Singapore

The future of Singapore’s gay sex law: Will we see its end?


Thousands of Singaporeans showed up in support of the LGBT community at the annual Pink Dot rally on Saturday.

For one day a year, Singapore’s Pink Dot movement throws an elaborate celebration for Pride Month with the goal of providing a safe space for members of the community to express themselves. It took place at Hong Lim Park, the only place in Singapore where political protests can legally be held.

This year, Pink Dot came back with a bang after two years of celebrating online, full of showy performances, placards featuring gripping, heartfelt messages urging change and representatives from a wide array of LGBT community groups and local sponsors.

Sometimes, hope is a dangerous thing,’

Remy Choo, lawyer under Ready4Repeal

Photo: Carolyn Teo/Coconuts

For many years, one of the community’s greatest struggles has been getting Section 377a, a 1938 law that criminalized sex between men, struck off from the Penal Code. A lawyer at the forefront of this legal battle told Coconuts the importance of getting the law repealed, and discussed what the future holds for LGBT rights in Singapore.

As a lawyer who has been involved in several legal challenges ultimately dismissed by the courts, Remy Choo said his team never gets ahead and keeps its expectations low as they continue to push for lasting change.

“Sometimes, hope is a dangerous thing, so we hope for the best, but we expect the worst,” the 36-year-old told Coconuts on the sidelines of Saturday’s rally. “A lot of us don’t dare to hope, we hoped for a very long time and we’ve seen a lot of false stories.”

Choo has been a part of a group called Ready4Repeal since it was started in 2019 and is part of a legal team that challenged the constitutionality of Section 377A. 

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The archaic law has been challenged in court at least five times since 2011. Most recently, he represented one of the three plaintiffs in a new set of challenges that started in 2019. But the court dismissed those challenges, saying that the “entirety” of the law was “unenforceable” and hence, there was no constitutional issue to bring before the courts. 

This reasoning was based on previous statements by senior government officials that they would not prosecute anybody under 377a. What this means is there is “no problem,” Choo said. Since the law is not enforced, the government does not see it as an infringement on rights.

But that raises an obvious question: Why keep pushing to get the law repealed when it isn’t enforced?

Because Section 377a is the “cornerstone” or essentially the “green light” for discrimination, Choo said. As it is officially in the law books, it sends a signal to the public that it is socially acceptable to “invisibilize” the community.

“You’re right, 377a is not the be-all and end-all of discrimination. But it is the signal that is sent that discrimination is officially sanctioned. And that’s a societal norm that is actually quite abnormal,” Choo said.

It makes ‘no sense’

Photo: Pink Dot SG

While Singapore is practically bursting with pride for racial diversity, LGBT representation is actively discouraged and erased.

This censorship is the reason positive representations of the LGBT community are largely absent in mainstream media (including Disney cartoons), and why many continue to face discrimination in areas ranging from housing to schools

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But Choo feels that despite years of rejection in court, the battle to repeal 377a has brought “growing acceptance” for the LGBT community because many realize that such laws “no longer make sense.”

“You can’t say, ‘I’m going to officially sanction discrimination,’ and also say with a straight face, ‘I treat every Singaporean equally.’ That makes no sense,” he said.

For the first time in Pink Dot’s history, the yearly invitations by organizers to government representatives were answered, with Kebun Baru SMC MP Henry Kwek of the ruling People’s Action Party and Sengkang GRC MP Jamus Lim of the opposition Workers’ Party showing up at Saturday’s rally.

In another hopeful sign that the government’s stance may be softening, Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam told parliament in March that the government would consider the “best way forward” on the gay sex law and “respect” and “consider” different viewpoints. 

But for some, that hope was dimmed by a nationwide LGBT survey, launched by the government shortly after Shanmugam’s statement, that was criticized for containing leading questions. The survey’s website went offline after receiving an “overwhelming response” and was never seen again.

A more optimistic survey result came from a recent poll conducted by market research firm Ipsos, which found that 44% of Singaporeans say they support the law, down from 55% in 2018.

What’s next?

Photo: Carolyn Teo/Coconuts

If everything goes well and the law finally gets repealed, what happens next? There’s still “a lot of work to be done” since discrimination will not go away that easily if the law is struck off, according to Choo. 

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“There’s discrimination that we need to fight against, and educate the public about in the media. There are a lot of laws and regulations that prevent the public from seeing the community as equal,” he said.

A recent poll by journalist Kirsten Han showed that many respondents were worried that if 377a gets repealed, the government will implement other measures to try to “appease the conservatives,” leading to more legislation that could ultimately do more damage to the LGBT community.

Choo said he believes the government will be consistent in its decisions, and if they take one step forward and two steps back, they will eventually be called out. 

“This is a government that has always taken pride in being pragmatic and in being consistent. If it takes a particular position in respect of 377a, there are other steps that it should eventually take that follow up as a natural consequence of the repeal,” he said.

Will the battle to repeal 377a eventually be won, maybe in the next five to 10 years? Choo says this is “realistic.” 

But even when that happy day comes, the battle for equality in Singapore will no doubt still be far from over.

Photo: Carolyn Teo/Coconuts
Photo: Carolyn Teo/Coconuts

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