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 requiring counselling or therapy, 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orientation differently because, according to some accounts, "homosexuality" and "transsexualism" are listed in the outdated ICD-9 (International Classification of Diseases, 9th revision), a medical classification system which is still being used by the SAF today.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 (see main article: International medical authorities' position statements on homosexuality).
- 1 Opaque management of non-heteronormative sexuality
- 2 Medical examination
- 3 Psychological assessment
- 4 Category 302
- 5 Category 30-B
- 6 Management
- 7 Study on psychological problems of NSmen, 2000
- 8 Article in Counsel-Link
- 9 Gay National Servicemen in popular culture
- 10 Individuals who have come out about their experiences as openly gay NSmen
- 11 Forum on gay men in National Service
- 12 See also
- 13 References
- 14 Acknowledgements
Opaque management of non-heteronormative sexuality[edit | edit source]
The management of diversity in National Service is occasionally controversial and 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 in which 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 (see main article: Singapore LGBT surveys).
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.
Medical examination[edit | edit source]
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.
Medical screening questionnaire[edit | edit source]
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 medical screening questionnaire to flesh out their medical history.
At the top of the questionnaire, it is stated:
- Under the Enlistment Act, you are required to disclose to us the state of your health and physical condition. This is to help us determine your fitness for National Service and to consider your medical condition(s) during military training.
- You are required to complete all sections.
- Your parent, guardian or next-of-kin will need to endorse the following sections: Drug Allergy & G6PD Deficiency, Personal Medical History and Family History. Please ensure that the person you have indicated to endorse the form is above 21 years old and has full knowledge of your 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, in Section E, the recruit is asked whether he has any "medical/social/personal issues (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.
Psychological assessment[edit | edit source]
Former requirement to bring along a parent[edit | edit source]
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.
Pre-review questionnaire[edit | edit source]
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.
Interview[edit | edit source]
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 NSman 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 women[edit | edit source]
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. There is no similar policy for lesbians.
Transgender people[edit | edit source]
Male-to-female transgender enlistees (in any stage of transitioning before their female gender is legally stated on their identity cards) are still regarded as male and are treated on the same scale as gay men. One of the purposes of the medical review is 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 extreme of it. Gay men who are masculine (i.e. who are 'top' and do not cross-dress) are considered closer to the 'straight man' end of the scale, while those who cross-dress, cross-dress at home, who are 'bottom' or who are male-to-female transgender individuals, are deemed closer to the 'woman' end of the scale. This arbitrary grading is performed even though it is patently obvious that male-to-female transgender people are not gay men, and gay men are not women.
Transwomen who have not yet legally transitioned but who declare themselves to be transgender before being enlisted, that is, having received psychiatric evaluation and certification and presenting it during the CMPB medical assessment, or simply telling the CMPB medical officer during the assessment, will be given a classification of PES E (lowest physical enlistment standard, indicating no physical exercise and only clerical duties) during service.
However, if medical or social transition has started, a PES D classification (temporary designation to indicate further processing is necessary) will be given. In this case, the pre-enlistee will be allowed to continue with her life for an indeterminate amount of time (word on the street indicates 1 year) while being treated with hormones or presenting as female, or both. After this period has lapsed, they will be given a PES F classification (total exemption from National Service).
A similar policy applies for transgender women who have completed their two years of NS and are categorised under “NSMen”. As an NSF (full-time national serviceman), it is generally unlikely that one can be discharged midway through service even if one declares one is transgender. SAF policy does not allow exemptions based solely upon the diagnosis of gender dysphoria. Unless a comorbidity that on its own would merit exemption or discharge has been diagnosed, the full two years will have to be served, albeit typically in a clerical capacity (for those who have declared). Transgender persons in service can seek counselling at the SAF counselling centre where they will generally match their case to a counsellor who has experience or can best serve their needs.
Female-to-male transgender individuals who have not legally transitioned but wish to serve NS are not allowed to do so because they are regarded as female and are therefore exempted from National Service. However, trans men who have legally changed their sex to male as reflected in their identity cards will automatically receive an enlistment letter in the mail. There does not seem to be any consistent protocol concerning what happens next, however. Some trans men were told they should serve, but were allowed a medical exemption if they wished. Others were told they could not serve even if they wanted to. Another trans man was told that if he wanted to serve, he would be using the male barracks and common showers like the other recruits, and the SAF would not be held liable should he experience sexual assault as a result.
