SINGAPORE - Repealing the longstanding law criminalising gay sex is the responsible thing for the Government and Parliament to do, two ministers said on Monday.
There is a real risk that the courts could strike down Section 377A of the Penal Code, with an impact on marriage and other policies, and this would not be in Singapore’s interests, they said.
That is why the Constitution is being amended with a new Article 156 to protect the current definition of marriage as between a man and a woman, and related policies, from legal challenges, they told Parliament at the start of a debate on the amendment as well as the repeal of S377A.
“This Bill is what a responsible Government, carrying out its duty to the people of Singapore, would introduce,” said Social and Family Development Minister Masagos Zulkifli, who opened the debate by elaborating on the constitutional amendment. “It allows the political process to balance different interests and perspectives and does not pass the buck to the court to rule on social issues which are best dealt with via parliaments.”
On the repeal, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said leaving the decision to the courts would divide society.
“Housing, education, other policies – they could all be at risk. Knowing all these risks and refusing to take a position or be clear in how we will deal with it, is avoiding our responsibilities as MPs,” he said. “It is easier politically, but it is also worse for Singapore and Singaporeans. To put it bluntly, that will be an abdication of duty.”
The debate, which resumes on Tuesday, comes after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said at the National Day Rally in August that the Government will repeal S377A. This follows a Court of Appeal decision in February and advice from the Attorney-General that signalled the risk of S377A being struck down by the courts in a future challenge.
At the same time, most Singaporeans do not want the repeal to trigger a drastic shift in societal norms, the ministers said.
Article 156 will protect the prevailing consensus in society that marriage is between a man and a woman, and children should be born and raised within such families, said Mr Masagos. Future governments are also not prevented from amending this definition in Parliament, should they choose to do so.
Mr Shanmugam said society is more ready now for repeal since S377A was last extensively debated in 2007, when the Government said that while the law remained, it would not be enforced. On Monday, he acknowledged that the law had continued to hurt gay people. “Let us start to... heal these divides, remove their pain. S377A should no longer be in our books. Repealing S377A makes it clear that gay people are not criminals.”
Many of the 25 MPs who spoke on Monday echoed these sentiments.
Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Sustainability and the Environment and Transport Baey Yam Keng cited various famous foreign personalities who are openly gay, such as Apple chief Tim Cook and actor Ian McKellen. “These are people who walk among us every day… They should not be treated (as) any lesser for what they would like to do in private. We need to be inclusive of different lifestyles just as we’d like to have the choice and freedom to lead our private life in peace.”
A number of MPs expressed concern about cancel culture, religious freedom, and discrimination that could be faced by those with differing views on homosexuality. Mr Fahmi Aliman (Marine Parade GRC) asked that companies not penalise and discriminate against workers who choose not to attend diversity and inclusion programmes or events.
Workers’ Party (WP) MP Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC) said that those who question lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) relationships on the grounds of religious faith or deep personal conviction should have the freedom to espouse their views respectfully, while those who believe in LGBTQ equality have the right to respectfully criticise opposing views. “They should not be cancelled. They should not be demonised. To criticise a choice someone makes in their personal life is not tantamount to criticising, denigrating or disenfranchising the person, but this depends on how the criticism is made,” he said.
Some MPs also called for continued commitment to pro-family values. Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said he believed “absolutely, with no apology and with no reservations, in the traditional family form as an ideal”. He said: “We have to find ways to continue to protect this precious and fragile institution of the traditional family and marriage and we have to remember that the welfare and the rights of our children are paramount.”
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (Aljunied GRC) said in repealing S377A, religious Singaporeans are not asked to endorse homosexuality, but to instead honour the equality of all Singaporeans in the eyes of the law, that no consenting adults should be regarded as criminals because of what they do in private.
MPs will vote on both Bills – the constitutional amendment and the repeal – at the end of debate on Tuesday.
The People’s Action Party has said it will not lift the party Whip – requiring all its MPs to vote as a bloc – as the changes are a matter of public policy. But Mr Singh said on Monday he would lift the Whip on his party’s MPs, who are divided on the issue, adding: “Not lifting the whip would deny WP MPs not in favour of a repeal of S377A the opportunity to vote freely and in doing so, to also represent Singaporeans who see this issue as a matter of deep religious belief and conscience.”
Of the five WP MPs who spoke on Monday, Mr Singh and Mr Perera said they agreed with both Bills; Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang) and Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) said they were against the repeal but for the constitutional amendments; while Ms Sylvia Lim (Aljunied GRC) said she was pro-repeal but would abstain from voting on the constitutional amendments.
Mr Singh said Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) was against the repeal as a matter of religion and conscience, while Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC) was pro-repeal. Both men had tested positive for Covid-19 and did not attend Parliament.
Ms Hazel Poa, a Non-Constituency MP from the Progress Singapore Party, said the party had strong differing views but decided to support the repeal of S377A. However, it also called for a national referendum on the definition of marriage.
Meanwhile, Nominated MPs Mark Chay and Cheng Hsing Yao said they were pro-repeal while Professor Hoon Hian Teck said he was against it.
A common thread among MPs was a call for mutual respect and civil discussion despite differing views. Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) said: “For us to move forward as a country, there needs to be more ability in us to actively hear different viewpoints. Let’s not allow divisive voices to break us apart, but rather for us to consider when and how we want to be inclusive while maintaining our own beliefs and values.”