Sex and song in Singapore

By Kevin Kumala

Originally published on Advocate.com March 31 2005 12:00 AM ET

Advocate cover subjects Jason and deMarco, a pop duo
who are also offstage life partners, were invited to
be guest performers in Singapore at the April 3 Action
for AIDS event, organized by Safehaven, a Christian
group supportive of the gay community. In late March, stating that “performances
that promote alternative lifestyles are against the
public interest,” the Media Authority of
Singapore, which must approve every public entertainment
event in the city-state, banned their appearance. The
entire event, intended to raise both money and
awareness of the threat of HIV/AIDS among
Singapore’s gay population, was subsequently canceled
by organizers. The ban is the latest in a series of mixed
messages from the government, which on the one hand
claims to be concerned about rising HIV infection
rates and on the other has stymied activists’
attempts to educate those most at risk of infection.
The barring of Jason and deMarco followed recent
comments made by health minister Balaji Sadasivan, who
alleged that gays were the biggest reason for
Singapore’s “alarming AIDS
epidemic.” The minister also suggested that the
28% rise in HIV cases last year was linked to the Nation
Party, an annual event popular among gay tourists and locals. The Singapore government has allowed the Nation
Party to be held annually since 2001. From 1,500
people in its debut year to 8,000 in 2004, the event
has grown significantly, drawing many gay tourists and their
“pink dollars” to Singapore. Despite the
government’s concern about the possible spread
of STDs at these parties, it shut down an Action for
AIDS booth last year because members of the organization
were promoting safe-sex messages to partygoers. Nevertheless, Singaporean leaders claim AIDS
awareness is now a high priority. As in China, they
have only recently addressed concerns about the spread
of HIV and have declared a “zero-tolerance”
stance on unsafe sex. But the initiatives the
government has taken in order to implement this policy
seem more archaic than productive. Singapore’s ruling party, the
People’s Action Party, has a social-policy
platform similar to that of the Republican Party in the
United States, although religion is not the driving force
behind it. (Singapore’s government and parties
are mostly secular.) Antisodomy laws are still on the
books, and gay rights issues and sex education are
frowned upon in this very conservative atmosphere.

Abstinence-based
sex education is widely preferred to education dealing
with condoms and contraception. The health minister has even
publicly stated that he does not think the only way to
educate people is to “do it in an in-your-face
approach,” crushing any possibilities for more
liberal public health education campaigns to be launched. These dueling priorities—stopping HIV but
also halting safer-sex education—led to the
controversy surrounding the planned HIV-awareness
concert. Was this an “in-your-face,”
condom-dispersing, banana-gloving-demonstration party that
was going to feature two gay guys singing about sex,
drugs, and debauchery? Far from it, say organizers.
“We invited Jason and deMarco because they are
a monogamous couple for the past five years and we wanted to
send forth the message to the gay community that a
monogamous relationship and responsible attitude
toward sex should be the approach to take,”
says Peter Goh, a coordinator from Safehaven. And what better couple to be role models for
young gay Singaporeans, who are becoming more visible
in their community, than Jason and deMarco? Not only
are the two openly gay singers known to be partners of many
years, they have also been applauded for redefining
contemporary spiritual music. “It is
unfortunate that the authorities rejected the
license,” Brenton Wong, a spokesman for Action for
AIDS, told Reuters. “These people had good
intentions, they wanted to do something for their
community and help us as well as give funds to our
prevention efforts.” Instead of promoting a more open, educated, and
tolerant society, Singaporean officials seem to be
doing the opposite. In its effort to reinvent itself
as a technologically modern and socially sophisticated
society, Singapore seems to be taking a wrong turn in STD
prevention methods. Although it has one of the lowest
rates of HIV infection in Asia, Singapore can learn
some things from nations that are more experienced in
dealing with HIV prevention. Kicking out
positive—and I don’t mean
HIV-positive—role models who want to contribute
to AIDS awareness is not one of them.