The repeal of S377A shows that persistent activism for the right cause – to correct what is wrong – will be rewarded, even in authoritarian and largely conservatve Singapore. But only when clouds are burst. The journey to the repeal started in 2007, 15 years ago. It finally saw some kind of daylight from 2018 when Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said laws would have to keep pace with societal changes and that it was up to Singapore society to decide which direction it wanted to take when it came to gay sex.
Few causes have galvanised so many supporters. They were all fighting to get rid of a law which said it was an offence for men to have sex. Apart from legal challenges, activist groups like MARUAH, Oogachaga and Ready4Repeal and concerned Singaporeans like Prof Tommy Koh have spoken up against S377A. The cause literally gave birth to the PinkDot Rally which seemed to have made Hong Lim Park its iconic home base.
And so S377A is no longer in the Penal Code. Its disappearance has been balanced by Article 156 the bill for which was tabled in Parliament in October 20. That was a constitutional amendment aimed at protecting the definition of marriage from legal challenges.
There is something – either manipulative politics or hantam Opposition time – at play in this whole business of “doing the right thing”.
Unfortunately for the Opposition but happily for the LGBTQ fraternity, the government seems to be doing all the right things re S377A. Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was practically revelling in his role of being seen as a progressive minister or one who listens and has conversations with Singaporeans. He played it to the T – right up to the point of declaring that it would have been irresponsible not to act now. “If we approached this purely as politicians, concerned only with votes and not making anyone unhappy, or making as few people unhappy as possible, then that route (would) have been easier,” he said. “But this government will not take that approach. As elected representatives of the people, we cannot do that.”
Everything was leading to this big moment. PAP MP for Kebun Baru Henry Kwek was seen at the last PinkDot Rally. Social media activists were quick to point out that he was a Johnny Come Lately. Opposition personalities have been part of the landscape for a long time. Like Kilroy Who Was Here, Nicole Seah, Chee Soon Juan and Vijay Wijeysingha had been there, to lend their voices to the LGBTQ cause.
The Opposition was not all comfortable in the S377A debate. Frankly I think the PAP had them in a corner. Be openly against the repeal, and they would be seen as unprogressive and lose the support of younger Singaporeans. Be too supportive and they may disappoint the more conservative ones or the religious groups. The Workers’ Party lifted its whip and let its MPs vote according to their conscience. It did not have a position, preferring, as Pritam Singh said, to let the record of its MPs’ voting reflect its diverse views.
And less said about the Progress Singapore Party’s strange off-tangent preference to hold a referendum on marriage the better. Since there is no chance of a real vote given the PAP’s super majority, let voters outside Parliament override the authority of Parliament?
Fortunately, WP seemed, in my opinion, as genuinely passionate about the importance of being inclusive as the PAP tried to be, K Shanmugam apart.
Of all the speeches in Parliament, that of Sengkang GRC WP MP He Ting Ru resonated: “(Not repealing S377A at this point) “would be at odds with steps that Singapore is taking to be a fairer and more equitable society for all, and will go against the principles behind the government’s welcome announcement that we will finally legislate against discrimination…the repeal of 377A plays its part in our move towards a more inclusive society”. Amen.
Tan Bah Bah, consulting editor of TheIndependent.Sg. is a former senior leader writer with TheStraits Times. He was also managing editor of a magazine publishing company.
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