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An Open Letter

4 minute read

On February 21, I wrote an open letter to the Health Minister, CC-ing the Prime Minister and the Law Minister. This was prompted by the Feminist Mentor’s own open letter. I found LoveSingapore’s pro-377A guide very helpful for this purpose — it gave me everyone’s email addresses in a single page!

OPEN LETTER TO

Mr Gan Kim Yong,

Minister of Health

Singapore

Dear Minister Gan,

A few days ago you made a step which many of my peers and I applauded. You let it be known, in a written reply to Mr Lim Biow Chuan’s question about the Health Promotion Board Sexuality FAQ, that you would reaffirm the Government’s commitment to the nucleus family but also stand firm on your belief that the FAQs did not do more than affirm certain scientific facts about human sexuality as well as disseminate much-needed information about STIs.

In the ensuing turmoil which followed after the FAQs first came into public spotlight leading up to the point where you have probably received countless letters from concerned Singaporeans about your ministry ostensibly leading the way in normalising homosexuality, to where we are at the moment: receiving a letter unlike the others, one which will express in no unclear terms that young, secular Singaporeans like myself will always make our voices heard in continuing to champion for our Republic’s secular values, even if we have not often given enough credit or praise to your government and to your party in recent times.

Cultural “wars” have been waged and fought in many developed democracies across the world; secular values that impart equal weight to all of the important freedoms we hold dear — the freedom of speech, love, action as well as of thought and of belief, the freedom to live a life of love across racial, religious, geographical as well as gender barriers — have always triumphed. Those who have let their cultural “wars” wage on unchecked have, as the United States is testament to, seen their societies grow increasingly polarised.

As a young lesbian Singaporean who has returned home after many years abroad despite the odds: despite knowing that I may never be able to have a family recognised by my State, despite knowing that as a “single” person of a “minority” our public housing laws unfairly discriminate against me, despite knowing that I may never see significant institutional change in my lifetime, I refuse to leave.

I refuse to leave as I refuse to let the country I hold dear be held hostage by a group of religious bigots who take it upon themselves to proclaim my sexual orientation, if normalised, necessarily leads to a “regression” of Singapore society especially when they base their beliefs on Judeo-Christian beliefs which, I must remind you, a majority of Singaporeans do not prescribe to.

HPB in its FAQ provides timely, factual information to parents as well as to questioning younger Singaporeans. In its current form, our existing sexual education programmes do not provide much by way of actual useful information outside of “abstinence”, which is a conversation which has already been hijacked by a militant group in our society that has demonstrated its continued ability to organise and to politicise their pet topics. Should ground be ceded once again, we risk being completely unable to reach out to young Singaporeans who need information on sex education, STIs and other important subjects because we would have failed them and lost our credibility — it seems only rational to worry that they would look elsewhere for information, as I did as a young lesbian woman when the schools I attended uniformly pretended that my needs did not and should not exist.

These groups also ask for civility and tolerance accusing other groups who disagree with their interpretation of Judeo-Christian history and family law of demonizing their right to their beliefs. By purporting to speak for a “silent majority” of Singaporeans and by building upon their network of religious organisations in order to advance a political cause, as a young Singaporean I am concerned about what this means from a sedition perspective. As a Christian, I do not condone a fringe Protestant grouping taking it upon themselves to speak for all Christians — nor for all Singaporeans.

The public needs to see prompt action demonstrating that the State will not stand for potentially seditious and religiously divisive viewpoints which tolerate vitriolic, daily verbal abuse as evidenced by the posts of Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong on his public Facebook page — directed towards tax-paying secular Singaporeans who just happen to form a minority.

I understand this divisive topic is not one our society can come to immediate consensus upon, and am open to a variety of differing viewpoints and debate. Yet as a politically concerned young secular Singaporean who also happens to be lesbian, I cannot sit idly while I witness religiously-affiliated groups wage a cultural “war”, one which no one else is interested to fight.

I urge the HPB, the Health Ministry, and the Government of Singapore to remain steadfast in its affirmation of its commitment to the family as a nucleus of society, while also continuing to make progress in areas such as making available scientific facts on human sexuality which can save lives as well as inform parents and young Singaporeans in need.

I am not a member of the Pioneer Generation, but I am a member of the Millennial Generation who desires to see small steps in social progressiveness so that the Singapore I call home will grow into becoming the inclusive society we want to be. This does not have to begin with an immediate consensus on sexual minorities, but we must make a stand that we will not tolerate religiously-affiliated hatred that a majority of Singaporeans do not belong to nor agree with.

Yours Sincerely,

Adrianna Tan

Millennial Generation (Tech)

World Without Maps

less than 1 minute read

World Without Maps

I’m happy to announce that something very close to my heart has a new home.

The book I’ve been writing for female travellers to India is now entitled World Without Maps, and has a new home here.

You can sign up there to reserve a copy.

Mahabandoola

3 minute read

Yangon Roads

At the hotel I had the receptionist scribble the name of my lunch spot in Burmese. Lunch that day was to be outside my sphere of Yangon familiarity: I had never been there, but I had been told by some locals that I must have a typical Burmese lunch at Aung Thu Kha.

