Gay Activism in Singapore


A review of How Does Law Matter to Social Movements? A Case Study of Gay Activism in Singapore, by Lynette Janice Chua.

Lynette Chua’s study of gay activism in Singapore begins by revealing that activists in the gay movement view the law or legal rights as neither a tool nor an aid, but as an oppressive machine. The law is perceived as repressive in its punitive controls, and as an obstacle to successful mobilization of homosexual groups through a state-led process of cultural delegitimization. This has led Singapore’s gay community to take a more covert ‘survival’ strategy, or what James Scott (1985) calls ‘everyday resistance’. Chua’s study reveals that though gay activists perceive the law to be repressive they attempt to reclaim it as a resource through a strategy of ‘pragmatic resistance’, which Chua argues is Scott’s concept of individual ‘everyday resistance’ transformed into ‘collective action’.

The introductory chapter gives an overview of the empirical study on the gay movement in Singapore, as Chua compares the ‘formal’ and ‘cultural’ socio-political environments in which social movements operate in less-democratic Singapore and for heuristic comparison, the liberal Western democratic United States. Chua finds that political lobbying and legal mobilization have been hindered in Singapore due to its political rule under one dominant party which has restricted civil-political rights and constitutional guarantees, placed limitations on the judiciary, and curtailed legal advocacy or activism of the legal fraternity.

In the second Chapter, Chua discusses social movement analyses of ‘rights’ as a ‘master framework’ of mobilization (pp. 31-37) (Snow & Benford 2000) and socio-legal arguments of ‘rights’ as a myth and a ‘hollow hope’ (Rosenberg 2008), a ‘symbolic resource’ (McCann 1994), and as the basis of the ‘legal opportunity structure’ (pp. 35-37). From this analysis, Chua critically discerns that these studies are too ‘rights’-centric and in a non-liberal democratic space like Singapore, where ‘rights’ lack resonance in both the state and society, and ‘rights-based’ litigation is seen as confrontational and antagonistic to the state, there is a need to study ‘law’ outside the realm of ‘rights’. Chua thus uses ‘legal consciousness’ studies (Ewick & Silbey 1998) and ‘everyday resistance’ to understand how groups use ‘cracks and opportunities’ in a system to counter the law’s repressive power (pp. 42-44).

The third Chapter explores the interpretive and qualitative method used in conducting the empirical study at hand, consisting of one hundred interviews with gay activists. In Chapter 4, Chua surveys the gay movement in Singapore, from its ‘coming out’ and its ‘expansion by way of diversification’, through the lenses of ‘strategy and culture’ (p. 83). In employing the double tenets of pragmatic resistance, which are the movement’s ‘survival’ and its’ ‘advancement or opportunity’ (pp. 83-84), Chua finds that it was the individual decisions and actions in interaction with state and legal institutions that drew the movement’s trajectory (p. 116).

Chapter 5 focuses on ‘Motivation and Aspirations’ thus addressing Chua’s first research question of how the law helps gay activists to make sense of their grievances. She reports that activists did not significantly highlight the law as a primary motivation to mobilize, but nevertheless expressed aspirations for legal rights and remedies. Thus though the law was initially not an empowering tool or resource, it was converted into a major resource or fuel for activists to fight the ‘cultural power’ of legal repression (p. 118).

However, Chapter 6 finds that there is a disparity between ‘rights’ in the ‘abstract’ and ‘rights’ in ‘context’; that is to say, the ways in which activists interpret the law to be insignificant in their real struggle, but find meaning in rights as an abstract within their ‘socially constructed boundaries and practices’, which Chua then interprets to be part of their ‘hidden transcript’ or offstage discourse from the power holders (pp. 142-149).

In Chapter 7, Chua turns to her second research question of how activists use ‘pragmatic resistance’ as a strategy, utilizing a ‘disguised’ public transcript (p. 165) to ‘dance, toe the line or push the boundaries’. Chua explains that the movement’s tactical process is likened to a ‘social dance’, which takes place ‘in the shadow of cultural boundaries and practices…of which law is a part’ (p. 170), and here the movement attempts to ‘reclaim’ or convert the law from a cultural power of control to a cultural resource.

Chapter 8 closes the answers to the first two research questions by looking at two ‘other social processes’ that play a part in the pragmatic resistance strategy and in the formation of movement legal culture.  Intra-movement relationships formed in the ‘story-telling’ and ‘narratives’ (p. 208), and learning from activist experience of how to prevail over legal repression, help to create ‘legal imaginations’ which redeem the ‘law as a cultural resource’ (p. 214).

In Chapter 9, Chua theorizes that Scott’s ‘everyday resistance’ turns individual covert action into collective action when a group of individuals work towards a ‘collective good’, by ‘challenging power’, in a sustained and organized manner (p. 238). Chua’s study thus offers a theoretical refinement to fill the gaps in legal consciousness studies as well as turning ‘everyday resistance’ into a genre of collective action studies (p. 251).

In Chapter 10, Chua moves towards her third research question on how gay activists make sense of the outcomes of their activism. Here her findings indicate that though activism had not led to any formal changes in the legal system, it has certainly led to informal gains outside the system, including social acceptance of homosexuality and increased government awareness of homosexual issues (p.260). Gay activists see this as a ‘conscious trade-off’ where ‘formal rights’ were traded off for ‘survival’ of the gay movement, so it may live to fight another day (p. 258).

Lynette Chua’s study of gay activism in Singapore takes a refreshing look at the multidisciplinary scholarship of law and social movements and paves inroads in making the inquiry of how the law matters in the mobilization of groups perceived as marginalized or aggrieved in states that lack formal democratic processes. The study provides a rare ‘bottom-up’ perspective on the interaction of law and society in postcolonial Singapore, as well as indicates gaps in socio-legal research on social movements, and the link between ‘rights, democracy and social change’.

Thaatchaayini Kananatu
PhD Candidate
School of Arts and Social Sciences
Monash University
Sunway, Malaysia

Primary Sources

Interviews with one hundred Singaporean gay activists
Field observations of meetings, talks, exhibitions, plays, film screenings and social gatherings of gay activists in Singapore
Movement’s organizational materials, such as publicity campaigns, announcements, and press statements, with correspondences with the state
Government statements in the Singapore media reports and Hansard records of parliamentary debates
Singapore legislation and judicial cases

Dissertation Information

University of California, Berkeley, 2011. 396 pp. Primary Advisor: Kristin Luker.


Image: Courtesy of Pinkdot SG

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