Should a trans man decide not to serve, he will be given a medical exemption and a PES F (complete exemption) classification. This must be settled prior to leaving the country for any reason, or else he may be apprehended at the border.
Declaration of change of sexual orientation[edit | edit source]
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!
Reassurance[edit | edit source]
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 require 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 about gay-specific healthcare issues is not known.
Should the Cat 302 personnel need further specialist counselling, assessment or treatment, he will be referred to the civilian psychiatrists at the Military Medicine 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 Medicine Institute at NUH for their medical board review.
Category 302[edit | edit source]
- 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.
Origin[edit | edit source]
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) healthcare 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). A screen shot of the revised ICD-9 Code 302 published in 2012, with homosexuality excluded and the section renamed to "Sexual and gender identity disorders", is appended below:
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 in[edit | edit source]
Prior to the mid-2000s, homosexual soldiers classified under Category 302 (popularly referred to as "Cat 302" or simply "302") were further subdivided into those "with effeminate behaviour" (in various degrees) and those "without effeminate behaviour" based on the arbitrary observations of the 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.
Rationale[edit | edit source]
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.
Clues are provided in a 2001 article entitled, 'Understanding Homosexual Servicemen - A Case Study' written by Lily Wong-Ip in Counsel-Link, a publication of the SAF Counselling Centre (see below). In her article, Wong-Ip 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. One NSman recalls that when he approached a table of military personnel during mealtime, one of the officers remarked, "Here comes our 302!".
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.
Other reasons for the SAF's reluctance to abandon the outdated ICD-9 for the more comprehensive and contemporary ICD-10 may be the fear of how military medical practice will handle the drastic change with large-scale alterations required in order to ensure documentation is up to standard with full detail and specificity, the cost of implementation and increased administrative complexity. Not only is the coding organisation different, the sheer number of additional codes due to increased specificity is daunting. Using the new codes effectively and efficiently takes practice and time,,. In fact, the Ministry of Health only migrated all Singapore hospitals and clinics from ICD-9 to ICD-10 in the early 2010s, and it was an extremely complicated, expensive and time-consuming process which the SAF did not want to follow.
However, since the mid-2000s, military manpower authorities have gradually become more enlightened about homosexuality, i.e., it was part of the normal spectrum of human sexuality. SAF doctors have also accepted the fact that homosexuality had been removed from the ICD-9 coding system they use since 1990. This had led to the non-exemption of masculine, self-declared gay NSmen from combat training and from staying in camp. But with Category 302 still in place, homosexuals in the military are marked as being different and this subjects them to potential discrimination.
Category 30-B[edit | edit source]
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.
Management[edit | edit source]
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.
Study on psychological problems of NSmen, 2000[edit | edit source]
An academic paper entitled, "Adjusting to Military Life - Servicemen with Problems Coping and their Outcomes", was published in 2000 in the Singapore Medical Journal (downloadable in PDF format:). It was authored by:
- Cpt (Dr) C S C Cheok, Medical Officer, Psychological Medicine Branch, HQ Medical Corps
- Col (Dr) Ang Yong Guan, Head, Woodbridge Hospital
- Cpt (Dr) (NS) W M Chew, Medical Officer, Department of Psychiatry, Tan Tock Seng Hospital
- Cpt (Dr) H Y Tan, Medical Officer, Singapore Armed Forces
The research retrospectively studied 77 servicemen in the work year July 1995 to June 1996 who were referred to the Psychological Medicine Branch (PMB) of the Singapore Armed Forces within six months of enlistment. The PMB is the principal referral centre for soldiers with psychiatric problems in the military. The department is manned by consultant psychiatrists and a psychologist and both outpatient and inpatient services are available. The Psychological Medicine Inpatient Centre at Alexandra Hospital caters to enlistees who need inpatient care. The main classes of diagnoses found in the study were stress-related disorders, anxiety, mood and psychotic disorders. The main stressor was problems adapting to the military environment. The demographic profile of the servicemen was an age ranging from 17 to 23 years old; 81.8% of patients were heterosexual and 18.2% were homosexual.
