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A Step Forward for LGBTQ Rights in Singapore, But a Long Journey Remains

02 Sep 2022
By Professor Meredith L. Weiss
Samsui women and coolies at Pink Dot 2014 Singapore. Source: Jnzl's Photos

Singapore’s government plans to repeal a colonial-era ban on sodomy, while strengthening constitutional safeguards to forestall movement toward marriage equality. However important, decriminalisation alone will have limited impact on most LGBTQ Singaporeans’ lives absent wider societal and legal changes.

In his 21 August 2022 National Day Rally speech—Singapore’s preeminent forum for grand political pronouncements—Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that his People’s Action Party (PAP) administration would repeal portions of Section 377A of the colonial-legacy criminal code, rendering sodomy officially legal. The government declared its intent no longer to enforce the law in cases of consensual, private sex between adults fifteen years ago, albeit retaining the prerogative to investigate possible violations of those criteria. Legal challenges noted the patent irregularity of retaining a law not to be used, thus sustaining the frisson of threat or a change of heart. By now, especially on the heels of a three-case effort in the high court that ended on appeal with a judgment all but daring parliament to legislate—amid anxious rumblings from religious conservatives—repeal of Section 377A was all but certain.

However expected, the government’s change of heart still raises questions. Most obviously: what does this mean for gay rights in Singapore? And is this a model or tipping point for the region?

Alas, repealing this one law will not radically change experience of gay life in Singapore. On the one hand, legalisation is not tantamount to societal embrace: societal prejudice may well outlast Section 377A. One need look no further than the other shades in the LGBTQ rainbow beyond gay men for proof. Section 377A does not address lesbians or transgender people, yet they, too, endure constraints. Elsewhere in Asia, such as in Taiwan, Vietnam, and Thailand, LGBTQ communities have experienced socio-political backlash and persistent social stigma and discrimination despite legal reform.

Indeed, Lee introduced this segment of his speech by invoking an announcement in last year’s iteration, allowing Muslim public-hospital nurses to wear tudung (head coverings) at work. While an important step toward codifying inclusivity, such a rule change does little on its own to counteract internalised biases, supported until that moment by regulations framing tudung-wearing as inappropriate in such settings. That said, decriminalisation of homosexuality does help to normalise the practices and communities in question, removes a ready justification for discrimination, and acknowledges that Singaporean society is not inherently more “conservative” than others—all of which do have their homophobes, too.

On the other hand, Lee introduced repeal with a lengthy explanation of new constitutional guardrails to make sure queer Singaporeans remember their place. While Singapore law already defines marriage as between a man and a woman, constitutional amendment would ensure that position—which Lee all but acknowledged to be dubious—could not be challenged in court on equal-protection grounds. He reminded his listeners that,

Singapore is a traditional society with conservative social values. … The traditional family should form the basic building block of our society. Most Singaporeans would like to keep our society like this. This is the government’s position too. … However, like every human society, we also have gay people in our midst. … we need to find the right way to reconcile and accommodate both the traditional mores of our society, and the aspiration of gay Singaporeans to be respected and accepted.

Reluctance to legalise gay sex in Singapore has fit within a broader heteronormative program. Tactics ranging from “baby bonuses” to state-run dating services to corporate television ads coax straight Singaporeans, especially well-educated ethnic Chinese, to pair up and procreate. The audience for these “save-the-family!” measures is thus wider than marriage-minded gays, though the warning to the latter not to push their luck was explicit:

Most Singaporeans do not want the repeal to trigger a drastic shift in our societal norms across the board, including how we define marriage, what we teach children in schools, what’s shown on free-to-air television and in cinemas, or what is generally acceptable conduct in public … If one side pushes too hard, the other side will push back even harder.

That precise delimitation of which rights gays will not get attracted unsurprising pushback from otherwise-pleased beneficiaries of Section 377A’s repeal. Was it really so necessary for Lee to go to such voluble lengths to clarify the extent to which his government would still confirm LGBTQs’ lesser rights and essential wrongness? If further non-discrimination measures are in the offing—regarding housing, employment, or otherwise—Lee offered no spoilers. Over 20 LGBTQ groups argued in a statement soon after that the constitutional reinforcement of “restraint” that Lee promised as a salve to Singapore’s religious right—who were hardly placated, regardless—violates the country’s secular premise and “codify further discrimination.”

All the same, Lee’s premise was that it should be up to the (presumably perennially PAP-led) legislature rather than the courts to decide when to ease open the hatches—and that that should follow public opinion. Until now, the PAP has faulted the latter for the impracticality of repealing Section 377A. As Lee put it, “While we remain a broadly conservative society, gay people are now better accepted in Singapore, especially among younger Singaporeans.” Indeed, survey data show a clear uptick in acceptance of gay relationships and rejection of anti-LGBTQ discrimination, especially among youth. So, we might see these new amendments as a legislative agenda for queer activists: they might focus on shifting public opinion and lobbying MPs rather than the legal strategy they tried against Section 377A. Indeed, that already about half of Singaporeans think same-sex couples are likely to be similarly adequate parents as straight couples and should be allowed equal adoption rights suggests possible constitutional whittling ahead.

As for the region, there is no reason to expect Singapore’s legalisation to tip the scales in its neighbours. After all, even India’s repeal of Section 377 in 2018 failed to motivate the Singapore government to follow its lead. That Singapore has now done so is, essentially, coincidence, driven by similar issues of shifts in societal values, concern for economic competitiveness, and the increasing difficulty generally of justifying clinging to a British relic the UK discarded itself over a half-century ago. Even where laws against homosexuality are a colonial legacy—in former British colonies, generally anchored by Section 377— calls for repeal seem invariably to produce claims of Western influence and a nefarious global queer agenda, despite manifold examples of sexuality diversity and gender fluidity across precolonial Asia.

The larger issue, though, is that notwithstanding a modular aspect to state homophobia—a syndrome of norms, tropes, stock phrases, and apocryphal predictions—it overlays distinctly different sociocultural and political topographies within Southeast Asia. In some states, especially Vietnam and Thailand, zeal to “pinkwash” a sullied human rights record or woo “pink dollars” undergirds progress on certain LGBTQ legal rights. In others, antigay religious leaders claim centre stage and resist liberalisation or press criminalisation, whether in the name of Islam, as in Malaysia or Indonesia, or Catholicism in the Philippines. And across the region, regardless of other impetuses, we see a nationalistic, “Asian values” discourse that resists even the appearance of following the West. Moreover, even basic legal recognition is logistically complex in some states. Malaysia, for instance, has its own Section 377—souvenir of the same British rule—but also state-level syariah laws applicable to the Muslim majority, which may target also such sins as cross-dressing and sex between women.

For Singapore, decriminalisation is an important first step, not an end point. LGBTQ rights will remain fraught terrain there as elsewhere. Yet amid consequential reversals of gay rights both in the West and in Singapore’s closer-in neighbourhood, and after decades of often frustratingly thwarted mobilisation, this recognition and reassurance has real value.

Meredith L. Weiss is Professor of Political Science at the Rockefeller College of Public Affairs & Policy of the University at Albany, State University of New York. She has published widely on social mobilisation, civil society, and collective identity; electoral politics and parties; and governance, regime change, and institutional reform in Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Singapore. 

This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.