If it isn’t LGBTQ+, it isn’t news
Drag shows happen in Singapore. That’s not news. Kumar is more familiar (and loved) by the Singapore public than Ru Paul.
So why did a drag show on the 10th anniversary of the Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for Contemporary Art (NTU CCA) make news?
We think journalistic activism sought to get clicks at the expense of truth.
Originally, the headline of a 30 September 2023 TODAY article (since amended) read “LGBTQ-themed arts performances in public spaces in line with the times: National Arts Council chief”.
An authoritative statement by a semi-governing body on a controversial issue screams “important”. The full picture is much less exciting, – just another drag show at Art Exhibition.
In response to the article and its controversial headline, the National Arts Council (NAC) asked TODAY for amendments to the article which has since devolved into a peculiar exchange between TODAY and the NAC, including the aforementioned article amendments, an NAC claim of “misreporting,” and a rebuttal from TODAY featuring the transcript, urging readers to “judge for themselves”.
These be fighting words.
The transcript suggests that the questioning made broad assumptions, implying the NTU CCA event represented both “public” and “educational” spaces. However, the “public” of a Gilman Barracks Art Exhibition on a Friday night differs from the “public” of Tiong Bahru Plaza on a Saturday afternoon. Similarly, the “public” at a Tanjong Pagar pub on Saturday night and the “public” in Marina Square on the same night are distinct.
The article, however, doesn’t clarify what the reporter or the NAC chief meant by “public,” and this precise vagueness is ideal for generating clicks, as TODAY knows full well that most readers would interpret “public” in its broadest sense.
“Tongue-tied” CEO, and no change in policies
NAC chief executive officer Low Eng Teong was apparently – to quote Bertha Henson – “caught tongue-tied” when asked about the drag performance and whether there will be more LGBTQ-themed art pieces in the mainstream and institutional spaces.
While the original article reported Low as saying that the public can expect art performances that touch on LGBTQ+ themes, NAC said in its clarification that the article “misreports” the comments and was “misleading” in attributing the comments to him.
NAC reiterated that it takes “a measured and calibrated approach” to performances which “touch on issues that are not widely accepted as the norms of our broader society, or might serve to create conflict or misunderstanding in our multicultural and multi-religious society”.
“We have consistently taken the position that whilst we celebrate and welcome diversity of expressions as well as embrace open and balanced dialogues in the arts, it is also important that we have regard to the overall views of all of society, and strive to maintain social cohesion and stability. NAC seeks to promote art which achieves this. This has been NAC’s consistent position and there is no change to the guidelines in NAC’s policies,” wrote NAC.
Low was evidently caught by surprise by the journalists questions; he had not even watched the actual drag performance. The transcript ends off with Low trying to direct the journalist on to Professor Ute Meta Bauer – founder of NTU CCA – who would be in a better position to answer questions about it being held at NTU CCA because “she’s in the academic scene”.
The Big Nothingburger: An Instance of Clickbait or Activist Journalism?
It’s puzzling that the questioning focused solely on the significance of a drag show during NTU CCA’s anniversary, especially when “selected artists and collectives consistently push boundaries, challenge norms, and create thought-provoking experiences” on presumably a wider range of acts other than what the journalist’s questions zoomed in on.
TODAY’s focus suggests that other aspects of NTU CCA’s history and achievements simply aren’t newsworthy. It also suggests that the other works part of the showcase were not worth even a cursory mention. Unfortunately, readers received scant details about the event, such as attendee numbers, other performances, displayed art pieces, or notable guests – you know, things that event coverage usually focuses on.
The emphasis on the drag show might be a clickbait strategy, given the sensitivity of LGBTQ issues in Singapore, which guarantees clicks.
Nonetheless, it adds to the many instances where TODAY has headlined drag performances, in its reports and other media.
- In 2014, TODAY publicised “Priscilla – Queen Of The Desert”, referring to it as “the famous musical based on the 1994 movie about two drag queens and a transgender woman on a road trip through Australia”. It added that it was “one fabulous mix tape experience, with songs by gay icons Village People, Gloria Gaynor, Charlene and more”.
- Back in 2015, TODAY featured a full-length report on Eugene Tan, a drag queen who goes by the stage name Becca D’Bus. Noting the time when drag show venue Boom Boom Room closed in 2005, he said: “A lot of things have changed since. Ten years ago, Singapore didn’t have IndigNation (the annual LGBT Pride event) and Pink Dot, and the world didn’t have RuPaul’s Drag Race (a reality television show). Each of those have impacted how we think of queerness, drag and gay men. And there has been little space to explore what that is.”
In an interview with Reuters, Tan would later name TODAY as one of the mainstream media outlets that “prominently feature drag queens”.
- In 2020, TODAY included in its list of “Best Countdown Parties” Mirror Ball, “with drag queen Mona Kee Kee and her squad of burlesque dancers who will be counting you down into the New Year”.
- Another notable mention is the upcoming October session of “TODAY Goes Live 2023” titled “Understanding Gender Identity & Building a More Inclusive Future”. Its panellists are a drag artiste and a youth counsellor from T Project, as well as a senior journalist from TODAY. Judging from the panel, we expect a very balanced take on “gender identity” indeed.
What’s Best for Society?
We don’t know why TODAY loves drag, but this pushback from a mainstream news source is news. After all, there aren’t many examples of media releasing full transcripts like this to passive aggressively contradict a statutory board.
In 1999, then-Minister for Home Affairs, Wong Kan Seng, cautioned against “sensational reporting” and “crusading journalism” that strays from impartiality and objectivity. He believed such practices could erode public trust. He further noted that even subtle nuances in coverage, or reports missing crucial facts, might unintentionally skew public perception of our society’s key institutions.
Journalism holds a pivotal role in society. Beyond just presenting facts, it showcases a spectrum of perspectives on various societal issues. By keeping the public informed of the latest developments and introducing them to diverse viewpoints, journalism fosters democracy and encourages civic participation.
However, if journalists prioritize sensationalism or push specific agendas, does that serve journalism’s true purpose?
We believe it doesn’t, and many Singaporeans would likely concur.