Challenging 377-A: Resistance Against Singapore’s Controversial Law

On January 25th, 2021 Dr. Roy Tan Seng Kee, Mr. Johnson Ong Ming, and Mr. Bryan Choong launched an appeal against the Singapore High Courts decision to uphold Section-377 A of the penal code which criminalizes sexual relations between consenting adult men. The decision under question was delivered in March of the previous year in response to independent appeals filed by the aforementioned trio sometime in 2018 and 2019. Justice See Kee Oon had combined the three appeals and ruled against them, remarking in the process that there was no strong scientific evidence that a person's sexuality was unchangeable. He also ruled that since the law dealt with questions of societal values and morality, all appeals to scrap it must be made to the parliament instead- a sentiment shared by all previous judges who presided over challenges to 377-A.

Source: The Straits Times

The law, which was first enacted in 1938, is a product of British Colonial rule in the region and carries a charge of up to 2 years of imprisonment. In recent years there has been great contention over its constitutional validity. Those opposing the law have cited Articles of the Singapore Constitution that guarantee them the right to live, equal protection of the law, and freedom of expression, provisions which they believe are in direct contradiction to 377-A. Therefore, the law must be scrapped for gay men to fully live their lives as valid citizens of the country. However, the courts have shown little agreement. All challenges to the law so far have been dismissed and petitioners have time again been directed to the parliament, which too, remains reluctant to bring about any changes. It’s important to note that while the Government has stated it will not heavily enforce the law, the Attorney General’s Chambers has made it quite clear that public prosecutor’s exercise of prosecutorial discretion “has always been, and remains, unfettered”. This means that as long as the law is not formally repealed, it will continue to be a major threat to gay citizens of the country. In fact, the very existence of the law and the way it manifests into public consciousness, that is, as the “anti-gay law”, incites hate crimes and harassment. Speaking on the issue in 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked that while Singapore welcomes people of all sexual orientations, it does not aim to become too open like western countries and nor too conservative like some middle eastern nations. Instead, it aims to find a middle path. The statement while seemingly positive reflects the hesitance on part of the government to change their mind about the repressive law anytime soon.

In the light of minimal legal and legislative recourse, the LGBTQ community in Singapore has been organizing on ground resistance for years. One of the earliest efforts was in the form of a 2007 online campaign titled “Repeal 377-A” which, while mostly unsuccessful in its primary aim, brought the LGBTQ rights issue into focus and shaped popular discourse. Social media has also given a platform to the community for organizing and rallying against homophobic practices and laws. Pink Dot Singapore, a non-profit movement that started in 2009, organizes annual rallies featuring pink lights and positive slogans to draw the focus towards the queer community’s demands. Several other pro-LGBTQ organizations have also come up across the country to assist queer individuals and mobilize support for repealing 377-A. This includes Oogachaga which offers counselling services to Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans, and questioning persons as well as their families.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the growing pro-LGBTQ movement is the conservative Christian majority which continues to push traditional heteronormative ideals of the family onto society. The debate over queer rights has been shaped into one where the country needs to choose either the “pro-family” cadre or the “pro LGBT” one. This has hindered the process of queer liberation greatly, as it invites scorn from even the most liberal groups. Leow Yangfa, the executive director of Oogachaga highlighted this issue in an interview with The News Lens and even remarked that the government is using the fear of “social disharmony” to uphold the status quo.

Surprisingly, Singapore is yet to face international pressure over the issue of LGBTQ rights considering it not only legally restricts homosexuality but also systematically censors or severely restricts any positive media or public depiction of lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) people. There are no anti-discriminatory laws to protect sexual minorities and conversion therapy is encouraged even by government officials. Unlike its counterparts such as Bahrain, Indonesia, and Malaysia which have been criticized for their harsh treatment of queer individuals, Singapore continues to enjoy popularity as a modern progressive nation. It is only under this garb that it continues to suppress a large chunk of its population.

The future of LGBTQ rights in Singapore might look bleak but the resistance is more alive than ever. Rallies, protests, petitions, and awareness programs are constantly being organized and public opinion is slowly changing for the better. Many important figures such as former chief justice Chan Sek Keong have come out in support of the movement and the list only continues to grow. The latest challenge to the law, discussed on January 25th, is yet to yield results. The court comprising of Chief Justice Sudersha Menon, Justices Andrew Phang, Judith Prakash, Tay Yong Kwang, and Steven Chong, has declared it will give a decision at a later date while the community waits with bated breaths.

-Soumya Sharma

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