Article in Counsel-Link[edit | edit source]
In 2001, an article entitled "Understanding Homosexual Servicemen - A Case Study" appeared in Counsel-Link, the quarterly publication of the SAF Counselling Centre (SCC). It was written by Lily Wong-Ip, who was, at that time, the Head of Research and Training Branch at SCC. Her responsibility was to conduct training and workshops in areas of counselling, stress management and suicide prevention for servicemen and women. She also counselled personnel with personal and/or work-related problems. The article described her experience with N, a 22-year-old “Chinese homosexual serving his National Service as a clerk in an army camp”. N was referred for counselling through his medical officer for help in “deal[ing] with interpersonal problems in camp as a result of his effeminate behaviour”.
Wong-Ip and N established a “warm and amicable” client-therapist relationship. She wrote, “I found N positive and motivated towards counselling.” These sessions, however, seemed to trouble her: “I had wanted very much for N to choose a ‘straight’ life ... I was saddened when he chose to remain as a gay after we had explored the challenges he would face as a homosexual. In fact, as the counselling relationship strengthened, I encouraged N to attend a programme for homosexuals, run for the purpose of helping gays change their sexual orientation to one that is ‘straight’. I also felt hypocritical when I assured N my acceptance and respect for him, regardless of his decision on whether he would remain gay, when my desire was for him to make a different decision.”
Despite this problematic perspective, Wong-Ip ended her article on a positive note: “I am grateful to N who gave me the privilege to enter into his world of homosexuality. I have learnt much about the homosexual subculture and it had challenged me to review my own worldviews and stereotypes.”
Gay National Servicemen in popular culture[edit | edit source]
Movies and theatre[edit | edit source]
Army Daze[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Army Daze
Michael Chiang's 1996 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.
Purple Light[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Purple Light
- Still frames from gay scenes in Purple Light:
Videos[edit | edit source]
Individuals who have come out about their experiences as openly gay NSmen[edit | edit source]
Lim Chi-Sharn[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Lim Chi-Sharn
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[edit | edit source]
- Main article: Nicholas Deroose
Nicholas Deroose, co-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', published in 2006. 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'.
Kennede Sng[edit | edit source]
In 2016, Kennede Sng, then a second-year university student, came out to his medical officer (MO) during Basic Military Training (BMT) because he was having issues adjusting to military life. “My bunk mates were making jokes like, ‘Do you think there are any gay guys in our bunk? Are they going to rape us at night?’ And my sergeants would say, ‘Run faster! Stop being such an Ah Gua!’ “It felt very tiring … to have to wear a mask. I was already very out, and it felt like I had to step into the closet again … There was [also] a lot of built-up resentment because the first day, [the commanders] try to motivate us by saying things like, ‘Picture your house with your wife and your kids’.” Expecting the casual homophobia and heteronormativity to persist in the medical centre, Sng was thus surprised to find the MO being “very chill about it”. “The MO ... told me, ‘I don’t want you to think it’s a mental health problem. I also want to know exactly why this is causing you any problems that you have now,’” Sng recalls. “I really appreciated that.”
Sng's PC told him, "If anybody is giving you shit for [being gay] ... you can let me know." His superiors were as understanding. On his first day at Selarang Camp, Sng’s platoon commander (PC) assured him: “I read your file. I know why you dropped out of BMT … If anybody is giving you shit for it or anybody teases you for it, you can let me know.” With the support of his PC, Sng eventually felt comfortable enough to come out to his fellow clerks, who took the news in their stride. Most of them had never met a gay person; their main reaction was fiery curiosity about all manner of gay things. At the same time, they were careful enough not to offend Sng by bombarding him with potentially sensitive questions. But Sng opened the floodgates to them. “I told them I’m very sex positive. They can ask me about whatever,” he laughs. Encouraged by his experiences in Selarang Camp, Sng decided to come out soon after when he underwent BMT a second time. Now that his section was consciously aware of the presence of a gay person in their presence, no one cracked a single homophobic joke.
Prashant Somosundram[edit | edit source]
Prashant Somosundram, the general manager of The Projector, came out in 2004 when he returned to Singapore after his undergraduate studies to serve as a regular in the Republic of Singapore Air Force. Like Sng, his peers and superiors were supportive of him and his decision. “I had a core group of friends in the service who were fully aware … and [provided] a support system at a peer level,” Prashant recalled. “I came out to my CO and DYCO by email ... They know me quite well and were quite positive about it. They were keen … for me to continue working there. At that level, it wasn’t an issue.”
