LGBT rights are also Singaporean rights
By Chris Liu
Singapore is cosmopolitan, first-rate, and forward-thinking in so many ways—but in other areas, the country is falling behind. One of these areas is LGBT rights.
At this moment, nations across the globe are engaged in a difficult period of self-reflection, as they seek to reconcile the demands for freedom and equality with certain deeply-ingrained beliefs and values. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court took that country one step closer to equality, in two widely-covered judicial rulings in favour of the LGBT community (link) . Thirteen countries now recognise the right of same-sex couples to marry, including France, Brazil, Sweden, and South Africa, with Uruguay and New Zealand’s same-sex marriage legislation to come into effect this August (link). A majority of countries in the world have decriminalised homosexuality. The list of jurisdictions that continue to legally prosecute LGBT persons (link) include Nigeria, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia—and of course, Singapore.
Canada, the country I call home, decriminalised same-sex activity in 1969 (link), and became the fourth country in the world to recognise same-sex marriage in 2005 (link). Singapore, of course, is not Canada. Nor should it be. But during my time in this pluralist and modern city-state, I’ve encountered arguments against the advance of LGBT rights that are eerily reminiscent of the debates my own society held, and on some level, still holds.
The anti-gay camp likes to marginalise LGBT grievances as the concerns of a small minority. They argue that LGBT issues are not issues of importance to the whole society. Nothing could be further from the truth. LGBT persons are not a mysterious underclass, squirreled away and out of sight. They are your friends, your co-workers, your family members. And their demands are the same as any Singaporean: equal treatment under the law.
Section 377A of the penal code, which threatens consensual same-sex activity with up to two years of prison, singles out LGBT Singaporeans for legal persecution of a kind that heterosexual couples will never face. This denial of legal equality should be of concern to all. When a legal system discriminates against some Singaporeans, all of Singapore loses trust and faith in that system. When a legal system is unfair to a segment of the population, the system itself cannot be considered just. No Singaporean, therefore, lives under a just system of laws.
The anti-gay camp also argues that LGBT issues infringe on religious freedoms. But it’s not so clear that this is necessarily the case. Section 377A outlines legal punishments to LGBT persons under criminal law—that is, secular law. Both the Singapore Constitution and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act affirms the principles of secularism in Singapore. Such principles are similarly affirmed in various religions, most famously in Christianity, when Christ said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s” (Matthew 22:21). Section 377A, being criminal law, belongs to Caesar’s realm. It is an issue that should be seen as separate from religion.
Finally, there are those in the anti-gay camp that foretell terrible consequences should further progress on LGBT issues be made. Consider such an argument for a second. Section 377A directly harms LGBT Singaporeans with threat of persecution, and indirectly harms Singapore by projecting a negative image of the nation abroad and by undermining public trust in the legal system. To repeal the law is thus to remedy already existing harm. On the other hand, anti-gay individuals are never exactly clear on how repealing 377A would cause harm, except through vague pronouncements of a collapse of moral order. Interestingly, none of the over 100 nations that have decriminalised same-sex activity has observed this kind of ethical Armageddon. The only consequence of repealing 377A would be a more just and tolerant Singapore.
This Saturday marks the fifth annual Pink Dot event at Hong Lim Park in support of the freedom to love. With growing numbers of participants each year, Pink Dot events are also being organised in New York City and in Okinawa. This is an export that Singaporeans can and should take pride in.
Those actively advancing the progress of LGBT rights in Singapore should know that they are not alone in their struggle, that this is a conversation on fundamental freedoms being held around the world. The rest of Singapore must understand that the challenges faced by their LGBT friends and family members have repercussions on the whole of society. It is their fellow citizens who face continued legal discrimination, who must live and love under a constant Sword of Damocles.
Singaporeans, I believe, take deep pride in their nation, and wish to project a positive image abroad. They desire to show to the world a pluralist, tolerant, and vibrant society. The continued existence of 377A runs in complete opposition to this image.
The people of this country owe it to themselves to be on the right side of history. If Singapore wants to be a world-class city, then Singaporeans must be accorded world-class rights. Singaporeans deserve it.
Chris Liu is an Honours political science student at McGill University in Montreal.