Singapore to Repeal Colonial-Era Law Criminalizing Sex Between Men

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Singapore to Repeal Colonial-Era Law Criminalizing Sex Between Men

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code was the “right thing to do,” but ruled out legalizing same-sex marriage.

Singapore to Repeal Colonial-Era Law Criminalizing Sex Between Men
Credit: Flickr/Thomas Timlen

Singapore has announced that it finally plans to decriminalize sex between men, a long-sought goal of the country’s LGBTQ rights groups, but will continue to block same-sex marriage in a compromise with socially conservative segments of Singaporean society.

During his annual televised National Day Rally address yesterday, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the repeal of Section 377A, which prohibits “any act of gross indecency with another male person,” was the “right thing to do” and that most Singaporeans would accept the change.

“Private sexual behavior between consenting adults does not raise any law and order issue. There is no justification to prosecute people for it nor to make it a crime,” Lee said in his speech. “This will bring the law into line with current social mores and I hope provide some relief to gay Singaporeans.”

The repeal of Section 377A, which has been on the books since 1938, has long been a goal of the city-state’s LGBTQ rights activists. A court dismissed an attempt to overturn the legislation last year, and the decision was upheld on appeal in February, claiming that since it wasn’t being enforced, it didn’t contravene the constitutional rights of men who have sex with men. (Section 377A says nothing about women.)

In 2007, Parliament held an extensive debate about Section 377A, and split the difference by leaving the law in the books but ceasing actively to enforce it. In his speech yesterday, Lee said attitudes have “shifted appreciably” since then. “While we remain a broadly conservative society, gay people are now better accepted in Singapore, especially among younger Singaporeans,” he said.

This shift has certainly been reflected in public opinion surveys. A report published by the National University of Singapore in 2019 found that opposition to gay marriage had fallen from 74 percent in 2013 to 60 percent in 2018. It also found that 6 in 10 Singaporeans aged 18 to 25 believed that gay marriage was not wrong at all, or not wrong in most cases, five times more than the number of respondents aged 65 and above who felt the same way.

While the impending repeal marks a significant symbolic step for LGBTQ rights in Singapore, Lee said the government had no intention of changing the traditional definition of marriage from a union between a man and a woman. He said that this reflected the “prevailing norms and values” of Singaporean society, as well as underpinning a number of government policies, “including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards.”

“Let me reassure everyone that in handling the issue, the government will continue to uphold families as the basic building blocks of society,” he said. “We will keep our policies on family and marriage unchanged and maintain the prevailing norms and social values of our society.”

Lee’s compromise represents a characteristic blend of the PAP’s rationalism and social conservatism, as well as a compromise between competing interests. While 22 Singaporean LGBTQ rights groups said in a joint statement they were “relieved” by Lee’s announcement, describing it as the “first step on a long road towards full equality,” they highlighted the limited practical impacts of the move, especially when considered in light of Lee’s comments on same-sex marriage.

“For everyone who has experienced the kinds of bullying, rejection, and harassment enabled by this law, repeal finally enables us to begin the process of healing. For those that long for a more equal and inclusive Singapore, repeal signifies that change is indeed possible,” the statement said. They called on the government not to heed calls from religious conservatives to enshrine the traditional definition of marriage in the constitution.

Although Lee did not suggest when Section 377A would formally be repealed, Singapore’s decision marks the latest small move toward the realization of LGBTQ rights in Southeast Asia. In June, Thailand took an important step in the direction of legalizing same-sex unions, putting it on the cusp of becoming the second Asian government to do so. Earlier this month, meanwhile, Vietnam’s health ministry this month instructed doctors to stop treating homosexuality as a disease and to cease discrimination against LGBTQ patients.