three pairs of lovers with space



The island of Singapore was sparsely inhabited by about a thousand Malays until the British established a trading post there in 1819, leading to its cession to Great Britain by the Sultan of Johor in 1824. The population grew rapidly through immigration, especially of Chinese, who were the largest ethnic group by 1826.

The stage might have been set for cultural conflict over Greek love between the British rulers, who imported their legal and social intolerance of all male homosexuality, and the largely Chinese population, whose openness to boy-love in their homeland was greatly exacerbated in Singapore by the initial scarcity of females among the immigrants.[1]

Together with Penang and Malacca, Singapore formed the Straits Settlements, which were administered as part of British India until 1867. Therefore the Indian Penal Code, which took effect on 1 January 1862 and whose article 377 criminalised “carnal intercourse against the order of nature”, including male homosexual penetration, applied to the Straits Settlements even after they parted ways with India. Penetration was defined in practice as being either pedication or fellatio.

In practice, however, the British seem to have made no attempt to impose their anti-homosexual mores on the Chinese majority for at least the first century of their rule. Initially, the colony was in any case lightly governed, with only twelve policemen for nearly sixty thousand inhabitants in 1850. The general lawlessness which this resulted in was indeed the main reason for the Straits Settlements being set up as a separate British crown colony in 1867. Consequently, efforts were made to control the worst behaviour of the Chinese coolies, particularly forced prostitution of women. Though, however, the practice of pederasty was known to the authorities and consciousness of its prevalence deterred them from doing more to control brothels providing a heterosexual outlet, they do not seem to have taken positive action against it.

Besides ordinary pederastic liaisons, in the last years of the nineteenth century reports of the colonial authorities found “there were about half a dozen male brothels in Singapore with about a dozen inmates, half of which were reserved for the Chinese”,[2] tiny numbers compared to those to be found at this time in the boy brothels of the great cities of China herself.

Following very slowly in British footsteps, a new section 377A was introduced to the Singapore Penal Code in 1938 to expand the prohibition of homosexual penetration to non-penetrative male homosexual acts. Between then and the Japanese take-over in 1942, there were at last seven prosecutions for homosexual acts, all resulting in convictions: at least two involved men with boys, and in the other cases the press did not mention ages.

Japanese rule meant that Greek love was no longer illegal, since the age of consent in Japan was 13, and the restoration of British rule in 1945 did not lead to a resumption of police repression.

Indian Boy, Singapore, by Lee Boon Wang, 1961

When the English journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson’s plan to move from Burma to Singapore in June 1949 became known to the British secret services who, unknown to him, were watching him for his leftist and anti-colonial sympathies and were well aware of his involvements with boys, the Security Liaison Officer in the British Embassy in Rangoon commented wryly in a warning to his counterpart in Singapore, “He appeared to be particularly attached to Chinese youths and doubtless will enjoy his stay in Singapore.” Davidson did indeed enjoy his stays there over the succeeding three years, as he recalled in his memoirs, admitting amongst other naughtinesses that he took Somo, a beautiful local Indian boy, “nearly everywhere. I confess I went a bit far with Somo; I even took him, almost flauntingly, into the suburban-minded Singapore Cricket Club.” But though, when he lost his job with the Observer newspaper, he worried (wrongly) that it was because of “my indiscretions in Singapore”, and the local Special Intelligence Far East had noted that “the Special Branch kept him under observation”, there seems to have been no question in anyone’s mind that what was termed his “degeneracy” might be grounds for his getting into trouble and thus being conveniently removed from the political scene.[3]

Similarly, Anthony Bacon, a British Royal Air Force pilot stationed in Singapore during the 1960s, who had liaisons with European boys there, recalled in his memoirs that "the magical combination of single men and sun-browned European boys resulted in many relationships and there were a few scandals where the men became careless or greedy; but there were never any prosecutions." Men caught were instead sent home or posted somewhere nasty.

In their study Boys for Sale. A Sociological Study of Boy Prostitution (New York, 1969), Dennis Drew & Jonathan Drake devoted two short paragraphs to the phenomenon in Singapore:

In his autobiography, Michael Davidson tells of taking a straight-laced friend to a Singapore “cafe” where there were boy prostitutes of various ages and races. The stuffy Englishman promptly “fell hard” for one of the boys and went to bed with him, much to his later embarrassment. Davidson also tells of locations in the city where amateur prostitutes function.

As a British possession, Singapore, like Hong Kong, has been kept surprisingly free of organized prostitution. Since independence, some of the clandestine, Chinese-operated prostitution has come a bit more into the open but fierce Chinese pride makes it almost more difficult than ever for a foreigner, especially a European, to take advantage of it.

Towards the end of the 20th century, by when the authoritarian government of the newly rich and prudish little country was claiming “Asian values” supposedly incompatible with homosexuality as the key to its economic success, the police began to clamp down on open expressions of it. Though, however, all male homosexual acts remained illegal in the 21st century, Singapore was too integrated into global culture to sustain being so out-of-step and the law was no longer enforced against gays, whilst pederastic acts were increasingly marked out for especially cruel punishment, with caning as well as long imprisonment both mandatory for those caught in consensual acts with boys under 14 and sometimes inflicted where the boys were as old as 17.


[1] This imbalance was most acute in the early years, but even as late as the 1891, the census showed 184,241 Chinese males versus 43,748 females. A report to the British Parliament noted that among “household servants in Singapore (with the exception of ayahs)” the ratio was “70 to 1, a most unnatural proportion”, a result of which was “the common practice of unnatural vice.”(Ceylon, Hong Kong and Straits Settlements. Correspondence Regarding the Measures to be Adopted for Checking the Spread of Venerea Disease, September 1899, p. 47).

[2] Ronald Hyam, Empire and Sexuality (Manchester University Press, 1990) pp. 145 and 154, citing various reports from 1883 to 1899.

[3] See especially the memos on him in National Archives KV2/2975/16 and 18, and KV2/2976.

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