People Like Us : Sexual Minorities in Singapore is a 194-page book published by Select Publishing (US) in January 2003 and launched in March 2003. Available in both paperback and hardcover editions, it was edited by Joseph Lo and Huang Guoqin and had a gestation period of 3 years under the auspices of People Like Us, Singapore's pioneering LGBT equality advocacy group founded by Lo in 1993. Within the tome's chapters are papers presented at 2 closed-door forums that Joseph Lo organised for PLU in 1999, held at The Substation.
The book is a groundbreaking treatise on homosexuality, a hitherto taboo topic in generally strait-laced Singapore. The subject is given serious and thoughtful attention. Various gay-related issues are discussed, including identity, culture, rights and responsibilities. There are also essays contributed by others on diverse topics, such as the representation of homosexuality in theatre, an interview with playwright Chay Yew, interracial relationships, and Christianity.
Lighter topics are not left out, such as what it means to be a "potato queen", a gay Asian male who prefers gay Caucasian males, in Singapore. These topics are not only discussed from an academic point of view, but more significantly, from the experiences of the ordinary gay person. The book provides a perspective on what it means to be gay in Singapore at the turn of the 21st century. It is essential reading for all those interested in the development of civil society in Singapore as well as her increasingly visible sexual minority culture. It is a sign of society's maturity when what was previously considered a sensitive topic can now be discussed with candor, honesty, dignity and occasionally, humour.
"People Like Us: Sexual Minorities in Singapore is a book so right on time that it might have in fact arrived a little too early. Like the fabulous party guest who comes at the time stated on the invitation only to find himself or herself the first person there, but who shrugs off the embarrassment and sets about helping the host, the book appears just as Singapore seems ready — but not too ready — to think but not talk about alternative sexualities. The book is thus likely to find itself in the midst of a cautiously receptive atmosphere, even as it will work hard to make that milieu even more welcoming. After all, it was just recently that the Prime Minister of Singapore, Goh Chok Tong, revealed to the Asian edition of Time magazine that his government now permits a certain amount of gay culture — or at least businesses (bars and saunas) — to exist and even flourish, and has also silently begun allowing "gay employees into its ranks, even in sensitive positions" (Elegant 2003, p. 36). Such good news cannot, however , be received without red flags. One reason to be sceptical is that this new governmental policy — at least as Time interprets it, rightly or wrongly — is mostly framed in the economic context of Singapore's desire to attract more "foreign talent". "The change in policy", the magazine notes, is "inspired at least in part by the desire not to exclude talented foreigners who are gay" (ibid.). But what is more eyebrow raising about the news item is that, while the ending of workplace discrimination against gays and lesbians is presented as no big deal, talking about the policy — and about gay and lesbian lives and cultures — is still something to be wary of. Thus, while the policy has been implemented , it has been done "without fanfare ... to avoid raising the hackles of more-conservative Singaporeans" (ibid.). As far as the Singapore government is concerned, therefore, homosexuality might be fine; the entry of homosexuality into public discourse in Singapore, however, is still a matter for some caution or reservation. In this light, this collection of essays, edited by Joseph Lo and Huang Guoqin, is an important one precisely because it attempts to create a space for such discourse. The book takes its name from, and is an initiative by, People Like Us (PLU), a Singaporean gay and lesbian group that existed in its strongest and most tangible form between the years 1993 and 1997. Because a raison d'être of the group was its desire for a place in civil society, PLU's final achievement (the submission of an application to the Singapore Registrar of Societies, requesting that the group be officially recognized as an organization) was also the reason for its demise (when the application was turned down; for a record of this application process, see the essay "Copernicus Revolution in PLU" [pp. 132-37 of the volume], and "Brief History"). This book now represents another of the group's legacies. As co-editor Lo details in his Introduction, in January 1999, several members of PLU organized the "Millennium Project Forum" to discuss the place of the gay community in Singapore. Consisting of two closed-door sessions — one titled "Rights, Responsibilities and Civil Action", and the other "Identity, Consciousness and Values" — the forum has finally been transcribed, and these transcripts form the first two parts of this book. Rounding off the volume is a third section, "The Voices of the Sexual Minorities", which attempts to document aspects of Singapore's fledgeling gay histories. This third section is a little haphazard, as even its catch-all name might suggest: it includes reprints of essays that originally appeared in the PLU newsletter, several academic and analytical articles, a couple of more personal and proclamatory essays, and interviews with various gay Singapore artists. Even though it is the most random of the three sections, the third probably contains the strongest work. William Peterson's "The Queer Stage in Singapore", one of the essays in this section, undertakes the important task of recording the history of Singapore's "pendulum of liberalisation and repression" (p. 87) through a survey of gay characters and themes in Singaporean plays. Peterson..."
This article was written by Roy Tan.