An advertising executive, activist and fundraiser, Alan Seah is one of the most prominent voices advocating for LGBT+ inclusion in Singapore. In 2007, he helped organize the Repeal 377A campaign, and in 2009 he was a member of the organizing committee for the first PinkDot.SG, which he still helps to lead. Alan has been an ally of Out Leadership in the region for many years, and spoke at our Summit in Hong Kong in 2016.
In July 2018, Alan and his husband Laurindo were photographed for Out in Singapore, with whom they shared that they’re “on a mission to make the world a more inclusive place for all, by encouraging more businesses and services to be inclusive of people with disabilities, single mothers, diverse women and LGBTQ. We are thrilled to… share our story and let the world know that hope is alive and well in Singapore.”
Please describe how and when you first knew you were LGBT+:
I’ve always been gay. I can’t remember if it was Tarzan or Batman who was my ‘first love’ when I was a boy.
In 25 words, describe how you came out:
I first came out when I was 17, whilst in junior college. I had a group of friends whom I felt very close to (indeed, we still hang out today, 38 years later). I came out to one of them and it felt so good that I came out to them all. Every one of them was supportive – which I’ve come to realize was pretty amazing given the fact that this was Singapore, back in 1980, and in a Catholic school to boot. So yes, I’m very lucky. I wouldn’t be the gay man I am today without that early love and support from my friends.
How has being openly gay at work influenced your leadership approach and style?
It’s hard to say if my sexual orientation has influenced my leadership approach and/or style at work. My sexuality orientation has shaped my personality of course. But I wouldn’t dare, and couldn’t definitively say that I am (for example) more sensitive to disadvantaged minorities, simply because I am a member of one. That said, I think that being openly gay man and known gay activist and being in a relatively senior position at my company makes me a bit of a role model for some in my company and industry, whether I like it or not. And that it’s important then to try one’s best to live up to those expectations.
Who are your role models?
There are many. But Ian McKellen stands out. He came to Singapore and was interviewed live on a breakfast show on TV. When asked if there was anything he’d like to do whilst in Singapore, he said he’d like to go to a gay bar, to which his interviewers hilariously didn’t know how to deal with/answer. Days later, I ended up meeting Sir Ian through my friends in the theatre, and so of course we brought him to a gay club where he ended up dancing on a podium. Sir Ian is inspiring because while he’s obviously a passionate gay activist, he approaches that role with a good dose of good humour and fair share of mischief, which I realize is really important. He’s also shown me that that no matter one’s age, should the spirit move you, and/or an empty podium beckons, just get up and dance!
If you could have any job other than the one you have now, it would be:
I have spent almost all of my professional life in the advertising world. It’s been a life spent marketing consumer goods and services. But every now and then you get to ‘sell’ a good cause, which can be incredibly rewarding. I would like to do more of the latter and less of the former. Volunteering my time and energy to causes I believe in and applying my skills in those areas helps me achieve that goal.
The most important thing I have learned from a boss is:
Be as straightforward and clear as you can be.
The most important thing I have learned from an employee is:
Be as straightforward and clear as you can be.
If I could tell someone who is graduating from college this year one thing I’ve learned, it would be:
Your education is far from over. Find yourself a great mentor, someone whose achievements you admire. Go work for them, even if it’s for next to nothing.
A time a sponsor helped me take my next step:
When we first started Pink Dot in 2009, we never thought we could bring a sponsor onboard – given that the LGBTQ issue was still so taboo, and that the event would be restricted to the one park in Singapore where people could gather without a license from the authorities, and considered by most to be a protest (public protest is anathema to most Singaporeans).
But Google stepped forward in 2011 and offered to help. That was groundbreaking and opened the gates for a slew of other amazing companies to step forward. When the government introduced new rules that prevented ‘foreign’ companies from supporting Pink Dot 2017 at this one park (at that point, the list of ‘foreign’ sponsors included Google, Twitter, Facebook, Barclays, JP Morgan, Goldman Sachs, BP, GE, Bloomberg, NBCUniversal, Microsoft, Apple, Visa & Clifford Chance) 120 local companies – mostly SMEs – then stepped forward to keep us alive.
I’d like to salute the multinationals, led by Google, for being brave enough to help us push the needle – both in terms of financial support and helping us normalize such support for LGBTQ in Singapore for the 6 years that they could – but also the small and medium sized local companies who then charged in to our rescue after, and in so doing showed the country and our leaders that support for our cause ran deeper and wider than most imagined.
The best interview question I have ever heard is:
There’s no single one but the Proust Questionnaire, popularized by Vanity Fair, is a great set of questions that reveal a lot.
My most important Ally is:
My husband, because his moral compass, conviction and bravery never fail to inspire me.
My first job was:
Junior Art Director, Saatchi & Saatchi, New York
The most tantalizing leadership opportunity I see in the world right now is:
The person or team that removes President Trump from office, hopefully together with all the cronies he brought with him to Washington. There would be so much damage to be undone.
The best piece of advice I ever received was:
Learn how to listen.
My motto is:
The next big thing for the global LGBT+ community is:
I’m wary of us focusing on just ‘one big thing’. The community faces so many disparate problems across the globe. In Singapore for example, colonial-era law Section 377A, which criminalizes intimacy between men, is still on the books. While the Government says they won’t enforce it, the trickle down effects of it are crippling: Positive portrayals of LGBTQ in mainstream media are censored, LGBTQ organisations are unable to register as legal/official entities, sex education in schools and safer sex education for gay men is hampered and LGBTQ in the workplace aren’t protected from discrimination, just to name a few. It’s a unique situation that only Singapore faces.
The next big step for me in my career could be:
The advertising industry is undergoing massive evolution and disruption and keeping up and adapting keeps things very exciting. When I think of ‘my career’, I do also think beyond my work in the advertising industry, but also my volunteer advocacy work. Apart from my continued involvement with Pink Dot, I’ve just joined the board of directors of the Singapore International Film Festival. I hope to be able to contribute to their mission but also to learn a great deal from working with a mature and professionalized non-profit organisation.
If you were planning a dinner party and could invite any five people from history, who would they be, and why?
Oscar Wilde, Leslie Cheung, Harvey Milk, Elizabeth Bishop and my dear late friend fashion designer Sonny San (both because he was always the life of the party, and I miss him!).
What would be the opening song in a movie about your life, and why?
John Cage’s 4’33” … trick answer for a question that I can’t find an answer for.
What is a song you associate with coming out?
Diana Ross’ ‘I’m Coming Out’ was released in 1980, the year I actually came out. Kismet!
The six things I could never live without are:
Apart from the essentials like Love, Sex, Food, Home & Money, I’d say a firm mattress, good eyeglass frames, holidays with good friends, a great internet connection, Japanese bidet toilet seats and Netflix.
My favorite vacation destination is:
A place I haven’t been to before.
The three books I would take to a deserted island are:
A collection of Elizabeth Bishop’s poems, EM Forster’s Maurice, Mishima’s Confessions Of A Mask