My book Steep Tea was not submitted for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize because of a mistake made by my publisher. Not knowing the mistake, I had reasonably expected my book to be shortlisted in the English poetry category, and so was prepared to withdraw it from consideration in protest against Singapore’s anti-sodomy law. Now that the heat around this year’s prize has cooled down, I wish to address some of the larger issues around a state-sponsored literary prize by publishing my planned letter of withdrawal. My hope is that the letter will contribute to the debate about the role of a writer when confronted with legalized injustice.
An Open Letter to NBDCS and My Fellow Shortlisted Authors
I wish to withdraw my book Steep Tea from consideration for the 2016 Singapore Literature Prize in protest against Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore, which criminalizes sex between mutually consenting adult men. My action is not directed against the National Book Development Council of Singapore, the non-profit awarding the Prize. I have great respect for its efforts over the years to promote Singapore literature, and warm regard for its helpful and professional staff. My action is compelled instead by the Singapore government’s recent defense of its discriminatory law during the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review in January this year. I am dismayed by the continuation of unequal treatment of LGBT citizens, the cause of my leaving Singapore, and the theme of my book.
The United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review provides for “a periodic review of the human rights records of all 193 UN Member States,” according to its website. It is designed to “prompt, support, and expand the promotion and protection of human rights on the ground.” In accordance with the UN Charter and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the Review considers the rights of LGBT persons to equal treatment under the law as human rights. The first cycle reviewed all UN Member States. The second cycle, begun in May 2012, requires all Member States “to provide information on what they have been doing to implement the recommendations made during the first review.”
Representing the Singapore government at the review, Ambassador-at-Large Chan Heng Chee repeated the same excuses given by the government for retaining Section 377A in the 2007 parliamentary debate. Her speech showed that the government has not changed its legal position one iota in the last nine years. A baby born in 2007 would be in Primary Three this year, having cut its first teeth, taken its first steps, cried on its first day at school, grown in its love of others. The Singapore government has not brought forth real change. It has killed the baby in the crib. Ambassador Chan justified the legal discrimination by capitalizing on the improvements wrought mainly by the LGBT community itself. According to her, LGBT persons are “free to lead their lives in Singapore” since they are permitted to work in the Civil Service, hold an annual rally, stage plays about LGBT issues, and frequent bars. Her idea of freedom would be laughable, if it is not so sad. In intention, this idea of freedom is cynical. It uses limited, and demeaning, concessions to justify larger discriminations. It seeks to contain legitimate aspirations while presenting a benign face abroad.
I refuse to conspire with the government in my own oppression. Although the Singapore Literature Prize is administered by NBDCS, it is funded mainly by the National Arts Council, the government’s arts agency. The government cannot properly acknowledge my contribution to the arts if it does not acknowledge my person in the world. It cannot genuinely commend my poetry if it proscribes what the poetry is about: love. I left Singapore 13 years ago because I was afraid to come out as a gay man in my own country. In Singapore, I had to hide who I was or risk being fired from teaching, even though my work record was unimpeachable. 13 years later, the legal situation remains unchanged. I was 33 years old when I left Singapore, and now I am 46, and still no change in the law. If not now, when? In the poem “In Death As In Life” from my shortlisted book, I expressed a wish to have my ashes scattered in the sea south of Singapore. After hearing the government’s deeply disappointing response to the Universal Periodic Review, I am having second thoughts. Many Singaporeans have left the country for reasons similar to mine, and many will stay in permanent self-exile for those reasons.
Our situation is, however, still better than that of many in Singapore who live in fear and uncertainty, subject to suspicion, hostility, and violence, through no fault of theirs but for the fact that they are queer. Teens, transgender persons, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable populations. Even children’s books are not spared. In 2014, the National Library Board banned and threatened to pulp And Tango Makes Three and two other children’s books for depicting non-traditional families. Under fire from many quarters, including the judges of the Singapore Literature Prize who resigned in protest, the Board returned the books, not to the children’s library but to the adult’s section. As a country, we cannot properly protect our vulnerable citizens and books as long as Section 377A stands in the way. Striking down Section 377A will open the way for a more equal and caring society. The government must grow up, take the lead, and not hide behind its excuses any longer, if it truly “treasure[s] every Singaporean,” as Ambassador Chan put it.
I humbly ask my fellow shortlisted authors to withdraw their books from consideration for the Singapore Literature Prize too. As an author myself, I understand the sacrifices made to create a work of literature, and the natural desire for recognition. But for the sake of your queer grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings, cousins, children, nephews, nieces, grandchildren, childhood friends, best friends, neighbors, colleagues, teachers, students, classmates, and fellow citizens, would you consider withdrawing your books to protest against the injustice of Section 377A? We cannot have business as usual. We have labored long and hard to bring Singapore literature into the light, but once it is in the light, what will it stand for?
Jee Leong Koh
New York City
30 May 2016