People Like Us were to hold an open/closed meeting at the new National Library's Visitor Centre on 10 November 2005. This was to be part of a series of events leading up to the official opening of the new Library building and Drama Centre.
At first, the National Arts Council gave PLU3 the go-ahead, but a few days later, changed their minds and deleted PLU3 from the program. They made no attempt to hide the fact that the reason they barred us was simply because we were a lesbian and gay group.
This stands in stark opposition to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's statement at the Foreign Correspondents' Association lunch on 6 Oct 2005, "I don't think the government is homophobic."
Background to the Visitor Centre event
The Visitor Centre at the new National Library is actually a big empty hall. It was to be a venue for a series of committee meetings, held by various civil society groups. Such meetings are normally closed door, but for this series of events, they will be open to the public. The idea was to allow the public to observe and perhaps engage with the issues that these civil society groups deal with.
PLU3 requested to be given a slot, and originally, Thursday 10 November evening was allotted. PLU3's plan was for us to hold an organisational meeting, except that the public could sit in, or walk around and watch. We were also planning to permit any member of the public to speak and contribute his ideas, on only one condition: he or she must adopt the persona of a gay, lesbian or transgender person and speak from that perspective.
PLU3 felt that this kind of interactive role-playing helps people understand better what it means to be in a sexual minority. We also believed that it would tie in well with the purpose of the series of events, being the inauguration of the Library and Drama Centre.
NAC's initial reservations and initial approval
Immediately, the National Arts Council (NAC) had some reservations. In an email from the master organiser of the Visitor Centre events, theatre group Spell7, the NAC's concerns were explained:
I've spoken briefly with Jason at the NAC, and he would like me to clarify in writing the details of PLU3's intended meeting. Would you mind writing up a brief outline of how you envisage conducting the meeting, and what issues would be addressed? Perhaps if you have any other information about the PLU(3) group, and a list of its recent state interactions and public profilings, that would also be useful. I'll then send that on to the NAC, and include an overview of the 'Open Closed Door' sessions and the thinking behind it. I'll be honest, I'm not entirely hopeful. However, I believe it is right to press on as >persuasively as we can. It will make a difference in the long run, and perhaps in the short run we will be pleasantly surprised.
PLU3's reply was this:
PLU3 is an informal group of gays and lesbians who meet now and then to discuss how they can contribute to Singapore beyond issues of gay rights. In the planned Open Closed Door Session, a few of them, about 5 to 6, plan to talk about a Quarterly forum they are organizing in January and the forums after that. Possible forum topics are "The Singapore Constitution and Gender Issues" and "The Home Affairs Ministry's Review of Sex Laws".
(b) It is PLU's practice to document correspondence/communications from agents of the govt (e.g. NAC) on the gay issue. So the reservations that NAC is going to raise about us will be on public record. In a way, it is like saying the closed door session has actually begun its first step into the open :-)
Spell7 relayed this to the NAC.
On either 29 or 30 October, two different officers from the NAC emailed Spell7, the organiser of the Visitor Centre event. The first was from Lina Yong, Theatre Management Officer,
I've spoken to Iris regarding this matter. We are okie with all the programmes except. Open closed Door sessions. topics 1) "First and Last Meeting of the Potong Pasir Close Reader's Association" and 2) "People Like Us 3". We trust that you will be able to grace the sessions well, but the title is already very "sticky" and it is unecessary in this mood of Celebrations .... Hope you can understand.... Hence, we would like to advise spell#7 to change these topics and revert to us on the changes before going on print.
A quite different reply was sent by Iris Chung, Asst Director/Infrastructure Development:
Am ok with the PLU3 in the program, but will like to caution that the topics of discussion be more general and do not touch on the Singapore Constitution on gender issues or the review of the Ministry of Home Affairs 's review of the sex laws as these are highly sensitive and are not under NAC or MICA's purview and media enquiries, if any on the discussion may have to be directed to MHA or even PMOs.
Since the purpose of a committee meeting was purely organisational (i.e. we would be talking about setting up events and how to get speakers, venues, publicity, about attending other conferences, and arranging meetings with researchers, reporters and other activists coming to Singapore), and not really delving into substantive issues, PLU3 readily gave Iris Chung the assurances she asked for.
On Sunday, 30 October, the NAC gave the go-ahead.
Announcement and NAC's retraction
Two days later, on 1 November 2005, PLU3 announced this upcoming event on PLU's mailing list, SiGNeL.
Another two days later, the NAC phoned the organiser, Spell7, saying their senior management now had "grave concerns". On Spell7's suggestion, PLU3 phoned Iris Chung directly to understand what was going on.
She explained that the NAC's "senior management" had forwarded her a copy of a publicity blurb from "a website" with the comments that they had grave or serious concerns, and that the event was not in line "with the celebratory mood and theme of the Drama Centre". PLU explained that we were going as per the brief of Spell7's Visitor Centre Open/Closed Meetings event. We were just going to hold a logistical, organisational meeting like the other participating groups.
She stressed that the objections were coming from very high up and she didn't feel she had much leeway, but in view of our explanations as to the nature of the proceedings, she would check with her "senior management" again.
Following that, another NAC officer, Russell Lim, requested a list of participants and the agenda. PLU3 provided both. The agenda was:
1. Quarterly Forum (Dec) - speaker(s), exact date, venue options?, publicity arrangements
2. 2006 Pride Month - activity proposals from JC, venue status, time to call for papers
3. Asia Pacific Network conference Kuala Lumpur (2nd week Nov)
4. Upcoming visit of PJ (4th week Nov) - meet and dinner
5. Asia-Pacific Queer conference 2006 - discuss possibility?
6. MC's idea for a Gay and Lesbian Film Festival - discuss possibility?
On Saturday, 5 November, the NAC gave their final reply: No.