So to Aung Thu Kha I went.

After gesticulating at each other for a while, my taxi driver stared at the piece of paper, looked up at my face and laughed: you speak Mandarin, don’t you?

I speak Mandarin, don’t I? I think I do.

I have always been perturbed at how people seem to be able to deduce secrets about me just by peering at my face. This happens at alarming frequency whenever I travel. Some days, I’m told I must be Burmese of Chinese origin. Other days, I’m Thai. In northeast India I am accepted by all of their tribes; my linguistic inability explained away for me by what must be my probable fluency in some another tribal language. Yet in China, the country of my grandparents’ birth and heritage, I am too Southeast Asian. Too dark. Too English-speaking. I am the colour of the sun beating the earth, and China is a distant, lost memory a long way away from the sun.

So yes, I speak Mandarin. The ability to converse in it has followed me throughout the world, sometimes paying handsomely with access few other languages can offer.

He asks the inevitable. “How do you find Myanmar?”

Like everyone else who has asked that before me, before I have a chance to reply he gripes, “It must be terrible for you. It’s terrible. All of it.”

“I love the city and its people — surely all signs point to improvement!”

“Yes. Improvement also leads to traffic jams,” honking angrily as a car tried to cut our place in a jam in a tiny residential lane.

In our brief conversation I learned he was the grandson of Yunnanese immigrants, economic refugees in their time. In the thirties, Rangoon was the shining light of Asia. Its opulent hotels filled with important people. Its white-only clubs invented cocktails such as the Pegu Club. The Yunnanese of China’s deep south fled south to seek their fortune. Some have done exceedingly well; they have assimilated, in a way, taking on Burmese names and speaking Burmese fluently on top of their Chinese identities, preserved and left the way it was when they left in the thirties.

I wanted to know what languages they spoke at home, what they ate. He indulged me.

“My parents made us speak Mandarin at home when we were kids. If we slipped into Burmese, we got fined. They were born here, but they wanted us to stay connected to our Chinese identities as well. Oh, and Burmese food is way too oily,” he shook his head as he dropped me off. “Let me know if you want Yunnanese or Dai food when you’re back in town. It’s better.”

When 1962 happened, among the many atrocities that ensued: Chinese schools closed. Burmese citizens not from the Barma ethnic group were banned from attending certain institutions of higher learning. Just like that the lights went out in Asia’s leading metropolis, and stayed off for a very long time.

In 2014, some of those lights have come back on. And with them, traffic jams. The unpaven road outside a bank near my hotel was, two days later, a pavement. For some, it’s a clear sign Burma is going to be the gold rush of the east of this century: five star hotels’ bars and Chinatown noodle stalls are similarly filled with businessmen from mainland China seeking fortune and glory.

“Perhaps I’ll buy factory equipment from back home and ship it here,” an enthusiastic new arrival announced loudly at a Cantonese-run noodle stall on the streets of Chinatown, rattling off his entire business plan in Mandarin while the other customers looked on uninterested.

Maung Maung, a middle-aged Cantonese-Burmese man jumped up with an oversized Chinese phone and pulled out a floor plan. They looked at it intently. Maung Maung went back to his noodles, slurping. (Maung Maung of just a few moments ago: “My Chinese name, lady, is Jin Bo. Jin for GOLD!”)

“We’ll make plans. See what help you need. I can help,” Maung Maung told the newcomer.

“Do you have my phone number? I still don’t remember what it is,” the young mainlander said in a way that sounded like a plea for help. He’d either just gotten here or still hadn’t shaken off his “overwhelmed by Burma” look.

“Of course I do,” Maung Maung laughed as he perked up. “I sold it to you.”

Culture Kitchen 2: Little Myanmar

1 minute read

If you are anything like me, you’ve walked by Peninsula Plaza all the time and perhaps even entered it when you’ve needed to buy cameras and stuff. You’ve probably also wondered about all the wondrous things there. What is the paste they are mixing, what is this delicious-looking food and how can I have some of it, if only I knew what to order?

I’ve had the luck to spend more time in Myanmar in recent times, and I absolutely adore the country. I figured it would be only fitting to feature the community in Singapore for the next Culture Kitchen, seeing as that there’s an entire building in downtown Singapore that caters to that community.

With a bunch of intrepid volunteers’ help, I’m happy to announce Culture Kitchen 2: Little Myanmar. We’ll have lunch featuring the best-of Burmese cuisine, you’ll get to meet and mingle with the Burmese community, we’ll also screen “The City Where They Live”, a documentary about Meiktila’s community and youth leaders and how they worked to heal the city after the horrific communal violence of 2013. We’ll then do a Q&A with the filmmakers live from Yangon before kicking off a walking tour of Little Myanmar.

Sound good? Get your tickets here, there are just 19 seats left.

The Geography of Hope

6 minute read

At 18 I certainly believed I knew everything. I did not know just how much it’d hurt this boy’s heart if I told him the inevitable: that I was in love with someone he could never be—a woman. We went to our favourite bar and sat glumly while he tried to drink away his pain and anger.

