Parliamentary petition to repeal 377A: not just any other petition
By Choo Zheng Xi
In the most formal challenge to Singapore’s gay sex laws yet, Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Siew Kum Hong will be sponsoring a petition in Parliament calling for the repeal of section 377A of the Penal Code. The petition was initiated by lawyer George Hwang and gay media company Fridae.com owner Dr Stuart Koe.
377A is the section of the Penal Code which prohibits “gross indecency” between men.
The petition calls for the repeal of 377A on the basis that it contravenes section 12 (1) of the Constitution.
Section 12 (1) states: “All persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”.
The petition requests that Parliament ‘extend equal protection to all Singaporeans in respect of their private consensual sexual conduct, regardless of their sexual orientation’.
Parliamentary petition to focus debate
The petition is not legally binding on Parliament, but will serve to bring the attention of Parliament to the question of 377A’s constitutionality.
To date, the debate over 377A has taken place in the context of a wider overhaul of Singapore’s Penal Code. A recent press release in conjunction with the Penal Code amendment Bill contains a brief two sentence explanation of why 377A was retained.
When asked by TOC what he hoped to achieve through this petition, Dr Koe said he wanted ‘to show the government and other Singaporeans that many Singaporean citizens, whether straight or gay, believe that 377A is discriminatory and should not stand’.
Dr Koe hopes that the petition’s message is clear enough for Parliament to specifically debate the constitutionality of 377A, and for Parliament to eventually vote on it.
Parliamentary petition history
The petition Mr Siew will be bringing before Parliament is only the second in Singapore’s history.
The last time a public petition was presented to Parliament was in 1985, sponsored by the then MP for Anson J B Jeyaretnam. (See here, pdf file)
In contrast to the current petition, the 1985 petition was brought before Parliament on a question of Parliamentary privilege. One Mr Sivadas Sankaran was sued for defamation on a memorandum he submitted to a Parliamentary committee set up to look into amending the Companies Act. Mr Sivadas’ petition requested that Parliamentary privilege be extended to his submission to the Parliamentary committee.
The request to have his petition considered was denied by Parliament.
Strict rules lend legitimacy to petition process
Unlike a multitude of online petitions that have sprung up over issues as varied as Ministerial payrises and unhappiness over Central Provident Fund (CPF) changes, the Parliamentary petition has to be cleared by the Clerk of Parliament before it is sent to an eight man Parliamentary Petitions Committee. The committee will then gather feedback before presenting its findings to Parliament for consideration.
For the petition to be considered by the Petitions Committee, strict rules apply.
Parliament’s Standing Orders mandate that signatures have to be handwritten, and valid addresses of signatories affixed. Members of the public who want to sign the petition have to print it out and deliver it to collection points set up across Singapore. (See here: Parliament Standing Orders, section 18 and section 100 (6).)
To Dr Koe, the strict rules of petition verification and signing lend legitimacy to the petition:
“People cannot hide behind the anonymity of the internet. By signing the petition, each person is “showing up” and being counted”.
The petition’s strict formal requirements on disclosure and verification are also significant given the negative societal perceptions of homosexuality. Dr Koe believes that because of these perceptions, ‘those who are showing their support are truly doing so out of their convictions’.
Parliamentary petition complements grassroots momentum
The Parliamentary petition comes at a time when pro repeal activists are launching one of the most visible campaigns to repeal 377A to date.
So far, 13 retail outlets and eateries across Singapore have volunteered to be public drop off and collection points for the petition. Petition organizers are also encouraging people to print the petition and gather signatures from friends and family.
The petition comes hot on the heels of the setting up of a one-stop online resource for the repeal of 377A: http://www.repeal377a.com/. It contains the legal background to the issue, as well as an open letter to the Prime Minister, which has to date gathered 3300 names.
Just last night, a video by prominent local actors calling for 377A’s repeal was uploaded to Youtube.
The message the video hopes to send?
“It’s not just a gay thing. It’s about equality”.
Read also Fridae.com’s report “Singapore’s repeal 377A campaign gains momentum with new parliamentary petition”.
Below is the video calling for the repeal of Section 377A:
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