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Decriminalising homosexuality in Singapore

By Koh Jie Kai

The purpose of this letter is to address two arguments which homophobes frequently make against decriminalising homosexuality in Singapore. Let's take a typical example of a homophobic point of view, written by a Mr Jonathan Cheng and published in the Straits Times forum page on the 1st of May 2007. (“MM's comments have me and family worried).

Odd that Mr Cheng should accuse homosexuals of being intolerant, given that his vision of Singapore society clearly places homosexuals as second class citizens, down there with thieves, murderers or the mentally ill. He clearly believes that it is abnormal for a gay person to teach a child that it is normal to be gay- presumably, it would be abnormal for a straight person to do so as well. But we can see that this letter essentially brings up two arguments: that homosexuals are "harmful" to society in the practical sense, and that in any case the majority in a society have the right to impose their vision of morality over the minority.

His first set of arguments supporting the continued criminalisation of homosexuality asserts that homosexual activity contributes to actual social harms, namely the low birth rate, or an increased risk of venereal diseases, and (somehow), an increase in the prevalance of these harms if homosexuality is legalised.

It is extremely doubtful if homosexuals do contribute to these social harms in a significant way in the first place. Even if they do, we then need to consider the question of why Singapore has never seriously contemplated passing laws criminalising all activities contributing to these social harms, say, by requiring women to have children or be fined. It is not just because such laws would be difficult to enforce, but also because as a society we already recognise the right of people to make lifestyle choices in these areas of life.

We do not prosecute promiscuous people for being promiscuous even though their activity does lead to an increased risk of venereal diseases.

The second argument that Mr Cheng makes is that the majority has a right to impose its vision of morality over the rest of society. Perhaps, but there is a very good reason why it should not criminalise homosexuality.

Let us suppose that homosexuals practice behaviour that we would consider immoral or disgusting- "promiscuous" and "hedonistic" in Mr Cheng's words. But many Singaporeans would also consider many other things immoral or disgusting, such as adultery, having abortions, and so on. By making homosexual activity a crime, we are effectively denying the right of homosexuals to fully participate in the political and social life of the community. For example, people who engage in other sorts of immorality still have the right to stand as members of parliament, but homosexuals do not, given that citizens are disqualified from office if they have been sentenced to more than a year's jail, and the maximum sentence for male gay sex is more than that.

It is not true that the law on homosexuality is not going to be actively enforced, because the fact is that there have been recent prosecutions for that offence in the past. And if it is true that this law is little enforced nowadays due to the policy of the government, it makes a mockery of the rule of law.

I'm rather biased towards the liberal argument that homosexual activity is not per se immoral, and that homosexuality is a nature thing, even before reading law at a notoriously liberal university. No one disputes the right of people of Mr Cheng to believe that homosexuality is grossly sinful and/or disgusting ( I find it disgusting myself).

But this is a matter of private morality.

As I hope to have shown in this article, one cannot argue for the continued criminalisation of homosexual activity and insist that homosexuals have the same political and social standing as any other law-abiding citizen in Singapore. A "clean" and "wholesome" society necessarily makes some groups second class citizens, and the criminalisation of homosexuality ensures that homosexuals in Singapore have a political and social standing not much higher than black people in segregation-era America.

Is this really what we want Singapore to be?

Jie Kai Koh,

Law student,Oxford.

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Read also these responses to the Straits Times letter:

A Trip Into My Head: A step forward, a giant leap backwards

Bananation: Letter to forum editor - issue of homosexuality.