Last Updated on 2022-10-21 , 11:43 pm
Just today (20 October), a bill to repeal Section 377A in Singapore was tabled in Parliament.
Section 377A, which criminalises sex between consenting men in Singapore, was first published in 1938 when Singapore was still under British colonial rule.
In recent years, activists and various personnel have campaigned for the section to be repealed, and Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong finally announced Singapore’s plans to repeal Section 377A during his National Day Rally (NDR) earlier this year on 21 August.
You can watch this video to know more about the topic:
Now, with the bill just being tabled and all, here’s all you need to know about how it works.
What a Bill is, and How it Gets Tabled
No, this is not the same thing as the bill you get at your table at the end of your meal lah.
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According to the Parliament of Singapore’s website, a bill is a “draft law”.
So, think of it as a first draft or outline for an essay to get your teacher’s approval on your chosen topic before you begin writing the entire essay.
A bill can also be introduced by any Member of Parliament (MP) according to the Attorney-General’s Chambers.
In this particular case of repealing Section 377A, the Penal Code (Amendment) was introduced in Parliament by Minister for Home Affairs and Law K. Shanmugam.
And as for how a bill gets “tabled”, “tabling” a law basically means that no more action regarding the bill will be taken, and that it will be sent for approval as it is.
How a Bill Becomes a Law
Next up, you might be wondering how a bill can end up becoming a law in Singapore.
Apart from the bill being a “draft”, it “becomes an Act of Parliament after it has been passed by Parliament and received the President’s assent” as mentioned by Parliament’s website.
In particular, the Attorney-General Chambers also mentions how most bills that Parliament passes will be sent to the Presidential Council for Minority Rights (PCMR).
This is so that PCMR can check to make sure that the bill does not “discriminate against any racial or religious community”.
Of course, bills that involve defence, security, public safety, peace or good order in Singapore, as well as money and urgent bills, will not be sent to PCMR.
Thereafter, the bill will be sent to the President for the President’s assent (approval) before it officially gets passed as a new law in Singapore.
As for what is the official date on which the law gets passed, it is often decided by the Minister in charge of the Act. The relevant Minister will then post a “commencement notification”.
Next Step to Repealing Section 377A Will be a Vote in Parliament
Next, a debate and vote regarding repealing Section 377A will be held the next time Parliament gathers, which is on 28 November.
In order to successfully repeal Section 377A, a simple majority of MPs will have to vote in favour of repealing it.
If this is still confusing, you might want to watch a blue cat explain everything in Singlish instead:
MPs Involved in Voting Have to Vote Based on Their Party’s Decision
As for how the voting will work, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong previously indicated in August that the People’s Action Party (PAP) will not be “lifting the whip” when Parliament votes on whether or not to repeal S377A.
“Lifting the whip” means to allow MPs to vote freely based on their conscience.
This also means that MPs will be obliged to vote based on whatever position their party takes, and this decision caused some to request for the party whip to be lifted.
However, Mr Wong previously mentioned that the decision to repeal the law is a “matter of public policy” since the courts had previously said that the “law would not be enforced”.
“At the same time, even as we were to repeal this law, we are making sure that we are putting in place measures to make sure that it will not trigger further societal changes,” he explained.
Constitution Also Amended to Protect Current Definition of Marriage
However, with the repeal of Section 377A, PM Lee announced in his NDR that an amendment to the Constitution will be made in order to protect the current definition of marriage.
PM Lee also shared that consultations that the government held with the public revealed that Singaporeans would not like the repeal of S377A to cause a large change in social norms.
These norms include how marriage is defined in Singapore, as well as the education that schools give their students regarding this subject.
In particular, the amendment means that only marital relationships between a man and woman will be recognised in the country, and any government policies that were implemented based on this definition will be protected from being challenged in court.
This amendment is independent of the bill to repeal Section 377A.
Based on a statement released jointly by the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of Social and Family Development, such policies include those regarding public housing since married couples are eligible for financial benefits, as well as those related to education and media policies that “promote and safeguard the institution of marriage”.
According to the ministries, if there are any changes made to the heterosexual definition of marriage in Singapore in the future, these changes or new laws can only be enacted through Parliament, not the courts.
Additionally, the bill will not “codify or enshrine the definition of marriage” into the constitution.
“Such issues should be decided by Parliament, where there can be a full debate that accounts for different perspectives and considerations, and is not tied to a binary (win-lose) decision like in the Courts,” the statement added.
Amendment to Constitution Also to be Voted On in Parliament in November
The bill to amend the Constitution was tabled by Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli, and will see the addition of a new Article to the Constitution.
The article will be Article 156 (Institution of Marriage), and the addition of this new Article means that “Parliament has powers to make laws to define, regulate, protect, safeguard, support, foster, and promote the institution of marriage” according to the ministries’ statement.
Apart from that, it will also allow the government and public authorities to “protect, safeguard, support, foster, and promote the institution of marriage”.
Additionally, the amendment will also protect existing laws that define marriage as a heterosexual union between a man and a woman.
These laws and policies also cannot be “found unconstitutional by the courts” based on how they “contravene the fundamental liberties” that the Consitution has set out.
“For example, the equal protection clause in Article 12 of the Constitution would not invalidate such laws and policies by reason that they are based on a heterosexual definition of marriage,” the statement added.
Article 12 states that all persons are equal before the law and entitled to equal protection of the law.
Separate Debate and Voting for Repealing S377A and Amendment to Constitution
The debate and vote regarding this particular bill will also take place on 28 November in Parliament, but will be conducted separately from the debate and vote for S377A.
This is due to the difference in requirements when it comes to repealing a law versus an amendment to the Constitution.
While the former only requires a simple majority, amendments to the Consitution can only be if at least two-thirds of MPs (excluding Nominated MPs) vote in favour of the amendment.
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More About Article 12 and its Relation to Repealing S377A
Previously, PM Lee also brought up how there was a Court of Appeal decision and advice from the Attorney-General regarding how S377A might face being “struck down” by the courts if the law is “declared unconstitutional” in the future.
This is because it breaches Article 12, which gives everyone equal rights when it comes to being protected by the Constitution.
The Constitution is the highest law, which means that any law that is passed in Parliament may get struck down by the courts if it goes against the Constitution.
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