Tuesday, 3 October 2023

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A Distracting Debate in Singapore

By Harold Seah


An argument over morality is often the most heated but least understood; people retreat into individual comfort zones, clinging fast to familiar yardsticks of right-and-wrong, causing what might have been an intelligent, informed debate has to degenerate into a fundamentalist free-for-all.

Such as become of the debate over whether to repeal or to retain Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code—a fifty-word statute that criminalises sex between men. Relgious leaders cite the dangers of the “aggressive homosexual agenda” and the threat it poses to “key institutions” by painting a vividly exaggerated picture of how a repeal of 377A could open the floodgates for a torrent of sexual depravity (bestiality, incest, paedophillia, et cetera). Meanwhile the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community and their supporters lobby for freedom of sexual expression on the grounds of Human Rights and the “unconstitutionality” of 377A.

The tense struggle between the pro-repeal and pro-retain encampments seems to have become a fight for control over the “moral” direction of Singaporean society. It has (most) politicians cautiously walking on a fine line between conservative comfort zones and progressive pressures in society, careful not to fall into either side of a political minefield.  But while this rare instance of parliamentary sensitivity towards a contentious issue should be admired, the government must be wary not to let caution be viewed as procrastination.

After all, it has been 6 years since the Ministry of Home Affairs’ (MHA) review of the Penal Code resulted in the decision to retain 377A—A decision that received overwhelming support from Ministers who cited chiefly issues of “readiness” and “balance” lest a premature repeal of 377A resulted in a strong conservative backlash while gaining little ground in the way of greater social acceptance for homosexuals.[1]

They are not wrong. Researchers, at the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information at NTU, have found that in 2010, out of 959 people surveyed, a whopping 64.5% of them felt negatively towards homosexuals, while only 25.3% of respondents expressed positive attitudes. Indeed, Singapore may yet be unprepared for 377A to be repealed. But there is now evidence that the island nation may not be in the near future.

The study also found that public opinion is becoming more tolerant towards homosexuals. When compared to data collected in 2005, the percentage of negative responders fell by 4.1% and positive responders increased by 2.4% within 5 years.[2] Moreover, recent events—the short-lived coup of the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) by a conservative Christian faction within the organization; the successful staging of Pink Dot, an event for gay and lesbian visibility; the Prime Minister’s own admission of the “space” that homosexuals have in society[3], qualitatively corroborate the researchers’ findings.

Yet parliamentary opinion seems to be moving in a direction contrary to public opinion. Far from a passive observational role in the debate over 377A, government rhetoric seems to have become more critical. 2010 saw the dismissal of Nominated Minister of Parliament (NMP) Siew Kum Hong, an advocate for the repeal of 377A. During the General Elections in 2011, Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, then the Minister of Community Development, Youth and Sports, insinuated in a press statement that his opponent, Mr Vincent Wijeysingha, had a pro-gay agenda, causing conservative voters to focus on his sexual orientation rather than on his other election rhetoric.

In January 2013, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong put forward a rather tired and weak argument in favour of retaining 377A, citing (again) society’s “conservative roots”, its unwillingness to embrace such radical change and the statute’s long history in Singapore’s Penal Code as reasons to preserve the status quo.[4]

But preserving the conservative status quo has rarely been the position for the Singapore government. Abortion and sterilization laws were pushed through parliament very quickly back in the 1970s, despite religious objections, in a bid to control birth rates[5]. More recently, the Casino Control Act of 2006 was enacted in preparation for the two Integrated Resorts at Marina Bay, a waterfront district in Southern Singapore, and Sentosa, an island south from the mainland, despite vehement religious opposition from the same Christian and Muslim groups that now oppose the repeal of 377A[6]. In January this year, the government announced a target population of 7 million by 2030[7], even despite deteriorating public opinion.

