The debate surrounding repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code has spanned decades. However, a major milestone was reached this year when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about repealing it at the National Day Rally 2022.
This signalled a change in tide and time, following the calls for the repeal of Section 377A increasing over the years.
On 29 November, the law was officially repealed, and while we might forget about the law, we won’t forget the saga that led to it.
93 MPs voted in favour of the move, while three voted against it. They were Workers’ Party MPs Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) and Dennis Tan (Hougang), and Nominated MP Hoon Hian Teck.
Before anything, lest you’ve been living under a rock…
What is Section 377A?
A colonial-era law from 1938, Section 377A criminalises sex between consenting male adults.
Public sentiment about if it should remain in place is divided.
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On the one hand, a growing number of Singaporeans are opposed to Section 377A and more are increasingly supportive of same-sex relationships. Movements like PinkDot, which has seen an increase in participation, demonstrate how the fight to repeal Section 377A is growing stronger.
On the other hand, there remains a group of Singaporeans who is firmly against the repeal of Section 377A. The main reasons for this can be summed as religion and personal beliefs.
Leading Up to the Parliamentary Debate
For the first time since the 2011 General Election, the WP has lifted the party Whip (which ensures MPs vote according to their party’s line), allowing MPs to vote according to their conscience.
You can watch this video for more context:
@goodyfeed Why some WP MPs reject the repeal of Section 377A #goodyfeed #goodynewsreel #repeal377a ♬ original sound – Goody Feed
Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh explained that under “normal circumstances, [he] would not lift the whip for parliamentary debates given the party political structure that overlays elected MPs”.
“However, 377A is unique in that it is conceived through a religious lens by many in Singapore, in addition to being a matter of conscience for a no less significant number,” he concluded.
Singh acknowledged the “varied public opinion on the impending repeal of Section 377A” and that with it followed “a risk that the democratic value of parliament could be diluted if the views of Singaporeans on this subject are not adequately ventilated in the house”.
Additionally, he said that lifting the whip would allow WP MPs who are against the repeal to vote freely and represent Singaporeans who see this repeal as one of deep religious belief and conscience.
On this note, Singh also urged all MPs who will speak to consider their position and how they wish to see Singaporean society move forward despite contrasting views.
As Singh notes, “We know Singapore is divided on 377A. How can we mitigate this and contribute to lowering temperatures and ensuring Singapore is a home for everyone?”
Five WP MPs spoke on 377A during the session. Of the five, three—Mr Singh, Ms Sylvia Lim and Mr Leon Perera (all Aljunied GRC)—supported the repeal while two—Mr Gerald Giam (Aljunied GRC) and Mr Dennis Tan (Hougang)—were against the repeal.
Both of when voted against it.
Two WP MPs were absent from the debate, having tested positive for COVID-19. They were Mr Faisal Manap (Aljunied GRC), who is against the repeal on the grounds of religion and conscience, and Mr Louis Chua (Sengkang GRC), who is for the repeal.
In other words, even when only two WP MPs voted against the repeal, three were actually against it.
WP Members Against the Repeal
In “the most difficult speech” he had to make “to date”, Mr Dennis Tan voiced his opposition to the repeal of Section 377A, saying he was “personally troubled” by the repeal and was guided by “his own faith and beliefs”.
He also said he found it “difficult to support” the repeal and noted that “many [Singaporeans] expressed concerns that the removal of such a marker may make it difficult for parents in setting down their family and social values at home”.
“Many are also concerned that they will be stopped from expressing their contrary views on sexuality after the repeal including the fear of being cancelled. Some are concerned that there will be name-calling because they take a view on sexuality in their workplace or for young people and children, in their schools,” he added.
In making the “most difficult decision” of his political career, Mr Tan asked for the understanding of his “good friends” in the LGBTQ+ community.
Similarly, Mr Giam was against the repeal, saying that it was “in the best long-term interests” of Singapore.
In his speech, he said that it was his “sincere belief that retaining section 377A without enforcing it provides the best balance of the conflicting interests in our society”.
While saying he was not prejudiced against members of the LGBTQ+ community, Mr Giam also acknowledged that his position on this matter was not universally popular. A constituent had told Mr Giam “in [his] face” that he had lost his vote because of Mr Giam’s stand on the issue.
Moreover, although he accepts “the importance that many Singaporeans place on their elected MPs’ positions on these Bills, to the extent that it will be a factor in their decision at the polls”, he voiced his hope that Singaporeans would not base their votes “on this single issue”.
Mr Faisal Manap, absent due to COVID-19, didn’t give a speech nor vote, but his position has been evident since the start.
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The Future of LGBTQ+ Rights in Singapore
Political parties in Singapore, not just WP, are facing similar inconsistencies within their parties when it comes to those in support of or opposition to the repeal of Section 377A.
This has left many Singaporeans wondering whether there ever will be a decisive step in a new direction when it comes to shaping Singaporean society.
Mr Singh highlighted this in a speech made to the National University of Singapore’s political association in 2019 where he acknowledged that the views surrounding Section 377A’s repeal are varied and diverse.
He also stands by his belief that the LGBTQ+ community should not be exploited for political points.
As Mr Singh said during the parliamentary debate, “What [repealing Section 377A] does is make room in our shared public space, for members of our common Singaporean family to not be discriminated against due to their sexual orientation.”
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