The string of recent victories for the LGBT movement globally should not overshadow the fact that over 80 jurisdictions in the world still criminalize homosexuality. A number are in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore.
The latter, however, is under growing pressure to change.
Last Saturday saw the fifth annual Pink Dot event held in Singapore’s Hong Lim Park. With 21,000 participants, this year’s event continued an unbroken string of record numbers. Big-name sponsors have thrown their weight behind the movement, including Google and Barclay’s. Indeed, the strength and popularity of Pink Dot was clearly visible at the event itself, where every inch of the park was taken up by pink-clothed participants. Singapore law forbids public demonstrations outside of Hong Lim’s confines, and the government rejected a request from Pink Dot’s organizers for an expanded venue.
These restrictions, however, didn’t appear to faze the participants. The crowd, which skewed towards the younger end demographically, were in high spirits. A mini-concert preceded the highlight of the event, when participants squeezed together, simultaneously lit handheld pink lights, and formed a glowing dot in the heart of downtown Singapore.
In certain ways, Pink Dot has become a pink umbrella. The event provides a safe environment for progressive Singaporeans, gay and straight, to gather and champion reform despite the country’s largely conservative socio-political climate. And like other Hong Lim Park events, Pink Dot also saw a few hangers-on campaigning on other issues. At the fringes of the park Saturday, signs demanding greater environmental protection and the reversal of new online media regulations could be seen.
This year’s Pink Dot was also attended by 21 LGBT community groups, who set up tables and interacted with event participants. Other groups made an informal showing, peppering the crowds with pamphlets and flyers. Pink Dot’s organizers took the lead in inviting the community groups, says Jean Chong, co-founder of Sayoni, a community group for queer women. And Chong points to further ways in which Pink Dot has collaborated with the Singaporean LGBT community, including a large-scale survey project to collect statistics on LGBT persons in the city-state.
Despite the continued growth of Pink Dot, it is clear that Singapore still trails much of the world on LGBT issues. Section 377A of the penal code, which makes male homosexual activity punishable by up to two years of prison, has been the target of domestic and international criticism, and its repeal has long been the foremost goal of LGBT activists. Yet progress on this issue has stalled.
On April 9, the Singapore High Court defended Section 377A against a constitutional challenge launched by Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee, characterizing decriminalization of homosexual activity as a “social norm” that “has yet to gain currency.” The couple has appealed the decision.
There are reasons to be less than optimistic about the prospect of s.377A’s repeal. One notable aspect with the High Court’s opinion, given by Justice Quentin Loh, is the court’s clear preference for change to come from Singapore’s legislative branch. On deciding whether the “social norm” of criminalizing homosexuality “should be retained or discarded in the face of a constitutional challenge,” Justice Loh writes, “in our legal system, that decision is left to Parliament.”
At the same time, however, scholars have speculated that government leaders prefer any repeal of s.377A to come from the courts.
“If you look at what happened in 2007 … [s.377A] became a sort of hot potato in the legislature,” says Lynette Chua, assistant professor of law at the National University of Singapore. “I think the legislature could have repealed the law, but they chose not to under the perception that people were not ready to accept homosexuality.”
Despite these challenges, or perhaps because of them, Lim and Chee’s appeal is sure to attract attention, domestic and abroad.
“Whatever the outcome is, it’s going to be an important case,” says Dr. Chua. “I really see this as an important opportunity for Singapore to articulate its position as to what equality means under the constitution.”
Most LGBT activists in Singapore remain hopeful that the moral arc of history is on their side.
“I see Singapore becoming more and more accepting of diversity,” says Chong. “But the government has not budged when it comes to LGBT rights. We can only be optimistic that the world is changing.”
Others, however, are less sanguine.
“I know people who have been kicked out of school because they’re lesbians. I know people who have lost their jobs because they’re gay,” says Jocelyn Teo, while distributing flyers on trans* persons to Pink Dot participants. In her view, LGBT rights “do not exist” in Singapore.
“I’m planning to get out of the country,” she continues. “I’m not hoping for anything. I can’t be bothered anymore.”