K Shanmugam on Section 377A: ‘Legislation needs to evolve’ amid shift in views

Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking in Parliament on 3 March 2022. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Communications and Information/YouTube)
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam speaking in Parliament on 3 March 2022. (SCREENSHOT: Ministry of Communications and Information/YouTube)

SINGAPORE — Policies need to evolve to keep abreast of the gradual shift in society's attitudes towards homosexuality and legislation needs to evolve to support updated policies, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Thursday (3 March) on Section 377A of the Penal Code.

The government is considering the best way forward, said Shanmugam, who was speaking in Parliament at the start of the Home Affairs Ministry's Committee of Supply debate. The Minister was referring to the legislation in Singapore that criminalises homosexual sex between men but is not proactively enforced.

“We must respect the different viewpoints, consider them carefully, talk to the different groups. And if and when we decide to move, we will do so in a way that continues to balance between these different viewpoints and avoids causing a sudden destabilising change in social norms and public expectations,” he added.

'Live and let live approach'

In 2007, Parliament amended the Penal Code but Section 377A was left unchanged.

Referring to the government’s stance then and now, Shanmugam quoted Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong as saying that Singapore wants to be “a stable society with traditional heterosexual family values, but with space for homosexuals to live their lives and to contribute to society”.

As this is a “deeply divisive” issue, the government has taken a “live and let live approach”, Shanmugam said. Apart from the non-enforcement of 377A, Shanmugam added that LGBT+ groups and religious groups with different views on the issue are protected from threats and attacks under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. LGBT+ persons identify themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender, or with gender expressions beyond traditional norms.

While the emphasis on traditional families remain constant, Shanmugam noted that since the issue was last discussed in Parliament in 2007, social attitudes towards homosexuality have “gradually shifted”.

“One of the things that upsets the LGBT+ community is that many feel that their experience of being hurt or rejected by their families, friends, schools and companies – is not recognised indeed, often denied,” Shanmugam said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that a large majority want to preserve the overall tone of Singapore’s society, particularly the traditional view of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and that children should be raised within such a family structure.

“Their concern is not Section 377A per se, but the broader issues of marriage and family. Many amongst this group, also support decriminalising homosexual sex between men. Both these viewpoints are valid and important,” Shanmugam said.

Position of Singapore's courts

The courts have consistently taken the position that the highly contentious social issues related to Section 377A are within the province of Parliament.

On 28 February, the Court of Appeal dismissed three legal challenges against Section 377A.

In its latest judgment, the court noted that Singapore’s approach to Section 377A strikes a balance between preserving the legislative status quo, whilst accommodating the concerns of those directly affected by the legislation, Shanmugam said.

“The court recognised that the government did this in order to avoid driving a deeper wedge within our society,” he added.

“Socially charged issues, such as Section 377A, call for continued discussion and open-ended resolution within the political domain, where we can forge consensus, rather than in win-lose outcomes in court. In this way, we can accommodate divergent interests, avoid polarisation, facilitate incremental change.”

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