Read: Singapore’s New Nation

This excerpt, from Chapter 20, “A New Nation,” describes Stuart Koe’s Nation party, which was held on Sentosa Island in Singapore for four years but in 2005 was prohibited by the Singaporean government as “contrary to the public interest.” Stuart moved it to Phuket in Thailand.

November 1, 2005 marked the start of the first tourist season after the great tsunami caused by the Boxing Day earthquake that had struck Southeast Asia. The wave, sometimes thirty meters tall, had left confusion about how paradise could be so astonishing. One moment, the tropical sea had seemed orderly and predictable. The next, it had been wildly free.

Patong Beach on Phuket affected by the tsunami...
Patong Beach on Phuket affected by the tsunami disaster of December 2004. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To kick-start the post-tsunami tourist season, 1,000 Thai masseurs and masseuses had gathered at Patong Beach on Phuket Island. Patong lies at the mid-point of the Thai beaches along which 5,000 people had died, half of them tourists, many from Germany, Scandinavia, and Britain. This particular day, November 1, the Thais planned to form a chain of hands to knead and relax whatever shoulders could be found — at no charge. Close by, musicians and food vendors were preparing to transform the seafront road where the wave had struck. Instead of a strip of death, the road would become a mall of rock bands and papaya salads.

It rained — a bad start. Planes landing at Phuket’s small international airport flew through crazed angles of lighting while clouds shaped a crazy quilt of space. A Thai guide sent to fetch visitors with a van apologized for the damp. He said Pui was his name, and he was in his 30s, square-headed, and extremely earnest.

“We are very happy you still come,” he told a visitor. “We still need your help.”

After the tsunami had hit, Time magazine had reminded its readers that Phuket was one of the best known of the many scattered tropical paradises that had come to characterize Southeast Asia.

The van that Pui accompanied moved quickly past Phuket’s Patong Beach and over the headlands to the next beach, Karon. Pui assured the visitors that Karon had not been as hard hit by the tsunami as Patong. Only a single hotel had been destroyed by the wave, he said, one named “On the Beach.” Unfortunately, it had actually been located there.

As the van rolled into the driveway of the Crowne Plaza Resort at Karon and headed toward the hotel’s acres of cottages and swimming pools, two uniformed Chubb Security guards suddenly stepped out to stop it. They flashed mirrors on long sticks underneath the chassis.

“Trouble in Indonesia,” Pui explained. He apologized again. Over the decades, the rhetoric about “paradises” in Southeast Asia had become not only serious but also deadly serious. Increasingly afoot was another idea, one quite at odds with the aesthetic paradise of Bali, the erotic sanuk of Bangkok, and the computer-Eden in Singapore. A mostly male jihadist movement was beckoning another imagination.

Immediately after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center in New York City, Singapore had discovered a jihadist cell burrowing silently on the smart island itself. Then had come the 2002 terrorist attack on the aesthetic island, when bombs loaded into a van and backpack had killed more than 299 people in Bali’s bars — mostly youths who had been seen as using their bodies incorrectly by drinking and dressing in ways not approved of by the jihadists. Bombs had hit again in Bali only a few days before Pui’s van rolled into the Crowne Plaza, this time in beachside restaurants where Balinese rather than foreigners enjoyed tropical sunsets. At the northern end of the Chao Phraya delta cemented over by Bangkok, a man known as Hambali had been arrested in Ayutthaya, the pre-Chakri royal capital of Siam. Somewhere in Southeast Asia, he was being held in a secret prison, accused of being the force behind the bombings in Bali as well as mentor of the jihadist cell in Singapore. Hambali, it was said, had been planning more attacks so as to catalyze the creation of a new Islamist paradise arching from southern Thailand through Malaysia and then stretching across Bali to the southern Philippines — effectively isolating Singapore.

Although Pui wanted his visitors to think that the tension was centered in the old Dutch East Indies, conflicts had also been inflamed in Thailand’s three Muslim-dominated provinces located just south of Phuket. The incorporation of those provinces into Buddhist Siam by Chulalongkorn at the turn of the century did not go smoothly.Thaksin had ratcheted up the violence by responding to Muslim protestors who would not follow his orders with a military crackdown; in turn, separatists had taken to beheading Buddhist monks and schoolteachers.

