Pragmatic Resistance, Law, and Social Movements in Authoritarian States: The Case of Gay Collective Action in Singapore

By Chua, Lynette J. | Law & Society Review, December 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Pragmatic Resistance, Law, and Social Movements in Authoritarian States: The Case of Gay Collective Action in Singapore


Chua, Lynette J., Law & Society Review


This article draws from a qualitative study of Singapore's gay movement to analyze how gay organizing occurs in authoritarian states, and where and how law matters. Singapore's gay activists engage in "strategic adaptation" to deploy a strategy of pragmatic resistance that involves an interplay among legal restrictions and cultural norms. Balancing the movement's survival with its advancement, they shun direct confrontation, and avoid being seen as a threat to the existing political order. As legal restrictions and as a source of legitimacy, law correspondingly oppresses sexual conduct and civil-political liberties, and culturally delegitimizes dissent. However, when activists mount pragmatic resistance at and through law, it also matters as a source of contestation. Further, law matters as a trade-offbetween reifying the existing order in exchange for survival and immediate gains. Yet, by treating law as purely tactical, these activists arguably end up de-centering law, being pragmatically unconcerned with whether they are ideologically challenging or being co-opted by it.

How does collective mobilization over gay issues occur in societies where civil-political rights are less available and lack cultural resonance compared to Western liberal democracies? Where and how does law matter? Law and society scholarship has focused on the role of rights in relation to social movements (see, e.g., Andersen 2005; McCann 1994; Rosenberg 2008), but lacks systematic exploration of the relationship between law and social movements in contexts outside Western liberal democracies. Particularly in repressive regimes where civil-political rights are curtailed, violated, or lack cultural resonance (Massoud 2011), social movements may not be able to mobilize rights the way their counterparts in Western liberal democracies can and do. Hence, collective mobilization may develop in alternative forms (Davenport 2005), but may elude scholars' conventional focus on rights-based strategies.

My in-depth, qualitative study of the gay movement in Singapore offers a nuanced analysis of the social processes of collective mobilization in such a society. To ensure their movement's survival as well as its progress, gay activists in Singapore adapt a strategy of pragmatic resistance. The result is a strategic dance (McCammon et al. 2008) that involves interplay among legal restrictions and cultural norms. Activists adjust their tactics according to changes in formal law and cultural norms, and push the limits of those norms while simultaneously adhering to them. Although they aspire toward legal reform, they refrain from tactics that directly confront the state, such as street protests, and avoid being seen as a threat to existing formal arrangements of power.

My study builds on the scholarship on gay mobilization in non-democratic societies, transnational movements and human rights discourses, the social control of protest, and legal resistance. The social processes of Singapore's gay movement demonstrate how an authoritarian state prominently influences movement strategy and tactics. Such dominance does not stem from rulers' opposition to homosexuality as a moral problem per se, however. Rather, it concerns the maintenance of existing power, which feels insecure when faced with grassroots organization and demands (Boudreau 2005), so much so that the state and ruling party willingly sacrifice some degree of international legitimacy in order to maintain domestic hegemony.

In its formal or rule-bound character, law appears as restrictions on homosexual conduct and expression, and curtailments of civil-political rights. It also appears in a cultural form as a legitimizing source. Obedience to formal law earns cultural legitimacy, whereas disobedience loses it. Law, therefore, matters in multiple ways. First, it is a source of oppression. Legal restrictions prohibit certain sexual conduct, as well as dissent and mobilization. Because its oppression does not occur through physical violence, but as discipline (Foucault 1977) and channeling (Earl 2006), it is less detectable, sometimes even accepted as normal or legitimate. …

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