol. 39, no. 3 (2007): 423–45, p. 424.

    [31] Teo, 'Inequality for the greater good,' p. 428.

    [32] Geraldine Heng and Janadas Devan, 'State fatherhood: the politics of nationalism, sexuality, and race in Singapore,' in Bewitching Women, Pious Men: Gender and Body Politics in Southeast Asia, ed. Aihwa Ong and Michael G. Peletz, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, pp. 195–215, p. 197.

    [33] Heng and Devan, 'State fatherhood,' p. 196.

    [34] Heng and Devan, 'State fatherhood,' p. 209.

    [35] Lenore Lyons, 'Sexing the nation: normative heterosexuality and the construction of the "good" Singaporean Citizen,' in The Nation of the Other: Constructions of Nation in Contemporary Cultural and Literary Discourses, ed. Anna Branach-Kallas and Katarzyna Wieckowska, Toruń: Nicholas Copernicus University Press, 2004, pp. 79–96.

    [36] Lyons, 'Sexing the nation.'

    [37] Lyons, 'Sexing the nation.'

    [38] Wendy Brown, Regulating Aversion: Tolerance in the Age of Identity and Empire, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006, pp. 89–90.

    [39] Dana Lam, 'Aware has never had a "gay agenda",' Straits Times, 16 May 2009, p. A38.

    [40] On this point, see Lenore Lyons, 'A state of ambivalence: feminism in a Singaporean women's organization,' Asian Studies Review, vol. 24, no. 1 (2000): 1–23.

    [41] Lam, 'Aware has never had a "gay agenda",' p. A38.

    [42] 'Media Release: Government should repeal both Sections 377 and 377A of the Penal Code,' People Like Us, 8 November 2006, online:, 23 December 2013.


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.
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