What was an issue, however, was Prashant’s security clearance. Prashant served in a “classified operational unit”, in his words, and thus had to go through Category 1 security clearance. As part of the process, it was mandatory to answer a questionnaire designed to “weed out people who visit prostitutes, who are financially indebted, or are gay,” according to Prashant. Because these three, they believe, would subject you to blackmail, and therefore trade national secrets to the enemies,” Prashant speculates, correctly alighting on Lily Wong-Ip’s (fallacious) belief that “gays are subject to blackmail in the military context”.
After he declared he was gay in the questionnaire, the Military Security Department (MSD) put Prashant through two full-day, one-to-one interviews in a windowless room. “It was a very long interrogation process,” Prashant recollects. “Right down to intimate details about your life, who you hooked up with, all these. And then there’s a polygraph test after that to see if I had compromised security while I was away [for my overseas studies]. “The process with the interviews was quite painful. You’re dealing with people who are not familiar with what queer lives are ... The burden was on you to try and explain what your lifestyle was. “Some of the questions were, ‘Do lesbians become lesbians because they have very bad experiences with guys? Do you think you’ll get HIV?’”
In the end, Prashant obtained his Category 1 clearance. When he finished his 3-year stint in his operational unit and was up for his staff tour, however, his homosexuality became a thorny point for MSD. "It was always trying to negotiate this space and trying to pretend you don’t know the reason [why you are passed up for promotion]. When I applied for the renewal … I didn’t get the clearance. It’s supposed to be an automatic renewal. But, yeah,” he laughs helplessly. “I kept chasing MSD, but they wouldn’t commit to anything. They basically just said, ‘your new job doesn’t require cat 1 clearance.’ Which wasn’t the case.
“MSD [also] gave directions I shouldn’t [come out] to anybody during my staff tour. They said it would compromise my position then. “And even though my staff tour bosses were putting me up for promotions, at some level higher up, it wasn’t happening anymore. I was getting letters that said ‘You’re not meeting your promotional requirement’. But my bosses don’t know why, because I’m performing well at the staff tour … it was always trying to negotiate this space and trying to pretend you don’t know the reason.”
Prashant’s inability to obtain Category 1 security clearance after he came out, unfortunately, does not seem an isolated case. The 2014 book "Mobilizing Gay Singapore: Rights and Resistance in an Authoritarian State" by NUS law professor Lynette J Chua described a similar scenario:
"One activist, Robbie, was a career officer but not a government scholar. After having kept quiet on previous checks, he decided to disclose that he was gay during a routine security clearance. He was ordered to write down the names of places he frequented socially and people he knew. Subsequently, he was blocked from the highest level of security clearance, which he had obtained before; however, Robbie is uncertain whether that was due to his coming out or due to the fact that he had already told his superiors that he did not intend to renew his contract."
The near identical nature of Prashant’s and Robbie’s experiences suggests that such policies regarding homosexual servicemen are widespread, even institutional. Kennede Sng, too, says he knows of officers who were decommissioned for being gay (although this information could not be verified independently).
Forum on gay men in National Service[edit | edit source]
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.
See also[edit | edit source]
- Category 302
- Discrimination against homosexuals in Singapore
- Lim Chi-Sharn
- Nicholas Deroose
References[edit | edit source]
- 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, 2012,,.
- SGRainbow, "Coming out in NS".
- Farhan, "WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOU DECLARE PES STATUS "302" FOR HOMOSEXUALS SERVING NS", All Singapore Stuff, 1 January 2016.
- "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).
- C S C Cheok, Y G Ang, W M Chew, H Y Tan, "Adjusting to Military Life – Servicemen with Problems Coping and their Outcomes", Singapore Medical Journal, 2000 Vol 41(5) : pages 218-220.
- Medical Screening Questionnaire for National Service enlistees, Singapore Armed Forces, Central Manpower Base (CMPB), .
- "National Service", TransgenderSG.
- Yeo Boon Ping, "What’s It Like To Come Out As Gay To The SAF?", Rice media, 27 June 2020.
Acknowledgements[edit | edit source]
This article was written by Roy Tan.