Law and order questions a mile high

Singapore Airlines advertises that couples can book a double bed on its A380 first-class suites.  While you can’t quite see it in this video, the airline, in this news release dated March 2008, clearly says “For couples traveling, the beds in the middle two seats can be converted to an optional double bed.”

This other video shows you how the conversion is done:

However, in a UK Sunday Times story (28 Oct 2007) headlined “Sex ban on the Airbus A380“, the airline’s policy, ever so reflective of the Singapore government’s, was spelt out:

The A380 may have the world’s first airborne double bed, but it won’t be put to the obvious use if Singapore Airlines has its way: “If couples used our double beds to engage in inappropriate activity, we would politely ask them to desist,” said the company’s Stephen Forshaw.

“There are things that are acceptable on an aircraft and things that aren’t, and the rules for behaviour in our double beds are the same ones that apply throughout the aircraft.”


Even so, [Tony and Julie Elwood from Perth, Australia] weren’t too impressed with Singapore’s strait-laced attitude. “So they’ll sell you a double bed, and give you privacy and endless champagne — and then say you can’t do what comes naturally?” asked Tony, a vigorous 76. “Seems a bit strange.”

What the airline fails to tell its passengers (and thereby exposes itself to a nasty lawsuit one day) is that it is illegal to do what comes naturally, and passengers can be arrested and jailed.

This is because Singapore law operates on board any ship or aircraft that is registered in Singapore. Under our law, sex in a public place, even nudity visible to the public, is an offence.

But what do we mean by a public place? If the passengers closed the doors of their first-class suites, is it not private? If two economy-class passengers decided to join the “mile-high club” by shagging inside an aircraft toilet, would that space not be private?

In law, the answer is No. While in real life, we tend to see public/private more as a continuum of different degrees, the law makes an either/or determination. The Miscellaneous Offences (Public Order and Nuisance) Act defines it thus:

“public place” means any place or premises to which at the material time the public or any section of the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission;

Any space to which the public has access, whether freely or on payment of a fee, is considered a public place. A locked hotel bedroom is a public space, for example, because any member of the public, upon promise to pay, can get to use it. By the same definition, sex in a Singapore Airlines suite (or toilet) is illegal because you’re doing it in a “public place”.

Yet even if that’s what the law says, what would members of the public consider a reasonable and appropriate response? Would hauling people to court for that be akin to taking a sledgehammer to deal with a fly? I think most of us would say Yes: It would be totally disproportionate. Interruption and social pressure should be sufficient if we disapproved. Some of us might not even disapprove; they might say it’s none of others’ business.

Public opinion shifts somewhat when the participants of sex or nudity do not even take the trouble to shield their acts behind closed doors. They thrust it before people who may find it offensive. In such a  situation, a larger number of people will say prosecution is justified.

And that’s what happened after Eng Kai Er and Jan Philip took a stroll in the buff through Holland Village on 24 January 2009, though interestingly, “There was no reaction of disgust. The people reacted with cheers as was reported in the newspapers,” their defence counsel William Chan told the court. (Today, 2 May 2009, Nude stroll in Holland Village for for the ‘thrill’)

On 30 April 2009, they pleaded guilty to charges under Section 27A of the Miscellaneous Offence (Public Order and Nuisance) Act, which says:

Appearing nude in public or private place
27A. —(1) Any person who appears nude —

(a) in a public place; or

(b) in a private place and is exposed to public view,

shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 months or to both.

The judge fined each of them $2,000 — the maximum under the act, but did not impose imprisonment.

* * * * *

But sex in a “public place” is different from being nude walking down a street, you might say. Is there a law against the former? As far as I can see, there isn’t any specific law to that. There is however one that can be used for such situations — Section 20 of the same Act:

Riotous, disorderly or indecent behaviour in, or in the immediate vicinity of, certain places

20. Any person who is found guilty of any riotous, disorderly or indecent behaviour in any public road or in any public place or place of public amusement or resort, or in the immediate vicinity of, or in, any court, public office, police station or place of worship, shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to a fine not exceeding $1,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding one month and, in the case of a second or subsequent conviction, to a fine not exceeding $2,000 or to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 6 months.

(underscoring added by Yawning Bread)

It is on this basis that I said above that making full use of Singapore Airlines’ double bed is illegal.

You will also note however that having full-blown sex in a “public place” makes you liable to a maximum fine of $1,000 or maximum imprisonment of one month (if first offence), while non-sexual nudity attracts a maximum fine twice that and up to 3 months’ jail. Of course, most people will find it hard to have full-blown sex in public view without exposing critical parts of one’s anatomy, thus making oneself liable to both charges.

So perhaps it is correct that sex or indecent behaviour in a technically “public place”, but not within view of the public is considered a lesser offence. Moreover, no effort is made to root it out, so romantic liaisons continue to take place in parked cars or deserted stairwells, or in first-class cabins, the view being that if the couple has taken some trouble to shield themselves from the public, then the enforcement authorities should leave them alone.

* * * * *

With one big exception.

When two men have a sexual encounter behind locked toilet doors, the authorities do not leave them alone. Not only are they arrested, they face penalties many times more severe than the nude couple who walked through Holland Village.

On Monday, 6 September 2010, one man had such a  case mentioned in court. On Thursday, 9 September 2010, came another:

9 September 2010
Agence France-Presse

Gay Singaporean charged over sex act in public toilet

A Singaporean gay man was charged Thursday with having oral sex in a public toilet, in breach of the city-state’s ban on sexual acts between men.

Tan Eng Hong, 47, is alleged to have committed the offence in March inside the toilet cubicle of a popular shopping mall in the Singapore’s business and shopping district.

