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The Law That Bans Gay Sex in Singapore Is Now Being Challenged in Court

Singapore may be modern and high-tech, but it still has some very archaic laws.
November 13, 2019, 9:33am
Pink Dot 2019 gay sex ban illegal LGBTQ Court Singapore
A Pink Dot event in Singapore. Photo by Edoardo Liotta

Singapore is often cited for being efficient, modern, and almost futuristic, but it’s actually still got some pretty archaic laws. An obviously out of touch one is Section 377A of the Penal Code, a colonial-era law that forbids sex between two men. But many are actively trying to repeal this. Today, Singapore’s High Court started hearing the cases of three LGBTQ activists who filed separate motions to overturn the law. Many hope it will finally be struck down, as India — another former British colony — did in 2018.

The last time Singapore came close to getting rid of the law was in 2014, but the Court of Appeals eventually ruled that it was constitutional. After today, more hearings to discuss the issue are set for November 15, 18, 20, 21, and 22.

Section 377A has roots going back to the 19th century and prohibits “any act of gross indecency with another male person,” whether in public or in private, a crime punishable in Singapore by up to 2 years in jail. While the government no longer enforces the law, the fact that it is still part of the constitution in 2019 says a lot.

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But a shift in attitudes, especially in the youth, has led to more people fiercely challenging the law.

A study by the National University of Singapore’s Institute of Policy Studies released in May, found that 6 in 10 Singaporeans aged 18 to 25 believed that gay marriage was not wrong at all, or not wrong in most cases. That was 5 times more than the number of respondents aged 65 and above who felt the same way. The same study also found that opposition to gay marriage fell to 60 per cent in 2018, from 74 per cent in 2013.

These statistics are reflected in the growing number of participants in Singapore’s version of Pride, Pink Dot. It’s an annual rally to show support for the LGBTQ community that’s held at Hong Lim Park, the only place in the city-state where public protests are allowed.

Conservative estimates from the first Pink Dot event in 2009 put attendance at around 1,000 to 2,000 people but this year, it reportedly drew a crowd of more than 20,000.

Roy Tan, a retired doctor and one of the organisers of the first Pink Dot rally, is one of the three activists who are challenging Section 377A in court. He is joined by Johnson Ong Ming, an internationally renowned artist known as DJ Big Kid, and Bryan Choong, a former executive of the non-profit LGBTQ organisation, Oogachaga.

“I think public opinion is pretty clear across religious and age segments that homosexuality should not be a criminal offence,” Ong told Reuters. “I have full confidence in our judicial system and I am hopeful that the court will come to the right decision… and overturn Section 377A.”

These new motions were likely buoyed by India’s decision to strike down a similar law last year, and a paper by former chief justice Chan Sek Keong, published last month, where he, a devout Catholic, argued that the law was outdated and unconstitutional.

While hopes are high, some say that many Singaporeans still hold conservative views. In June, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that the law is here to stay.

“Some people have an issue with the 377A, which is our legislation against homosexual acts. This remains on the legislation, and it will for some time,” he said during the Smart Nation Summit held in Singapore. “It is the way this society is — we are not like San Francisco, nor are we like certain countries in the Middle East. We are something in between and that is the way this society is.”

Singapore, an icon of multiculturalism and the most religiously diverse country in the world, treads a fine line when it comes to LGBTQ issues. With many religious leaders actively coming forward to express disapproval on repealing Section 377A, the government remains largely conservative in an attempt to preserve the harmony, and appease the sensitivities of religious groups.