Organisers and speakers at the first repeal Section 377A townhall discussion on Sunday (30 September) urged both supporters and members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community in Singapore to get their Members of Parliament (MPs) to support the cause of removing the “bad and unjust colonial law”.
The event, held at the Singapore Management University’s School of Law, was attended by over 800 signatories of the Ready4Repeal petition. It was also streamed live on the official Ready4Repeal Facebook page.
Under Section 377A, sex between men remains illegal in Singapore although it is rarely enforced.
Ready4Repeal petition authors Glen Goei and Johannes Hadi took to the stage during a two-and-a-half-hour discussion calling for a more proactive role by supporters of the repeal movement to engage the public by sharing their personal stories with loved ones and government representatives.
“It’s a matter of when Section 377A will change, not if. But when the law changes, we hope Singaporeans will be ready for it” and not feel alienated by such a development, said Johannes during a session with reporters after the town hall discussion.
The debate over Section 377A in Singapore, introduced in 1938, was reignited after the Supreme Court of India ruled on 6 September that consensual gay sex was not a crime in the country following a two-decade legal battle.
Justice Dipak Misra had called Section 377 of the India Penal Code “an odious weapon for harassment” that was “irrational, indefensible and manifestly arbitrary”.
The landmark ruling stirred heated discussions among LGBTQ activists in Singapore arguing for a repeal of the law and those who are against such a move. Section 377A was enacted when India and Singapore were still under British colonial rule.
Speak out on repealing 377A: organisers
“We need you to speak from the heart; even if it’s difficult, especially if it’s difficult…it’s a critical time for us because the whole nation is listening to what we have to say,” echoed LGBTQ movement Pink Dot SG spokesperson Clement Tan, one of the speakers at the event.
Otherwise, Johannes added, leaders will take “the silence as proof that there’s no discrimination, hatred or suffering” within the LGBTQ community, in reference to a comment made by Education Minister Ong Ye Kung’s during the Singapore Summit on 14 September.
According to a TODAY report, Ong had said that the LGBTQ community in Singapore faced no discrimination “at work, housing and education” in Singapore.
“This is why we need you to take these stories to your MPs, inform and educate them on the realities of LGBTQ persons living in Singapore,” said Hadi. “Tell them about the transgender couple who were kicked out of their parents’ home and have nowhere to go because they couldn’t afford an HDB flat.”
Bryan Choong, a consultant with LGBTQ group Oogachaga, highlighted that Section 377A “sets the tone in how policies are planned in Singapore”, leading to workplace discrimination towards LGBTQ persons as well as the lack of support and education for youths in LGBTQ issues.
“Students do not have counsellors or teachers whom they can turn to for support. Teachers come to us to say that it is impossible to get support from the schools because they do not know what kind of policies they should stick to when it comes to LGBTQ issues,” Chong said.
Others like Remy Choo Zheng Xi, director of Peter Low and Choo LLC, who spoke on the history of Section 377A in Singapore, described the law as “legislation that belongs in the dustbin of history” left by colonial masters.
“Talking about the defence of marriage, the slippery slope, and religious freedom; these are red herrings…We made it clear that it’s not a political issue. It is an issue of conscience and removing a bad law; about giving Singaporeans their full rights as equal citizens before the law,” he added.
Prominent signatories calling for repeal of 377A
The SMU’s School of Law was secured as the new venue for the event, which was originally to be held at Suntec Singapore Convention Centre (Suntec), after the latter “cancelled the venue booking due to ‘unforeseen circumstances’”, said organisers, four days before the town hall was to take place on Sunday.
On Sunday, Goei said during a Q&A section that he had made a booking with Suntec that was later confirmed via WhatsApp. After having signed the necessary credit card forms and setting up invitations for the event, he was informed that a “director from above” had cancelled the event.
However, when contacted on Thursday and Friday, a Suntec staff said that the venue operator has no record of the event being planned or booked at its venue.
The Ready4Repeal petition gathered over 44,000 signatories from Singaporeans and PRs, including veteran Singapore diplomat Professor Tommy Koh, former Singapore Attorney-General Professor Walter Woon, former Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) president Constance Singam, former Singapore’s ambassador to the UN Professor Kishore Mahbubani and former NMP Claire Chiang, was submitted last Friday to the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and Ministry of Law (MinLaw).
Comparatively, a petition calling for Section 377A to be retained has garnered over 108,000 signatures when it closed on 24 September.
Both ministries have received the petition from Ready4Repeal, said an MHA and MinLaw spokesperson. “As the government has recently made clear, however, there are no plans to repeal Section 377A,” he added.
Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam, who on 18 September fielded questions on Section 377A and the upcoming Penal Code review at a closed-door briefing organised by the National Council of Churches (NCCS), had previously said the government is caught between a majority of Singaporeans opposing the repeal of the law and a “growing minority” who want it abolished.
“The laws will have to keep pace with the changes in society,” he added.
Views divided among major religions
The views among the leaders of the different faiths were somewhat divided on the issue.
The president of Buddhist Fellowship, Singapore, Lim Phang Hong, had signed the petition to repeal Section 377A and written on Facebook on Sunday in support of such a move. On the other hand, religious bodies such as the NCCS, Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore have taken a firm stance in keeping the law.
While government leaders have not proactively reached out to the repeal movement, the latter is open to engaging them, Choo said. Whether Singapore chooses to repeal or retain the law, it would reflect on the country and its people, he added.
KC, an attendee who only wanted to be known by his initials, found the event “heartening” but called for more efforts to educate the public.
“I think it’s heartening that we have a start to a movement, allowing people to get resources to start change,” said the 25-year-old fresh university graduate.
Wakka Kong, 27, software engineer and fellow attendee, said that while it was “inspiring” to hear from the signatories of the petition, he agreed with KC that more needed to be done to sway public opinion.
“Some issues which weren’t addressed were how can we simplify the message to make it more relatable and mobilise more people to help change public perception of LGBTQs,” said Kong.