The Problem with Pink Dot

Pink Dot 2010 was underwhelming.

That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. Yes, over 4000 people turned up. Yes, there was a general affirmation of the freedom to love, regardless of sexual orientation. Yes, there were decent performances during the main event. These are decent achievements, but I felt more could have been done.

Pink Dot says it is not ‘a protest, rally or demonstration’, but rather a ‘gathering of like-minded Singaporeans’. Well, a rally is a gathering, one designed to arouse enthusiasm — which is what Pink Dot is about: a gathering of like-minded Singaporeans to generate interest and awareness of Lesbian Bisexual Gay Transgender (LBGT) issues. By gathering so many people in one spot, the organisers of Pink Dot had the power to influence a great number of people to be more accepting of LBGT people.

And squandered it.

Pink Dot says it supports the freedom to love. The MCs said that. A mother-daughter pair spoke about their experiences and how being non-heterosexual is all right. The rest of the time was spent on performances. It’s fine and well if you want to affirm freedom. But simply saying ‘I support the freedom to love’ is quite different from the ground truth. It’s the difference between good intentions and concrete action.

This year, Pink Dot is focusing on the families of LBGT people. It wants to families to support non-heterosexual members. Pink Dot threw a spotlight on family problems within such families — but left the reasons surrounding these problems in the dark.

What Pink Dot should have been about

Fear exists. Ignorance exists. Pink Dot acknowledges this. There is prejudice, too. It’s enshrined in Section 377A of the Penal Code. It’s in sermons by ultraconservative religious leaders. It’s in perspectives maintained and shared by ultraconservative friends and family members. It’s boxed up and packaged as ‘Asian values’ and ‘conservative society’.

On this, Pink Dot says nothing.

It’s revealing. The signs of ignorance and fear overshadowing the pink dot is tucked far away from the crowd. The MCs didn’t mention it. I don’t think anybody actually talked about fear and ignorance of LBGT people and issues, or prejudice against such people — not at any great length. And yet it is prejudice, ignorance and fear that overshadows acceptance of LBGT people, everywhere in the world. The MCs, speakers, or performers did nothing that approached this basic fact. Until you face the issues, it’s little more than hot air. Prejudice will continue to perpetuate, making Pink Job’s task (and those of LBGT activists, and the lives of normal LBGT people) that much harder. For all its good intentions, Pink Dot did not do much to advance the freedom to love.

Ideology aside, I also have a couple of observations about the performances. The first is insufficient stage presence. The MCs — Adrian Pang, Tan Kheng Hua, and DJ Big Kid — attempted to raise and maintain a high level of energy and enthusiasm. When the main event begun, everyone had gathered in the middle of Hong Lim Park, leaving an empty circle for the MCs and performers. For some reason, the three MCs favoured only one segment of the circle, with occasional glances to their left and right. They did not turn around.

Needless to say, I was in the arc they did not look at.

The MCs...or their backs

The key to engaging any audience is eye contact. Granted, having an audience that surrounds you on all sides is a bit unconventional. But this could have been overcome with practice, or at least good observation. In this case, the MCs could have spent equal time addressing the audience on all sides: to their front, sides and rear. If nothing else, it makes you look more professional.

The second issue I have with the performance is the dragon dance at the end. A dragon dance is a traditional Chinese dance, usually performed during festive occasions. The dragon is mounted on poles and manned by a dance team. During the dance, the dragon is depicted as pursuing a ball, mounted on a pole and handled by a single dancer. Such dances require a large amount of space to fully show off the dance team’s skills, and to pay homage to the qualities of the dragon.

But there was too little space for the performers. They did their best, to be sure, but the dance largely had them running in circles, with occasional twirls and spins. Even worse, the logistics crew placed some tables and ladders in the middle of the circle. The furniture was not used as props, so they became obstacles — and unsightly obstructions for photographs. Should a dragon dance be scheduled, I think the choreographer should have a say in the amount of space for the performers, to ensure that the dancers would have enough space to perform — or perhaps use props to pull off more difficult, and aesthetically pleasing, maneouvres.

