For years religious groups blocked attempts to scrap Section 377A of the Penal Code—a homophobic British colonial law dating back to the 1930s—and were taken aback when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the time had come to scrap what he called an 'untidy' law.
Addressing a National Day Rally this weekend, Singapore’s Prime Minister said that previous pressure to retain Section 377A was made “particularly” by the the country’s “Muslims, Catholics and many Protestant denominations” and it was for this reason that, in 2007, parliament voted to retain the law.
He said that law reflected outdated moral values, but over the decades homosexuality had “become better understood scientifically and medically.”
Many countries that used to have laws against men having sex with men have since repealed them and they include several Asian countries but not Singapore… we stopped short of repealing the law. It would have been too divisive. Now, 15 years later, attitudes have shifted. While we remain a broadly conservative society gay people are better accepted in Singapore, especially among younger Singaporeans.
Religious groups, according to AP, were guarded in their reaction to Lee’s comments, saying the changes mustn’t hinder their religious freedom to articulate views on public morality nor cause any “reverse discrimination” on those who doesn’t support homosexuality.
Christian and Muslim groups said heterosexual marriage must be protected in the constitution before Section 377A is repealed and that there should be no further liberalisation of policies.
The National Council of Churches said in a statement:
We seek the government’s assurance that the religious freedom of churches will be protected as we continue to teach against same-sex sexual acts and highlight such acts.
Pastors and church workers must be protected from charges of “hate speech” and not be compelled to adopt solely “LGBTQ-affirming” strategies in their counselling, it said.
The council expressed concerns the repeal could lead to LGBTQ culture expanding and called for redress for Christians who face “reverse discrimination.”
The Alliance of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of Singapore, which represents over 80 local churches, was more blunt, calling it a “an extremely regrettable decision.”
The decision to remove a moral marker as weighty as S377A signals a rewriting of acceptable sexual relationships, and celebrates homosexuality as being characteristic of a mainstream social environment.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore said the church is not seeking to criminalise the LGBQT community but to protect the family and marriage and its rights to teach and practice on such topics unhindered.
Singapore’s top Islamic leader, Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, above, said the repeal was a “tough balancing act” and steps to preserve traditional values were crucial.
Even as we hold on to different values, aspirations and orientations, I don’t think we should let hate and contempt for differences to win.
State-sanctioned discrimination has no place in Singapore
More than 20 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups—including Pink Dot SG that organises an annual rally that attracts thousands of supporters—said the repeal was long overdue and that “state-sanctioned discrimination has no place in Singapore.”
They called it a “hard-won victory, a triumph of love over fear” that will finally enable victims of bullying, rejection and harassment to heal.
However, the groups said the repeal was merely “the first step on a long road towards full equality for LGBTQ people” amid other areas of discrimination they face at home, in schools, workplaces, and in housing and health systems.
No to same-sex unions
Unfortunately the repeal does not mean that gay Singaporean will have the freedom to marry any time soon.
According to Bloomberg, Lee said the city-state would alter the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, in a compromise with conservative and religious groups.
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.
There will be no referendum to reconsider the decision as that requires a “very high” bar, such as issues involving sovereignty, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said.
Any change to Singapore’s family-centric policies or its definition of marriage “will not happen under the watch of the current Prime Minister,” Wong, who’s slated to become the next prime minister, said in the interview. He added, “and it will not happen under my watch if … PAP were to win the next General Election,” referring to the ruling People’s Action Party.
The timing of the repeal or the constitutional change was not disclosed.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the repeal could set the scene for future challenges to the constitution.
On the surface, it does look like one step forward, two steps backward, but my sense is that the repeal could be seen as a foot in the door, which could pave the way to future challenges to the constitution on the current definition of family and marriage.
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