In light of this, the government’s indignation surrounding 377A seems uncharacteristic, irrational even. In the same NTU study cited above, the researchers found that young people with higher levels of education were less likely to hold negative views towards homosexuality as compared to older people with lower levels of education.[8] From 2007 to 2012, diploma holders increased from 16% to 18.7% of the workforce while degree holders ballooned from 23.3% to 29.4%[9]. Put simply, in 2012, almost half (48.1%) of the workforce comprised of well-educated professionals, the demographic which is least likely share the government’s negative views of homosexuality. The government’s unwillingness to repeal 377A could be yet another gripe that opposition parties use against the PAP to rally young educated voters come the next General Election in 2016.

One might argue then that the PAP’s objection towards repealing 377A is not political but rather an issue of public health, specifically in controlling the spread of HIV/AIDS. But a recent report by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law claims that laws criminalizing homosexuality actually accelerate rather than prevent the spread of HIV[10]. Homosexual men strive to maintain “concurrent heterosexual relationships” to guard against the stigma and discrimination, placing women at risk of contracting AIDS.

It must be noted however, that transmission via homosexual sex is no longer primarily responsible for the spread of HIV. Recent data from the Ministry of Health have shown that the increase in new cases of AIDS amongst heterosexuals (46%) has in fact overtaken that amongst homosexuals (42%)[11]. Rather it is laws like 377A coupled with the popular misconception that AIDS is a disease unique amongst homosexuals that accelerates the spread of HIV.

Such laws further entrench the stigma of AIDS as a punishment for homosexual behaviour, preventing affected homosexuals and heterosexuals alike from seeking help. Far from protecting Singapore’s squeaky-clean family-friendly image, 377A actually tarnishes it. 2011 saw a spike in the rate of HIV cases per million people. The figure dropped from a high of 125.2 back in 2008 to 116.9 in 2010, only to jump back to 121.7 in 2011. So while Mr Lee and the parliament distracts themselves with uncharacteristic considerations for “conservative roots”, a real social problem is on the horizon, and a repeal of 377A could be the first step in preventing it.

The data is compelling. Credible studies have shown a co-relation between the prevalence of HIV among homosexual men and whether or not homosexual sex is criminalized. UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, claims that the prevalence amongst homosexual men is about 25% (1 in 4) in Caribbean countries where homosexuality is criminalized, compared to about 7% (1 in 15) in places where homosexuality isn’t.[12]

Chart 1: Charts showing the marked difference in HIV prevalence among homosexual men in countries which criminalise homosexuality as compared to that of countries which do not[13] .
But there is hope yet. In 2009, Mediacorp, the island’s main free-to-air television provider, released an ad campaign featuring local celebrities coming out in encouragement for a more tolerant and inclusive society in a bid to reduce discrimination towards those affected by AIDS. In November 2011, Action For AIDS (AFA) Singapore, a charity dedicated to providing support for persons suffering from AIDS and the reduction of the stigma of AIDS in society[14], launched Be Positive, an ad campaign aimed at eradicating discrimination towards people with AIDS.

Such initiatives show that Singapore society is changing faster than the NTU researchers (cited above) might think. But the government is not the only obstacle to concrete change in Singapore. Religious groups have expressed growing concern over the “aggressive gay agenda in Singapore. Some Christian and Muslim groups are campaigning for 377A to be retained, citing concerns over the moral direction that Singapore has taken in recent years. Such ire was witnessed back in 2004 when the government announced plans to build two casinos in order to attract more tourists. Concerns then included a fear that casino gambling would lead to an increase in organized crime, as seen in well-known gambling destinations like Hong Kong and comic books. Such fears never materialized[15].

In light of this, fears over how a repeal of 377A would open the floodgates of sexual depravity are seem to be based more on stereotype than substance. “Where does it end?” writes one commenter in response to an article about the gay community’s protest against a statement made by Mr Lawrence Khong, a prominent pastor at Faith Community Baptist Church, that labeled the effort to repeal 377A as a “looming threat” to the family unit.[16]

Indeed where does it end? Certain church leaders jealously guard their religious freedoms but rarely consider the teachings of other prominent religions in Singapore, let alone the feelings of minority groups like homosexuals. In fact, Buddhist and Hindu teachings do not frown upon consensual same-sex relations. Until Lord Thomas Macaulay drafted the Indian Penal Code in the 1850s, under Hindu law, consensual sex between men was not a crime. All over the world, it was not until Christian imperialists arrived that homosexuality became a criminal act against the “order of nature”. Indigenous societies were often more tolerant of same-sex relations.