The problems with the performance, though, is just a side note. By failing to squarely face fear, ignorance and prejudice, Pink Dot did little more than bring like minded people together. It can talk about ‘supporting the freedom to love’, but until it addresses the problems restricting the freedom to love, I doubt Pink Dot can do very much, if at all.

The Problem with Pink Dot

21 thoughts on “The Problem with Pink Dot

  1. My opinion is that the “conservative majority” is not as homogeneous as it seems. Not everyone is a ultraconservative Asian-values-touting homophobe. A lot of people are either apathetic or ignorant about it, and the ultraconservatives are probably just a vocal minority.

    Pink Dot seems to be working on the identity politics angle- if people see that LGBT folks are just as focused on the family, friends, etc, it’s much more effective than using logical or ideological arguments to raise awareness and acceptance.

    I’m not passing any judgement on the inevitable strategy vs outcome debate though (yes, LGBT folks should be accepted even if they’re “alternative lifestyles and families”), but it would be interesting to discuss it.

  2. Hi gay-friendly,

    Yes, the ultracons sure seem to be a vocal minority. However, they are more vocal and more entrenched than most other groups, so they tend to wield more influence over local discourse.

    Identity politics isn’t all that bad an angle. It’s just that I feel more could have been done. For example, Pink Dot can have members of the LBGT community portray themselves as people, like everybody else, and talk about why they are painted as different from others. Pink Dot can talk about how certain slogans, ideas and actions dehumanise the LBGT community, and reaffirm the community’s essential humanity. Pink Dot can do this without sacrificing the identity politics approach, and I feel this should have been done. Remember that I used ‘failure’ — I mean that Pink Dot could have done more, not that it was wrong.

    And, yes, comments are moderated. However, your comments appeared in my spam queue, not the comment moderation queue. Perhaps it had something to do with the e-mail address you entered?

  3. i agree with some of your observations. however, i think pink dot is but only an event to bring about greater awareness towards LGBT issues and hopefully trigger ripple effects concerning the acceptance of LGBT people. the fact that families are involved and openly sharing they thoughts about LGBT matters is already a fabulous improvement. things have to be given time to evolve and people need to be given to time to grow. and somehow it is often better that changes take place gradually than suddenly. in addition, given the nature of the subject in context, it is difficult for pink dot to act too boldly. don’t forget there are legal concerns the organiser needs to watch out for — should they have been ‘too aggressive’ or ‘too provocative’, the police could have ordered pink dot to be cancelled. after all, our government is still rather authoritarian. in any case, pink dot has made a mark in singapore’s history and its effects will ripple.

  4. Indeed, SC.

    I think the real issue here is a conflict of personal ideologies. I think decisive action is needed to further advance acceptance of the LBGT community — in addition to normal soft approaches. Pink Dot prefers the soft approach, and excludes the hard stuff.

    I can’t speak for the organisers of Pink Dot and their philosophies, but this is mine. By facing fear, prejudice and ignorance, activists would address some of the key reasons, and probably the real reasons, behind LBGT discrimination. There is a reason why people of LBGT orientation are not accepted by society, and are seen as different and unacceptable — simply saying that LBGT people are people too does not face this reason. Without that, the ultracons will still be free to influence people. By taking on fear, ignorance and prejudice, the ultracons would have less ammunition with which to spread their ideology.

    The government is indisputably authoritarian, and its out-of-bounds markers are ambiguous. But there is simply no evidence to prove that using Speakers’ Corner to speak out against fear, ignorance and prejudice will lead to the cancellation of permits and other licences. Especially if that is the main theme. Without trying, we won’t know. In addition, should the State attempt to cancel Pink Dot, it would spark a backlash against the Government, which might lead to even more publicity for Pink Dot if handled right.

    Pink Dot has made ripples in society. I just wish the ripples were larger.

