All male Singaporean citizens and non-first generation permanent residents, including homosexual, bisexual and male-at-birth transgender individuals, who have reached the age of 18 years are required to enroll for National Service under the Enlistment Act. They serve a 22- or 24-month period as Full Time National Servicemen (NSFs), either in the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF), Singapore Police Force (SPF) or Singapore Civil Defence Force (SCDF).
The way gay and transgender servicemen are viewed and treated is largely dependent on the views of the military authorities who write the confidential manpower directives which govern the management of these enlistees even though these authorities are advised by external, non-military psychiatrists.
Discrimination exists because even though the SAF does not regard homosexuality as a disease or mental illness, it is obliged to treat gay servicemen who declare their sexual orientation differently because, according to some accounts, "homosexuality" and "transsexualism" are listed in the outdated ICD-9 (International Classification of Diseases, 9th revision), a medical classification system which is still being used by the SAF today. Following the ICD-9, homosexual and transgender servicemen are classified under Category 302. This policy is highly contradictory and irrational. It is perplexing why no SAF psychiatrist, psychologist or manpower officer with decision-making authority has seen it fit to revamp the status quo because all international medical organisations now regard homosexuality as a normal part of the spectrum of human sexuality.
Opaque management of non-heteronormative sexualityEdit
The management of diversity in National Service is occasionally controversial and the practices do not always move in tandem with contemporary attitudes. The issue of sexuality in the Singapore military is one such domain that has yet to catch up with modern trends.
Although tolerance of different sexual orientations has gained broader acceptance worldwide partly due to changing perceptions, cultural attitudes and increasing education levels, Singapore remains a largely conservative society, where many still hold negative attitudes towards the LGBT community. It is heartening though that recent surveys show a sea change in the views of the younger generation.
As a reflection of the official stance of the Singapore government, National Service policies remain nebulous towards the diversity of sexuality. While males who profess variant sexual orientations are not explicitly exempt from National Service, there is no officially documented policy accessible to the general public on the treatment of such cases.
For example, there are unsubstantiated reports in blogs and online forums that servicemen who profess a homosexual orientation during pre- or post-enlistment are reportedly confined to “non-sensitive” units, but the definition of what constitutes a “sensitive” unit is not spelt out.
Currently, it is unknown how homosexual women are treated in the military and whether such practices are comparable between the genders; this is because women are not subject to conscription and therefore make up a relatively small proportion of military personnel.
The protocol for dealing with homosexuality is not publicly disclosed and no information on sexual orientation can be found on official websites linked to the Ministry of Defence (MINDEF) or the SAF. MINDEF neither attends to requests to clarify its policy towards the deployment of homosexual soldiers, nor addresses personal narratives on the Internet. Ironically, the nontransparent nature of this topic has fuelled the tendency to use online anecdotes as indicative of pseudo-policies.
MINDEF and the SAF are not independent of the political leadership of Singapore. The stand of the ruling People's Action Party remains that Singaporeans need to recognise the conservative nature of their society and that pushing the agenda on sexual orientation from either end of the spectrum would polarise and fracture the country. Taken from this standpoint, the nebulous stance offers flexibility in the implementation of policy when addressing a still-controversial issue in Singapore today.
The information provided below is gleaned from what national servicemen have described on online gay forums and articles and not excerpted from official documents.
Part of the first step into National Service for all new recruits is the mandatory medical examination. This consists of the PULHHEEMS assessment, followed by PES (Physical Employment Status) categorisation. Both are performed at the Medical Classification Centre (MCC), a department of the Central Manpower Base (CMPB) along Depot Road. PES grading determines the suitability of each serviceman for deployment in the various military vocations. For established servicemen and women, PES reassessment is a requirement for ongoing employment. Although a PULHHEEMS is carried out on new enlistees, it is not itself an entrance examination, the attributes of which depend on the branch of the military conducting the examination.
PES grading is carried out on new recruits, male citizens who have returned to continue serving their NS after having been disrupted to pursue studies abroad and 5-yearly after a serviceman or woman reaches the age of 30. After the age of 50, people in service are examined every 2 years. All generals in any branch of the military must be examined yearly. Furthermore, service personnel under the age of 30 are required to undergo PULHHEEMS in order to attend certain courses, whether occupational or promotional, and also if medically downgraded. A PULHHEEMS assessment is also carried out prior to leaving the armed forces, in part because many former servicemen remain as reservists.
