Singapore society must decide which way to go on gay law, says Shanmugam

Majority are opposed to removing Section 377A but a growing minority want it repealed, he says

Singapore society has to decide which direction it wants to go on the issue of Section 377A, the law which criminalises sex between men, said Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam.

His comments came after India's Supreme Court on Thursday ruled to decriminalise Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, which made consensual gay sex a crime.

Mr Shanmugam told reporters that in Singapore, society is deeply split on this issue. "The majority are opposed to any change to Section 377A, they are opposed to removing it," he said.

However, he noted that a growing minority want the law to be repealed. "The Government is in the middle." He said the issue relates to social values, and added: "Can you impose viewpoints on a majority when (the issue is) so closely related to social value systems?"

Mr Shanmugam said his personal point of view is that care has to be taken against criminalising lifestyles and sexual attitudes, and treating people involved as criminals.

"(But) it would be wrong for me to impose my personal views on society or as a policymaker."

He added: "So, really, I think society has got to decide which direction it wants to go. And the laws will have to keep pace with changes in society and how society sees these issues."

The offence carries up to a two-year jail term for men who, in public or private, commit acts of "gross indecency" with other men.

Mr Shanmugam also made the point that the law is there, but generally there have been no prosecutions for private conduct.


"People openly express themselves as gay, I mean you have got the gay parade. Police even approved the licensing for it, no one gets prosecuted for declaring themselves as gay. So, really, when was the last time someone was prosecuted?" he said, adding this was the approach as set out by the Prime Minister.

A legal challenge to strike down Section 377A failed in 2014, when the highest court in Singapore rejected arguments that the provision contravened the Constitution.

Gay couple Gary Lim, 46, and Kenneth Chee, 38, as well as Mr Tan Eng Hong, 51, said the provision was discriminatory and should be declared void by the court.

Their argument was that Section 377A infringed their right to equal protection under the law, as guaranteed by Article 12 of the Con-stitution, and violates their right to life and liberty, as guaranteed by Article 9.

But the apex court held that Section 377A did not violate Article 9 as the phrase "life and liberty" referred only to the personal liberty of a person from unlawful incarceration, and not to the right of privacy and personal autonomy.

As for Article 12, the court held that Section 377A passed a classification test used by the courts in determining whether a law complies with the constitutional right of equality.

The court also ruled that Section 377A fell outside the scope of Article 12, which forbids discrimination of citizens on grounds including religion, race and place of birth. The court observed that Article 12 did not contain the words "gender", "sex" and "sexual orientation", which related to Section 377A.

During an interview last year with the BBC, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that Singapore "is a society which is not that liberal on these matters. Attitudes have changed, but I believe if you have a referendum on the issue today, 377A would stand''.

Asked whether he would like to get rid of 377A, PM Lee replied: "My personal view is that if I do not have a problem, this is an uneasy compromise, I am prepared to live with it until social attitudes change."

Correction note: In an earlier version of the story, Mr Shanmugam was quoted as saying "while the law is fair, generally there have been no prosecutions for private conduct". It should be "the law is there, but generally there have been no prosecutions for private conduct". We are sorry for the error.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 08, 2018, with the headline 'S'pore society must decide which way to go on gay law, says Shanmugam'. Subscribe