The Accidental Activist: Ivan Tan takes on Singapore’s Anti-Gay Law Ivan Tan Eng Hong and Lee Anthony Shaw (Singapore)
Lee Anthony Shaw interviews Ivan Tan on the worst day of Ivan’s life. But where it leads may surprise the reader, as it affirmed for Ivan that God was always with him, and that the Universe can use our lives for powerful purposes, if we allow it to.
On March 9th 2010, Ivan was arrested after he had been caught by police in an intimate act in a public place, a public restroom stall to be exact. As in most countries, this is an offence in Singapore, under section 294 of the Penal Code, which prohibits any obscene act in a public place.
Only Ivan wasn’t arrested under section 294 of the Penal Code. He was arrested for being gay and charged under section 377A. The Anti-Gay Law
Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code is a law that prohibits “any act of gross indecency” between men. What constitutes such an act is not defined. It could be hand-holding or kissing. The law prohibits these acts whether they are done in public or private.
The law is so bad, that all three Prime Ministers who have served since Singapore’s independence have spoken against the anti-gay rhetoric that sustains it. The father of Singapore, former PM Lee Kwan Yew, stated in Hard Truths to Keep Singapore Going, “Homosexuality will eventually be accepted... It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.” His son, PM Lee Hsing Loong declared in 2007, that while his Parliament had determined that statute 377A would stay on the books, it “need not and will not be proactively enforced.”
Ivan’s arrest was proof that 377A was being enforced and that intimacy between men was still criminalized in Singapore. The Prime Minister’s declaration was not binding, meaning that it did not stop the police from enforcing the laws as they were written.
“The day of the arrest was the lowest point of my life. I was very afraid. I was handcuffed and spent the night in jail,” Ivan recalls. In his professional work as a massage artist, actor and performance artist, Ivan sometimes wears a pair of angel wings. “In one day, I went from angel wings to handcuffs! It was a dark stain on my life. It was a dark, dark day.
“I started to pray right away, in jail, ‘Show me where You want to lead me, God, with this situation, through my own weaknesses and the temptations of my flesh. Where do You want to lead me?’” Ivan recalls.
Challenging the Law
“When I first got caught, I only knew I had committed a crime. I wasn’t thinking about my rights. I didn’t know about the laws relating to my case.”
Ivan came to be represented by an old friend, Mr M. Ravi, Singapore’s leading human rights lawyer.
“I had met Ravi many years ago. I do not even remember how I reached out to him after my arrest. I think God had a hand in this. That was the first sign that there was something greater at hand. Ravi was like an angel. He is a friend who helps to hold up my wings and I hope I help to hold up his.”
With his lawyer, Ivan made the decision to challenge the Constitutionality of his arrest under section 377A in Singapore’s High Court. First, there was the question as to why men who had intimate relations with other men were singled out and their acts criminalized, when Parliament had decriminalized acts once deemed “against the order of nature” related to all other groups of consenting adults, including women being intimate with other women, and persons engaged in heterosexual sodomy.
Next, there was the question as to whether a statute such as section 377A could even be considered to be “law” in the context of a Constitution that was supposed to protect people from arbitrary arrest and imprisonment.
The Government-Run Media
“When I first challenged section 377A, I knew it would be important. I didn’t know how big, how public, how far it would go,” Ivan remembers.
Ivan’s decision to challenge 377A, when he could have merely paid a fine and walked away, had a great personal cost. It seemed that every time Singapore’s state-controlled media covered Ivan’s case, reporters were sure to mention “oral sex in a public toilet” along with his given name. There seemed to be little effort made by these dominant media sources to explain the real questions before the Court, and the broadcast reporting has been conducted in such a way that listeners or viewers easily arrive at the conclusion that Ivan was trying to legalize sex acts in public toilets rather than his real challenge, that gay men be treated equally under the law to all other groups.
Ivan’s family has not been spared the attention either, and though they are largely supportive of him, the notoriety has been a strain on their family bonds and individual lives at times. The Power of Forgiveness
During these difficult years, Ivan adopted a mantra influenced by the work of Hawaiian therapist, Dr Ihaleakala Hew Len, who practices a healing process called ho ‘oponopono. After reading Dr Len’s work, focused on love, forgiveness and healing, in the book “Zero Limits“ by Dr Len and Dr Joe Vitale, Ivan began regularly reciting the following healing words: “Please forgive me. I’m sorry. I love you and I thank you.”
Ivan found that he had to forgive himself and sincerely ask forgiveness from others in order to move forward and sustain his public interest case. In his own words, “I had to release myself from feelings of guilt and shame, in order to put the pieces of my life back together after my arrest.”
“Self-forgiveness is very powerful—to be able to forgive others and forgive yourself. If you really forgive, you cleanse your mind; it becomes a blank slate. This is one of the most essential parts of the healing process of mankind,” Ivan believes.