  5. pink dot is a start.

    yes, there are obviously shortcomings–i agree with you that by maintaining a moderate front, it misses the opportunity to engage on the very important issues of 377a and homophobia, not to mention gay marriage. pink dot in and of itself is not going to change anything–the law stands, homophobia remains entrenched.

    but pink dot is a start. can you think of any GLBT event of this magnitude and significance in Singapore? as one participant said, “it’s great to see everyone…in broad daylight.” the very fact that pink dot happened is a highly important start to the process of social change that needs to happen. the very fact that straight and queer people of every sort gathered together in one place dispells stereotypes of what a gay is supposed to be to every passerby.

    i was a volunteer this year and i can honestly say it was the most meaningful thing i’ve ever done. an elderly couple who passed by hong lim park approached me and asked what pink dot was about. in my highly limited mandarin, i told them outrightly that it was a ‘tong xing’ event, expecting recrimination. indeed, the woman’s face expressed discomfort, but the man took my hand and shook it, told me that it was good and that there is not enough open-mindedness in Singapore.

    i suggest that instead of denouncing pink dot as “underwhelming,” you volunteer next year with me and feel for yourself that amazing feeling of being accepted.

  6. Hi Dan,

    The trouble with ‘start’ is that we’ve been ‘starting’ the process of change for years now. Singaporeans know that the main opposition to acceptance of the LBGT community lies with the (ultra)conservatives. Some know that much, if not all, of this opposition is based on myths and fiction. They also know that LBGT people are human, just like anybody else.

    I agree that we have to start somewhere, but we can’t fixate on starts, or we will never get to the end. I can’t see a reason why Pink Dot can’t do more than this, especially since other LBGT activists like Alex Au have already done so, with no major repercussions, on smaller perceived scales — in addition to dispelling the usual stereotypes.

    I don’t volunteer for events to feel accepted by any larger group. Feeling accepted by anything or anybody is not any of my priorities. I don’t need other people to reinforce a perceived sense of self-worth and identity. I mean that in the most literal interpretation: it is not a need, in the same way having the latest computer is not a need to most people on Earth. I will volunteer for something if it is line with my objectives, ideologies and philosophies. Pink Dot has yet to convince me that it is.

  7. Hi Benjamin et al,

    PinkDot should not have an explicit political message, at least not one that is antagonistic or blatantly obvious. That IS the point. The objective is to make it comfortable for people to come out – closeted people to step forward, families and friends to come along. Whatever discussions that ensue is a by-product and is up to all witnesses of the event to set up the dualogue. People can say what they want but awareness of the issue would still be raised. In that sense, you are right, PinkDot is really a rally… but it is not demonstrative of a overt political action. It is NOT a demonstration in that sense.

    This non-confrontational strategy is not out of fear but out of tact. How comfortable do you think Singaporeans would be about identifying with PinkDot if they perceive their attendance to be personal risky? The success of PinkDot is already self-evident even if its full potentials, the ripples that you want to see, is not yet realised. The increase in attendance of 2500 to 4000 is a ‘ripple’. Give it two more years… how large do you think this ripple would be? How large need PinkDot be before the government takes note? All of us, our participation and continual support in subsequent years, count.

    Please keep PinkDot in your mind. Next year, set up your own mini-campaign and bring more people. Make PinkDot huge!


    Daniel Kok

  8. Hi Daniel,

    Pink Dot already has a blatantly obvious and explicit political message: there is nothing wrong with being LBGT. The LBGT controversy has become so politicised that making a stance on it, or organising an event about it, is akin to sending a political message.

    Politics is about making decisions, and decisions are driven by beliefs and knowledge. This is the ‘awareness’ you talk about. Any mass event organised to spread a belief is a de facto demonstration/rally — even if it claims it is not. This is the purpose of a demonstration, a rally, even a protest. Pink Dot was organised to support ‘the freedom to love’, so it is supporting the belief that people of all sexual orientations are equal. In any society that faces LBGT issues, this is a political statement, no matter how much you try to depoliticise it. This is an overt political action, even if Pink Dot does not say it is.

    Daniel, I’m sorry, but you’ve contradicted yourself. You said that the non-confrontational strategy is not out of fear. In the next sentence, you imply that Singaporeans would not be comfortable with identifying with Pink Dot if they view participation as risky. You seem to say that Singaporeans are afraid to take risks, and because of this fear, a non-confrontational strategy is adopted. So the strategy is based on fear — someone else’s perceived fear, but fear nonetheless.

