Singapore decriminalises sex between men, but is marriage doomed?

Monday, 22 August 2022 11:31 GMT

A man waves a rainbow flag after Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announces that Singapore will decriminalise gay sex, in Singapore, August 21, 2022, this screen grab obtained from a social media video. Boo Junfeng/via REUTERS

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LGBTQ+ activists praise decision to scrap colonial-era law but urge the government to leave a door open to same-sex marriage

By Seb Starcevic

Aug 22 (Openly) - Singapore will decriminalise sexual relations between men but has no plans to allow same-sex marriage and will seek to enshrine the current ban in the constitution, the prime minister said on Sunday.

Announcing the move, Lee Hsien Loong said repealing the rarely enforced Section 377A of the penal code - which dates from colonial times - "was the right thing to do".

But stressing his government's continued support for the traditional, heterosexual definition of marriage, Lee said his administration believed "marriage should be between a man and a woman".

Singapore will "protect the definition of marriage from being challenged constitutionally in the courts", he added, promising to amend the constitution accordingly.

The city-state becomes the latest Asian country to move toward ending discrimination against members of the LGBTQ+ community, though questions remain over when its legal reform will be implemented.

Here is a summary of the issues at play:

What does the current law say?

Under Section 377A, acts of "gross indecency" between men "in public or private" can be punished with up to two years in prison.

The law has been on the books since 1938, when Singapore was under British rule. It does not make reference to same-sex relations between women.

In 2007, Singapore's parliament voted to repeal laws prohibiting oral and anal sex between consenting adults but retained Section 377A.

While there have been no known convictions for sex between consenting adult males for decades, the law has "knock-on effects" for LGBTQ+ people and encourages discrimination, said Clement Tan, spokesman for Pink Dot, an LGBTQ+ advocacy group in Singapore.

"On a social level, people believe this is the social and moral position that the government takes," Tan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

What does the public think?

According to an Ipsos poll in 2022, only 20% of Singaporeans support repealing the law criminalising homosexuality, with 44% in support of retaining it.

But there are signs attitudes are changing, with the same poll showing 45% of Singaporeans believe they are "more accepting" of same-sex relationships, including 67% aged 18-29.

Lee on Sunday cited growing acceptance for gay people as a reason for changing the law.

"While we remain a broadly conservative society, gay people are now better accepted in Singapore, especially among younger Singaporeans," he said.

What do activists want?

LGBTQ+ activists, who have filed numerous unsuccessful legal challenges attempting to strike down the law, expressed "relief" at the decision to repeal Section 377A.

"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," Pink Dot said in a statement.

But campaigners also urged the government not to go ahead with Lee's pledge to enshrine the current, heterosexual definition of marriage in the constitution, saying this would signal that LGBTQ+ citizens were not equal.

"Any move by the government to introduce further legislation or constitutional amendments that signal LGBTQ+ people as unequal citizens is disappointing," Pink Dot added, calling for Singapore to tackle persistent anti-LGBTQ+ discrimination in everyday life.

When will the law be changed?

Lee did not specify a date for the repeal of Section 377A, but said the reform would be undertaken in a "controlled and carefully considered way".

The law, which will likely need to be changed by parliament, had been coming under increasing pressure in recent years due to the legal challenges.

Most recently, the Court of Appeals declined earlier this year to strike down the legislation on the basis that gay men "do not face any real and credible threat of prosecution".

In its decision, the court said it is not "an architect of social policy", and that it was up to lawmakers to overturn the law.

What about same-sex marriage?

Lee did not say when his government would present a proposal for a constitutional amendment enshrining the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman - something demanded by     religious conservatives and right-wing groups.

At any time, Singapore's constitution can be amended by a simple two-thirds majority in parliament. Singapore's centre-right ruling party controls 83 of the 103 seats in parliament, meaning it could theoretically pass the measure with ease.

Explaining his decision to support a constitutional amendment on the marriage definition, Lee said it would be "bad for Singapore" if a court ruling cleared the way for same-sex couples to wed.

"I do not think that for Singapore, the courts are the right forum to decide such issues," he said.

Related stories:

Retired doctor launches new legal bid to end Singapore's gay sex ban

Asia must be alert to rise in anti-LGBT+ rhetoric ahead of polls: advocates

India's LGBTQ+ 'pioneer' state bans abuse, boosts trans rights

(Reporting by Seb Starcevic @SebStarcevic in Melbourne; Editing by Helen Popper and Hugo Greenhalgh. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly. Visit http://news.trust.org)