SINGAPORE - Singapore’s Constitution sets a very high bar for the holding of referendums, so care must be exercised about letting the definition of marriage be decided via a national referendum as suggested by the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), said Social and Family Development Minister Masagos Zulkifli on Tuesday.
He added that it is the duty of elected MPs to consult, discuss and come to a decision, even and perhaps especially for difficult and polarising social issues.
The Republic has held only one referendum – in 1962, on the merger with Malaysia – he said in Parliament during the second reading of the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill, adding that under the Constitution, a referendum is required when sovereignty, or the command of its armed forces and police, is at stake.
Mr Masagos was speaking in response to a proposal on Monday by Non-Constituency MP Hazel Poa of the opposition PSP that wants the definition of marriage to be decided via a national referendum rather than by Parliament.
He described it as “an attempt to avoid taking a position, as parliamentarians, as elected representatives of the people”.
He reminded PSP of what happened in the United Kingdom with Brexit, where both sides campaigned vigorously and bitterly, creating and entrenching polarised identities.
Even when Brexit was eventually approved in a referendum with the slimmest of margins, people continued to campaign for a second referendum.
In response, Ms Poa said PSP has shown its ability to make difficult decisions, such as its decision to support the repeal of Section 377A. On the definition of marriage, she said given the high level of interest from the public, and that it is not an area requiring specialised knowledge, it would be an issue suitable for the public to participate in.
She said: “Our position on wanting the definition of marriage to be determined via a national referendum instead of Parliament is not a convenient way to avoid difficult decisions... We are aware of the Government’s position on what the criteria are for holding a referendum, it’s just that we have a slightly different view on what are the issues that should go for a referendum.
“Marriage, as many members have pointed out, is a matter of social norm; we feel that this is an area that is suitable for the public to participate in.”
She also said PSP is voting against the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill as it would like the definition of marriage to be decided via a referendum rather than through Parliament.
Mr Masagos said that based on PSP’s position, there will be no further challenges to S377A but there will be new challenges that will be put up in court on constitutional grounds.
“They will wait for the train to crash on us,” he added.
Mr Masagos also addressed concerns by Mr Alex Yam (Marsiling-Yew Tee GRC), Mr Sharael Taha (Pasir Ris-Punggol GRC) and Nominated MP Abdul Samad, who asked for assurance that the repeal would not result in a change in social norms.
He said the new Article 156 from the Constitutional Amendment is intended to achieve this, as it allows the Government and public agencies to safeguard, support, foster and promote marriage, which the law currently defines as between a man and a woman.
In the area of education, he said Singapore’s policies and curriculum remain anchored in the country’s prevailing family values and social norms, which most Singaporeans want to uphold. These include the family as the cornerstone of Singapore’s social fabric, and marriage between a man and a woman, he said.
The sexuality education curriculum in Ministry of Education (MOE) schools respects the primary role of parents and reflects the national posture on the heterosexual family as the basic unit of society, he said. It is focused on age appropriateness and the developmental needs of the child when touching on topics such as homosexuality.
Mr Masagos, who is also Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs, said in madrasahs, trained teachers help address sexuality issues. Counsellors are available should students need further advice and support.
While MOE does not regulate the curriculum for international schools here, they should respect Singapore’s social norms and values, he said. They must be careful not to cross the line into advocacy on issues in Singapore that could be socially divisive.
All students with sexuality issues will be given a conducive learning environment and the necessary support to ensure their overall well-being, he added.
In response to MPs who spoke on religious freedom, Mr Masagos said Article 156 will provide further protection for the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. There are no plans to change this definition to include same-sex marriages.
Religious leaders or any licensed solemniser cannot solemnise a same-sex couple.
Religious freedom is also protected in Article 15 of the Constitution. Every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs, and the discretion to refuse same-sex solemnisations or weddings from being held on its premises. However, Mr Masagos said one must graciously accommodate those who have different values, and not incite violence or hate against others.
On employment, Mr Masagos said that employees are protected against discrimination under the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices. These guidelines require employers to make employment decisions based on merit and not factors irrelevant to the job.
Employees should also not feel compelled to support causes or participate in activities that do not align with their beliefs.
Noting the robust debate in the House, Mr Masagos said it is indeed the right forum for issues and policies that are complex and require political judgment, and an example of Parliament stepping up to do its duty.
“It is a responsible government that has balanced the views expressed by members and stakeholders and has shown the viable way forward,” he said. “We did not deflect the matter to the court or kick the can down the road.”
This, he said, is the strength of Singapore’s system when each branch – the legislature, executive and judiciary – does its part to its fullest and does it well, and does what is right for Singapore and Singaporeans.
With the passing of two Bills, the repeal of S377A and the introduction of the Constitutional Amendment, Mr Masagos said space has been created for society to deliberate on social issues within the political process, and not through a legal route, which is zero-sum in nature.
“It is time to come together and move forward. Preserve the peace and stability that our society has fought hard for, and forge ahead,” he said.