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SINGAPORE - Mar 24, 2003

One decade ago, the Singapore arts scene experienced a watershed flourishing of works by gay and lesbian artists who bravely sought to express themselves, tackling issues of invisibility, intolerance, sexuality, censorship, and gay rights with daring honesty and integrity. Artist Tan Peng publicly exhibited ground-breaking visual artworks, playwright Otto Fong created gay-themed plays that were performed in Mandarin and English, and a growing number of musicians and performers declined to hide a sexual orientation that often sparked their creative passions.

It was a watershed moment for both the arts and for gays and lesbians in society who banded together around the same time to form the grass roots PLU (People Like Us) collective to give voice to legal and social injustices they suffered.

Sadly, this initial blossoming of talent and social activism was squashed on both fronts. PLU applied for government recognition as an organization, required for their legal operation, and was repeatedly declined. The arts were sent a chilling message when state funding for the local performance scene was withdrawn following a sad media-hyped scandal involving artist Joseph Ng, whose 1994 performance involved (unseen) clipping of pubic hair as a protest against media reportage of gay issues in the local press.

Ng was charged with committing an obscene act, fined S$1,000, and banned from performing in public. Performance art, along with other established scriptless theatrical forms, were required to seek special licensing with a S$10,000 bond deposit, effectively silencing many young talents.

Ng moved on, adopting Thailand as his home abroad, going on to become the arts critic for Bangkok Post's Lifestyle section. With much water under the bridge and with Singapore’s attempts to position itself as a major arts center in the region, official attitudes have softened and Singapore society appears better informed and more tolerant. Still, outdated English colonial sodomy laws persist in a country which harps on traditional Asian values, and the hurdles to free expression remain in place.

Click here to read more about the current state-of-the-arts in an interview with Joseph Ng in the Straits Times.

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