In this respect, 377A can be viewed as a law with ecclesiastical origins. Imposing a law that supports the teachings of some but not of all religions in a multi-cultural society is akin to imposing Sharia law in America or Vatican Law in Saudi Arabia—it is unthinkable.

Yet it is the reality. Perhaps more alarming however is the way politicians who share such religious indignation try to disguise religion with reason. Professor Thio Li Ann expressed some of those concerns in her 2007 speech in front of Parliament. She uses an apology by a group of women in Canada on behalf of their country for the grievances recent legislation to legalise same-sex marriage has caused [17]. Prof. Thio points to the regret expressed in the apology as a cautionary tale of what repealing 377A might bring. She forgets to mention that the REAL Women of Canada and the Canada Family Action Coalition wrote the apology. The former also believes in the preservation of the male-centric traditional household and that women are more suited to be homemakers while the latter believes that the power of human rights commissions in Canada should be rescinded.[18]

Despite this, the gay community must not be quick to blame conservative politicians or the religiously devout for the preservation of 377A over the years. While pushing so fervently for equality under the law, citing the unconstitutionality of 377A, the gay community has forgotten that humans are creatures of habit, and that change must happen in stages lest it be poorly managed. Conservatives are just as much a part of Singaporean society as progressives and deserve to be included in rather than dismissed from the public forum.

Back in 2007, then a Nominated Member of Parliament (NMP) Siew Kum Hong, took an unexpected stand in response to Prof. Thio’s impassioned speech. Instead of rebutting her directly, Mr Siew emphasized the need to be civil on both sides of the argument.[19] And while Prof. Thio’s speech was far from level-headed, neither was the fervent campaigning on the side of the pro-repeal encampment.

If the gay community wants to be accepted, they must work around the fundamentalism that has discredited many on the conservative side like Prof. Thio who had her fellowship at New York University rescinded after her untempered views went viral. Instead, pro-repealers should take comfort in the knowledge that for the first time in many years, they have been heard. Not just in 2007, but also in 2010 when the Court of Appeal ruled that there was an “arguable case on the constitutionality of 377A that ought to be heard”[20]. And now, as the case goes to court on February 15, the gay community should tread lightly, in order to prevent a reasonable argument from degenerating into unconvincing platitudes. Singapore is, after all, an educated society, and people for the most part are open to reason. If either side wants to win, it has to come up with fresh, valid material and must be open to compromise.

Retaining 377A is unlikely to preserve Singapore’s “family values” or “conservative roots”, but its repeal is just as unlikely. Even if gays, as Prime Minister Lee mentioned, are “free to lead their lives, free to pursue their social activities”[21] and keeping the law on the books will do more harm than good, a court hearing will “change few minds”. But staying “one step behind” might just be what the gay community’s arguments need to be heard in their entirety. Too much too soon would simply reduce cogency to caricatures. While the legalization of casino gambling did not result in a rise in organized crime, there are significantly more cases of people falling into bankruptcy because of their addictions. What was once heralded as a bid to transform Singapore into a glitzy cosmopolitan tourist destination is now increasingly viewed as a social ill.  

Still, repealing 377A would be the first step in Singapore’s journey to become a more accepting, tolerant society—an image that could do wonders for Singaporean tourism and immigration. Talented people come in all races, religions and sexual orientations. By retaining 377A, Singapore deters talented but homosexual foreigners looking for an economically stable and politically secure country to live and work in. And while the devout may see this as an added reason to retain 377A, they must understand that diversity in Singapore is not limited to “race, language or religion”, the three enshrined on the island’s pledge of allegiance. Besides, such a mindset would be contrary to Singapore’s commitment to equality and anathema for a government looking to attract educated, wealthy foreigners who are likely to look at 377A as archaic and therefore Singapore as undesirable.