A well-placed bomb at the start of the new tourist season was not something Pui wanted to contemplate. The Crowne Plaza would soon be locked down, and burly black-suited security guards in dark glasses, looking very much like a Hollywood movie cast, were being imported from Bangkok to augment the hotel’s own police.

Paradise in Southeast Asia was beginning to seem not so much like dance and music to be savored, or sex and art to be enjoyed, or even computers to be touched. Instead, it was a battle to be won.

Satisfied that Pui’s van carried no bombs beneath its frame, the Crowne Plaza security guards waved it in.

Crowne Plaza Karon Beach/ Photo from Crowne Plaza

That afternoon, beside one of the Crowne Plaza’s swimming pools, Stuart appeared. He paced quickly, trailed by Jim Chow and seven others on his staff, all walking a sweep around the pool to decide first where to put the colored balloons, and second where to put the black-suited guards who had been hired to defend one narrative about male bodies and desires and gender against another.

Jim carried a thick blue binder titled “Security Meetings.” That morning, Stuart had agreed to move one event from a nearby stadium back to the Crowne Plaza. The Thai police worried about how easily jihadists could attack the stadium.

Stuart had reserved the entire Crowne Plaza — every room in a tower that overlooked the blue Andaman Sea, every ground-level cottage with its own small soaking pool, every ballroom, the entire morning breakfast room, each of the several bars, the two pools, and the new fitness club that workers were rushing to ready. For the weekend, the global resort would be Stuart’s own new island — except that it was so fully booked that he and his own staff from Fridae had had to stay at a neighboring hotel. In a paradise trying to rebuild, Stuart intended to help. He had trucked in a sound system, strobe lights, and thousands of glow-in-the-dark light sticks that looked like candy canes. He had hired disc jockeys from Taiwan, America, and Australia — as well as the black-suited security guards from Bangkok.

Stuart’s cell phone kept ringing.

Reporters.

Why, they wanted to know, had Singapore exiled, of all things, a dance?

A reporter from The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia had just interviewed him. Stuart had countered Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks about managing a “delicate balance.”

“I told them it’s just homophobic.”

Stuart set aside his cell phone long enough to stand quietly at one of the railed balconies. He looked out toward the Andaman Sea. The waves had returned to normalcy. The sea was back to its orderly self. But there did seem to be a special glistening of unusual light left by the rain clouds. S2 smiled and told a visitor: “Now we’re the news…”

Nation V, Photo by Victor Chau/Fridae.asia

When the time came for the main event on the Saturday night of Nation V, men streamed down the Crowne Plaza’s corridors, joking, laughing, pulling at the gleaming “bling-blings” they had collected from Singapore’s priciest department stores and at Bangkok’s Sunday market. Inside the ballroom, which could hold 1,200, circles formed. Single bodies appeared from within the circles, then vanished back into them. As the music played, male bodies heaved, sank, pressed rhythms into the holes formed by the circles of multiple heads. Some men danced with their eyes closed. A wail of lyrics broke the steady bass chants. On stands surrounding the center, men swayed their bodies, stood in lines and then shot their arms into the air, fingers piercing the lasers above and twining the air between. The music grew in accelerandos with sudden stops and fresh bursts. Light played on the men’s splayed fingers like sparks. They mouthed wails from Madonna and Kylie, their sounds growing hoarse as the night wore on toward early morning and sunrise.

Kecak in Bedula, 1930s, Photo from Wikicommons

What Walter Spies and Beryl de Zoete had written of the male kecak still seemed true decades later and hundreds of miles away from Bali. “To seek a consecutive theme in the wandering voices, the cracked strings and wailing cries,” they had said, “is a vain quest . . . like trying to find a meaning for the intricacy of melody, harmony and rhythm in a musical symphony.”

As Walter Spies had written of the very first kecak he had seen in Bali: “They were bewitched, spellbound, and I would have liked to have screamed and danced with them!”

Nation V, Photograph by kit/fridae.asia

 . . . After Nation V ended, Bangkok’s Nation newspaper published a long column about its effects. Unlike the Singapore press’s characterization of the dance as dangerous, the Thai columnist described the Nation as “an annual social gathering . . . to enjoy music, making friends, and activities like swimming, volleyball, surfing, diving, and sunbathing.” He argued that “for the many participants who still live ‘in the closet’ because of legal or traditional discrimination in their societies, the event offers a chance for them to be themselves” . . .