    Donaldson Tan told me that Pink Dot 2009 emphasised fear and prejudice. Confronting these issues led to a turnout of 2500 people — which is a significant number in of itself. I suspect a significant number of people who showed up for Pink Dot 2010 showed up for last year’s Pink Dot — which means that they don’t really have concerns about confronting fear and prejudice, and the personal consequences of attending such an event. Likewise, it seems that concerns about fear and personal safety are less significant than you make them out to be.

    LBGT people are afraid to come out of the closet precisely because of the fear, prejudice and ignorance that Pink Dot is not addressing. Pink Dot has a large following; by lending its voice to the debate between the ultraconservatives and the progressives, Pink Dot has the ability to influence the outcome. But Pink Dot did not, not in a way that engages the real problems faced by the LBGT community, and this is why I’m disappointed with it.

  9. Dear Benjamin,

    There is nothing to prevent you from removing your disappointment by registering with the National Parks Board to execute what you have said, to acheive what you have envisioned. The venue at Speakers Corner is free-of-charge and available most days to any Singaporean of legal age (which I assume you are) who has something to say to other Singaporeans, political or non-political:

    Here is the registration page:

    See, so easy. Come on, we will go there and support you when you do! Don’t let fear (and ignorance?) or anybody stop you.

    The Prime Minister, top civil servants and police commissioners overcame their fear in 2008 when they told the country that gay pride parades shall henceforth be allowed at Speakers Corner. We did not imagine it was easy for them to say it.

    At Pink Dot, infants and children, celebrities and artistes (not just the ambassadors), politicians and senior corporate executives, and elderly grandparents on wheelchairs and walking sticks did not let fear and ignorance provide them with an excuse not to be there. They are not invisible to us. They are not extras on a film set. They are real Singaporeans.

    I’m not sure if it will be a struggle for you to recall those moments when the rest of us were attentively listening to Ms Eileena Lee and her mother Madam Yiap deliver their impassionate speech and make an appeal to all Singaporeans to accept LGBT people, under the bright open blue sky. (Did it cross your mind that you could have expressed it better than them? And that it could have been you rather than them?)

    And also, Ms Jamie Yee and her parents, Madam Sally and her son Jon, brothers Joel and Joey, Dr Ethan Lim and dad, writer Karen Lee and father (on the TOC video) and many others speaking on YouTube videos and to the mass media, did precisely what we wish one day, you, and your parents, grandparents and siblings will also do, at which time we promise to cheer and applaud. But before that, we are no more than armchair activists.

    Nobody understands fear, and the need to fight ignorance fiercely, better than any of these courageous people mentioned above. Please have a chat with them about fear and ignorance, when you have a chance to, or better still, go to them and create a chance to discuss the topic.

  10. wow. ‘disappointed’ is a strong word. It is a little odd that you should feel that way for an event in which most people came away feeling encouraged and energised. Perhaps I am simply ignorant of the general feeling… certainly more can be done by the PinkDot committee to gather pre- and post-event feedback.

    (n.b: I am not speaking for the PinkDot committee.)

    And I do agree with you with regards to what PinkDot is categorically. PinkDot might want to alter the way it describes itself. Saying that it is not a rally, demonstration or protest seems somewhat disingenuous to me now. (though ‘protest’ suggests that there is a call for a specific and emphatic response from the authorities as a result of our action. This is definitely not one of PinkDot’s direct objectives) I am less and less convinced that such a claim is not simply some kind of PAP-speak that as Singaporeans, we have adopted unquestioningly – a way to deflect responsibility.

    Yet, I do appreciate the rationale for the non-committal stance: It is to assure the Singaporean public and the participants of PinkDot that this is not an attempt to ‘rock the boat’. I believe little good can come out of a confrontational approach. That has been attempted in the past in Singapore to little positive effect. This also means that in trying to reorientate the existing discourse, PinkDot is not a ‘start somewhere’. PinkDot strikes me as highly sensitive to the historical and cultural context that it is part of.