Rather than focus on 377A’s “time-honoured” place in the Penal Code, Ministers should focus on another more important tradition—Singapore’s government by necessity rather than morality. As younger, more educated and more tolerant Singaporeans are beginning to vote, mindsets in the voter pool are changing. Will the PAP do what is necessary to win back the votes of this increasingly disillusioned demographic, or will it risk falling further into irrelevance as young voters put their vote elsewhere? As a famous economist once said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?”


[1]Dominique Loh. Singapore to keep balance between conservative society and gays. 23 October 2007: Channel NewsAsia www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/307344/1/.html, Last accessed 3.2.13

[2] Benjamin H. Detenber, Shirley S. Ho, et al. Influence of Value Predispositions, Interpersonal Contact, and Mediated Exposure on Public Attitudes Toward Homosexuals in Singapore. 2012: Asian Journal of Social Psychology

[3] Loh, Balance.

[4] Weizhen Tan. Let’s agree to disagree on gay rights. 27 January 2013: Channel NewsAsia www.todayonline.com/singapore/lets-agree-disagree-gay-rights-pm-lee Last Accessed: 3.2.13

[5] Saw Swee-Hock. Population Policies and Programmes in Singapore. 2005: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (ISEAS). 67, 100-11.

[6] [Author Unknown]. S’pore to seek casino proposals despite strong opposition. 28 November 2004, Agence France Presse.

[7] [Author Unknown]. Sustainable Population for a Dynamic Singapore. 30 January 2013: Straits Times. www.straitstimes.com/the-big-story/singapore-population-2030/story/sustainable-population-dynamic-singapore-20130130 Last accessed 3.2.13

[8] Detenber, et al. Predispositions. 7

[9] [Author Unknown]. Labour Market Statistical Information. 31 January 2013: Ministry of Manpower. www.mom.gov.sg/statistics-publications/national-labour-market-information/statistics/Pages/labourforce.aspx

[10] Fernando Henrique Cardoso, Ana Helena Chacón-Echeverria, et al. Risks, Rights and Health. July 2012: Global Commission of HIV and the Law. 45

[11] [Author Unknown]. Update on the HIV/AIDS Situation in Singapore. 2011: Ministry of Health, Singapore. www.moh.gov.sg/content/moh_web/home/statistics/infectiousDiseasesStatistics/HIV_Stats.html Last accessed 3.2.13

[12] Cardoso, Chacón-Echeverria, et al. Risks. 47

[13] ibid. 46

[14] www.afa.org.sg/aboutafa.php Last accessed 3.2.13

[15] Chun Han Wong. Singapore Bets on Casino Revenues. 5 September 2012: Wall Street Journal. online.wsj.com/article/SB10000872396390444097904577538592623523130.html

[16] [Author Unknown]. Pastor’s plea to retain Section 377A sparks online furore. 16 January 2013: Today Newspaper. www.todayonline.com/singapore/pastors-plea-retain-section-377a-sparks-online-furore Last accessed: 3.2.13

[17] [Author Unknown]. Apology for Canada’s Same-Sex Marriage Legislation. 11 April 2012: LifeSite News.com. www.lifesitenews.com/home/print_article/resources/481/ Last accessed 3.2.13

[18] http://www.familyaction.ca/what-we-stand-for/. Last accessed: 4.2.13

[19] Siew Kum Hong. The great tragedy Section 377A. siewkumhong.blogspot.sg/2007/10/great-tragedy-of-section-377a.html  Last accessed 4.2.13

[20] Joanne Chan. High Court set to hear case on law criminalizing gay sex. 21 August 2012: Channel NewsAsia. www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/1221319/1/.html

[21] Loh, Balance. www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/singaporelocalnews/view/307344/1/.html Last accessed 3.2.13

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