Foreign Affairs Minister Vivian Balakrishnan has denied calling Section 377A a “silly” law after a Singaporean recounted that he heard the minister referring to the law as “silly” at a recent tech forum in the San Francisco Bay Area.
Balakrishnan had attended the forum along with soon-to-be Deputy Prime Minister Heng Swee Keat to encourage Singaporeans in the region, which includes Silicon Valley, to consider opportunities back home.
Themed “Singapore: The Digital Capital of Southeast Asia,” the full-day tech forum was specifically held at the Westfield Mall in the Bay Area, which has the largest proportion of Singaporeans of any area in the US. Organised by several Singapore government agencies, the event hosted hundreds of participants.
One of these participants, Facebook user YuZhou Lee, wrote on social media that he was left with a bitter taste in his mouth when Balakrishnan commented on Section 377A at the forum.
Lee recounted that Stripe CEO Patrick Collison asked Balakrishnan and Heng “What is something you would change about Singapore that you would disagree on with the audience here?” during the forum’s question, and answer segment.
Lee recalled: “Not knowing what he disagreed with the audience on, Minister Vivian Balakrishnan surveyed the audience for possible suggestions that he could talk about. “377A!” I shouted.”
A law that criminalises gay sex, Section 377A was part of the penal code that the British left behind in Singapore. Although Section 377A is no longer actively enforced in Singapore, the government is hesitant to repeal it even though both Britain and India have scrapped it.
The latest social initiative against Section 377A, the Ready4Repeal campaign, gained immense traction and even drew support from establishment figures like former attorney general Walter Woon and distinguished diplomat Tommy Koh, but failed to effect change.
Calling Section 377A a law that “officially strips queer people of their humanity” and one that “expresses a government sentiment that queer people are not equal members of the state,” Lee continued:
“When faced with this question, Minister Vivian answered the question with the following sentiments:
1. That he was not interested in what we do privately in our bedrooms
2. That we were here to focus on recruiting tech talent, and not on “silly” issues like these laws. (And yes, the word silly was used)”
Balakrishnan, however, denied that he used the word “silly” to describe the law. He wrote in a comment on Lee’s post:
“Thank you for attending the Tech Forum over the weekend and for asking a salient question. You may recall that I made the following points.
“First, that this is an old law that we inherited from the British. Second, that we don’t enforce this law – we respect the privacy of consenting adults in the bedroom.
“Third, we really want to avoid the ‘culture wars’ that we see elsewhere on this polarising issue. We are not likely to achieve consensus by prolonged arguments. Fourth, this is not the central issue of our time. Our focus is to welcome talented Singaporeans like you if relevant opportunities arise.
“Even if we disagree, we should live and let live in mutual respect. Best wishes for your future. PS: I did not use the word ‘silly’. I think you misheard me.”
Lee still seems to hold that Balakrishnan used the word “silly” to describe Section 377A. He has not removed or edited his post to reflect the minister’s clarification.
In his post, Lee wrote: “When a minister calls it “silly” to challenge the very law that denies your humanity, that judges the LGBT community to be intrinsically wrong, that strips a basic human right away from you, it speaks volumes of the amount of empathy and understanding they have of the people they govern. Perhaps sitting high up in their seats of power have left them unable to hear the cries from the ground.
“When a minister can decide at a forum for *recruiting talent* back home that a person’s humanity and rights is a separate issue from their skill sets, you can see how they represent a government view that we are valued for our economic ability and not our intrinsic value as human beings.”
Calling Balakrishnan’s answer to his question “both intellectually dishonest and personally heartbreaking,” Lee wrote: “It is intellectually dishonest because his answer dismisses the hardships queer Singaporeans face as ramifications of this law.
“But more importantly, it is heartbreaking because of how clearly the Singapore government does not recognize, much less empathize with the pain that LGBT people live with growing up – that feeling of never being enough, the feeling that you will never be loved, the feeling that you are intrinsically wrong.”
Expressing his love for Singapore, that he served his national conscription proudly and dutifully, and that he would love to return to Singapore if he gets the opportunity to contribute to its society, and tech scene, Lee asked:
“But how can I do so when the ministers at the top clearly do not regard LGBT Singaporeans as equal members of society who deserve equal rights? Why would I do that in a society that treats the LGBT community, a community I’m part of, as second class citizens?
“The event left me with a huge sense of bittersweetness. I was so proud of the leaps and bounds the country had made in developing its tech scene. I was so proud that Singaporeans were so well represented in the Bay Area. And yet, I left so heartbroken that I cannot truly join this party.”
Meanwhile, netizens responding to Balakrishnan’s comment on Lee’s post asked the minister why the government hesitates to repeal Section 377A and why he would point out that the law is inherited from the colonial system when Britain has already repealed it:
Read Lee’s post and the comments to his post in full here: