In my last article, I mentioned that two things had happened recently that made me shocked and angry at the Singapore government. The first was MDA’s imposition of a fine on Mediacorp for showing a wholesome gay family on TV, a case credibly reported by official news sources. The second is a rather more sordid affair, receiving only underground coverage thus far.
Last Friday, 25 April 2008, there was a police raid at a gay sauna named One Seven. Though none of the clients were arrested, the 74 year-old owner, Sam was injured by the supervising officer and arrested and jailed overnight for allegedly having assaulted the officer, a charge that he denies. No explanation was given for the raid – on being asked, the officers refused to produce a warrant and simply repeated over and over again that they were conducting a “spot check”.
This is the first time this has happened to a sauna here since 2001. I’d been led to believe that such raids were things of the past, like gay club raids or entrapment in cruising spots, back before the government reaffirmed that they wouldn’t prosecute anyone based on Section 377A. But now I’m scared that this recent raid represents a new backlash against gay institutions. The bad old days of police harassment might be back.
What the hell happened?
I’ve read several online accounts of the sauna raid on One Seven that happened on Friday, 25 April. A few conflicting details have come up, and I’m unsure of the accuracy and objectivity of reports, but here’s my potentially-flawed reconstruction of what happened that evening. (To refer to the sources I’ve used, please look here. Anyone with further details or clarification is welcome to post below.)
Around 8pm, a team of plain-clothes officers from the Criminal Investigation Department (CID), including two women officers, stopped at a gay sauna named Raw for a “spot check” of an undisclosed nature. They searched the premises and behaved discreetly; ultimately, nothing of note occurred. Later, they (or another similar team) turned up at another sauna, One Seven.
Around 10pm, the staff at One Seven discovered that their water supply had been turned off. When they opened the back door to check what was going on, the CID team demanded entry. When Sam tried to stop them and asked for a warrant, they refused and only repeated that they were doing a “spot check”. About four other police cars also turned up during the scuffle.
An alert was made to the patrons of the sauna: all the lights in the dim areas came on. (This is a standard signal of a police raid in gay entertainment spots.) However, when a woman police officer insisted on entering the space, Sam insisted it was a men’s club and forbade her entry, becoming agitated in the process. The supervising officer then threw him on the ground and twisted his arms behind his back to handcuff him. When he continued to shout, the officer instructed his men to take down the identities of patrons present and to make a video recording of the event.
By now, most patrons had gotten dressed and left the premises without interference. Some noticeably foreign patrons (a Japanese man and a Caucasian man) were questioned and were asked for their identification details. The actual video recording does not seem to have been used as a threat against patrons; the cameraman often seemed more interested in the floor than the people.
As far as we know, no clients were arrested. Several DVDs were removed by the officers, however, and Sam was charged with assaulting (by pushing) the officer who handcuffed him – though he says he never laid hands on said officer – and had to spend one night in jail. He sustained cuts to his wrist and bruises on his left rib, for which he was later brought to Singapore General Hospital for treatment.
Why did it happen?
We don’t know why the CID turned up at Raw and One Seven. For all I know, they’d received a tip-off that Mas Selamat was hiding out at a gay sauna – but more probably, they were investigating based on suspicion of drug use, pornography or prostitution.
Yet the procedure of the raid at One Seven throws up a host of questions. First: why wouldn’t the police explain why they were there? I’m not surprised they didn’t produce a warrant – they probably didn’t have one, since Singapore laws allow police to enter establishments without warrants to check on licences or stolen property. But shouldn’t they have explained what they were after – unless they were intent on hiding something?
Second: why did they resort to such violent means of investigation – shutting off the water mains, bursting in through the back door rather than the front door, and calling in additional police cars? They know about the function of the gay saunas – it’s no secret – so why did they bring along women police officers?
What these actions suggest is that one motive for the raids – a secondary motive, if not the primary one – was to chasten and humiliate the operators of gay saunas; to ensure that they were as compliant and obedient as the operators of Raw and to punish them further if they were as recalcitrant as Sam.