    The contradictions that you pointed out, I would prefer to call ‘paradoxes’. A paradox implies more self-awareness, even for the inherent contradictions in one’s strategies. There is no denying that any action, by simply taking place in Hong Lim Park is in and of itself political. We have slogans, we signify what we represent with a colour, we perform a gesture collectively… what’s NOT political about that? I don’t think there was ever a claim that PinkDot is apolitical. I certainly didn’t say that.

    Nevertheless, the refusal to represent a call for a specific political action (eg: repeal 377A, legalise gay marriage) is deliberate. PinkDot is at once an attempt to gather different voices within the LGBT rainbow and to speak in a language that other Singaporeans identify with in order to breed understanding and concordance. To quote a friend of mine, “Pinkdot as it stands now, is about finding commonalities. What binds us together, bringing together a very fractured, generally uncoordinated, politically disenfranchised and even fearful community. That surely cannot be a bad thing – and is an important step.”

    Note also that thus far, any pro-gay action has been perceived by conservative Singaporeans to be anti-mainstream. No one other than the LGBT community seems to sympathise with the cause. The lack of understanding is drastic; in Singapore, we are increasingly told that even speaking about homosexuality in neutral terms is a problem. What then is the point of a verbose pro-gay demonstration?

    Cutting the story short, I suggest we approach PinkDot like we would come out to our parents? Do we demand that they accept us as we are? Or, if we have conservative parents who cannot across their personal hurdles, do we show them that we are no different from what they expected of us in the first place? We want to speak the same language so that Singaporeans cannot see any reason NOT to accept the LGBT community. The message can remain the same but the way it is presented speaks more.

    For this reason, I stand by my pride in PinkDot. It is far from disappointing.

    Of course, there are many roads to Rome. PinkDot is simply one of many. By supporting the approach of PinkDot, I am not saying that others shouldn’t speak for themselves in different ways. I invite you to do two things:

    1) Contact the PinkDot committe to forward your feedback. Much of it is tangibly useful and will provide food for thought, if not actual operative change.
    2) Conduct other initiatives. Further and diversify the debate.


  11. Guys,

    I do believe the two of you are mostly missing the point.

    The point of this essay isn’t what Pink Dot has done. It’s about what Pink Dot has not done. You’ve been talking about what Pink Dot has done. I’ve been talking about what Pink Dot has not done. I’ve been trying to engage every commentator here, but it seems most of my words have flown over everybody’s heads.

    I see no problems if Pink Dot had done exactly what it did for this year’s event, and actually confronted the issues behind non-acceptance of the LBGT community. Pink Dot should have explored the reasons why LBGT people are not accepted, in addition to having positive stories and messages about acceptance.

    Dan, you said that the idea is to present things so that ‘Singaporeans cannot see any reason NOT to accept the LBGT community’. Singaporeans still do — that is why Section 377a, censorship of homosexuality, condemnation of homosexuals, and the myth that sexuality is a choice exist in Singapore. It’s the reason why the LBGT community is not accepted.

    It’s in the messages propagated by the ultraconservatives: ‘love the sin and hate the sinner’, ‘conservative values’, and ‘lifestyle choices’. It’s in policies like censorship of homosexual activity and references, the existence of section 377a, and section 302 in the military. Without addressing these messages or the ideology behind them, Singaporeans will still see a reason not to accept the community. Pink Dot could have done that, but failed. This year, it sidestepped these issues — and missed a chance to deprive the ultraconservatives of ammunition to convince people to demonise the LBGT community.

    Pink Dot has brought different people together. Fair enough. But it failed to do more than bring people together. The reason why Pink Dot exists is because of prejudice against the LBGT community. By not directly addressing the prejudice, by keeping silent about it, all Pink Dot has done is bring people together. People already know there is a problem surrounding the LBGT community. People know that one group rejects the community, while another accepts it. Merely bringing people together will not change things. It will not improve the life of people in the community, unless it uses the opportunity to spread information and disarm the arguments used by ultracons.

