Magic shows, Ikea and the corporatisation of LGBT politics

By Jolovan Wham

Ikea has stuck to its guns. Despite resistance from some members of the LGBT community and its allies, it went ahead with its promotion to offer discounts to its customers who wish to attend Pastor Lawrence Khong’s magic shows.

magic show lawrence khong

In a statement to the press and the public Ikea said

“Thanks to our loyal customers for your patience while we at Ikea Singapore took time to come to an informed decision on an issue that has raised sensitivities in our community. We were concerned about the questions raised and decided to do a thorough review. We have spoken directly with the organizers, reviewed the content and confirmed that the Vision show offers high family entertainment value and, on that basis, we are continuing our promotional tie-up. As a company, Ikea Singapore respects the diversity and equality of all people living in our community. We also respect that all individuals have a right to their opinions and personal choices, including the freedom to choose their preferred entertainment.”

What is the big deal you say? It is only a magic show and it’s good clean fun for the family. Surely, Ikea has the right to choose who it does business with? However, it isn’t that simple. Pastor Lawrence Khong is well known for his objections to the campaign to repeal Section 377A of the penal code, which criminalises anal sex.

white dot fcbc
Service held at Suntec Convention Centre and led by FCBC founder and pastor Lawrence Khong, who called on his followers to wear white over the weekend to protest the annual Pink Dot gay rights rally on Saturday last year.

He has also crusaded against Pink Dot and publicly denounced what he sees as the promotion of a gay ‘lifestyle’.   As others, such as blogger Olivia Chiong have pointed out, these magic shows are part of his wider mission of evangelizing to the public. Pastor Khong himself does not deny this, for he was once reported to have said that the ‘real pulpits of the world are not found in churches but in the entertainment field.’ If Pastor Khong’s Christianity encourages the stigmatisation of the LGBT community, shouldn’t we be concerned that Ikea, which claims to respect diversity and equality is implicated in the promotion of this message?

Critics of the LGBT activists have said we should be tolerant of views which are different to ours. We should learn to respect differences of opinion, even if such views do not support equality for LGBT persons.

But why should we be tolerant of views which stigmatise and marginalize the community? When these very same views are responsible for the deaths, violence and discrimination of sexual minorities worldwide, why should we be expected to respect them? Tell that to the transgender person who can’t find a job because society treats them as freaks. Tell that to the gay teenager who has to endure taunts, teasings, bullying and beatings because he is effeminate. Tell that to the lesbian who is told that all she needs is a good fuck by a man to make her straight again.

Pastor Khong and his supporters may say that they do not advocate violence but they need to realize that their power, influence and version of Christianity contribute to, reinforce, and normalise the culture of violence, discrimination and stigmatization of LGBT people. When Ikea decides to support Pastor Khong and his magic shows, it becomes complicit in the promotion of such a culture.

We have also been told that we should not boycott Ikea as it is confrontational and the activist community would be judged negatively for doing so. Boycotts against multi-national corporations are nothing new. When major brands and retailers are found to have violated the human rights of others, it is not uncommon for calls to be made not to buy their products.

In fact, this was how the contemporary Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) movement started, when activists mounted aggressive campaigns against companies such as Nike and Reebok in the 1990s for its exploitation of low wage workers in Southeast Asia and China, and corporations realised they needed to improve their image to be more accountable to consumers. In Singapore, if we are against the politics of confrontation, it is because we inhabit a political culture which keeps telling us that such tactics are not constructive.

It is the same political culture which reminds us that Low Thia Kiang of the Worker’s party and Chiam See Tong of the Singapore People’s Party are acceptable opposition politicians and Dr Chee Soon Juan of the Singapore Democratic Party is not.

Let’s not forget that direct action and confrontational tactics were what won women the vote, blacks their civil rights and workers their 8 hour work day. Dialogue and conversations are of course needed to foster understanding, but it is important to acknowledge that social change does not happen as a result of back room conversations alone.

What makes Ikea’s endorsement of Pastor Khong’s show even more problematic is that they have pandered to the gay audience by producing many advertisements which appear to support their identities and way of life. In fact, Ikea was one of the forerunners of this.

In 1994, it began an advertising campaign in the US which featured a gay male couple shopping for a dining room table together and discussing their relationship.

Many gay men and women have probably become avid consumers of Ikea because of such targeted marketing.  If some of us are up in arms over Ikea’s support of Pastor Lawrence Khong, it is because we feel that it has exploited the sexual identities of gay people by claiming to be inclusive, commodified our marginalisation for profit, while supporting a pastor who fans the flames of homophobia. We object because Ikea has paid lip service to its commitment to diversity and equality: our identities, our struggles and our oppression should not be for sale.

Those in the LGBT community who are outraged or surprised shouldn’t be. Corporations, especially multi national corporations are profit generating machines which often have to find novel ways to advertise their products to stay ahead of the competition.

Appealing to the gay demographic is one of the ways to achieve this. And part of the reason this strategy has been successful is because the invisibility of gay people in mainstream advertising has made the community crave for acceptance and enthusiastically endorse companies which use positive gay affirmation in its marketing. Because our sexual orientation and gender identities have been the subject of mockery and stigmatization in a heteronormative society, popular and mainstream culture’s acknowledgement of our presence feels like a ringing endorsement of our existence.

Italy Ikea ad
Ikea’s advertisement at Italy in 2011

Corporations must be aware of this and milk it for all its worth. We should also not forget that Ikea has a spotty record in portraying transgender persons in its commercials. In one ad which was broadcasted in Thailand, a man and his girlfriend are shopping at a furniture store. When she sees the pillows on sale, her feminine voice descends to a deep male tone. Her horrified boyfriend runs off. The advertisement was rightly denounced by rights groups as ‘stereotypical’ and a mockery to transgender persons.

A well-established company like Ikea need not worry about a conservative backlash even when it advertises its products to the LGB community because its market share and foothold is firmly established. In fact, any controversy is good for their marketing as it brings more attention to their brand.

The only thing we can hope for of multi national corporations is that they minimise the damage they cause along the way as they go about their business and give something back to disadvantaged communities. If there is anything to be learned from this episode, it is to remind ourselves that corporations and MNCs are not reliable allies for struggle or agents of genuine social change.