(Doubtless, Sam behaved unwisely in protesting the entry, but what happened to him reeks of injustice – though I’ve no way of knowing the truth behind the assault charges, I’d find it quite believable that the police fabricated them as they did in the case of Chee Siok Chin.)
Third: why, really, did the police start recording people’s identities? The fact that this happened only to a few patrons at only one sauna suggests that it was driven more by spite than by procedure. But the fact remains that although Section 377A wasn’t enforced – i.e. men weren’t prosecuted for gay sex – they were still being persecuted for it.
Is this what we’ve fought for? Is this the quality of the government’s assurances that the law’s only there for ceremonial purposes?
What does it mean?
The police in Singapore have a recent history of harassing owners of gay establishments – it happened in both 2006 and 2007 in conjunction with the IndigNation Pride Festival. (See http://www.yawningbread.org/arch_2006/yax-631.htm ).
And yet, this case is worse. You see, before this, I’d been able to correct my friends abroad whenever they exaggerated Singapore’s levels of homophobia. Yes, I’d tell them. We’ve got stupid laws, but no-one gets charged. We’ve got ignorant citizens, but very few of them are violently bigoted. We’ve got stupid censorship rules, but they’re slackening.
On the whole, I’d tell my friends, we’re getting better. Queer visibility and queer community-building are improving every year – ten years ago, we’d never have believed we’d have the levels of acceptance we do today.
But now – bam. We’ve got a sauna raid. This reverses seven years of progress in Singapore’s gay rights. Is this part of a new official policy? We don’t know. We’re back to living in fear.
And this comes right after that MDA censorship of a gay couple with a kid. As a gay man, it feels like I’m being attacked on both sides. The government doesn’t want me to be mature and have a stable relationship with a family. The government doesn’t want me to be slutty and have sex in saunas. What am I supposed to do? Turn straight? Go celibate? Or – more practically – emigrate?
We can emigrate, you know. Many of us gay men and women have skills that make us desired abroad. Imagine if we all left tomorrow: the arts scene, the design industry, the advertising companies, and a good lot of our sports teams – they’d break down. Bye-bye, Singapore the creative hub; hello, Singapore the dullest city in Southeast Asia.
Hopefully, I’m wrong. The problematic events of 25 April might not be driven by new homophobic policies, but simply by a few unprofessional, prejudiced individuals. Of course, that’d still mean that our police force doesn’t have enough checks and balances to address its abuses.
In the meantime, Minister of Home Affairs Mr Wong Kan Seng, do please keep your boys and girls in blue focused on important affairs like missing alleged terrorists and rapists and murderers and, oh, maybe even a little effort on petty crime would be a good idea. Why send them over to rough up a sauna? Let them behave with a little dignity.
And don’t give us gay people shit. You know this country needs us, and we can vote with our feet. Give us some respect.
A gay sauna, for those of you who need clarification, is a place where gay and bisexual men meet to have sex. And yes, before you ask, I’m aware that many people (gay and straight) find them disgusting.
Putting individual systems of morality aside, however, saunas cause no harm. These establishments are locations where consensual sex takes place, usually private and almost always with protection, presenting a safe alternative to outdoor cruising. Prostitution does not occur inside; social bonding and casual conversations do.
There are a number of gay saunas in Singapore, and several media exposés – tabloid newspapers and TV – have been done about them. The truth is, they’re old news, and they don’t get shut down because the government itself recognises their harmlessness.
(Yes, I myself have patronised these places. This of course means I am biased, but I wish to stand as a witness to their acceptability in society.)
About the author:
Ng Yi-Sheng is a full-time freelance writer of poetry, drama, fiction, journalism, criticism and corporate hype. He is the author of the best-selling non-fiction book “SQ21: Singapore Queers in the 21st Century”, which was the first book of coming out stories in Asia to feature the real names and photographs of ordinary gay, lesbian and bisexual people.