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Movement to repeal Singapore’s anti-gay law calls for public action

Movement to repeal Singapore’s anti-gay law calls for public action

A coalition of LGBTI rights activists and allies have called on the Singaporean public to take a stand on repealing a law banning male homosexual sex.

Ready4Repeal, a group of campaigning for the repeal of Section 377A, made their case at a town hall meeting on Sunday (30 September).

The meeting, held at the Singapore Management University’s School of Law, was attended by 818 participants.

The group has also submitted a petition to the government with 44,650 signatories supporting the repeal of Section 377A. Although the government has said that the law will not be enforced, activists say the archaic legislation’s time is up.

The authors of the petition to repeal Section 377A, Johannes Hadi (left) and Glenn Goei | Photo: Calum Stuart

‘I think it’s time that we, as LGBTQ people and straight allies, work together to get rid of this unjust colonial law,’ Johannes Hadi, trainee lawyer and co-author of the petition, told the town hall attendees.

The meeting, along with its overt calls to action, signifies an emboldened LGBTI movement in a tightly-controlled country where activism is often seen as risky or unsafe.

‘You have to be involved’

A historic ruling by the Supreme Court of India decriminalizing gay sex triggered a renewed debate in Singapore over whether to keep or scrap its own colonial-era anti-gay law.

Veteran activist Constance Singam was among the first demand action from the crowd. ‘You cannot come up every ten years and say “Well, we want change”. Nothing will happen unless you do something about it,’ she said.

‘You have to be involved, every one of you. Go to your MPs, write to your ministers, write to whoever, talk to anybody […] That’s only the first step – we want an inclusive society,’ Singam added.

Constance Singam calling for action | Photo: Calum Stuart

Clement Tan, a committee member of the annual LGBTI rights rally Pink Dot, said at a press conference following the event that it was important for LGBTI people to share personal stories with political leaders to make them more aware of the issues facing the LGBTI community.

‘Maybe they’re not aware of our stories. It’s our responsibility to share [our stories] with them too, so they can’t then say that they don’t know there’s discrimination in Singapore,’ said Tan.

The effects of 377A 

Attendees also heard details of the legal challenges to the constitutionality of Section 377A.

Lawyer Remy Choo argued that the focus should be on considering Section 377A from a legal perspective and demonstrating that legislation from the British colonial era is obsolete in an independent Singapore.

The crowd at the town hall meeting | Photo: Calum Stuart

‘Talking about the defense of marriage, talking about the slippery slope, talking about religious freedoms – [these arguments] are red herrings. Because what we’re trying to repeal is bad colonial legislation,’ said Choo.

Choo also spoke of the possible economic consequences of retaining Section 377A, pointing to considerations that multinational companies might have when deploying LGBTI employees.

‘Some would be thinking “Where do we send them to Hong Kong, where it’s no longer a criminal offense? Or do we send them to Singapore? Where we don’t know if their spouses can join them, where we don’t know how they’re going to be treated, we don’t know if they’re not going to be prosecuted”,’ he said.

Choo pointed out that most other developed nations have scrapped similar laws discriminating against the LGBTI community.  In this respect, foreign investors might see Singapore as lagging behind.

Remy Choo addressing the room | Photo: Calum Stuart

Organizers of the session also highlighted that while the law is only directly applicable to gay men, it also leads to institutionalized prejudice against all of the LGBTI community. Several actors recounted harrowing stories from people who had faced horrific forms of abuse and discrimination from their families and peers because they were LGBTI.

The issue of activism

The government has said that they have no plans to repeal Section 377A, uncharacteristically deferring to popular opinion to decide whether to keep or scrap the law.

Religious groups in Singapore have expressed their support for keeping Section 377A, and a petition arguing for its retention gathered around 109,000 signatures.

But prominent establishment figures have surprised Singaporeans by speaking out in favor of repeal.

Ready4Repeal’s petition boasts lead signatories such as Ambassador-at-Large Tommy Koh, former Attorney-General Walter Woon and Singapore’ former ambassador to the United Nations Kishore Mahbubani. VK Rajah, a former judge, and Attorney-General, also penned a commentary in The Straits Times disagreeing with a 2014 Court of Appeal ruling that declared Section 377A constitutional.

The speakers posing for photos at the end of the day | Photo: Calum Stuart

But a direct call to action by Ready4Repeal and its allies is a big ask for Singapore. The city-state maintains strict laws on public assembly and has prosecuted activists for peaceful protests.

Speaking to GSN at a press conference following the event, Remy Choo maintained that the movement was depoliticized.

‘I think this is an issue which cuts across political sensibilities; it’s an issue which cuts across partisan politics, and it cuts across religion and different demographics. And I think we have made it clear that it’s not a political issue – it’s an issue of conscience. It’s an issue of removing bad law [and] giving Singaporeans their full rights as equal citizens.’