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Of Caning, Hanging and the Criminalising of Gay Sex

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By Augustine Low

The case of Singapore agreeing not to cane suspected StanChart bank robber David Roach as a condition for extradition by the United Kingdom is an interesting one.

It could be a paradox or a peculiarity, or both, depending on how you see it.

Singapore’s legal system and criminal laws can be traced back to the British colonial era when the English system was first adopted. Hence it can be said that the corporal punishment of judicial caning is inherited from the British.

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But as explained by Law Minister K Shanmugam: “In the UK, there’s no corporal punishment so they will not extradite to a country which has corporal punishment.” In fact, the UK abolished judicial caning as corporal punishment as far back as 1948.

It is not the only law from British colonial days that the UK has abolished but which is still in practice here.

In the UK, the last executions – death by hanging – were carried out in 1964. The death penalty was retained for offences such as treason although it was never carried out. In 1998, capital punishment was abolished altogether in the UK.

But of course in Singapore, the death penalty is very much alive. The Singapore procedure of hanging condemned criminals is similar to the method formerly used in the UK.

Another law from the British colonial era is the criminalising of sex between men, spelt out under Section 377A of the Penal Code. This same law – that of making sex between men a criminal offence – was abolished in the UK in 1967. The UK has since gone much further – same sex marriage was legalised in 2014 in England, Wales and Scotland. And in the current UK Parliament, there are 45 MPs who openly define themselves as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender (LGBT), the highest number of any Parliament in the world.

In Singapore, there have been calls in recent years for Section 377A to be repealed. But in a BBC interview in March last year, PM Lee Hsien Loong said that if there were a referendum on whether to remove Singapore’s law criminalising gay sex, most Singaporeans would want to keep the statute because society is not that liberal on such matters.

However, PM Lee’s wife Ho Ching has just put up another LGBT-related post on her Facebook page, less than a week after she made news for sharing the Pink Dot event on her social media wall.

Is there more to it than meets the eye? It remains to be seen.

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