Singapore was ready to have a big year in 2015. Aug 9, 2015 marked the 50th anniversary of the island state’s formation, an occasion that inspired guidebook giant Lonely Planet to name it the world’s top country to visit in 2015. Yet it has also been a year of national mourning, with the passing of Singapore’s first prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, on March 23. Lee was also the father of Singapore’s current PM, Lee Hsien Loong.
In fact, it was Lee Hsien Loong who, in June 2015, eagerly reminded progressive critics that “There are gay groups in Singapore, there are gay people in Singapore and they have a place to stay here and we let them live their own lives. And we do not harass them or discriminate against them.”
Singapore’s legal code tells a slightly different story: male homosexuality remains a crime under Section 377A; LGBT defence force personnel are banned from serving in “sensitive” units, and anti-discrimination laws, as well as recognition for same-sex couples, are completely off the table for the foreseeable future.
Yet there’s also some truth to Lee’s claim. Section 377A has not been enforced in years, and seemingly remains on the books to appease the country’s influential Christian organisations. Pink Dot SG, the latest incarnation of Singapore’s main LGBT community event, has seen an increased attendance every year since its 2009 inception, with 26,000 partygoers dolling up in pink in June 2014. Throughout the rest of the year, bars, nightclubs and even saunas continue to operate unhindered, with the greatest concentration found in the touristy Chinatown district. Forward-thinking locals are eager to promote their city as Southeast Asia’s new hotspot for LGBT nightlife — particularly when the conversation turns to its traditional rival, Bangkok.
While Singapore’s queer nightlife still falls a long way short of its Thai counterpart, it has grown rapidly, encouraged by the country’s eagerness to be seen as Asia’s most advanced society. The government’s self-declared “pragmatic” view of its LGBT community has allowed a sizeable gay nightlife hub to spring up along Neil Road.
Perhaps the most notable address on Singapore’s rainbow road is the Blue Spin trinity of May Wong’s Cafe, Tantric and Backstage Bar. As its name suggests, Backstage should please theatre lovers with its Broadway-inspired decor, opening early to provide a cozy first stop on your night out. Tantric’s main attraction is its large, relaxed outdoor area, while May Wong’s is a plush, upscale homage to Hollywood’s first Chinese-American star, attracting a slightly more sophisticated crowd. The three bars are linked due to their shared credit for creating the infamous Blue Spin cocktail. Looking like something used to power the ships on Star Trek, this concoction’s list of ingredients is no less intimidating. In-house legend claims it was an offended bartender’s response to a customer complaining about a weak Long Island Iced Tea. While it might be hard to verify that story, it’s a steely visitor who’ll be able to retell it after finishing one.
Other bars of note along the strip include Out Bar and DYMK (Does Your Mother Know), named with a cheeky nod to Singapore’s conservative reputation. Nightclub Taboo offers the kind of mainstream flash commonly seen in more established gay districts. Yet the relative youth and underground nature of Singapore’s gay scene brings a palpable energy to the party. There are few genuine surprises in this infamously well-ordered country, and its queer scene, beyond its frank openness, is no exception. Still, LGBT travellers looking for nightlife certainly won’t be bored. That is, if they’re willing to pay for it.
Singapore can be a traveller’s bargain in many respects. Transport and taxis are affordable, street food is cheap and delicious, and many of the top attractions — such as the Singapore Zoo or the island’s spectacular gardens — are reasonably priced or free. But you’ll be grateful for those savings when it comes to accommodation and booze. Room rates are comparable to western cities, and drinking can be a rude shock to the budget, thanks to the government’s infamous “sin” taxes. In the Neil Street bars, $12 is around standard for a basic drink, while cocktails can run anywhere from $14 to $20. Still, if you’re up to the challenge, the double shots at the Blue Spin trio can help dull the pain — in every respect. Oh, and set aside $28 per drink if you plan on trying the famous Singapore Sling at Raffles.
Singapore may be in no hurry to shake its rigorously organised reputation. But those who arrive expecting a staid, joyless police state will quickly discover a side of the city that’s keen to subvert expectations.