Singapore upholds anti-gay law, but activists hopeful after minister’s speech

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3/12/22

Singapore’s gay rights campaigners know full well that their years-long campaign to repeal the country’s colonial-era law that criminalises consensual sex between men is a marathon, not a sprint. That reality came into focus in recent weeks, after a major court decision and a senior government official delved into the future of the law, Section 377A of the Penal Code. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s government has said the law was not being enforced, and was being kept on the books to reflect the country’s conservative social norms and attitudes when it comes to homosexuality. Rights activists have countered that the law, which does not apply to gay women or other non-heterosexual people, exacerbates sexuality-based discrimination and stigma in the country. In the latest setback for the cause, the country’s highest court last week chose to uphold a 2020 High Court decision on judicial reviews separately filed by three activists. The Court of Appeal, as it had done on previous occasions, signalled that its position remained that any change to the status quo would require a decision by the executive branch. While there was a sense of palpable disappointment, advocates said they were fairly encouraged by a subsequent parliamentary statement by the home affairs and law minister, K. Shanmugam. The minister’s remarks on March 3, during a two-week long debate on the 2022 budget, signalled the government’s acknowledgement of the painful discrimination gay people experience in Singapore and gave hope that a new chapter may be opening for gay rights in the country, the activists said. In his speech, Shanmugam said social attitudes towards homosexuality have “gradually shifted” and that policies needed to “evolve to keep abreast of such changes in views”. A large majority of Singaporeans wanted to preserve the “overall tone” of society and believed in the traditional view of marriage, he went on, but the government was considering the “best way forward”. “We must respect the different viewpoints, consider them carefully, [and] talk to the different groups,” Shanmugam added. “And if and when we decide to move, we will do so in a way that continues to balance between these different viewpoints and avoids causing a sudden destabilising change in social norms and public expectations.”

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