Tommy Koh's Facebook comment fuels heated debate on Section 377A

In a Facebook post that has since gone viral, former ambassador Tommy Koh wrote: "I would encourage our gay community to bring a class action to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A."
In a Facebook post that has since gone viral, former ambassador Tommy Koh wrote: "I would encourage our gay community to bring a class action to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A."PHOTO: TOMMY KOH

India's decision to strike down a law banning gay sex has reignited a debate on the issue here, especially after a prominent figure voiced his support for Singapore to move in the same direction.

In a Facebook comment on Thursday that has been shared widely, former ambassador Tommy Koh wrote: "I would encourage our gay community to bring a class action to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A". Section 377A is the law that criminalises consensual sex between adult men, but it is not actively enforced.

Professor Koh made the comment in a Facebook post of Professor Simon Chesterman, dean of the National University of Singapore Faculty of Law, who shared an article. In the post, Prof Chesterman had congratulated a former classmate and others who had helped move the needle on the legal issue in India, culminating in Thursday's landmark ruling.

When a Facebook user pointed out to Prof Koh a failed attempt in Singapore in 2014 to challenge the constitutionality of 377A, he simply replied: "Try again."

Prof Koh also liked a Facebook post by Mr Janadas Devan, chief of government communications, who wrote yesterday: "Speaking personally, I support Tommy's position. 377A is a bad law... Sooner or later, it will go. Pray sooner rather than later."

Members of the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) community cheered Prof Koh.

PRACTICAL, PRAGMATIC APPROACH

If in fact it is true, and I have asked doctors this, that you are genetically born a homosexual - because that is the nature of the genetic random transmission of genes - you can't help it. So, why should we criminalise it?... I think we pragmatically adjust, carry our people... don't upset them and suddenly upset their sense of propriety and right and wrong. But at the same time, let's not go around like this moral police... barging into people's rooms. That is not our business. So, you have to take a practical, pragmatic approach to what I see is an inevitable force of time and circumstance.

THEN MINISTER MENTOR LEE KUAN YEW, speaking at a dialogue with Young PAP activists in 2007.

UNTIL ATTITUDES CHANGE

We are not British. We are not Victorian. But this is a society which is not that liberal on these matters. Attitudes have changed, but I believe if you have a referendum on the issue today, 377A would stand... My personal view is that if I do not have a problem, this is an uneasy compromise, I am prepared to live with it until social attitudes change.

PRIME MINISTER LEE HSIEN LOONG, in an interview with the BBC in 2017.

Organisers of the annual Pink Dot rally, using the hashtag #tryagain on their Facebook page, said: "Time to get rid of the archaic law left behind by the British!"

Mr Leow Yangfa, executive director of Oogachaga, a non-profit organisation working with the LGBT community, told The Straits Times that although Section 377A is not proactively enforced, its continued existence creates an environment where it is acceptable to treat members of the LGBT community in an unequal way.

But conservative leaders have begun to fret. Pastor Lawrence Khong, chairman of LoveSingapore, a network of more than 100 churches here, said: "I am somewhat concerned, perhaps even disappointed, that a public and some would consider a government figure is making a statement like that. It does not come across as being helpful to building cohesion in society."

He urged the Government to take a cautious approach on the issue.

 
 
 

The Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas) could not be reached for comment. It had previously asked Muslims not to attend events that "support transgression" of Islamic teaching on the family, including events in support of the LGBT community.

Lawyer Lim Biow Chuan, who is Deputy Speaker of Parliament, said the Government has been taking a cautious stance on the issue for many years. The Government has stated that to "accommodate the sensitivities of different communities so that there is room for all to exist harmoniously together", Section 377A is not proactively enforced, and all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, are free to lead their lives and pursue their activities in their private space without fear or violence or personal insecurity.

Mr Lim thinks reviewing 377A now will divide society. "Maybe in the future, as people's values develop and change, we may find a better time to do so."

• Additional reporting by Theresa Tan

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2018, with the headline 'Tommy Koh's Facebook comment fuels heated debate on Section 377A'. Print Edition | Subscribe