The part of PULHHEEMS which concerns gay servicemen most with regard to their sexuality is the 'M' which stands for 'mental function'. Just before the PULHHEEMS assessment, recruits are given a questionnaire to flesh out their medical history. Some of the questions asked are whether the recruit or any of his family members have heart disease, mental illness or drug allergy. Towards the bottom of the form, the recruit is asked whether he has any "social problems (e.g. homosexuality)". Once he declares his homosexuality in the form, he is asked several cursory questions by the doctor conducting the PULHHEEMS at the Medical Classification Centre like whether he has had sex with other men and whether he cross-dresses. The self-declared gay recruit is then given a status of PES D (temporarily unfit for grading and deployment, pending further review) and scheduled for a medical review by an SAF psychologist, usually an officer with the rank of captain, at a later date at an office in the Psychological Medicine Branch of the Headquarters of Medical Services (HQMS) at CMPB.
Former requirement to bring along a parentEdit
Prior to the mid-2000s, recruits who declared their homosexuality were required to bring one parent and their school report book. They could reschedule the appointment if they or their parents were unavailable on that day, and they DID NOT have to disclose their sexual orientation to their parent if they did not want to. They could also tell the SAF psychologist that they would like to speak with him/her alone, without their parent’s presence. However, recruits today are neither asked to bring a parent nor their school report book, which is an enlightened policy change. Necessitating a parent to be present for the interview may be a daunting challenge for a gay recruit who is not out to his family and inhibit him from declaring his sexual orientation.
At the psychologist's review, recruits are made to fill out a pre-check up form. One of the questions asked is his perception towards serving National Service. The psychologist asks this question once more verbally later. Presumably, this is to determine if the recruit is trying to escape hard physical training by feigning homosexuality.
The session with the psychologist lasts about 10 to 15 minutes. Some of the questions asked are:
"Are you homosexual?"
"Do you cross-dress?"
"Do you cross-dress at home?"
"Do you have a boyfriend?"
"Are you the man or the woman?"
"Do you have anal sex? Are you active or passive?"
Issues such as living with other men, and sleeping in the quarters as and bathing with other men – basically, questions of whether the gay NS man may fit in – play a part in the review. Note, however, that the procedural set of questions does not enquire whether the serviceman is comfortable or uncomfortable with working in close proximity with other men.
Similarity with former policy towards womenEdit
Observers have noticed the similarity between the SAF's view of the deployability of gay servicemen and that of women who worked in the army in its early days. In the past, women in the SAF in combat or command positions were virtually unheard of. They were far less likely to serve in combat vocations and were more commonly found in administrative/medical vocations away from front line duty. There probably existed an explicit written policy towards the employment of women in those days. However, the proportion of women in combat positions in times of yore, compared to the percentage today (coupled with the fact that the SAF currently actively welcomes women to join the organisation), suggests some form of erstwhile systemic discrimination against their being hired for combat or command positions. The difference with gay men at present is that it is clear that there IS a written policy towards their employment, evidenced by the different treatment of homosexuals during the medical review process.
Today, to be precise, only the navy carries an anti-gender discrimination statement within the FAQ-file on their website. Female-to-male transsexuals who wish to serve NS may not do so. There is no similar policy for lesbians.
On the other hand, male-to-female transsexuals (in any stage of their transformation) are treated on the same scale as gay men. One of the purposes of the review was to gauge how effeminate the serviceman is. On this (misguided and highly subjective and therefore inaccurate) scale, 'heterosexual men' are on one end of the scale and 'women' are on the other end of the scale. Gay men who are masculine (i.e. who are 'top', and do not cross-dress) are closer to the 'straight men' end of the scale, while if the gay NS man cross-dresses, cross-dresses at home, is 'bottom' or if the NS wo/man is a male-to-female transsexual, then he is deemed closer to the 'women' end of the scale.
It is patently obvious that male-to-female transsexuals are not gay men, and gay men are not women.
Declaration of change of sexual orientationEdit
Servicemen classified under Category 302 can change their sexual orientation on record with the SAF. All they need to do is to inform the nearest medical officer. The procedure is as simple as that!
If a serviceman declares his homosexuality, the information is confidential and strictly between him and all the Medical Officers in the SAF. This may be true in theory, but Category 302 personnel have known of other people gaining access to this information as well, so this confidentiality may not exist in practice. The SAF additionally assures Cat 302 servicemen that future employers, the civil service and government agencies like HDB etc, would not have access to their SAF medical records.
