On October 23, the Singapore government struck down Article 377 of its Penal Code, which prohibited anal and oral sex between consenting adult heterosexuals, but made a decision to retain Article 377A, criminalizing sex between men.
The change came as part of the biggest revision to Singapore’s Penal Code in over 20 years.
Advocates for the repeal of Article 377A argued that lifting legal sanctions against same-sex relationships would send a message that Singapore did not tolerate homophobia; that it was a modern state, free from the British legacy of Article 377 and Article 377A. But opponents of the repeal argued that Singapore society is too conservative and not ready to accept homosexuality.
While the outcome was not unexpected, gay rights advocates in Singapore nonetheless found the very fact that same-sex relationships were discussed in a public forum to be significant. As lesbian activist Eileena Lee wrote, “I never thought I would live to see the day that this is debated openly in Singapore….This is definitely history in the making and I am glad to be here to witness this moment.”
Championing The Repeal
Member of Parliament (MP) Siew Kum Hong championed the repeal. He sponsored a public petition to repeal 377A and ultimately delivered 2341 signatures to Parliament. Mr. Siew noted that the signatures on the petition came from a broad cross-section of Singaporeans – middle-aged, old, young, students, professionals, religious and non-religious people – all of whom believed that repealing 377A was not so much about sexual rights or gay rights but about anti-discrimination, fairness and justice. Or, as MP Charles Chong put it: “If it’s true that some of us are indeed born with a different sexual orientation then it would be wrong of us to criminalize and persecute people who do no harm to us, no matter how conservative a society we are. Intimate relationships between consenting adults in the privacy of one’s bedroom are not the business of government.”
The last time a public petition was considered by the Singapore Parliament was in 1985. The strictness of the procedure enabling such petitions to be considered adds weight to the number of gay and non-gay allies who went on record with their handwritten signatures and addresses on printouts of the petition.
In addition to the public petition presented in parliament, a three-day on-line campaign initiated by Singaporean gay activist, Johnson Ong, garnered 8000 signatures from around the world.
The International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission wrote to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, arguing that repealing Article 377 and keeping Article 377A would relegate LGBT people to the status of second-class citizens, with no protection from discrimination and no rights as sexual minorities.
Opposing The Repeal
Arguments against the repeal of Article 377A raised the specters of same-sex marriage and same-sex adoption. One opposing MP, Mr. Lim Biow Chuan, implied that homosexuals are not a legitimate minority community in Singapore like racial or religious minorities because there is “no conclusive evidence that homosexuality is inborn.”
Another opponent, Ms. Thio Li Ann argued that, “Demands for homosexual rights are political claims of a narrow interest group masquerading as legal entitlements.” She added, “Homosexual activists try to infiltrate and highjack the noble cause of human rights. You cannot make a human wrong a human right.” Ms. Thio warned that unlike heterosexual sodomy, “sodomy between homosexuals is not a private act without public consequences and it’s not a victimless crime because oral and anal sex spread HIV and AIDS…. Anal penetrative sex is inherently damaging to the body and is a misuse of organs.”
Prime Minister (PM) Lee Hsien Loong was both cautionary and hopeful in his speech to the Singapore parliament. He argued that repealing Article 377A would not give gay rights activists the space and full acceptance they wanted because the majority of Singaporeans “strenuously oppose same sex marriage and parenting and granting [homosexuals the] same rights as heterosexual men and women.” He added, “Even people who are not anti-gay will oppose these moves.”
Mr. Lee’s advice was not to force the issue. He insisted, “By repealing 377A we will polarize the nation... the more gay activists push their agenda the stronger will be the pushback from conservative forces in Singapore…. On moral values with consequences for wider society, we must be careful about radical departures from social norms and not be carried away by what other societies do.... We must not allow activists to champion gay rights like they do in the West.” With this warning, Mr. Lee called for patience: “The claim for gay rights should evolve gradually…as attitudes around the world change, this will influence attitudes of Singaporeans.”
The parliamentary debates were telecast live. To watch the debates from the floor of the Singapore parliament, click here and to listen to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s remarks, click here. Watch MPs who voted in favor of the repeal by clicking here. Finally, click here to read the comments of local LGBT activists in Singapore.
Published on October 24, 2007 | OutRight Action International an LGBT human rights organization