Relying on Faith
Ivan has long been “out” as a gay man and he is a Christian as well, attending services at the LGBTIPAQ-friendly Free Community Church on Sundays. His faith journey began during his childhood, when he wondered into Herald Assembly of God Church, in his Chinatown neighbourhood. There, Ivan was welcomed into the congregation by a family named Chan, who taught Sunday school classes. The Chans were warm and generous people.
“The Chan family had a huge impact on my life. The bible stories they taught me—of Jonah and the Whale, the Prodigal Son—these were an enormous influence on me in creating a desire to be a good person and an example of what qualities make a kind person. The Chans also showed me a great deal of love. They cooked rice and shared it with me; they brought me to their house. They treated me like a little brother.”
A Catholic Upbringing
Ivan faced a great internal conflict when he realized as a teenager that he was definitely attracted to men and not women. He had been brought up in Catholic schools with no sex education program and no theological acceptance of gays.
“I was very tormented about how I would fit in with the church’s beliefs if I was gay. When I was in secondary school, I read about the Singapore Carmelite Monastery in the newspaper,” Ivan recalls. The Carmelite nuns live a cloistered existence and dedicate themselves to a life of prayer and contemplation. “They stay inside all day and only pray. I had the idea that I should be a nun. I knew that I could not be a priest, because I liked men. But if I were a [cloistered] nun, then I would pray all day and wouldn’t have the option of liking men.
“I went to the Carmelite monastery and talked to a nun there about my problem. She was the only nun who was allowed to speak to the public. The other nuns were hidden away. She was not able to give me any advice that I recall, but I think she just tried to be comforting and encourage me to look to God.
“I returned to the church late one night and I told God my problems. I left a rose at the doorstep. The rose symbolized love and an agreement. I meant that my issue was between God and me. It was about accepting my own journey searching for the supreme while living in a way that is down to Earth. I could continue to live my life without knowing all the answers. Since then, I have always felt connected to God and know that I could take all my problems to God.”
Staying committed to his faith and the truth of his sexual identity often seemed an impossible task over the years for Ivan, “Being a Christian was so difficult. In church, we [gay people] were told we were sinful, and that we had no faith.”
In the 1990’s, Singapore’s Church of our Saviour launched a program called “Choices Ministry,” which has the goal of restoring LGBTIPAQ persons to what the church asserted was their “God-intended sexual identity”—heterosexuality. The program was modelled after the now-defunct Exodus International gay conversion ministry in the U.S.
As a younger person, Ivan joined up for the conversion program. After two painful years of following the Choices practices to the best of his ability, there was zero change in Ivan’s sexual orientation. If he learned anything from that experience, it was that his sexual identity as a gay man was a fundamental part of his unique journey in life.
“If you are gay, that is your truth. Being out can help people to understand you. You don’t have to question what you are. If you lie about who you are, you will be tired from all the doors you will have to unlock to find your truth.”
The Long Battle of Constitutional Challenge
Ivan’s Constitutional Challenge waged on in the Singapore Courts for four years. Nothing came easy or happened as expected. In total, Ivan’s lawyer appeared before the nation’s highest court three times. Two years into the case, Ivan’s team scored a huge victory when the Court of Appeal made a decision that Ivan had standing, or an argument to make that could be heard by the Court.
There were setbacks as well on the way to Singapore’s highest court. After the victory of the standing decision in Ivan’s case, a gay couple, Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee, filed a challenge in the High Court against 377A as well. They had determined that they, too, had standing before the Court as a result of the decision that Ivan had received.
Gary and Kenneth’s case was scheduled ahead of Ivan’s in the Court calendar. After all the sacrifice— Ivan’s loss of privacy and his lawyer’s hundreds of hours of pro bono work—it seemed certain at that point that Ivan’s case might be held back or set-aside while the new petitioners proceeded to the Court of Appeal ahead of him.
Ivan and Ravi knew that it was critical that his case continue and that the Court hear arguments against section 377A from a party who had standing and who had actually been arrested under the statute. Ravi went to the Supreme Court again to argue that the two party’s hearings should be joined and heard together and thankfully, the justices agreed.
Acceptance and Prayer
The legal matters of Ivan’s case were complex and there were so many aspects of the legal proceedings that he had no control over. Each time a matter went to the judge’s chambers, Ivan worried. He felt that he himself was being judged, because the case was so personal to him and personal in nature. He also held a serious concern that he could face enormous Court costs against him if his case failed and if the Court did not make a decision against such costs. On the morning that his case went before the High Court judge in a closed hearing, Ivan found his way back to the Carmelite Monastery to say another prayer.
“I felt like my dignity, rights and my soul were in this fight,” Ivan remembers. “I went to the church and knelt down to make a prayer with my best intentions, then I opened my hands and blew my prayer out into the universe. I believe that the energy that we put into things matters; it has influence. On that day, it was the only influence I could have on the outcome of my case.”
