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A Singaporean problem? Or a gay one?

The Government must take steps to protect the gay community from itself.

By Ashutosh Ravikrishnan

SINGAPORE — On Tuesday (June 14), Singapore’s Minister for Home Affairs K Shanmugam uttered the little heard G-word (gay, not Government) after the horrific shootings in Orlando over the weekend.

In a short interview with reporters, he settled the question once and for all: The Government is committed to protecting every community in Singapore from harm, regardless of race, religion or sexuality.

But I believe Mr Shanmugam was only referring to external threats — the Government that he is proud to be a part of seems to be failing in its efforts to protect the gay community from one of its biggest enemies: Itself.

Not so chill

Weekend after weekend, gay men in Singapore — and around the world — are engaging in unprotected casual sex under the influence of a cocktail of drugs. This situation is not new — ‘party and play’ has been a regular fixture since the sexual liberation of the 1970s.

But what has changed is the landscape within which these ‘drug and sex’ parties exist — gone are the days of picking up a man at a discotheque and hoping he has a bag of pills. The digital world has put access to such parties within the hands of anybody with a smartphone — including unsuspecting teenagers.

A 17-year-old boy with homosexual leanings may unknowingly be lured to such parties under the pretext of ‘chill fun’, a term that could just as simply mean ‘Netflix and chill’ in his innocent mind.

The drugs used at these parties are highly addictive and certainly not child’s play (or for that matter, adult play either). Popular drugs include methamphetamine (commonly known as Ice) and Ecstasy. It is interesting to note that the former has overtaken heroin to become the drug of choice in Singapore — 77 per cent of new drug abusers nabbed by the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB) last year had abused it. The CNB does not release statistics about the sexuality of drug abusers but I am curious to see a breakdown by sexuality of the 3,338 arrested last year.

I must stress that I am not criticising the agency — it undoubtedly has a tough task ahead of it. However, if its goal is to keep Singapore’s streets free of drugs, then I question if it really is doing everything in its power to do this. Its major drug education initiative, creatively titled Preventive Drug Education, hopes to empower the youth as a whole. I am not equipped to judge its effectiveness but there was an increase in the number of drug abusers caught in 2015 than in 2014.

Is it time for a programme that caters specifically to gay men? Sure, some of them fall into the trap of drugs knowing exactly what they’re getting themselves into — but we must also assume that some may not be as aware. There is an array of words that are used within this world of ‘chill fun’ that gay men may not understand. Mistaking ‘ice cream’ for a sweet dessert could send a man into the spiral of a lifelong addiction.

The problem is made worse by the fact that most do not associate sex with drugs. The CNB must draw then this association for the gay community and spell out in no uncertain terms the dangers that come with these parties.

In a report in The Straits Times, Pink Dot spokesman Paerin Choa pointed out that campaigns with LGBT-specific information was not allowed to run on mainstream media under Media Development Authority guidelines. If it is uncomfortable talking about gay orgies and methamphetamine in a 30-second television ad, fine. But we live in a time of innumerable opportunities — if the CNB wants to specifically the gay community, it can visit the watering holes in Tanjong Pagar or create an online presence on gay dating websites.

It would be foolish to think a campaign would magically stop drug and sex parties. What a relevant campaign could do, however, is create awareness among younger members of the gay community. It may be ignored by most gay people but it may also help one gay youth turn away from drugs. This is an achievement in itself and the CNB should not write it off as an insignificant one.

On the path to zero

The Government’s failure to address the problems of drugs within gay community has other implications. Drug and sex parties are often outlets for men to break free from their inhibitions and perhaps symbolically, many choose to do away with condoms. This brings with it its own set of problems.

Last year, 455 new HIV infections were recorded in Singapore. The figure continues a worrying trend that began in 2008. That year, infection rates climbed to 456 and have hovered around 450 ever since.

Statistics prove that HIV/AIDS continues to afflict the gay community disproportionately — despite their small numbers, nearly half of all new infections last year were among men who have sex with men.

The Government’s response was swift — Senior Minister of State for Health Amy Khor put out a Facebook post reminding Singaporeans to practice monogamy, and if that was not possible. But tellingly, not one word was uttered about the homosexual aspect of the disease. Perhaps she grouped it under “high-risk” sexual behaviour, but the fact remains that the Government has work to do to reduce the number of new infections.

Four homosexual and bisexual men below the age of 20 were diagnosed with HIV last year — despite its best efforts, the Ministry of Health (MOH) may never know the situations that led to their infections. They may have been a result of drug and sex parties or they may not have been. However, the stigma and harsh penalties associated with drug abuse means that MOH itself may not know the truth.

If there is a possibility of lowering the number of preventable infections, then the Government has the duty to do so, regardless of its commitment to ‘traditional’ Asian values.