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What does the COVID-19 pandemic mean for PinkDot Singapore?

Updated: May 2, 2020

by Lynn Ng Yu Ling

As Singapore’s loudest LGBTQ social movement, PinkDot Singapore has grown exponentially over the years. At the inaugural 2009 event, 2500 participants showed up. In 2011 this had multiplied to cross the 10 000 mark. By 2014 a turnout of 26 000 had overflowed the confines of Hong Lim Park, also the statesanctioned Speakers’ Corner. Since 2015 turnouts have hovered at around 28 000.

In 2019 PinkDot 11 released a video to mark the movement’s tenth anniversary. The video charted PinkDot’s humble beginnings and the persistent efforts of local activists in garnering wider support from community members, making international headlines and inspiring secondary movements in other cities worldwide.

As COVID-19 takes away the sheer power of a (now) 28 000- strong crowd, PinkDot has no choice but to devote our attention inward to interrelational work at the community level.

A sense of solidarity beyond nationalized identitarian politics

In recent years PinkDot has faced obstacles in expanding movement inclusivity with the 2016 amendments to the Public Order Act.

“It is with profound regret for us, the organisers of PinkDot 2017, to announce that as per recent changes to the Public Order Act rules on general assembly, only Singapore Citizens and Permanent Residents are permitted to assemble at the Speakers’ Corner.” (PinkDot SG, 2017).

The revised legislations implemented by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) were under the premise that foreign entities should not interfere with domestic issues, especially sociopolitically controversial and sensitive ones (Tan, 2016).

Until 2016 PinkDot supporters without citizenship or Permanent Residency (PR) were allowed in the assembly square to observe the PinkDot formation, but could not be involved in holding up placards which would count as active participation. The latest modifications meant that the law no longer distinguished between observers and participants, instead considering all supporters present to be part of a cause-related assembly.

The presence of any foreigners was deemed as unlawful participation, and could result in the legal prosecution of both event organizers and participants (Ng, 2018).

Being blackmailed into choosing between complying with the rules or not having the movement at all, for the first time ever PinkDot organizers made the painful decision to barricade the Speakers’ Corner and conduct identity checks at the entrance, which quadrupled the event’s operation costs.

Furthermore, as per the revisions foreign entities whose shareholder board did not comprise Singaporean citizens as a majority were required to apply for sponsor permits (Han, 2018). Out of the thirteen multinational conglomerate sponsors, the ten who applied were rejected. Thankfully, organizers scrambled to pool together well over 100 local sponsors whose combined contributions of more than $250,000 skyrocketed past the initial fundraising target (Jerusalem, 2018).

The impromptu responses to alleviate the ban on non-citizen presence went further than the event itself. In a harrowing span of time, informal networks were mobilized to put together numerous fringe events to include supporters who could not physically be in the rally. These were then expounded into PinkFest, a series of twenty casual gatherings held over the prior two weekends.

Events were hosted not by Speakers’ Corner organizers but by individual volunteers in venues outside Hong Lim Park, so they did not fall under the same regulations (Aw, 2018). These get-togethers enabled many migrant laborers and Migrant Domestic Workers (MDWs) to be involved in carnival-style hangouts and picnic gatherings among others. Organizers themed the event of that year as “Against All Odds” (PinkDot SG, 2017).

PinkDot has been carving significant inroads in collaborating with migrant worker collectives as a way to articulate its broader conceptualization of queerness. The movement proclaims in loudly subtle ways that heteronormativity is not simply an identitarian issue but a developmental one.

Crucially, the state makes 'strange', both co-national LGBTQs and non-national migrant workers who are denied a position in the vision of reproductive futurism. The latter is decreed to be upheld by the ‘basic building block’ of a “proper family nucleus”: one man, one woman, and their offspring or dependents (Oswin, 2014: 421).

This recognition is also an attempt to move PinkDot beyond simply advocating for LGBTQ equality in a nationalized sense, which in Singapore usually means acknowledging non-normative sexualities for their economic contributions, i.e. ‘pink dollars’. The almost one million work permit holders who form the backbone of social reproductive labor for this highly successful developmental state, PinkDot activists argue, must be put at the centre as well.

The growing number of grassroots initiatives in support of PinkDot testify to an increasing awareness that LGBTQ and migrant worker equality cannot be reduced to judgements of economic disposability at the expense of the humanitarian side of the equation. PinkDot and broader queer activism cannot reduce rights campaigns to issues of domestic economic contributions, for these are about looking at those beside us as rightful claimants to the privileges citizens enjoy, i.e. as equal human beings with full status.

COVID-19 has more starkly brought to the fore the unfortunate reality of “two Singapores” - one for citizens, one for the transient labor force who perform the back-breaking labor shunned by locals (Han, 2020).

PinkDot has been making incremental efforts to disrupt the citizen-noncitizen dichotomy at the centre of the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), which is proving hard to sustain in the face of rising anti-immigrant backlash amidst this pandemic. Among numerous other smaller groups, the more prominent ones include conservative Christian factions like the Anglican Pentecostals headed by Dr Thio Su Mien, former Dean of Law at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Anglican Pentecostal members make it a point to show up to every year’s PinkDot with a counter ‘Wear White’ campaign to announce their explicitly condemnatory stance on non-heteronormative family models (Luger, 2018). They are also known to patrol the Speakers’ Corner and loiter around its premises, to observe PinkDot’s activities and look out for the presence of non-citizen/PR participants, basically scanning for any sign of violation of public assembly rules that can be reported to state authorities.

