Singapore Penal code 377A: Retain or Repeal?

Asia thinkers interviewed two individuals with differing views of 377A in order to hear their perspectives. We are hoping that in expressing their views that you will take a moment to reflect on the views of others  and appreciate the issue from different viewpoints.

The provisions of Singapore’s penal code 377A, a law that makes sex between men illegal, effectively criminalising gay men, has recently been highlighted  following the Indian Supreme court’s decision to strike down a similar section of the Indian penal code.

Following India’s ruling on section 377A,  Singaporean diplomat, Tommy Koh, wrote on Facebook: “I would encourage our gay community to bring a class action to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A.”  Since then, Singaporeans have signed many petitions and voiced their opinion both for and against the retention of 377A.

Asiathinkers interviewed Jean Chong to get her views on the repealing of Singapore Penal Code 377A:

Jean is co-founder of Sayoni, a Singaporean LGBTQ rights organization. She’s also a programme field coordinator with OutRight Action International, an orgnsiation seeking to advance human rights and create opportunities for LGBTIQ people around the world.

What issues got you involved in supporting the repealing of  Singapore Penal Code 377A?

377A has always been a law that affects everything else and promotes institutionalized discrimination. You can see the effects of it everywhere, from censorship guidelines on the media (no positive or neutral portrayal) and so on. I think the most important decision to get involved was influenced by the research project on the ‘Documentation of violence and discrimination against LGBTQ persons’ that got our attention. The knock-on effects of 377A by promoting a climate of intolerance and discrimination can clearly be seen in the research, from physical abuse, sexual abuse, domestic violence rape and so on. We were shocked by what we learned from the interviews we conducted. So it is not just a ‘gay man’s thing.’ It is EVERYBODY’S thing. The law needs to go.

The provisions of Singapore Penal Code 377A have recently been highlighted again following the Indian Supreme court’s decision to strike down a similar section of the Indian Penal Code. Do you feel this is the right time for Singapore’s Government to repeal the law?

Well, we failed in 2014 to repeal 377A, so what happened in India was hugely inspiring for us. Plus, having well-respected diplomat, Tommy Koh, encouraging the gay community to try again means something to us. So many of us have left Singapore because we know that there is no hope for change. To us, there’s never a right time, it should be now because people are suffering.

LGBTQ activists have long argued that the retention of the law 377A, even without active enforcement, lays the foundation for the discrimination and marginalization of the LGBTQ community. Do you agree with this comment?

For sure! As I said above, our research has clearly made the link that it’s not just for gay men, the entire LGBTQ spectrum is affected.

The National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS) has stated that the repeal of 377A will be harmful for individuals ,families  and society as a whole. What impact do you think repealing of the law will have on the LGBTQ community and on Singaporean society in general? 

The impact will be that we are finally seen as human beings, I hope. At the rate we are going, those who can leave (LGBTQ) Singapore are already gone. Those who wants to come to work and live here, are hesitant. As a society, we have always been told that we are exceptional and small and vulnerable. Diversities will tear us apart. But I think it is time to embrace diversity. The government has always shown itself as the neutral party to balance what the conservatives are saying and what we are saying. They said they don’t want a polarized society like in the States. But the reality is that the government are the real oppressors here, they have already chosen sides by not allowing conversations and public awareness to happen. This can be seen on how they do not let positive portrayals of LGBTQ persons on TV and radio. That they are not allowing LGBTQ groups who provide social services to help their own community. So where is the neutral stance from the government? There is none. We have been forsaken for the votes of the religious groups.

Let me give you one example on how censorship works in Singapore. Everyone watches Ellen DeGeneres on television, she has a show right? There was once when Obama was invited to the talk show and he praised Ellen for being such a good LGBTQ model. That was censored in Singapore. This is the kind of censorship we are talking about from the government. But the repeal of 377A will help to stop institutionalized discrimination and homophobic policy making that is against LGBTQ persons (e.g. in censorship that promotes an intolerant society towards LGBTQ persons). This will address knock on effects on the law against LGBTQ persons, such as fear of reporting on violence and discrimination against them.

Over the years you have been involved with many activist groups supporting the human rights of the LGBTQ community. If the Singaporean Government decides not to repeal 377A, what further action do you feel can be taken to encourage Singaporean society to  request the law be repealed?

Vote with your feet. Go where the sun shines. Or… We just have to keep trying, even though the space is tightly controlled. Everyone can make a difference by coming out to someone so that they feel safe with and take little steps from there. It is very hard to demonize someone you know and appeal to their common sense.

Asiathinkers interviewed Lawrence Wee to get his views on the retaining of Singapore Penal Code 377A:

Lawrence is a former teacher and devout catholic who undertakes volunteer mission work both in Singapore and overseas. He is of the firm belief that retaining  Penal Code 377A is in line with Catholic values which should be the foundation of Singaporean society.

What issues got you involved in supporting the retention of  Singapore Penal Code 377A?

Following India’s decision to repeal 377A a number of prominent Singaporeans came out in social media stating they believed that it was time that it should also be repealed in Singapore. Members of my Church held discussions over the issue and we felt that the bible was very clear on this point. Based on scripture I then decided to take personal action and in September signed an online petition to support retaining 377A.

The provisions of Singapore Penal Code 377A have recently been highlighted again  following the Indian Supreme court decision to strike down a similar section of the Indian Penal C ode.Do you feel this is the right time for Singapore Government to repeal the law?

I do not feel that there is any right time to support repealing of 377A. In my view, Singapore laws should be based on  moral standards. These laws should be foundation of our family values. I prayed that the Singapore government will not repeal 377A.

LGBTQ activists have long argued that the retention of the law 377A, even without active enforcement, lays the foundation for the discrimination and marginalization of the LGBTQ community. Do you agree with this comment ?

Laws are created to protect society and society must make a stand on certain issues and support those laws. I  follow the teachings of the bible and support retention of 377A as this is an important moral issue. Homosexuality is a sin but as an Catholic I don’t discriminate against anyone, just because 377A exists does not mean homosexuals are ‘criminalised’, but as a society  retaining 377A means we have set a moral standard within the community. I don’t think we can then say this marginalises the gay community.

The National Council of Churches Singapore (NCCS) has stated that the repeal of 377A will be harmful for individuals ,families  and society as a whole. What impact do you think repealing of the law have on the LGBTQ community and on Singapore society in general?

Both myself and my church fully support the stand taken by the National Council of Churches in that it would be harmful to families and Singapore Society to repeal 377A. I recognise that certain people suffer from illness and cannot have a normal relationship between a man or a woman and engage in sexual activity for the reproduction of offspring, and thus we should not enforce Section 377A on them if they carried out their activity quietly in private.

But the repeal of Section 377A would result in the normalisation and promotion of this lifestyle, which in turn would lead to undesirable moral and social consequences, a slippery slope in my view, as seen in some countries taking this step perhaps leading to further immoral activity.

Globally there has been increased recognition of same sex relationships and although the Singaporean Government has not yet repealed 377A, what further action do you feel can be taken  to encourage  Singaporean society to maintain this section of the Penal Code?

I feel that there are consequences of not retaining 377A which society must be aware of. As has occurred in other countries, I believe that increased dialogue regarding same-sex relationships has contributed to higher acceptance of homosexuality amongst the younger generation, and we need to be aware that this, like in other countries, could lead to the “normalisation” of homosexuality which could eventually result in gay marriage becoming acceptable in Singapore. The Church has a big part to play through discussion and social media to ensure that the younger generation is aware of the importance of maintaining family values and whilst society may tolerate gay individuals, we cannot condone their behaviour.

Image provided by The Straits Times

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