No Man is An Island
“I had no idea on the day that I committed that offence, that something good could from it, that could lead to a more humane world that I want to live in. I never, ever imagined that people would be speaking about my case in the halls of Parliament, or that such a big issue would go before the Supreme Court,” Ivan recalls in wonderment. “It is very humbling. For me, what was a sad, scary day, a serious low point in my life, gave rise to a something that is so much bigger than me.”
Ivan was not alone in his challenge of section 377A. There were lawyers, journalists, members of the LGBTIPAQ community and their family members who came forward to assist in Ivan’s case through research, writing or support services.
Ivan took inspiration from movements of growing advocacy for gay rights around the world, from United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki Moon’s leadership of a global campaign for LGBT rights to Pope Francis calling for greater inclusiveness of gay Catholics.
“I have so many people to thank, even people who I will never meet! Across the world, there is an energy towards tolerance and acceptance surfacing like huge tsunami wave.”
At the Apex Court
On the 14th and 15th of July 2014, lawyers from both parties argued their clients’ cases before the Court. Gary’s and Kenneth’s team focused on the issue of inequality in discriminating exclusively against men involved intimately with other men. Ravi dealt with the right to life and liberty, and that section 377A was contrary to the fundamental laws of natural justice—a universal concept of the rights we are all afforded—and therefore could not be considered lawful.
“It is worth paying the price, even if the judgement is against me,” Ivan recognized, prior to the release of the Court’s decision. “I feel I have come before God in the lowest moment in my life to have him shine the light for me. I allowed myself to take the first step and trust the universe. I think this is one of the greatest steps I have ever encountered in my life. I am answerable only to God, as Mother Teresa said. God is the only one who sees my 24 hours exactly, and knows what has happened in my life. Even the judge will have to answer to God. It doesn’t matter whether I am right or wrong, God sees my struggles, pain, hurt. He sees everything that I feel about life, my high points and low points.”
On the 29th of October 2014, the Court released its written judgement in the case. In a 107-page decision, the Court determined that section 377A had not infringed the fundamental liberties of Ivan, Kenneth or Gary. They found that the element of discrimination in the law was justified. In their eyes, the Parliament sought to discourage intimacy between males and that is why the law selects to penalize only males for “acts against the order of nature”.
When it came to the question of whether it is Constitutional to maintain a law with such an aim, the Court refused to reach a decision. The judgement stated that the Court could not consider facts that went beyond very narrowly defined “legal issues.” The justices went so far as to state that certain grounds of discrimination are not explicitly prohibited by the Constitution, and these include gender and sexual orientation.
The office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights immediately expressed their disappointment in the Court’s failure to overturn section 377A, which they have determined to be in violation of “a host of human rights guaranteed by international law, including the right to privacy, the right to freedom from discrimination and the right to freedom from arbitrary arrest and detention including protection for sexual orientation and gender equality.”
After reflecting on what has been a devastating decision, not only for the LGBTIPAQ community, but also for human rights generally in Singapore, Ivan takes some comfort in the fact that taking this case to its conclusion has really pushed the public discourse on gay rights in Singapore.
He is disappointed in the judgement, but Ivan practices some of the spiritual lessons he has learned along the way to avoid harbouring any resentments.
“I choose to forgive and free the judiciary [from my mind] who passed this judgement on me. I choose to forgive them in my heart and thank the universe for the lessons that they have given to my life. Because I want to be free.” The Road Ahead
These days Ivan is feeling a sense of relief to know that this part of his life, defined by a closely watched court proceeding, has come to a close. He feels liberated and seems much more at ease.
“The darkest secret of my life has been broadcast to the world, so I have nothing more to hide from. I don’t think there is anything else that people would be curious about in my life,” Ivan laughs. “So I am set free. I can breathe. I am looking forward to the next chapter of my life.”
“I would like to travel since the case is behind me, and to volunteer. I’ve got a pair of hands to serve, I want to keep on learning, and to keep on bringing healing words into my life and other people’s lives.”
From a prayer in jail to a crusade for LGBTIPAQ rights, Ivan’s journey has already taken him beyond his expectations and to the present, where he is grateful for his experience and optimistic about the future.
 Joe Vitale and Ihaleakala Hew Len, Zero Limits: The Secret Hawaiian System for Wealth, Health, Peace, and More (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons), 2007.  “Press Briefing Notes on Singapore and Tunisia,” Rupert Colville, Spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Geneva, 31 October 2014. http://www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15242&LangID=E#sthash.bYSQphsC.dpuf
Photo credit: Ivan Tan
Ivan Tan is a multi-talented Singaporean, who works as a massage therapist, actor, talent agent and performance artist. Through his company JES Penguin, Ivan works as a professional MC and entertainer for parties. He also recruits actors, musicians, models, voice-over artists and translators as a talent agent and service agent for professional translation. Ivan speaks three languages and has years of experience as a Free Individual Traveller tour guide. In his free time, Ivan volunteers his skills as a massage therapist to underserved groups.