SINGAPORE - The People's Action Party will not be lifting the whip when Parliament votes to repeal a law that criminalises sex between men as the matter is one of public policy, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong on Monday (Aug 22).
This means that its MPs will have to vote according to the party's position.
Referring to Section 377A of the Penal Code, DPM Wong said: "In our minds, this is a matter of public policy because we are repealing a law which the courts have already said is not going to be enforced. At the same time, even as we were to repeal this law, we are making sure that we are putting in place measures to make sure that it will not trigger further societal changes.
"From that point of view, this is a matter of public policy and we do not intend to lift the whip when this matter is debated in Parliament later on."
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong had announced during the National Day Rally that the Government will repeal Section 377A, but also amend the Constitution to protect the existing definition of marriage - between one man and one woman - from being challenged in the courts.
In an interview with local news broadcaster CNA on Monday, Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister, said the Government's plans amount to a "very limited, careful and controlled repeal of Section 377A".
Some groups, including the Alliance of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of Singapore, had called for the party whip to be lifted so that MPs can vote freely according to their conscience.
The role of a party whip is to ensure good communication in the party ranks, contribute to the smooth running of its parliamentary machinery and serve as disciplinarian. Dr Janil Puthucheary, Senior Minister of State for Health and Communications and Information, is the current government Whip.
The Whip ensures the party's MPs vote according to the party's position. The PAP has lifted the whip several times in the past, including for the Nominated MP scheme and the Maintenance of Parents (Amendment) Bill.
The Workers' Party declined to comment when asked if it would lift its party whip for the debate.
Why marriage won't be entrenched in the Constitution
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong, who spoke to CNA at the same interview with Mr Wong, said the Government will propose an amendment to safeguard the existing definition of marriage from constitutional challenge.
This protection will also be extended to other laws and policies which depend on this current definition of marriage, such as laws on adoption, public housing, school curriculum and advertising, he added.
Asked why the Government will not entrench the definition of marriage in the Constitution, as some churches had called for, Mr Tong said the main reason is it "may not be appropriate" to do so.
"This entrenchment would elevate marriage to the same level as fundamental rights in our Constitution, rights such as life and personal liberty," he noted. "And this would fundamentally change the whole complexion and the schema of the Constitution."
Although the move might satisfy some, it may also rile up other segments, the minister warned.
"And if we did this, if we hard coded marriage in this way, in the most fundamental legal document in Singapore, we may end up prompting those who disagree with this position to campaign to mobilise, agitate, perhaps even with greater intensity," he added.
"And we do not think this would be good for society."
'It will not happen under my watch'
Mr Wong said the Government is fully committed to upholding its family-centred policies and marriage as defined between one man and one woman.
Likewise, it will not change the laws and policies that rely on this definition of marriage, and the overall tone of society will not change, he added.
"PM himself said this very clearly in his speech - the PAP Government will not change the current definition of marriage," said Mr Wong.
"So this will not change, this will not happen under the watch of the current Prime Minister, and it will not happen under my watch - if the PAP were to win the next general election."
On whether there is a political price to pay in repealing Section 377A, Mr Wong replied that the Government has to focus on doing what is right.
It has sought to achieve a new balance that reflects societal attitudes while preserving unity, he said.
"We believe this package of moves is the right balance to strike. I know not everyone will be happy with this proposal. Some will want us to move further, others will say that we are going too far," he added.
"But in the end, the Government has to make a judgment and do what we believe is right for the wider good of Singapore and Singaporeans."
When asked why not hold a referendum here on the repeal of the anti-gay sex law, Mr Wong said that constitutionally, such a move is required only when sovereignty is at stake.
Historically, Singapore has had only one referendum on the merger of Malaysia, and the Deputy Prime Minister said the bar is set very high.
Repealing Section 377A law is "very far" from reaching this bar, as Singapore is repealing a law which the Court of Appeal has already said the country cannot enforce, Mr Wong noted. In February this year, the apex court ruled that Section 377A was unenforceable in its entirety.
"We believe this certainly does not meet the bar for a referendum," he said.
Referendums could, in fact, deepen divisions in societies, Mr Wong cautioned. He brought up how such moves during Brexit and the Scottish independence in Britain did not resolve the issues then.
"For those who think that having a referendum will provide resolution and make things better, that may not necessarily happen. In fact, it may well have the opposite effect."