The Story of Paerin
As the public face of Singapore’s Pink Dot pride event, Paerin Choa has played a highly visible role as an activist and a representative of the LGBT community over the past decade. This past week, we sat down with Paerin for a little chat about the inner workings of the biggest LGBT event in the country, what inspired him to get involved, what he has learned over the years and his hopes for the future.
Hi Paerin! Why don’t we start by sharing a bit about yourself and the work you do for the LGBT community in Singapore?
I have been part of the Pink Dot (PD) organising committee for the past 8 years. We’re a flat hierarchy comprised entirely out of volunteers, and we all do this outside our day jobs. Since I’m a lawyer by trade, I handle all the legal aspects of the campaign. I am also the spokesperson for Pink Dot; I handle media interviews and corporate relations with the help of another committee member.
So what was the impetus for starting Pink Dot?
Back in 2009, it really all started when the rules were relaxed surrounding the use of Hong Lim Park, also known as Speakers’ Corner. You had to get a police permit before you could even make a speech there.
What do you think has contributed to the success of Pink Dot so far?
Pink Dot has definitely started, and also benefitted from, a lot of conversations. Back in 2009, anything to do with the LGBT community was essentially taboo. We had, and still have, MDA guidelines for mainstream media that censor any content that glamourises or justifies homosexual “lifestyles”. You won’t see any depictions of an LGBT person who is productive in society, who has family support, who’s happy on TV or in the newspaper. Hence, we made our own videos, showing people that LGBT people aren’t all sad and lonely. Pink Dot has definitely benefitted from social media. We used it as a means to communicate and since social media became really popular that year, people got to hear about it. They came to the event and in turn spread the word to their friends as well. As Pink Dot got bigger, the mainstream press had to pay attention.
What kinds of strategies or methods did you use to start the ball rolling when it came to word-of-mouth?
Honestly, we didn’t expect Pink Dot to grow this big so quickly. In our 1st year, we thought it would take 10 years for us to fill the park. That happened by the 3rd year. In terms of strategies, we made use of what was available then and then allowed the community to take over from there. We really covered all the social media platforms that we could.
Can you tell us a bit about what you’ve learnt through all these years of being a spokesperson for Pink Dot? How has that been like for you?
It has been a good experience actually. Agreeing to be a spokesperson really meant that I had to come out in public, and I think that was the first thing about it that really affected me. This was some eight years ago and it was really new to me, but everything worked out in the end. I think being this high-profile just means that we have to be on our toes at all times. We have to understand not only what we’re doing but also what’s happening around us and what the ground sentiment is. It’s really important for us to be in touch with issues that matter.
I notice you’ve mentioned 2011 a few times now and I suppose you’d consider that a significant year in terms of the change that took place and how receptive people were to discussions about LGBT issues in Singapore. How would you compare and contrast the sentiment on the ground before and after 2011?
I’ve seen a few turning points in the evolution of PD. The people that came in 2009 were very brave people. 2011 was when we saw ten thousand people take part. Our video resonated with people and went viral. In 2014, we faced the biggest opposition ever with the Wear White campaign. Every newspaper article was talking about pink vs. white and the rise of the opposition camp. We actually got the most pre-event media coverage from both local and foreign media as a result.
So you mentioned that opposition emerged in 2014. How has PD dealt with that?
We made it a point to not attack the opposition. We’ve always had detractors, even from Year 1, especially among the religious fundamentalists. They are a small group of people, but they got a bit more organised. We made it a point not to retaliate directly. There are many LGBT people who are religious who would be caught in between. Supporting LGBT rights does not mean being against family values. Families should be encouraged to accept each and every member within the family regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Any campaign or any propaganda that seeks to exclude people based on any measure is detrimental to the family unit.
What advice would you give to new activists looking to engage in community organising? How do we strike a balance between online and offline activism?
We don’t have to behave angrily. If you come to Pink Dot, you’ll realise it’s actually a very fun, very lively and very loving event to be in. Our messaging is very positive and inclusive such that people can identify with it.
I think the term “activist” is a matter of doing what is right. Activism can be about opening minds and creating atmospheres where acceptance can be more prevalent.
What do you hope Pink Dot will look like in 5 years?
Honestly, I hope that one day there won’t be a need for Pink Dot anymore. PD set out to change attitudes and provide a platform where LGBT people can be heard. We ask people to do something to make this world a better place, but how great would it be if people just did that of their own accord? Until that happens, we have to keep working.
I do see a shift, and that’s encouraging. I strongly believe that over time, things can only get better. We must have hope.
Take a stand towards freedom, love and equality with Pink Dot Singapore at Hong Lim Park on Saturday, June 4. If you are a Singaporean citizen or PR, take a placard and write your message of love and support.