SINGAPORE Aug 21 Two central themes of Loretta
Chen's "Woman on Top" - sexuality and censorship - come at a
timely moment for her home country of Singapore.
In June a record crowd turned out for a gay rights rally in
the city-state, an event opposed by some religious groups that
want to maintain a legal ban on same-sex relationships.
Then a debate on censorship erupted after the national
library removed three children's books, including one about two
male penguins hatching an egg, following complaints they were
not "pro-family". It has since reinstated two of the books, but
placed them in the adult section.
Chen, an award-winning theatre director, uses her at times
hilarious autobiography to take readers through the highs and
lows of a life dedicated to shaking up her conservative
She made it her personal mission to challenge the status quo
after the suicide of her ex-girlfriend while she was a
post-graduate student in the United States.
Doing this can be difficult in Singapore, where the
authorities vet play scripts prior to performance, meaning Chen
sometimes changed scenes to ensure they could be performed.
Her plays have still tried to tackle challenging issues,
whether they be about an infamous Singaporean porn star or the
perceived hypocrisy of upper and middle class society in newly
independent 1960s Singapore.
Chen spoke to Reuters about her book and about debates
raging in Singapore.
Q: At 38, you are considered young to be writing an
autobiography. What made you write this book?
A: I wanted to write this book for my 24-year-old self who
was very broken and had no one to talk to about my depression.
All the self-help books out there at that time were providing an
American perspective and it was a taboo in Asia to be outpouring
grief. There is an undercurrent of repression because of
people's fears of being judged. Grief is seen as a sign of
weakness so they deal with it with immense discipline and
stoicism. Although it is uniquely Asian, I felt it is my duty to
get my story out there and, in the process, dispel the myth of
depression because if it remains stigmatised, people will not
talk about their guilt, pain and shame. I guess the straw that
broke the camel's back was when another close friend committed
suicide last year. The book became timely following the reunion
with co-author, Pearlin Siow, after two decades.
Q: You have been very candid about your sexuality and active
engagement with civic politics in Singapore, how do you think
the government's attitude towards censorship has changed?
A: When Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong first took office, I
felt we were truly opening up. For once, we did feel an air of
change but the proliferation of social media and the loss of
some (electoral) constituencies scared them (the government).
The fear of losing made them clamp down on certain things to
appease voters. It is almost like a defensive mechanism where it
kicks in and becomes more protective which ironically leads to
people wanting to revolt even more.
Q: What do you think of Singapore maintaining the section of
law which criminalises sex between men?
A: I think it is arcane. If Singapore were to liberalise
homosexuality laws, it would send a signal that we are opening
up. The removal of the arcane law will send a signal that we are
ready to listen and ready to accept and be open. That, to me, is
important because it applies to racial tolerance as well. It is
not just homosexuality.
Q. Can Singapore maintain censorship rules and become an
Asian hub of arts and culture?
A: Singapore is living a dual identity with censorship. On
one hand, Singapore wants to promote herself as a liberal,
cosmopolitan, accepting city but with that comes dissent and a
proliferation of voices which I think we are not ready for yet.
As a result, we put in more barriers and barricades. The
government wants the liberty and the sexiness of what a true
democracy is but on the other hand, economic performance
pressures often compel them to use an iron-fist approach. This
has resulted in a lot of insidious censorship and
self-censorship that hinders the progress of a mature democracy,
including the developing arts scene.
(Reporting By Caroline Ng; Editing by Rachel Armstrong and