At that time it felt as though life simply led me into various unforeseen encounters, at turns dramatic and at others explosive, as if I were but a mere spectator. The woman I loved walked into the bar. I stole a glimpse. I could not look away. Even without saying anything at all, he knew it was her.

She met the man she was to marry that evening after I left.

***

There was a girl I noticed at the campus coffee shop.

I liked her pants. And her hair. It helped that I sat at that coffee shop every day nursing a cigarette because that’s what I did when I was young and stupid. She would walk by, and I would try to find out who she was.

Every day we passed each other in that little corridor or at the coffee shop. I don’t remember how, but she agreed to come on a date with me.

We went to a place I still go to, then on a 46-day backpacking trip to India. I bravely led the way. By the second week we were at the Taj Mahal. We had waited to see the sunset because I thought it might be good to attempt romantic gestures sometimes. As the sun set over Agra I reached for her hand. She pushed it away.

We broke up at the Taj Mahal, which was fitting because we had also fallen in love at the Angkor Wat. From one wonder to another, she still could not erase the shame she felt from being with a woman. Even in a country where no one knew her name.

The next 30 days were epic and vengeful, full of sadness and train schedules.

***

The woman I loved four years ago did not marry the man she met at the bar. I may or may not have had anything to do with it.

The truth was that the more I sunk into the sadness, the more I elevated our mythology. It was not the great love which never was. We were not star-crossed lovers. Not only had I not grown from that point, I had even regressed. Waking up with her every morning made me feel I would lose her any time now. I was a little bit older now but really I was still the awestruck girl in my school uniform and my tie, wanting to know how I could punch above my weight because I can, and God she’s hot.

We were the cartographers of silence which began with a lie, later snowballing into a mountain of mythology and characters with their own CliffsNotes and paths strewn with sad poetry and despair and sadness.

When you throw yourself at a wall repeatedly, it’s okay not to know when to stop, especially if you enjoy feeling sorry for yourself.

But I had adventures to go on and mythology was too heavy to come along for that ride. I threw it away.

***

I don’t dream very much, but that year I had a vivid dream: I dreamed of a tall, slender woman with a soft voice who captivated me completely in that dream. I felt happy in that dream. I was a new person in that dream. I grew to be a better person with this figment of my dream, in my dream.

When I awoke from that dream I was with such a woman barrelling down the River Skrang in Borneo on a hare-brained plan to see tattoos and drink moonshine with the tribal elders of the tattoo artists we knew in the big city. We hit a rock and the river rushed around us as if it wanted to have us whole.

We went places without names on maps. Places without maps. We were apart a lot, but she drove 300 miles to meet me all the time and we travelled tens of thousands of miles together when we could. I ended up travelling tens of thousands of miles each time I needed to see her, which was all the time. We met in Istanbul. We made video postcards about the places we were in without each other, and we sent them to each other every other week.

Eventually we decided it was time to try to steer our way home.

I don’t even remember what home means any more. I had wandered a few hundred thousand kilometres, some of it by foot. Mostly by bus, train or taxi. Even boat.

Home was where she was. Some days it was London. Others, it was Kuala Lumpur.

I found a little house I thought we could be happy in, got a dog, and perhaps for a time we were. It feels as faraway as all of my 18-year-old memories.

***

I don’t remember when I stopped trying. I was back at the Taj Mahal again, and everything about that monument still fills me with despair. I’m never going back there ever again. I looked at her. I felt despair. I didn’t know how to fix us. I just stopped trying. Or talking. I held her hand on a cold New Year’s Eve in Jodhpur. I felt nothing. I kissed her. She did not want to kiss me back. I fell asleep with my back turned, full of anger and secret tears. It had been that way for a while now.

A few months earlier I asked her to marry me. I was met with nervous laughter and panic. In hindsight, it was a bad idea. Everyone knew she would say no.

Except me. Ever the optimist.

The computer says no.

Everybody knows it. But I didn’t get the memo. It was always no.

***

I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to be a lesbian in this society, and it all comes down to this: other people. It’s that I have to automatically assume that all of the following are bonuses, not expectations: having my love recognized for the purposes of property, tax and inheritance; attending a partner’s family functions without unnecessary outcry and suspicion; knowing that if I were to be in a medical emergency, my life partner would be legally allowed to make decisions on my behalf. In other words, to even hope for my future life partner to be perceived as anything other than a complete stranger, is going to have to be taken on other people’s good faith.

As outsiders, that’s all we have to go on: the goodwill of other people. The readiness of other people to stop thinking of us as criminals, sexual deviants and perverts. If I hold hands with a woman I love, I am rubbing it in a conservative society’s face and being too declarative about my sexual orientation; if I walk side by side with one, the man who catcalls and makes lewd comments at us bordering on sexual harassment, is just, after all, being a man and is entitled to his opinions about my body and hers.

As for someone who generally feels like there is nothing in the world I cannot do, all I can do is to keep on doing what I do best—live my life as best as I know how, be kind to old people and animals, donate to charity sometimes, avoid premature death—and dream about the day I hope to see in my lifetime: when our lovers will be our equals, and our love as deserving.