SINGAPORE - Four Workers’ Party (WP) MPs said they would support the repeal of Section 377A, while another three said they would vote against the scrapping of the colonial-era law.
WP MPs came down on both sides of the issue after Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh lifted the party Whip to allow his MPs to vote according to their conscience.
He said this would let them represent the many Singaporeans who see the matter as one of deep religious belief and conscience.
On Monday, five WP MPs spoke on S377A, which criminalises sex between men. Three of them – Mr Singh, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Leon Perera (all Aljunied GRC) – support the repeal, and two – Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang) – have voiced their opposition to it.
Another two, Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC), could not be in Parliament on Monday because of Covid-19. Mr Faisal is voting against the repeal as a matter of religion and conscience, while Mr Chua supports the repeal.
Mr Singh said during the debate in Parliament that the WP had neither taken up the cause of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) community, nor stood against it in previous years, as the party believes the community should not be exploited for political points.
Politicians should not be seen siding with particular groups on issues of great social division and contending values, he said.
Ms Lim, the WP chairman, said she supports the repeal of S377A but will abstain on the constitutional amendment to protect Parliament’s right to define marriage, as she is concerned that doing so would exclude judicial scrutiny on this topic.
It is the job of the courts to assess if laws are constitutional, said Ms Lim. “It is not the same thing to say that the courts are intervening in a political sphere when they are doing their constitutional duty.”
She recognised that some fundamental liberties in the Constitution have been qualified, but said these tend to be “scoped very tightly and justified on the grounds of national emergencies, security, public order and public health”.
Mr Tan and Mr Giam both said they were guided by their conscience and faith in voting against repeal, with Mr Tan saying it was “the most difficult speech I have to make to date”.
They both support the constitutional amendment to better protect families, while noting Ms Lim’s reservations. Mr Tan said: “If the repeal were to proceed without the proposed constitutional amendments, those who have reservations about the repeal may be even more concerned that there will be no other enhancement in law to address their concerns.”
Mr Perera, who supports repeal, said the law has no place to intervene in private behaviour among consenting adults.
S377A, which is not enforced, has become a symbolic marker, but such markers are not written into Singapore’s laws for other issues of importance, he said.
There are other, better ways to register views on matter of conscience, outside the realm of laws and criminal penalties, he added.
In his speech during the debate, Mr Singh noted that the People’s Action Party has elected not to lift its Whip. This means that its MPs will have to vote according to the party’s position.
“Given the varied public opinion on the impending repeal of S377A, there is a risk that the democratic value of Parliament could be diluted if the views of Singaporeans on this subject are not adequately ventilated in this House,” he said.
Mr Singh added that while he understood the compromise struck in 2007 to retain S377A without actively enforcing the law, doing so undermined the sense of belonging of Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community.
While it was not enforced, the law’s symbolic message that those who identify as LGBTQ+ are outsiders should not be underestimated, he added.
Keeping this stance indefinitely would only “shine an ever-brighter spotlight on the issue”, particularly as social mores in Singapore and around the world steadily shift towards greater acceptance of LGBTQ+ individuals, he said.
Mr Singh said he still believes that had the WP openly supported repeal earlier, it would not have been good for Singapore politics. “More crucially, it would have not served the interests of the LGBTQ+ community.”
He added: “My personal belief is that the repeal of S377A does not, in any way, signal the state’s hostility towards the family unit or religious freedom.” Neither does repeal signal that Singapore is becoming a more liberal or permissive society, he said.
“What it does is make room in our shared public space, for members of our common Singaporean family to not be discriminated against due to their sexual orientation.”