Modern Singapore grapples with archaic sex law

With its gay bars and same-sex couples publicly displaying affection, the Tanjong Pagar district offers a glimpse of a Singapore whose outlook contrasts with its more conservative image. Located in the city's central business area, it is also home to offices and government buildings. Its bars come to life at night, part of a gay scene that continues to evolve. But while gay and lesbian couples openly live together and are gaining social acceptance, a law whose origins go back to the 19th century when Singapore was a British colony is still seen as a threat by the community. A provision in the penal code known as Section 377A makes it a crime for men to have sex with each other. Even though it is not enforced actively by Singapore authorities, campaigners are demanding its repeal. Gary Lim, 44, and his 37-year-old partner Kenneth Chee, both graphic designers, say they decided to challenge the law's constitutionality because they did not want to continue living in fear of being prosecuted someday. The High Court recently ruled against them but the couple decided to elevate it to the Court of Appeal for a final ruling. No hearing date has been set as their lawyers are still in the process of filing the appeal papers. Section 377A states a maximum of two years in prison for "any male person who, in public or private, commits... or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person". Lim argues that although the government seems to turn a blind eye, the law's presence is felt indirectly, particularly in instances where emergency services might be required. "Many fear calling the police in situations of domestic violence, theft or rape because they may be charged" for being gay, said Lim. "This creates a group that is unable and fearful of tapping upon essential public services." A second petition by Tan Eng Hong, 50, seeks to scrap the provision and is pending before the High Court. Tan was initially charged under the section after being caught having oral sex with another man in a toilet cubicle at a shopping centre in 2010. Prosecutors later reduced the charge to one of committing an obscene act in public and Tan was fined. Church conservatives are putting up a robust fight to preserve the law, sparking a heated debate with supporters of gay rights. Senior pastor Lawrence Khong of the Faith Community Baptist Church hit out at the legal challenges in January, calling them "a looming threat to this basic building block" of society -- the traditional family. "We affirm that the family unit comprises a man as father, a woman as mother, and children," Khong said. Khoo Hoon Eng is the mother of two openly gay sons. "When my children first came out, I was more worried about the prejudices that they would face," the 61-year-old told AFP. "A family is built with love, my family is built with love. I love my sons and they love me." Government officials, while openly promising that gays would not be hounded under the law, maintain that Section 377A must stay in the books because most Singaporeans are still conservative and do not accept homosexuality. Legal experts say the government's position of not enforcing the provision but leaving it intact is intended to send a social message. "Keeping 377A in the books is a message that being gay is still not what the mainstream norms are," said Lynette Chua, assistant professor of law at the National University of Singapore (NUS). Michael Hor, a criminal law professor at NUS, said "the government probably sees the non-repeal of an unenforced 377A as a political compromise -- giving both contending lobbies something to take home." Singapore's media environment is highly controlled and local outlets have in recent years given gay issues sporadic coverage, only covering gay rights events that have high turnouts and court cases that involve gay men. But attitudes are changing and increasing numbers of Singaporeans have been openly supportive of gay rights. In 2012, organisers said some 15,000 people attended an annual event called Pink Dot promoting the freedom to love regardless of sexual orientation -- a sixfold increase from the attendance at its inaugural 2009 staging. Associate Professor Benjamin Detenber, head of the Nanyang Technological University's school of communication and information, tracked a "small but significant shift" toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians based on a survey he conducted in 2005 and again in 2010. "If the courts were to repeal 377A on legal grounds, there would be challenges to it, people would have trouble, but I think ultimately people will accept it," said Detenber. "There is a great deal of respect for the judiciary in Singapore. The rule of law is held in very high regard," he added. Jean Chong, co-founder of local lesbian activist group Sayoni, said Section 377A "doesn't just criminalise gay men" but "justifies a wide range of abusive behaviours and institutionalises discrimination" against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) people. "It sends the wrong signal to the world that Singapore is a backward and regressive state."