SINGAPORE – Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on Sunday (21 August) announced that Singapore will repeal Section 377A (S377A) of the Penal Code, the deeply divisive law that criminalises sex between men.
Lee made the much anticipated announcement during his National Day Rally 2022 (NDR 2022) speech at the Institute of Technical Education headquarters at Ang Mo Kio.
"I believe this is the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept. This will bring the law into line with current social mores, and I hope, provide some relief to gay Singaporeans," said Lee.
It comes after years of contentious debates and legal challenges from various parties who either argue for and against the law that originated from the British colonial era.
In 2007, Parliament amended the Penal Code but left S377A unchanged.
S377A, which refers to sexual acts between men but not women and specifies the punishment for violation, reads, “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.”
The government has maintained that while S377A is written in law, it would not be actively enforced in order to reach a “messy compromise” between the conservative majority who want to preserve the sanctity of marriage and family, and top legal professionals, civil activists, the LGBT community and others who have been pushing for its repeal.
Over the years, various parties have filed constitutional challenges against S377A, arguing that the law discriminates against LGBT individuals. Three such challenges were dismissed by the Court of Appeal on 28 February.
Many countries that used to have laws against sex between men have since repealed them, including several in Asia, but not in Singapore.
Private sexual behaviour between consenting adults does not raise any law-and-order issue and there is no justification to prosecute people for it, nor to make it a crime, Lee said at NDR 2022.
Noting the several court challenges against S377A seeking to declare the law unconstitutional, Lee said none of them have succeeded so far.
But following the latest court judgement on the issue, the Minister for Law and the Attorney General have advised that there is a significant risk of S377A being struck down arising from a future court challenge on the grounds that it breaches the equal protection under the Constitution, Lee added.
Previous statements by ministers
On 3 March, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam spoke about S377A in Parliament and said that Singapore's policies need to evolve to keep abreast of the gradual shift in society's attitudes towards homosexuality.
The following week, Shanmugam said that his statement in Parliament was delivered on behalf of the government. All ministers are bound by the Cabinet's decisions on government policy and they should refrain from expressing their personal views on the matter, according to Shanmugam, who was speaking at an event organised by a conservative Christian organisation.
In an interview with Bloomberg on Monday, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said that the authorities are aiming to move ahead on the issue without creating “deeper divisions in our society".
Religious views on issue
Following Shanmugam’s address, there were several events organised by individuals and groups who supported the retention of S377A. A closed-door town hall held on 23 July calling for the retention of S377A led to several police reports filed against the event.
The event organisers had urged the authorities to retain S377A until or unless legislation is introduced to protect heterosexual marriage, family and children from the supposedly negative impact of LGBT activism. The Catholic church echoed the sentiment, saying that the LGBT community should respect its position on marriage being a union between a man and a woman.
A church grouping has warned that if S377A were to be removed, it would lead to “a brand of intolerant and aggressive LGBT activism".
While Singapore remains a broadly conservative society, gay people are now better accepted here, especially among younger Singaporeans, Lee said.
“We need to find the right way to reconcile and accommodate both the traditional mores of our society, and the aspiration of gay Singaporeans to be respected and accepted.”
Read more about the National Day Rally 2022, including what were some of the major announcements and the reactions to PM Lee's speech.
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