Walter Woon, Tommy Koh differ on 377A anti-gay sex law at NUS forum

Prof Woon (left) is in favour of repealing the law because of an existing "constitutional problem", but Prof Koh notes potential political pushback. -- PHOTO: ST FILE
Prof Woon (left) is in favour of repealing the law because of an existing "constitutional problem", but Prof Koh notes potential political pushback. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

Top lawyers debate repealing of Section 377A at human rights session

The subject of universal human rights took a local turn at a university forum on Tuesday night, with two top lawyers disagreeing over whether an anti-gay sex law should be done away with.

National University of Singapore (NUS) law don Walter Woon said he was in favour of repealing the law because of what he sees as a "constitutional problem".

The Government has said that the law will not be proactively enforced. But Prof Woon, a former attorney-general, cited Section 35(8) of the Constitution to make the point that the powers to prosecute lie with the Attorney-General.

"So we have a very dangerous precedent here where the political authorities are saying to the Public Prosecutor - who is supposed to be independent - there are some laws that you don't enforce," he said at the 12th NUS Tembusu Forum attended by about 250 students.

"I find that very uncomfortable," he added.

Section 377A makes it a crime for men to commit acts of gross indecency with other men, whether in private or public. It carries a jail term of up to two years. The law, enacted in 1938, has been in the spotlight in recent years following Parliament debates and constitutional challenges.

Prof Woon said that homosexual sex was "absolutely impossible to prove" as a practical matter. He added: "As a matter of principle, if these are consenting adults, why should it carry a jail term?"

While considered a sin by certain religions, it could be accorded similar treatment to adultery and fornication, which are not crimes under the law, he said, adding: "If it is a sin, it is between you and God."

NUS Centre for International Law chairman Tommy Koh agreed that the provision should in principle be done without, but said abolishing it was "not so simple" given potential political pushback.

A majority of Singaporeans were against a repeal going by opinion polls, Prof Koh said.

"The compromise is a law in the book, but Singapore will not enforce that law," he said, adding that the Government's difficulty in balancing opposing opinions "should not be underestimated".

The panel at the two-hour forum titled Are Human Rights Truly Universal? also included Ms Braema Mathi, president of human rights group Maruah, and Mr Bernhard Faustenhammer, who heads the political, press and information section of the European Union delegation to Singapore.

They concurred that the idea of human rights is universal, but its application hinges on local contexts, such as culture and history.

Ms Mathi cited the example of Brunei's recent passing of the hudud law, an Islamic penal code that calls for death by stoning for adultery, which she said appears to contradict both regional and global human rights declarations.

waltsim@sph.com.sg