    I do have a problem with the use of personal testimonials. For every testimonial you can publish for your cause, your opponents can find another. Families can talk about how they accepted LBGT members in Pink Dot. I won’t be surprised if I can find stories of other families came up to praise a community for converting a gay member into a straight person. Your friend can talk about how Pink Dot brings people together. I can find a friend who will say Pink Dot has not done enough — and has, in fact, criticised Pink Dot in sharper tones. When you run out of true stories, fear not: storytellers are abundant everywhere, and it is sometimes so hard to tell apart fact and fiction.

    Testimonials serve largely to reinforce existing beliefs and appeal to fence-sitters. They are part of an integrated communications strategy, but cannot be the be-all and end-all. The ultracons are doing the same thing, too, and rest assuredly they outnumber the LBGT activists, have more resources, and can come up with as many stories as they need. You cannot just engage this issue on the level of personal testimonials; you have to engage it on the level of reason and logic and argument. This means facing prejudice and dispelling it.

    The thrust of my essay, and the responses to everyone, has always been about what Pink Dot did not do and why that has to be corrected, not what Pink Dot did. I’m not talking about what Pink Dot has done — I’m talking about what it did not do. This means, I’m talking about what Pink Dot could have done in addition to what it did. You’re assuming I’m attacking what Pink Dot has done, when I’m attacking what Pink Dot did not do. I pray this clarifies matters.

    But Dan, thanks for your suggestions. Rest assuredly, I have similar ideas in mind.

  12. But Benjamin, by “attacking,” since you’re inclined to use aggrandizing words like this, what Pink Dot “did not do” instead of it did do, you’re missing the point. It’s unfair to judge anything by what it did not set out to do instead of how successful it is in realising its purported mission. It’s like going to see an arthouse movie and complaining there were no explosions. For what Pink Dot set out to do, that is, increase acceptance of gays in a personable, non-threatening fashion, I think it succeeded magnificently. You are of course free to disagree on what Singapore needs at this point for greater gay rights. For me, and I suspect a lot of other Singaporean gays, I believe the ground needs to be softened before the fight can become outrightly political. For a country that has had no gay pride events of this scale before this (and don’t forget this is only the 2nd year of Pink Dot), Pink Dot is extremely valuable in building a sense of community that can be tapped upon in years to come. The only way people hear you out is in a moderate, rationale, and gradual fashion. Then again, Singapore is big enough for two gay events, and if you care to organise a militant ‘fight’ against the ultracons, I’ll be sure to check it out!

  13. Hi Dan,

    This is taken from Pink Dot’s mission statement:

    ‘Everyone should have the freedom to love, regardless of sexual orientation. But fear, ignorance and prejudice often stand in the way. At Pink Dot, we believe the first step to overcoming these barriers is for open-minded segments of society to come together.’

    Based on this, the implicit goal of Pink Dot is to have total acceptance of the LBGT community. This is the reason why it exists. I’m criticising Pink Dot based on this. This is not criticising an arthouse movie for having no explosions; it’s about criticising an organisation that did not live up to its full potential.

    Pink Dot has succeeded in bringing people together, and I’ve no concerns about that. But merely bringing people together, without priming them for action, will not necessarily lead to action. Pink Dot has brought people together, but it did not use the opportunity to spread a message. In the same vein, you can gather a cohort full of students for a maths lecture, but if you don’t give them a reason to study, only a very few people will bother to study for the upcoming tests and exams.

    Pink Dot exists because of a socio-political situation. But it did nothing concrete to address the problem; it merely brought people together to highlight that there is a problem. Never mind that the media and LBGT activists and ultraconservatives have been doing this on various scales for the past two decades — and this is just what I can find. Merely bringing people together is like a half-hearted attempt to change the situation.

    You have misjudged me by my language. I am not interested in militancy. This is no time and place for militant tactics. But by militancy I mean violent and aggressive behaviour. Think smashing up buildings associated with ultracons, or sending hecklers to any anti-LBGT rights activities. It does not preclude being critical of myths, falsehoods and ideas that reinforce fear and prejudice. And it is so very easy to do this in the context of Pink Dot. Think a singer who sings a song that is about fear and prejudice against the LBGT community. Or openly non-heterosexual people highlighting and dispelling fallacies in testimonials. I’ve raised this with Pink Dot. Now it’s time to see what happens next.

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