Singapore’s Slow but Steady Path Toward Decriminalizing Homosexuality

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Singapore’s Slow but Steady Path Toward Decriminalizing Homosexuality

Despite the city-state’s retention of Section 377A, which prohibits sexual relations between consenting men, LGBTQ+ activists see stirrings of progress.

Singapore’s Slow but Steady Path Toward Decriminalizing Homosexuality

Student Ashleigh Ng, 15, dances wearing a rainbow flag, during a concert performance at a park for the annual Pink Dot gay pride event on Saturday, July 1, 2017, in Singapore.

Credit: AP Photo/Wong Maye-E

Singapore’s strict legislation is often cited as one the city-state’s defining characteristics. Talks about the country’s most stringent laws, from the infamous ban on chewing gum to the enforcement of death penalty for drug use, frequently drive foreign perceptions of Singapore, fueled by the legacy of Michael Fay in the United States.

However, for many other lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer (LGBTQ+) locals and expatriates in the Lion City, the most controversial legislation is that concerning homosexuality. A remnant of British colonial legislation, which still largely shapes Singapore’s legal system today, Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code, which prohibits sexual relations between consenting men in public and in private, particularly stands out in this regard.

Recent events have propelled this clause to the forefront of the news cycle in Singapore and abroad, in light of a February 28 Court of Appeal ruling that rejected an appeal filed by three local Singaporean gay men in 2020, challenging the constitutionality of Section 377A.

This recent legal challenge was fueled by an Indian court’s decision to lift a ban on consensual gay sex in September 2018, which inspired Johnson Ong Ming, Bryan Choong, and Roy Tan Seng Kee to push for similar legal action in Singapore. The three locals challenged the constitutionality of Section 377A, pointing out that the clause deprived gay Singaporeans of “life or personal liberty” under Article 9(1) of the Constitution of Singapore. The Supreme Court dismissed their challenges in March 2020, and all three parties subsequently appealed the verdict.

Throughout these legal proceedings, the Supreme Court repeatedly referred back to a 2007 political compromise struck with Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, maintaining Section 377A in place while promising that no party could effectively be prosecuted in a court of law for engaging in consensual homosexual activities in private. However, Lee also stressed that Singapore’s social norms emphasize a heterosexual, stable family unit.

Following the 2018 legal challenge to the clause, the Attorney-General’s Chambers offered a reminder that the public prosecutor’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion “has always been, and remains, unfettered,” thereby bringing into question the extent to which gay men are effectively safe from legal action on the basis of their homosexuality.

This marked the second time the section has been challenged in a decade.

The previous appeal was filed in 2014, after two men – Lim Meng Suan and Kenneth Chee Mun-leon, a gay couple of 15 years – had similarly challenged the constitutionality of Section 377A against the premise of Article 9 and Article 12 of the Singapore Constitution, the latter of which guarantees all individuals equality to legal protection of their rights under the constitution. Their appeal was also dismissed by the Court of Appeal, which stated that Article 12 does not cite sexual orientation as one of the grounds for discrimination, only religion, race, and place of birth.

Another appeal had been filed four years prior by Tan Eng Hong, a gay man who had been arrested for allegedly engaging in oral sex with another man in a locked cubicle of a public toilet. However, his appeal was dismissed owing to the public, rather than private, nature of the sexual act Tan was being charged for, with the Court of Appeal claiming the police would have also arrested a heterosexual couple for engaging in a similar activity.

The latest ruling was received with much disappointment from LGBTQ+ individuals and organizations in Singapore. In an online statement, Pink Dot SG, a non-profit movement promoting LGBTQ+ rights and integration into Singapore society, expressed its disappointment, describing the ruling as a “devastating blow to Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community” and pointing to the “ongoing discriminatory effects of Section 377A” still in place.

Ready 4 Repeal, an online movement founded in 2018 to advocate for the repeal of Section 377A, issued a community statement on its Facebook page, which was signed by many Singapore-based LGBTQ+ organizations, including Choong’s Oogachaga. In this statement, the signatories called out the assurance of unenforceability guaranteed by the judges in their ruling, denouncing it as largely insufficient to “provide real protection to [the] LGBTQ+ community.”

Ready 4 Repeal had previously submitted a petition to the Ministry of Home Affairs in September 2018, which received signatures from eminent Singaporean politicians and policymakers, including Singapore’s former Ambassadors to the United Nations Kishore Mahbubani and Tommy Koh.

Following the Court of Appeal ruling, debates on Section 377A arose in Parliament on March 3. Ministry of Home Affairs K. Shanmugam emphasized Singapore’s commitment to gradual evolution and public consultation on the issue. He also pointed to a shift in public attitudes towards homosexuality and LGBTQ+ rights, stating that “policies need to evolve to keep abreast of such views” and the Government is considering the “best way forward with [Section] 377A.”

Sukhjeet*, a non-binary bisexual graduate student in Singapore, shared their initial reservations about moving to Singapore as a queer person owing to Section 377A. However, they acquiesced that a shift towards more acceptance of LGBTQ+ minorities is taking place in the city. “There are spaces where LGBTQ+ individuals will be accepted and validated, in alternative art spaces, restaurants & bars, without worrying about government surveillance and police crackdowns,” Sukhjeet said.