More important than the news reports aired when Nation V was occurring were the male voices on Fridae itself. The silence and isolation of Walter’s “delicate, lotus-eyed boys” had been abandoned. The comments were quickly written, at times with all the simplified spellings and grammar that had become online custom, the kind of passionate online people’s literature that Tan Chong Hee had promoted on Sintercom.

A man who called himself “Togs” wrote: “Fridae has educated me . . . I now understand how isolated and scared so many gay & lesbians are in Singapore. Thanks to Fridae they can communicate to others in a virtual queer world. I hope that this progresses into real physical interaction in the non-virtual world so that we who are invisible to the heartlands, the aunties and uncles eventually know we exist . . . come to know us and accept us.”

Much simpler, from “klwl”: “After almost four decades of existence, I finally met — through Fridae — the love of my life, who is romantically interested in me, and who loves me for who I am.”

A month after Nation V, a man who pointedly chose the name “Hurts” posted a comment that seemed to capture the dream of a different manhood lived, not only imaginatively but also in reality:

“Most non-gay people treat us as “Abnormal”/ “Freaks”/“Crazy” cos’ simply we’re different from them . . . I just hope that, one day, i can tell the world that i’m who i am . . . Tell anyone who ask me, that i like the same gender as i am . . . Without having them to lecture/avoid me . . .

“That’s what i truly hope.”

St. James Power Station

More than a year later, on a Saturday in April 2007, Lee Kuan Yew was driven near Sentosa Island, the old site of S2’s Nation dances. His son Lee Hsien Loong had begun promoting the conversion of parts of the island for a gambling casino so as to polish Singapore’s tourist image as a smart paradise where it was also possible to have fun. Lee Kuan Yew had an appointment with his political party’s youth branch, the teens who would eventually hold political power in Singapore. The site that had been chosen, the St. James Power Station, symbolized both Singapore’s past as well as its hoped-for future. It had been built as the island’s first coal-fired power plant in 1927 — the same year Walter Spies had moved to Bali. A makeover had now turned it into an entertainment cathedral embracing several lounges and dance floors.

Lee Kuan Yew dressed casually in a white shirt without a tie and sat on the stage taking questions in front of a Yamaha synthesizer. One young woman, a playwright, asked: “Where is censorship headed for the next two decades?” She explained that the government had permitted her play about a Singaporean female pornography star to be staged, but only after she had agreed to remove a sentence that had reversed the Christian Gospel’s assertion that “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word became Flesh.”

She had instead written: “In the beginning was the Body.”

Lee Kuan Yew turned the question into one about tolerating sexual differences. “You take this business of homosexuality,” he answered. “It raises tempers all over the world.”

“If in fact it is true . . . that you are genetically born a homosexual because that’s the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes, you can’t help it. So why should we criminalize it? But there’s such a strong inhibition in all societies — Christianity, Islam, even the Hindu, Chinese societies. And we are now confronted with a persisting aberration. But is it an aberration?”

He altered his wording from “aberration”:

“It’s a genetic variation. So what do we do? I think we pragmatically adjust, carry our people . . . don’t upset them and suddenly upset their sense of propriety and right and wrong, but at the same time let’s not go around like this moral police do . . . barging into people’s rooms . . . That’s not our business. You have to take a practical, pragmatic approach to what I see is an inevitable force of time and circumstance.”

He seemed to be suggesting that an “inevitable force of time and circumstance” would lead to queer differences becoming less isolated and more acceptable.

That night and the next day, his comments appeared in news stories not only in Singapore but also across the world. Had he meant that the smart paradise should finally drop its British-inspired criminal sodomy law that prohibited homosexual acts? On the Tuesday following Lee’s appearance at St. James, a Reuters news service reporter questioned him further.

S2 would place the transcript of that interview in Fridae’s online archive. In it, Lee Kuan Yew seemed to struggle with the tension of homosexuals coming in from the periphery and making a home in the center:

“Q: Did we read this correctly you saying that we should decriminalize it eventually?

“Mr. Lee: Eventually. I would say that if this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world and I think it is, then I see no option for Singapore but to be a part of it . . . They tell me, and anyway it is probably half-true, that homosexuals are creative writers, dancers, etcetera. And there is some Biblical evidence of that and if we want creative people, then we’ve got to put up with their idiosyncrasies.

“So long as they don’t infect the heartland.”


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