Fury over gay pop gig points to wider Singapore divide

Adam Lambert will be quickening Singaporean pulses for positive and negative reasons. Source: Wikimedia

A controversy over a Singapore gig starring openly gay US singer Adam Lambert has illuminated a widening cultural chasm in the closeted city-state.

Lambert, who is the frontman for veteran rockers Queen, is due to be the headline act at a New Year’s Eve spectacular organised and televised live by state-owned broadcaster MediaCorp.

But in the last week, thousands of Singaporeans have signed two opposing online petitions.

One petition calls on MediaCorp and the government to ditch Lambert, on account of his promotion of gay rights and reputation for “lewd” performances, which it labelled as “contrary to mainstream Singaporean values”.

Comments called Lambert “disgusting”, “disturbing” and “lewd”.

“Please give more wholesome role models to our youth,” said one petitioner Elaine Lui.

“We urge the organisers of Countdown 2016 to recognise and respect the values of the majority of Singapore that has voiced its desire to preserve our nation’s moral fibre,” said the petition, which was posted anonymously by a group claiming to represent concerned parents.

The petitioners argue that having Lambert at the concert would bring a sour note to the end of the conservative city-state’s 50th birthday celebrations.

It states that Lambert is “hardly the kind of performer to send off our historic Jubilee year or to usher in the New Year”.

One commentator was even more blunt.

“Do not open our doors to gay performers,” writes Sally Chen.

A counter petition was started in response, calling on organisers to back Lambert and show the tiny island “shuns discrimination and promotes diverse inclusive points of view”.

Lambert, a runner-up on American Idol, caused controversy during his 2009 American Music Awards show when he kissed his male keyboard player and stimulated sexual acts with the dancers.

Since American Idol, Lambert has forged a successful career and it was recently announced that Queen and Adam Lambert would follow in Jimi Hendrix’s footprints and headline Britain’s Isle of Wight festival next year.

“In no way whatsoever does his sexual orientation have any relation to his role as an entertainer and singer. Asking for him to be banned on TV is ludicrous and is akin to asking retailers to stop selling iPhones because [Apple has a] gay CEO,” said commenter Ivan Lin.

By Friday evening, both petitions were neck-and-neck with thousands of signatures each, drawing in support from Malaysia, Australia, Hong Kong and Japan.

Lambert played Singapore in 2013 with few complaints and concerts by other artists such as Lady Gaga have generated greater controversy.

The debate over Lambert illuminates the growing cultural divide in the city-state.

Despite Singapore’s thriving homosexual scene and liberal minority, much of its society remains staunchly conservative. A religious right, supported by some Christians and Muslims, has developed confidence in parallel with the gay rights movement.

The annual gay rights event, Pink Dot, where supporters wear pink, has sparked a counter campaign called Wear White, where conservatives don white garments as a symbol of “purity”.

Nearly 28,000 people attended this year’s Pink Dot event.

The heated debate has troubled Singaporean administrators who prize ethnic and cultural harmony on the crowded island.

Attempts to strike a balance have not been an unqualified success.

A controversial law that bans gay sex remains on the books and is a key target for campaigners on the both sides of the pink/white divide, but the government has promised never to enforce it.

The authorities have also sought to rein in both sides’ protests, sometimes refusing permits to both conservative and gay rights groups to hold or expand their public demonstrations.

Another uneasy compromise appears to have been found around Lambert.

MediaCorp has not dropped him but has promised that the show will conform to strict broadcast regulations and be made “suitable for family audiences”.

Meanwhile, Lambert released a statement claiming his performance would “celebrate the entire human family in all its diversity” and that he was “a uniter, not a divider”.

It is possible that this attempt to find middle ground will leave both sides unhappy and make for a dreary start to 2016.

Attracting less attention in the city-state, a similar sign that Singapore was changing with the times was announced this week with censors lifting a ban on 240 titles.

But 17 titles, including Penthouse, Playboy and several Jehovah’s Witness-related publications, remain prohibited after the “routine review” of what Singaporeans are allowed to read.

The archaic Undesirable Publications Act has prohibited “matters such as sex, horror, crime, cruelty, violence or the consumption of drugs or other intoxicating substances in such a manner that the availability of the publication is likely to be injurious to the public good”.

Katy Perry’s hit single “I Kissed a Girl” fell foul of the censors due to its reference to homosexuality while “Puff The Magic Dragon” by pop trio Peter, Paul and Mary was blacklisted in 1963 for a suspected reference to marijuana.

The movies A Clockwork Orange and Zoolander, which depicts a less-than-bright male model being brainwashed into an attempted assassination of the prime minister of neighbouring Malaysia, were briefly prohibited.

In 2004, Singapore allowed the sale of US magazine Cosmopolitan after banning it for around 20 years on the condition it contained no “exploitative sex and nudity”, and featured a warning that it is “unsuitable for the young”.

Last year the Archie comic and two children’s books were banned for featuring same-sex couples, in one case two gay penguins.

The Media Development Authority this week said it “routinely reviews prior classification decisions, in order to ensure that they keep pace with societal norms”.

The titles include the 1748 erotic fiction work Fanny Hill,  an out-of-print anti-colonial Tamil periodical Dravida Nadu, banned in 1949, and several communist publications.

As yet there is no indication that there has been a surge in sales.

Singapore’s press freedom remains among the limited in the developed world, alongside Iraq and Russia.

The People’s Action party keeps a firm grip on the media in the one-party city-state.

But there is evidence of change. During September’s election campaign, social media become increasingly significant as a means to bypass the mainstream sources, although People’s Action still secured a crushing majority.

Singapore paradoxical straddling of ethnic tolerance, affluence, innovative business practices with political repression and social conservatism will doubtless continue to define the city-state.

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