In recent years, alternatives spaces like The Projector, a historic movie theater that showcases independent queer cinema, art exhibits, and drag shows, have become valuable safe spaces for queer people in Singapore. Sukhjeet describes a status quo in which the government tolerates and usually turns a blind eye to the existence of a visible queer community, so long as this visibility remains constrained to these spaces. “I don’t think we can truly move forward as a community if we can only express ourselves in these spaces,” they said, stressing the importance of Shanmugam’s claims that policies need to evolve accordingly.

Max*, a local Singaporean gay man, sees a glimmer of hope in these words. Shanmugam’s statement “shows that the government is willing to update legislation according to the views of its people,” he said in an online conversation. “With the government, the general expectation is that when they make a statement regarding a particular topic, the propensity for them to follow-through is high,” he added.

Max’s position was confirmed on the evening of March 22, when an online survey on LGBTQ+ issues was posted by Reach, the Singapore Government’s official feedback unit. Among other questions, the survey sought opinions from Singaporeans on whether they believed Singapore is a safe space for LGBTQ+ minorities, and asked their stance on Section 377A: whether they believe the clause should be repealed, amended, or kept.

Reach closed the survey the following day at noon Singapore time, having collected over 30,000 responses, saying that the feedback “will be shared with relevant agencies and could be used within the Government for policy updates and changes.”

This survey was the first of its kind in Singapore, and represents an unprecedented step toward a greater inclusion of LGBTQ+ issues in the public discourse in Singapore. For Max, and many other gay men in the city, this survey appears as a logical next step in the government’s process to address Section 377A. “I would applaud REACH’s promptness in doing so; they launched the survey within the same month of Minister Shanmugam’s statement,” he said.

Organizations such as Pink Dot and Oogachaga played a key role in promoting the survey online via social media. “We need to move beyond viewing Singapore as made up of majorities and minorities, and start having real conversations about the lives we lead here in this country, and how we are impacted by legal and social discrimination at home, in schools, and in the workplace” said Pink Dot in an Instagram post.

Speaking with the local tabloid TODAY, Oogachaga Executive Director Yangfa Leow said he “applaud[ed] this first time effort by the Singapore Government” and hoped “that the qualitative data collected… will support and augment all the issues previously raised by… local LGBTQ community organizations.”

Other organizations, however, expressed skepticism with regard to how the survey was conducted and presented to the public. In an Instagram post, Singapore-based queer brand Heckin’ Unicorns denounced the language used in the survey, and the framing of the questions. “While the survey is a step in the right direction, we can’t help but feel ashamed that our state still thinks that the fate and rights of LGBTQ individuals should be decided based on the perceptions that people have, rather than reality or first principles,” the post stated.

Max expressed similar concerns, stating that “the way in which the survey was disseminated could have been better executed. By making the survey anonymous, online and easily accessible, it also gave room for the survey to be easily spread among various communities.” He added, “Having a large number of people complete the survey is not a bad thing per se, but with such a sensitive topic, an online survey without any levels of moderation can be counter-productive.”

Sukhjeet expressed their frustration with the way the survey was rolled out: it “was posted sometime in the evening, but like many others I only found out about it the morning after. By the time I got to responding, I realized it was already about to close down. What kind of inclusivity is this?” Amid this frustration, the Indian expatriate still expressed slight optimism that the survey marked an improvement in attitudes. “Singaporean society has made some progress… The hope is that it is and will continue to spark this conversation in the mainstream media.”

Reflecting on what the next steps should look like as the government moves forward with Section 377A, Max hopes for more public consultations with a substantive potential for change. He said that REACH “should further conduct more surveys, polls, focus groups and think tank sessions” with various communities in order to “understand the nuances of the issue, and also for representatives of the communities to express their viewpoints.”

Sukhjeet, on the other hand, maintains a more skeptical approach to what future parliamentary consultation might like. “Shanmugam said they’re considering all viewpoints, which also include conservative religious groups,” they remarked. “It’s still unclear what the ‘best way forward’ entails, and it doesn’t guarantee that Section 377A will be repealed.” They added, “But I am hopeful that these small steps will at least generate more conversations in the public and in Parliament on how to better accept LGBTQ+ minorities.”

Moving forward with decriminalizing homosexuality in Singapore would represent significant progress for LBGTQ+ rights in the Asia-Pacific. As of today, Taiwan and the prefecture of Tokyo are the only two territories where same-sex marriage is legal, although South Korea recognizes same-sex partnerships. India is currently considering the decision to legalize marriage for same-sex couples. No Southeast Asian country has legalized marriage for same-sex couples as of yet, although homosexuality is decriminalized in Cambodia, Vietnam, and the Philippines. In this sense, Singapore faces a unique opportunity to side with a small fraction of countries in favor of LGBTQ+ rights.

With the potential unleashed by the recent parliamentary debates and the ensuing online survey, hopes are at an all-time high for Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community. The steadfast pace at which Parliament has moved with public consultation on Section 377A in the aftermath of the latest Court of Appeal ruling points to a genuine consideration for structural change. While it is still too early to determine what this change will entail, and when it will take place, Singapore is undeniably on track to make historical progress with regards to LGBTQ+ rights in the city.

*Names have been changed to preserve individuals’ anonymity.