Plans for an annual festival in Singapore supporting LGBT rights came under threat last year when the government denied sponsorship requests from multinational companies. In the end, however, the Pink Dot festival went ahead with the backing of more than 100 Singaporean companies. In an email interview, Linda Lakhdhir, a legal adviser for the Asia Division of Human Rights Watch, describes Pink Dot’s significance and the challenges facing LGBT Singaporeans.
WPR: Why did authorities ban foreigners from participating in this year’s annual Pink Dot celebration, how did organizers respond, and what does that response suggest about the level of support for LGBT rights within Singapore?
Lakhdhir: The authorities not only banned foreigners from participating in the annual Pink Dot festival, they also banned foreign and multinational companies from sponsoring the event without a permit. Both restrictions were justified as necessary to “prevent foreign interference” in Singapore’s domestic affairs.
In June 2016, Pink Dot celebrated its eighth year in Hong Lim Park, with the sponsorship of corporations including Google, Barclays, J.P. Morgan, Goldman Sachs, BP, Bloomberg, Twitter, Apple and Facebook. A few days after the event, the Ministry of Home Affairs warned multinational companies to stop funding the event, saying such support constitutes “foreign interference” in domestic affairs. In October, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced that, under newly promulgated rules, any entity that is not incorporated in Singapore and does not have a majority of Singapore citizens on its board is now required to apply for a permit to sponsor an event in Hong Lim Park. Although 10 multinational companies applied to do so this year, their applications were denied.
In addition, in October 2016, the authorities amended the rules governing events at Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park, the only location in Singapore where such an event can be held without a government permit, to further restrict the participation of foreigners. Prior to that date, noncitizens could be present in the park during an event as long as they did not “take part in the demonstration.” Under the new rules, noncitizens are not permitted to “participate” in any assembly in the park. If they do so, both the noncitizen and the organizer of the event can face criminal charges. As a result, the police informed Pink Dot’s organizers that they would have to barricade the park and check the identification of every person entering to ensure compliance with the new rules.
The response of Singaporeans to both new restrictions belies the government’s position that the city-state is not ready for LGBT rights. More than 100 Singaporean companies stepped in to fill the funding gap this year, allowing Pink Dot’s organizers to surpass their fundraising target by May. Despite long lines to enter and the appearance of barricades, attendance was extremely high, with more than 20,000 citizens and permanent residents showing up to demonstrate their support for LGBT rights.