Each Category 302 serviceman is assigned a counsellor, contactable should they any support or advice. The medical officer at the unit to which the gay soldier is posted would also be privy to his medical record and ready to offer additional assistance. However, whether the counsellor or medical officer is gay-friendly, or knowledgeable of gay-specific healthcare issues is not known.
Should the Cat 302 personnel require further specialist counselling, assessment or treatment, he will be referred to the civilian psychiatrists at the Military Medical Institute (MMI) at the National University Hospital (NUH). Soldiers who have served NS for some time without declaring their homosexuality and who subsequently decide to do so are also referred to the Military Medical Institute at NUH for their medical board review.
- Main article: Category 302
Homosexual soldiers who declare their sexual orientation are classified under 'Category 302', a practice which gives rise to much of the discrimination they face during National Service.
Category 302 is a medical code given to personnel who are "homosexuals, transvestites, paedophiles, etc.", as stated in a confidential directive.
This code was derived from an outdated version of the ICD's (International Classification of Diseases) codes for mental disorders (see main article: International Classification of Diseases). The ICD is the World Health Organisation's (WHO) health care classification system which provides a system of diagnostic codes for categorising diseases for epidemiological, health management and clinical purposes. Singapore's civilian as well as military medical establishments have adopted the ICD system to classify all diseases here.
The SAF's Category 302 bears exactly the same number as the now-defunct ICD-9's (ICD-9th revision, published in 1975) codes for psychosexual disorders (see main article: ICD-9). 'Code 302' in the ICD-9 was the code for 'sexual deviation'. At the time of the ICD-9's publication in 1975, homosexuality, together with zoophilia, paedophilia and satyriasis, amongst others, was included under Code 302.
However, a landmark development was the removal of homosexuality from inclusion under Code 302 in the ICD-9 by the World Health Organisation in 1990. This was long overdue as the world's most influential bible for psychiatric diagnosis, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), published by the American Psychiatric Association had removed homosexuality from its list of mental disorders in 1973 (see main article: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders).
The ICD is currently in its 10th revision (ICD-10, published in 1992) and its Chapter V, which deals with mental and behavioural disorders, has overhauled its predecessor's codes entirely - the number 302 is nowhere to be found.
Determination of fitness for combat training and staying inEdit
Prior to the mid-2000s, homosexual soldiers classified under Category 302 (popularly referred to as "Cat 302" or simply "302") are further subdivided into those "with effeminate behaviour" (in various degrees) and those "without effeminate behaviour" based on the arbitrary observations of psychologist performing the assessment. The higher the perceived level of effeminacy, the lower the PES grading. One drawback of this arbitrary assignment is that some gay NSmen may fake effeminate mannerisms to obtain a lower PES status, which will in turn lead to less demanding physical training and exemption from staying in camp. Enlistees certified as transgender are assigned the lowest status of PES F. All personnel with the latter PES grade are not required to serve National Service.
However, the current practice is for the examining psychologist or psychiatrist to assess the suitability of 302 servicemen for combat training or staying in camp based on his medical condition and fitness level, rather than on his perceived effeminacy.
It is not clear why the SAF persists in using such an outdated classification of homosexuality in its assessment of the medical fitness of recruits.
A clue is provided in an article entitled, 'Understanding Homosexual Servicemen' written by Lily Wong-Ip in 'Council Link', a publication of the SAF Counseling Centre (now removed from this URL:). In her article, Wong mentions the following perspectives of the SAF:
"...it is assumed that gays would threaten discipline and morale.
...it is assumed that the male bonding that takes place in combat would be jeopardised if its potential for erotic contact were condoned.
...it is believed that gays are subject to blackmail in the military context."
Impartial, long-term observations of openly gay men serving in the military in many countries has debunked the above fears. They are completely irrational.
This refusal to jettison an archaic medical concept of homosexuality and harbouring of irrational fears engenders discrimination because the military's grouping of homosexuality together with transvestism and paedophilia further reinforces the general public's misconception that it is abnormal.
It is therefore not surprising that "302" has become derogatory army slang for an effeminate soldier.
On the other hand, the SAF may also have the benevolent intention of protecting servicemen classified under Category 302 from emotional and physical abuse by their heterosexual counterparts and homophobic colleagues. Indeed, some gay servicemen think that it is beneficial for them to be thus classified. Another advantage was the former exemption of even masculine Category 302 personnel from staying in camp and from combat training.
