Tuesday, June 14, 2016

More Than Just a Kiss

(This article first appeared on the SIFA Blog. I've been advised that it may be inappropriate for that platform.)


This past weekend, there was a controversy over the staging of the musical Les Misérables at Marina Bay Sands. The directors had inserted a male-male kiss for comic effect into the staging—it took place during the scene Beggars at the Feast, when the minor villain Thénardier is laughing at how he's been able to assimilate into the upper classes:

Ain't it a laugh?
Ain't it a treat?
Hob-nobbin' here
Among the elite?
Here comes a prince
There goes a Jew.
This one's a queer
But what can you do?

It's just a tiny peck on the line "This one's a queer." Blink and you'll miss it, reports say. But the theatre went nuts. Letters of complaint were sent. MDA had to take action.


So the kiss has been removed. And I don't blame the company for doing so—if you're performing a multi-million-dollar international touring musical revue, then you don't need to worry about artistic integrity. It's all about the bottom line instead. You're essentially serving up an expensive version of cultural McDonalds.

I'm not even surprised this happened. I was there in 2012, when MBS put up A Chorus Line and people were leaving the theatre as soon as they discovered there were openly gay characters.
But people got pissed. Playwright Alfian Sa'at (who wrote last year's SIFA highlight, Hotel) wrote a great little screed about this on Facebook. So has Gwyneth Teo, who notes that this G-rated play has portrayals of prison labour, prostitution, child abuse, child soldiers and graphic death, and yet decide that this tiny, frankly more homophobic than homosexual kiss is what needs to hidden away.

And that was before this happened:


Omar Mateen's attack on the Pulse in Orlando, Florida was the largest mass shooting in US history, leaving 51 people dead and 53 injured. And according to his father, it was partially triggered by seeing two men kissing in public.

My lawyer friend Indu commented, "I wonder if the Singapore government will see this as the lesson it is, that extremism cannot be tolerated, or take away the opposite lesson: that gay people shouldn't kiss to avoid being shot."

Right now, the law favours making sure that kissing doesn't happen visibly. Our Public Entertainments and Meetings Act says:

(3)  The content of the arts entertainment must not contain —
(a) anything that is likely to undermine national interest;
(b) anything that is likely to cause offence to any racial or religious group in Singapore;
(c) anything that is likely to cause feelings of enmity, ill‑will or hostility between different racial or religious groups in Singapore;
(d) anything that is lewd or obscene;
(e) anything that promotes any lifestyle or behaviour that is contrary to prevailing social norms, including any alternative sexual lifestyle (such as homosexuality or transgenderism), deviant sexual behaviour or drug abuse...

TV shows similarly aren't allowed to "promote or justify a homosexual lifestyle".

The ironic thing is that Singapore does have LGBT-themed art on show. Lots of it. I just reviewed the gay-themed play Long Weekend at the Twenty-Something Theatre Festival. And In The OPEN Film Fest, we'll be screening at least two films with queer themes: Tangerine (about trans sex workers in LA) and Uncle Howard (about Howard Brookner, a gay artist who died of HIV). Plus, in SIFA's main program, we'll be looking at queer issues through the perspectives of gay performance artists Loo Zihan and Ray Langenbach in I Am LGB.

Poster for Tangerine

So why does all that get a pass, while Les Miz's non-sexual, non-political tiny gay reference has to go?

Because there's more than one kind of art in Singapore. There's art for the masses, and there's art for the intellectuals: the folks with open minds who want to be challenged, who want to think, who want to see different viewpoints and different forms. The argument, from what I've heard, is that the intellectuals are already thinking about alternative ideas, so they can be exposed to freakier things.
The masses still need mollycoddling, according to government policy. Which means that they don't need to see anything that might offend them. Which means that they can gain all the signs of being cultured—knowing the famous names and the great classics—without actually getting the real benefit of culture, i.e. an inquiring, open mind.

Poster for I Am LGB

Does this upset me? Sure, it upsets me. But on the other hand, I suppose we should be grateful that some of us can even show LGBT themes in some arenas? Even though it has no hope of creating any greater awareness amongst the larger population?

No idea, man. By the way, there's a candelight vigil for the victims of the Orlando shooting, scheduled for tomorrow at Hong Lim Park, 8pm. I'll be there.
I might even sing a few Les Miz songs while I'm at it. I'm a gay man, after all. Broadway may throw me under the bus, but I can't stop myself.