Singapore's gay community Monday hailed a plan to decriminalize sex between men as “a triumph of love over fear" but warned there is still a long way to equality and new bans on same-sex unions could entrench discrimination against them.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong caught many by surprise when he announced in his National Day Rally speech Sunday that the government would repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, a colonial-era law that made sex between men punishable by up to two years in jail.
Since 2007, when Parliament last debated whether to repeal Section 377A, its position was to keep the law but not enforce it. But Lee said societal norms have shifted considerably and many Singaporeans will now accept decriminalization.
Lee, however, vowed the repeal will be limited and not shake Singapore’s traditional family and societal norms including how marriage is defined, what children are taught in schools, what is shown on television and general public conduct.
He said the government will amend the constitution to “safeguard the institution of marriage” and prevent any constitutional challenge to allow same-sex unions.
The timing of the repeal or the constitutional change was not disclosed.
More than 20 lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender groups — including Pink Dot SG that organizes an annual rally that attracts thousands of supporters — said the repeal was long overdue to show that “state-sanctioned discrimination has no place in Singapore.”
They called it a “hard-won victory, a triumph of love over fear" that will finally enable victims of bullying, rejection and harassment to heal. However, the groups said the repeal was merely “the first step on a long road towards full equality for LGBTQ people" amid other areas of discrimination they face at home, in schools, workplaces, and in housing and health systems.
They expressed disappointment with the government's plan to introduce further legislation or constitutional amendments to ban same-sex unions that signal LGBTQ people as unequal citizens.
Such a decision will “undermine the secular character of our constitution, codify further discrimination into supreme law and tie the hands of future Parliaments,” they warned.
Religious groups were guarded in their reaction to Lee's comments, saying the changes mustn’t hinder their religious freedom to articulate views on public morality nor cause any “reverse discrimination” on those who doesn’t support homosexuality.
Christian and Muslim groups said heterosexual marriage must be protected in the constitution before Section 377A is repealed and that there should be no further liberalization of policies.
“We seek the government’s assurance that the religious freedom of churches will be protected as we continue to teach against same-sex sexual acts and highlight such acts," the National Council of Churches said in a statement. Pastors and church workers must be protected from charges of “hate speech" and not be compelled to adopt solely “LGBTQ-affirming” strategies in their counselling, it said.
The council expressed concerns the repeal could lead to LGBTQ culture expanding and called for redress for Christians who face “reverse discrimination.”
The Alliance of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of Singapore, which represents over 80 local churches, was more blunt, calling it a “an extremely regrettable decision."
“The decision to remove a moral marker as weighty as S377A signals a rewriting of acceptable sexual relationships, and celebrates homosexuality as being characteristic of a mainstream social environment," it said.
The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore said the church is not seeking to criminalize the LGBQT community but to protect the family and marriage and its rights to teach and practice on such topics unhindered.
Singapore’s top Islamic leader, Mufti Nazirudin Mohd Nasir, said the repeal was a “tough balancing act” and steps to preserve traditional values were crucial.
“Even as we hold on to different values, aspirations and orientations, I don’t think we should let hate and contempt for differences to win,” he told Channel News Asia.
Section 377A was introduced under British colonial rule in the 1930s. Version of the law remain in other former British colonies, including neighboring Malaysia.
But laws have liberalized in recent years in Asia. India's top court decriminalized gay sex in a 2018 ruling. Taiwan became the first Asian government to legalize gay marriage in 2019, and Thailand recently approved plans allowing same-sex unions.
National University of Singapore sociologist Tan Ern Ser said the repeal could set the scene for future challenges to the constitution.
“On the surface, it does look like one step forward, two steps backward, but my sense is that the repeal could be seen as a foot in the door, which could pave the way to future challenges to the constitution on the current definition of family and marriage," Tan said.
Ng reported from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.