Since the mid-2000s, military manpower authorities have gradually become more enlightened about homosexuality, i.e., it is part of the normal spectrum of human sexuality. This had led to the non-exemption of masculine, self-declared gay NSmen from combat training and from staying in camp. However, with Category 302 still in place, homosexuals in the military are marked as being different and this subjects them to potential discrimination.
A less well known classification of psychological function is Category 30-B, a medical code given to servicemen "with effeminate behaviour not amounting to sexual disorders". These individuals are further subdivided into "mildly effeminate", "effeminate" and "severely effeminate". Presumably, this group only includes effeminate heterosexual men and not homosexuals, so there have historically been very few servicemen slapped with this label; hence, its relative obscurity.
However, since the late 2000s, this category has been merged with the other sub-categories of 302.
Servicemen classified under Category 302 are medically downgraded to a Physical Employment Status of C (PES C), regardless of their level of fitness, and put through modified Basic Military Training (BMT). On graduation, they are deployed in a vocation which has no security risks, posted to non-sensitive units and given a security status which restricts their access to classified documents. The reason for this is presumably the fear of the authorities that they will divulge confidential information and military secrets if they are blackmailed about their sexual orientation. Critics of this policy point out that if Category 302 were scrapped altogether, it would give rise to much less prejudice against gay servicemen so that they would no longer fear being blackmailed.
Formerly, Category 302 personnel were not allowed to stay in-camp overnight, nor were they required to perform night duties, but these restrictions have been relaxed, especially for masculine homosexuals. Effeminate homosexuals are posted to a holding list upon completion of National Service and are not required to do reservist training, whilst non-effeminate ones have to undergo reservist training in non-sensitive units.
Gay National Servicemen in popular cultureEdit
Movies and theatreEdit
- Main article: Army Daze
Michael Chiang's stage-to-screen adaptation of the trials and tribulations of a motley bunch of army recruits featured an effeminate Eurasian man named Kenny Pereira (played by actor Kevin Mark Varghese) whose main aim in life was to become a housewife in Ang Mo Kio. However, his platoon mates were flabbergasted when he breezed through the obstacle course with more speed and sang-froid than any of them.
- Main article: Purple Light
Individuals who have come out about their experiences as openly gay NSmenEdit
Lim Chi-Sharn was the first Singaporean to come out to the general public about the declaration of his homosexuality to the Singapore Armed Forces and his experience of the medical procedure of being classified under Category 302. He wrote three seminal articles in Fridae in 2002, two of them jointly with his mother, author Christine Suchen-Lim, detailing these experiences.
Nicholas Deroose, originator of Singapore's first regular audio webcast, 'Queercast', recounted his coming out to his fellow National Servicemen in a chapter in the book, 'SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century'. Deroose's army experiences were also described briefly in Chapter 4, '"Oi, Recruit! Wake up your idea!"' of the book, 'Queer Singapore: Illiberal Citizenship and Mediated Cultures'.
Forum on gay men in National ServiceEdit
On Saturday, 7 June 2014 at 7:30 pm, a forum organised by LGBT youth organisations, SGRainbow and The Purple Alliance, was held at the arts cafe, Artistry, along Jalan Pinang. It was entitled 'Every gay Singaporean son' and chaired by Nicholas Deroose. 4 young adult men shared their experiences and advice on serving National Service as open and closeted gay individuals.
- Articles on serving National Service as an openly gay man, by Lim Chi-Sharn and his mother, Suchen Christine Lim, on Fridae:,, and on Yawning Bread:, (content removed).
- Blowing Wind discussions on being gay in the army: Is It Better To Declare Gay/302?; Declaring 302 during service:, Questions About Military/NS - Enlistment/Medical Checkup/ORD (Compiled):
- Chris K K Tan, Chapter 4, 'Oi, Recruit! Wake up your idea!' in the book, 'Queer Singapore: Illiberal Pragmatics and Mediated Cultures',,.
- SGRainbow, "Coming out in NS".
- "NS policies on homosexuality aren’t officially disclosed in S’pore. Here’s why.", Mothership, 5 May 2019.
- Leong Chan-Hoong, Yang Wai Wai and Jerrold Hong, "National Service: The Holy Grail in the Management of Social Diversity", Managing Diversity in Singapore: Policies and Prospects, 388 pages, Edited By: Mathew Mathews (Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore) and Wai Fong Chiang (Institute of Policy Studies, Singapore), June 2016, ISBN: 978-1-78326-953-2 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-78326-955-6 (ebook).
This article was written by Roy Tan.