Other opposing groups include ‘LoveSingapore’ and the ‘Singapore for Singaporeans’ campaign against increasing immigration. Their most notable presence was in the 2013 occupation of Hong Lim Park following the White Paper on loosening immigration policies.

As the number of COVID-19 cases in Singapore spikes unprecedentedly, public discourse on the part of citizen netizens on official forums and social media channels reveal that xenophobic prejudices are not uncommon, and indeed have obtained a certain degree of social legitimacy for many.

PinkDot’s non-discriminatory and non-identitarian aspirations of solidarity have spread slowly but surely, yet these types of relationship-building remain largely confined at the intra-network level of activists, allies and supporters.

A broad swathe of ‘Not In My Backyard’ (NIMBY) advocates persist in airing racially motivated justifications. A Chinese forum letter received by Lianhe Zaobao, which has since been translated into English and put online, endorses a ‘civilized citizen’ versus ‘uncivilized foreigner’ dichotomy.

This author urged readers not to ascribe unnecessary blame on the Singapore government for the outbreaks in migrant worker dormitories. The author argues that local authorities have achieved satisfactory standards in providing decent living conditions.

But migrant workers from “backward countries” who grew up in living environments rife with “bad personal hygiene habits'' bring these with them wherever they go (Lee, 2020). Lianhe Zaobao’s Facebook page has garnered floods of supportive comments and voices echoing agreement.

If PinkDot has in mind a politics of care that goes beyond identity debates, it is not enough if citizen supporters advocate LGBTQ equality yet endorse a ‘co-national only’ agenda. The nation-state’s developmental history of economic nationalism (Oswin, 2014), as an offshoot of the colonial fait accompli of modern state institutions bequeathed by the British at formal independence, is not interrogated for its legal but unjust employment relationships with the transient labor force.

“So when we look at the situation in Singapore, I think it is important to realise and recognise that we are dealing with two separate infections - there is one happening in the foreign worker dormitories, where the numbers are rising sharply, and there is another one in the general population where the numbers are more stable for now”. (Lawrence Wong, Minister of National Development, 2020)

As media coverage of COVID-19 begins to envelop local news channels and traditional mainstream media, so has blame on migrant workers residing in dormitories who account for an overwhelming proportion of new cases (Han, 2020).

PinkDot 2020 sees this indefinite period of physical silence as a time to quietly endorse its broader agenda of migrant worker inclusivity. Ironically, being forced to migrate online presents some opportunities as activist pathways are altered. The Public Order Act is preoccupied with the use of public spaces, but does not refer to digital spaces and non-traditional media sources, which includes social media platforms (Chua, 2014).

While PinkDot has long been aware of social media as indispensable to its emergence, given the impossibility of uttering explicit denunciations of the state regime in open spaces, the pertinence of this loophole has never been so poignant. Indeed, for its inaugural event eleven years ago, PinkDot planners found that “going on social media was our only option” at promoting the event, for censorship regulations would never approve it on public media platforms (Wang, 2016: 9).

Silver linings in the clouds of COVID-19

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought this loophole to the forefront yet again, as social media extends to activists a virtual space with far less iron-clad rules that dress the material world. PinkDot’s social media channels at the moment are advertising fundraising campaigns for LGBTQ members of the migrant worker community and calling out structural inequities of the nation-state.

Most recently PinkDot promotes Migrant Matters, a ground-up initiative which organizes COVID-19 collection drives to deliver care packages to twenty locations. The online promotion materials consistently hint at the unfair treatment levied onto “our migrant brothers”.

PinkDot and its grassroots allies, regardless of the categories of human rights mobilization each organization uses, hope that these campaigns will ignite conversations that challenge the status-quo affairs regarding migrant justice as “we collectively contemplate and work towards the post-pandemic Singapore we want to see”. These are hardly calls that can be announced in the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park.

This year on 27 June, PinkDot 12 invites members of the community to light up in pink their homes and workplaces, as well as share pictures of small gatherings with close ones (PinkDot SG, 2020). Livestreams of performances and interactive discussions will be held in absence of the human PinkDot.

For an indefinite period of time PinkDot and other social movements worldwide will not be able to enjoy the comfort of close physical proximity with familiar allies. But on an individual level, PinkDot and its allies will soldier on with the much needed community work behind the scenes that the preoccupation with organizing massive assemblies has not left much energy for.

This includes starting difficult conversations with close acquaintances, community members and even within our households. In the words of one ambassador: “We are ready to start difficult conversations even with people who don’t agree with the values that we stand for. We need to keep sharing our stories and keep the conversation going!”


Lynn Ng Yu Ling is an international graduate student from Singapore doing a PhD in Political Science at the University of Victoria (UVic). Her main interests are around Migrant Domestic Worker (MDW) rights advocacy, but also how these cannot be separated from other movements that use different words for their activism.

This article is taken from Interface Journal. Reproduced with permission.

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