Archive of Asiaweek article on Alex Au, Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan (17 March 2000)

ALEX AU WAI PANG, 47
gay-rights activist
Freelance writer Alex Au, not pictured, runs Yawning Bread, a website
that deals with homosexuality and issues of particular concern to the
gay community – as well as delivering an occasional sharp commentary
on everything from the latest films to Singapore Telecom’s failed bid
for Cable & Wireless HKT. “For readers who are not homosexual, I hope
[the website] can serve as a window into the thoughts of gay people,
particularly gay Singaporeans,” Au writes. “For readers who are
homosexual, I hope [it] can be a catalyst to self-reflection,
self-discovery, and a better understanding of where we stand in
society, and why we stand where we stand. I hope it is of some help
to you in breaking out of any sense of isolation you may have.”Launched in 1996, Yawning Bread (the name just appealed to Au) now
has an average of 2,900 hits a month. Early on, Au decided to house
the site on a server outside Singapore because he feared it might be
censored. He doesn’t think he would have any problems now, but it’s
just too much trouble to transfer all those kilobytes. Not that Au is
about to celebrate any new openness. He and fellow gay activists keep
a low profile – though nobody would describe them as being out of
sight.In November 1996, they applied to the government to have a group
called “People Like Us” registered as a society so it could hold
group discussions on gay and lesbian issues and circulate a
newsletter, among other things. In April 1997, the application was
rejected. Au and his colleagues appealed twice to the Home Affairs
Ministry. Both failed. Finally, they wrote to Prime Minister Goh Chok
Tong. The petition was denied. Au believes treatment of gays is the
test case of the authenticity of the government’s drive for a more
open society. He is not hopeful.The government says its decision to refuse People Like Us a license
merely reflects current mores, but Au and his associates complain
that they have no means to plead their case to the public if they are
not allowed to do so openly. The good news is that at least the bad
old days of regular police dragnets to entrap homosexuals seem to be
over. Meanwhile, Au keeps adding new slices of life to his Yawning
Bread loaf. Recent offerings include an essay on the future of ASEAN,
a humorous account of how he helped his nearly 80-year-old father get
wired and a reflection on cruising public toilets.
HARESH SHARMA, 35, playwright
ALVIN TAN, 37, artistic director

For Haresh Sharma and Alvin Tan, blurred boundaries are a good thing.
Tan, right, below, is artistic director of the theater group The
Necessary Stage (TNS), while Sharma is its resident playwright. The
way they see it, written rules governing the local drama scene don’t
actually match practice. For example, touching on such sensitive
areas as race, religion and sex, particularly homosexuality, is
officially discouraged, but many plays deal forthrightly with these
supposedly taboo topics. “It’s good in a way that the OB
(out-of-bounds) markers are blurred,” Sharma says. “Sometimes you
just don’t know where the lines are. If we were to push too much and
they made the rules very clear, then maybe no plays would get
performed, which would be even worse.”As it stands, TNS no longer has to submit scripts to the Public
Entertainment Licensing Unit, but must still pass them to the
National Arts Council. The group also voluntarily slaps a rating on
its own performances, particularly if a work contains sensitive
material. If the National Arts Council reckons something is too
on-the-edge, it may have it reviewed by a committee. “Where it goes
from there, we’re not quite sure,” says Tan. “Most of the time,
though, everything is all right.”Last December, a day before a presentation of sex . violence . blood
. gore ., a play by twenty-somethings Alfian Sa’at and Chong Tze
Chien, the censors asked for three scenes dealing with race to be
cut. Tan considered canceling the show, but decided to go ahead. The
contentious scenes were not performed, but Tan had the text
photocopied and distributed to the audience. When the scenes were
reached, the house lights were turned up and the situation was
explained to the public. Actors carried on “in fast-forward” with no
words. “The censorship was against the scenes being performed, but
not against the text,” explains Tan. “It was a loophole, but we moved
right to the brink. By being pragmatic, we preserved as much of our
integrity as we could.” By censoring, Tan reckons, the government
contradicts its own aim of fostering a more open society.Sharma says he doesn’t feel constrained as to what he can or cannot
write. He is now working on a play about two drag queens that he
wants to be performed by real transsexuals. Tan points out, however,
that scriptless performance art and so-called audience-participation
forum theater remain “proscribed” – not strictly banned, but unlikely
to be licensed. Because organizers would have to place a $59,000
deposit with the authorities, nobody tries. But that’s not stopping
resourceful playwrights. Some plays that are approved and staged
include improvisation and audience participation – with no complaint……………………..

(These articles were formerly found at the following URLs:
but have since been removed.
A less well formatted version is found here:
Acknowledgements
This archiving of this article was first done by Petrus Tan on SiGNeL:
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About groyn88

Ultraliberal advocate of universal human rights, justice and fair play.
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