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Gay father’s successful adoption ruling in Singapore is not such a landmark case

Gay father’s successful adoption ruling in Singapore is not such a landmark case


Going on the headlines alone, one could be forgiven for thinking that a major victory for the LGBTI rights movement recently occurred in Singapore.

This week, the Singapore courts ruled that a gay man could legally adopt his son, conceived via a surrogate in the US. This allows him to raise the child with his long-term partner, also a Singaporean.

Taken against the backdrop of Singapore’s attitude towards gay rights, at first glance this would seem like a seismic shift in the judiciary’s attitude.

Singapore has long been seen as a place which keeps LGBTI rights at arm’s length.

The city-state does not recognize marriages nor adoption rights for same-sex couples, and continues to hold on to Section 377A, a relic from the British colonial-era which prohibits sex between men (effectively criminalizing gay men).

Despite the law rarely being enforced, and while similar laws become increasingly obsolete throughout the world, recent polling indicates that the Singaporean population is inclined to maintain Section 377A for the time being.

In 2014 Singapore's Court of Appeal ruled Section 377A did not violate the Constitution (Photo: Wikipedia)
Singapore’s High Court (Photo: Wikipedia)

This is why the court’s decision to grant an openly gay parent adoption rights to his child seems like such a milestone. It appears to be a moment of significant progress for the LGBTI rights movement in the Southeast Asian city-state. Right…?

Well, yes and no, but mostly no.

‘It is difficult to overstate the narrowness of the decision’

When it comes down to the nuts and bolts of the case, the picture becomes far clearer: this was almost certainly a one-off ruling in an exceptional case.

The intricacies and nuances involved in the court’s decision involved the citizenship status of the child, and what would happen to the child if he could not be adopted by his biological father. In the end, the court found that the child’s welfare, in this case, trumped the state’s policy against same-sex family units.

While this case is a win for the family, in reality, it would be extremely unlikely for this ruling to translate into an institutional change in attitude towards LGBTI people.

‘It is […] difficult to overstate the narrowness of the basis of the decision,’ Remy Choo Zheng Xi, a lawyer who has worked on LGBTI rights cases, wrote in a Facebook post on Thursday (20 December).

For Choo, the court’s decision on this specific adoption case is, in essence, unique to this case.

Singapore's LGBTI even Pink Dot says Singapore is ready to repeal anti-gay legislation Section 377A (Photo: Facebook)
Singapore’s LGBTI event Pink Dot says Singapore is ready to repeal anti-gay legislation Section 377A (Photo: Facebook)

‘In one sense, the case is bold,’ Choo wrote. ‘The Judges bucked public policy (hostility to the formation of same-sex family units) to uphold the welfare of a Child born to a gay man. The judgment effectively lets the father of the Child bring his son up in a loving family unit with his long-term same-sex partner.

‘However, those tempted to cheer the judgment as a paradigm shift of judicial activism should moderate their expectations. The judgment also re-affirms that legislative intent is front and center of the Court’s decision-making process more broadly,’ he added.

‘Courts are not the vanguard of social reform’

Choo also noted that the court was careful to point out that this will not have any effect on the constitutional arguments with regard to Section 377A. A constitutional challenge to the law is currently pending.

‘The message from the Court is clear: when it comes to matters of public policy, the role of the Court is to, in the words of the Chief Justice “expound, and not to expand”,’ Choo wrote.

‘In case you don’t get the memo, the judgment is emphatic: “The courts are not the vanguard of social reform”.’

The government, who has said that they will study the judgment, might also close any legal loopholes which allowed the ruling. Desmond Lee, the Minister for Social and Family Development, went as far as to say that the ruling could, in fact, make it harder for same-sex couples to seek to adopt a child in the future.

At the end of it all, this case is a welcome ruling where a family was able to stay together, but is not a game-changer for the legal status of Singapore’s LGBTI community.

The ongoing fight for LGBTI rights in Singapore

This is not to say that there is nothing to be optimistic about with regard to the LGBTI rights movement in Singapore.

While the movement has encountered numerous obstacles, 2018 has seen a renewed sense of purpose from LGBTI rights activists.

Speakers at the Ready4Repeal town hall meeting in Singapore | Photo: Calum Stuart

In July, Pink Dot, Singapore’s annual LGBTI Pride event – which had often been criticized for playing it safe with regards to LGBTI rights activism – called on the government directly to repeal Section 377A, in what was a stark and direct change of strategy.

Following the decision by India’s top court to repeal Section 377 in September, the predecessor of Singapore’s law, activists in the city-state initiated Ready4Repeal, a movement committed to advocating for the removal of 377A.

In Singapore, real and tangible future changes will likely not come from the judiciary going out on a limb.

It will, instead, come from the activists and lawyers who continue to work with steady persistence towards changing social attitudes towards the LGBTI community.