Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam has said on 8 Sept 2018, that “the majority are opposed to any change to section 377A, they are opposed to removing it.”
But is there really a majority that are opposed to repealing 377A?
A 2014 survey conducted by the Institute of Policy Studies(IPS) found that 78.2% of respondents found that sexual relations between two adults of the same sex was always wrong or almost always wrong. With 78.2% thinking that homosexual sex is wrong, it might seem that K. Shanmugam is correct in saying that the majority of Singaporeans are opposed to repealing 377A.
However, equating wrongness with criminality is incorrect. In the same survey, 56.4% said that sexual relations before marriage is wrong, 80.3% said that sex with someone other than marriage partner is wrong and 72.5% said pregnancy outside of marriage is wrong. A majority thinks that all these acts are wrong but none of these acts are criminalised. In fact, there are more people who said that adultery is wrong compared to homosexual sex.
Nobody knows whether Singaporeans want all these acts to be criminalized or not because no one has done a survey or study asking this with the sole exception of homosexual sex. In a survey conducted by Ipsos Public Affairs in 2018, 55% said that they supported 377A, with 12% saying that they opposed it and the rest being neutral.
Again it would seem that K. Shanmugam is correct is saying that a majority are opposed to removing 377A.
To the best of my knowledge, the Ipsos survey is the only survey that has directly asked the question of whether people want to keep or repeal 377A. And that 55% figure is probably closer to the truth than 78.2%. But it is only a single data point.
So how else can we gauge the will of Singaporeans on this matter? Perhaps the closest metric is whether Singaporeans accept homosexuality or not. It is not a perfect comparison but I think this metric should be reasonably close to the truth.
The Reach Our Singapore Conversation survey conducted in 2012 states that 47% rejects gay lifestyles, 27% are neutral and 26% are accepting of gay lifestyles. Note the use of the word “lifestyle”, implying that homosexuality is a choice. But even with this word choice the figure is still 47% which might be a very big minority but certainly not a majority.
According to a study conducted by NTU in 2012, the perception of choice only affects attitudes towards lesbians and gays, not acceptance. This study also found that 44.9% of respondents found homosexuals unacceptable, 14.7% were neutral and 40.4% accepted homosexuals. 44.9% is pretty close to the 47% figure from the Reach survey, so perhaps the decision to use the word “lifestyle” was not that important after all.
The 44.9% / 40.4% split from the NTU study is much more even compared to the 47% / 26% split from the Reach survey. Perhaps this can be explained by the NTU study basing their figure on responses to five different questions asking to what degree the respondent would accept or not accept a homosexual co-worker, teacher, friend, neighbour or family member.
But acceptance of homosexuals is not indicative of whether someone would want to keep or repeal 377A.
In the Ipsos survey, 28% agreed with the statement "I believe that Singaporeans should be able to participate in same-sex relationships" while 38% did not, leaving 34% neutral. Compare this to the 12% opposed to 377A, 55% who support 377A and the 33% neutral, it stands to reason to some people who agreed with the first statement and some who were neutral went on to support 377A.
The same might be true with regards to acceptance. Some people who accept homosexuals might still want to retain 377A. The opposite might also be true. Some people who reject homosexuals might want to repeal 377A. And people who are neutral might want to retain or repeal 377A.
The only sure thing is that there is a sizable neutral contingent. From the Ipsos survey, 33% are neutral regarding 377A. From the Reach survey, 27% are neutral regarding gay lifestyles. From the NTU study, 14.7% were neutral regarding acceptance of homosexuals. Three different sources have shown this and this means that it is quite possible for both the retain and repeal faction to be minorities. There might be no majority view on this issue.
But whether or not there is a majority who wants to keep 377A is not the main issue. As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said in his speech to Parliament in 2007, the issue with 377A is whether or not repealing 377A would lead to a more successful, happier, more harmonious society.
He did not think so. He said that repealing 377A would lead to gay activists pushing for more rights like marriage and even the same rights as any straight man or woman. He said that this would lead to push back from conservatives. Even those who are not anti-gay would oppose this. And because people on both sides hold strong views, he said that discussion and debate will not bring them closer together but will instead divide and further polarise society.
He is correct. Already you can see a petition on change.org that is jumping the gun, so to speak, and asking for legalisation of same-sex marriage along with the repeal of 377A. He is also correct that there would be less support for these kinds of causes. The Reach survey showed that 55% rejected same-sex marriage, 24% were neutral and 21% accepted. Compare this to the 47% - 27% - 26% split for the gay lifestyles question and you can see that some of the people who accepted gay lifestyles or were neutral went on to reject same-sex marriage.
But he might also be wrong. Isn’t society being divided right now over this issue? There is intolerance and mud-slinging from a small minority from both sides, right now. Who can know whether retaining or repealing 377A would be better or worse? No one can know the future. It sure is a difficult decision to make.
On that note, the Prime Minister said: “So, we will let others take the lead, we will stay one step behind the frontline of change; watch how things work out elsewhere before we make any irrevocable moves.”
But we can’t look to America and compare their situation to ours because America is not Singapore. Even though India and Singapore were British colonies, we can’t look to India either because India is also not Singapore. We can’t look anywhere. Like it or not, Singapore is alone at the frontline of change. There is no other country in the world with a demographic quite like us, with a mix of races, languages and religions quite like ours.
Here is what I know about Singaporeans. 64.5% of the people in the NTU study held negative attitudes towards homosexuals but only 44.9% did not accept homosexuals. This means that a large group of the respondents that held negative attitudes went on to be neutral or to accept homosexuals. Up to 30% of the conservatives in that study were tolerant of homosexuals. Add to that the people who are neutral and the people who are accepting and what we have got is 55.1% who tolerate homosexuals, a tolerant majority. The Reach survey agrees, with 53% tolerant of gay lifestyles. Even in the Ipsos survey where 55% wanted to keep 377A, 62% were tolerant of same-sex relationships.
Yes, a majority of Singaporeans are conservative. But a majority of Singaporeans are also tolerant. I think it is time to consider the views of the tolerant majority instead.