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Why Singapore Could Decriminalize Sex Between Men

SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - JUNE
SINGAPORE, SINGAPORE - JUNE (Photographer: Ore Huiying/Getty Images AsiaPac)
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Singapore is reviewing a colonial-era rule that criminalizes sex between men while trying to protect a law that prevents same-sex marriages. Here’s where things stand:

1. What’s the law on men having sex with men? 

Section 377A of the penal code states: “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years.” The law has not been actively enforced for over a decade, and it does not affect women who have sex with other women. 

2. What have the courts said? 

A 2014 challenge against 377A failed when Singapore’s Supreme Court ruled it was a constitutional matter. In February, the Court of Appeal upheld a lower court’s decision to dismiss three challenges to the rule. However, the court said 377A was “unenforceable in its entirety” because the Attorney General had publicly expressed a policy in 2018 of not prosecuting consenting adult men for private sexual acts. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam said in July that the issue should be discussed and decided in Parliament and not in the courts.

3. Why is same-sex marriage in this discussion?

Any discussion on changing 377A raises concerns, especially from religious groups, that it would be followed by court cases that could lead to recognizing same-sex marriages. Under Singapore law, a marriage can only take place between a man and a woman. The government is “considering how we can safeguard the current legal position on marriage from being challenged in the Courts, so that it does not get challenged like the way Section 377A was in a series of cases,” Shanmugam said. A poll by a local think-tank, the Institute of Policy Studies, conducted in late 2018 indicated that the proportion of residents who felt same-sex marriage was always wrong or almost always wrong had dropped to 60% from 74% in 2013.

4. What’s the reaction? 

Singapore’s Catholic Church said it respects the dignity of LGBTQ community, but asked for the right to maintain the position on marriage. About 19% of Singaporeans identify as Christian, while Buddhism is the largest religious group with 31%. The local LGBTQ community has no immediate plans to mount legal challenges to redefine marriage, Leow Yangfa, executive director of rights group Oogachaga, was cited in Singapore’s Today newspaper as saying. 

5. What’s the potential impact? 

Repealing section 377A could help further change social attitudes that have traditionally been resistant to accepting the LGBTQ community, and make the island nation more attractive to progressive-minded workers from abroad. The country, a major financial center, hosts some 37,400 international companies and has a large cohort of expats to supplement the local workforce as it grapples with the effects of an aging population. An online survey between May and June by Ipsos showed that the proportion of residents who remain supportive of Section 377A had dropped to 44%, from 55% in 2018. There’s also been criticism of 377A from some prominent Singaporeans, including former ambassador to the US Tommy Koh, suggesting the law is unjust and even possibly unconstitutional. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi in August called on businesses in Singapore to support LGBTQ groups, which drew a reminder from the government that foreign firms in the country should be careful about advocacy on issues that could be socially divisive.

6. How does it compare with other Asian nations?

Taiwan is the only Asian jurisdiction that legally recognizes same-sex marriages, though Thailand this year began moving toward allowing unions. Vietnam allows same-sex couples to have symbolic weddings but doesn’t recognize the marriage. Hong Kong doesn’t allow it, but does permit gay expatriate workers to bring their spouses in on dependent visas. Myanmar, Malaysia and Brunei all outlaw sexual relations between people of the same gender, according to the Human Dignity Trust. 

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