Homosexuality is not illegal in Singapore, but sex between men is criminalised under the penal code, despite amendments in 2007 which legalised oral and anal sex for heterosexual couples.

The code encompasses “any act of gross indecency” and carries a sentence of up to two years in jail, according to the attorney general’s website.

Recent data on the number of people convicted under the code was not immediately available, but figures given by Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng in a parliamentary reply in 2007 showed 185 people were convicted between 1997-2006.

Tan was released on a bail of 8,000 Singapore dollars (5,960 US dollars) after his case was adjourned to September 27.

What the report above does not specify is that Tan was charged under Section 377A, which mandates imprisonment. The judge has no option to impose only a fine. The prison sentence can extend up to two years.

This is exactly the kind of thing that points to anti-gay discrimination. For the same offence, gay men are treated much more harshly than heterosexual couples. For heterosexuals, the authorities turn a blind eye to sex behind closed doors, even in technically “public” places; we never hear of arrests and court appearances.  Even when they walk stark naked down a street lined with restaurants, they are just fined, not imprisoned.

Gay men who have sex behind a locked toilet door, however, are charged under a law that only targets them and that mandates imprisonment. Is this fair? Is this equality?

And this is the same law that Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in 2007 would not be “proatively”enforced.

12 Responses to “Law and order questions a mile high”

  1. 1 Hahaha 13 September 2010 at 18:12

    I didn’t know that 377A imposes mandatory imprisonment. I’m shocked! I think this should receive the same publicity as the MDP for drug traffickers. Any other “mandatory” laws?

    But sadly, I don’t think anything will change in Singapore. Not unless some super rich man or a next-of-kin of the men-in-white gets caught. Recall how quickly organ sales rules were changed once the rich Mr Tang was involved?

  2. 2 ape 13 September 2010 at 18:58

    Perhaps it would have been better to rationalise sex in A380 from the perspective of safety instead of law. Imagine in the midst of sex, pilot announces “belt on” due to turbulence, the couple may have a hard time recovering.

  3. 3 Wang 13 September 2010 at 19:30

    Curious where does it mention within the actual report locked doors.?

  4. 4 twasher 13 September 2010 at 20:46

    Are there no charges against Tan’s partner?

  5. 5 Yvonne Twat 13 September 2010 at 23:10

    Are you fkcing crazy Alex? Behind a locked door will be in private unless there is a specific legal provision that says otherwise.

    Having paid access to a room which has to be unlocked for you to go in will not mean it is a public place when you are in it behind a locked door – or if someone is unlikely to wander in – otherwise no one could be naked or make love in their own hotel room!!

    A double bed in first class, even if curtained off, isn’t that private, stewards are always putting their head in offering drinks, telling you to fasten your belt for a bumpy ride(!) etc.

    377A (being the very obviously unconstitutional catch-all provision that doesn’t require privacy) may have been used in the cubicle case because whatever may have happened, happened behind a locked door. But there are surely other laws which apply to having sex, gay or straight, in toilet cubicles that are non-discriminatory that could have been used.

    If prosecutors are going back on a government undertaking not to use this section, then any defense attorney worth his salt should be challenging the constitutionality of the section in court and raising a holy stink about it.

  6. 7 evobe 14 September 2010 at 00:07

    “Behind a locked door will be in private unless there is a specific legal provision that says otherwise.”

    Can’t you read? Alex in his article cited exactly that provision.

    • 8 Lee Chee Wai 14 September 2010 at 01:31


      He may have cited it, but please step back and consider if the citation was flawed.

      Alex cited:

      “public place” means any place or premises to which at the material time the public or any section of the public has access, on payment or otherwise, as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission

      I am not a lawyer. My key questions are:

      1. What is the definition of “at the material time”? Does it refer to the time the supposed offence was determined to have taken place?

      2. If #1 is true, then my interpretation of “as of right or by virtue of express or implied permission” would preclude locked doors. The exception would be to define the cabin crew as a “section of the public” and even then would assign to them the authority to enter your cabin at any time, which may not be what SIA is keen on telling its customers.

      If you asked me about the “spirit” of that law, I’d say my interpretation is very clear: This applies to scenarios, whether the locale is private or otherwise, where the public has some “legitimate” access to that locale at that particular time.

      Of course, one could choose to be sneaky about the wording and twist it to saying … “I, as a member of the public, can always buy your house at some later point in time. So, nothing you do at home is technically private.”. This is obviously an extreme interpretation that no one would ever take seriously.

  7. 9 Becca D'Bus 15 September 2010 at 01:03

    That conversion video is embarrasing

  8. 10 Heh 18 September 2010 at 03:37

    I’m shocked to know that 377A is being applied actively despite the SM’s verbal statements to the contrary.

    “But sadly, I don’t think anything will change in Singapore. Unless some super rich man or a next-of-kin of the men-in-white gets caught.”

    One can only wish…

  9. 11 Anonymous 24 September 2010 at 02:12

    You can be gay man, but you’re not allowed to do the gay stuff.


  10. 12 Azure 8 November 2010 at 23:43

    Bit late to the discussion, but
    “Homosexuality is not illegal in Singapore, but sex between men is criminalised under the penal code..”
    part made me laugh. Is this a typo or is it some sort of doublethink Singaporeans actually use to convince themselves that homosexuality* isn’t illegal? Because as far as I know, something being criminalized is THE DEFINITION of something being illegal.

    *disclaimer, we will repress homosexuality only in case of men. Because that is icky and threatening to me, as a man. But two women getting it on? Oh my, how exciting…can I watch? please, please, please.. 🙂

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