SINGAPORE - There is strong consensus in society that marriage should be between a man and a woman, with children born and raised within such families. Amendments to the Constitution to protect this definition from legal challenge will help uphold policies that reflect this consensus, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli told Parliament on Monday.
These include public housing policies that give preference to married couples, policies on adopting children, guidelines on what media content is acceptable, and what children are taught, he said. For instance, the pre-school and primary school curriculum will not feature same-sex parents, and at older ages, the focus will be on treating everyone with respect and empathy, but not promoting same-sex relationships.
The amendment introduces a new Article 156 of the Constitution, which makes clear that Parliament can act to define, regulate and protect the institution of marriage. It also 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.
Speaking at the start of the debate on the changes, which are being debated together with the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises gay sex, Mr Masagos noted that the PAP Government has been consistent in its strong support for the institution of marriage and the family through its policies and legislation dating back to the Women’s Charter in 1961.
Various policies also reflect and reinforce this support for marriage and family, he said. These include encouraging parenthood within marriage, not supporting same-sex family formation, and maintaining Singapore’s policy against planned and deliberate single parenthood, including via assisted reproduction techniques or surrogacy.
Likewise, what is taught in pre-schools and schools is based on marriage as between a man and a woman, and family as the basic unit of society. Higher age ratings apply for media content depicting non-traditional family units, such as same-sex families, and public libraries do not carry books that depict such family units for very young children, he added.
“Singapore’s public policy is and has always been to uphold heterosexual marriage and promote the formation of families within such marriages,” he said. “Consistent with this policy, an overseas same-sex marriage will, generally, not be accorded legal recognition in Singapore.”
However, just as there have been challenges on the constitutionality of Section 377A, there can also be challenges to laws and policies related to marriage, said Mr Masagos, citing examples from jurisdictions such as India to show how changes led by the courts could polarise society.
“This Bill is what a responsible Government, carrying out its duty to the people of Singapore, would introduce. 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,” he said.
He acknowledged that many Singaporeans had written to the Government about the subject, and some had wanted to go further – by enshrining the definition of marriage in the Constitution.
“We understand that these calls come from a sincere belief in the sanctity of marriage and reflect a genuine worry that the institution of marriage might be changed in the future to include same-sex marriages.”
But he added: “Elevating marriage to the same level as fundamental rights in the Constitution would not be appropriate.”
Mr Masagos said that while marriage and family are the bedrock of society, to elevate marriage to the same level as fundamental rights would change the whole complexion of the Constitution. The definition of marriage is and will remain in the Women’s Charter, Interpretation Act and Administration of Muslim Law Act, he added.
“Importantly, this Government will not use our current super-majority in Parliament to tie the hands of the future generations,” he said. “Hence, the constitutional amendment will not prevent future governments, elected by the people, from amending the legal definition of marriage by a simple majority in Parliament, should they choose to do so.”
What is clear is that the definition of marriage and related policies should not be determined by the courts, he said. “In fact, this constitutional amendment provides greater protection than today, not just for the definition of marriage, but also related policies.”
Mr Masagos also reiterated Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s assurance that the Government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage, and Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong’s assurance that it will not change this under his watch.
Singapore must also continue to protect all individuals from scorn or harm, he said. “This includes homosexuals who are members of our society, our kith and kin,” he added. “Homosexuals have a place in our society, and space to live their lives in Singapore.”
At the same time, religious groups can continue to preach about homosexuality according to their religious beliefs, but not instigate violence or intimidation towards others or a particular group, the minister said.
He also made clear that Singapore’s pro-family values and position are not a result of a majoritarian or religious approach.
“It is one that we share in common as Singaporeans, and what this Government believes in and stands for,” he said. “It is how we have come so far and will enable our society to perpetuate and flourish in the future.”