For my gay, lesbian and transgender readers, and others for whom equality, non-discrimination and human rights are important, I have dug up the speeches made in parliament during the 2007 debate on Section 377A of the Penal Code. Thirteen People’s Action Party (PAP) backbenches spoke on the subject and this post will give you a gist of the positions they took. They were not uniformly anti-gay; three of them took a stand for repeal.
In my view, we should wherever possible support them for the courage of their convictions.
I omit from this review the two most memorable speeches: the “straw up your nose” convulsion of a speech made by Thio Li-Ann and that by Siew Kum Hong, because both were then Nominated Members of Parliament, not belonging to electoral parties.
I have also excluded Ho Peng Kee’s speech, because he was moving the Bill and speaking in his capacity as office-holder, and Lee Hsien Loong’s waffle of a speech trying to square a circle while attempting to defend his government’s position.
Sylvia Lim (Workers’ Party, NCMP) touched on Section 377A briefly but only to say that
the Workers’ Party leadership, several months ago, discussed extensively the issue of whether section 377A should be retained or repealed. After much deliberation, we were unable to arrive at a consensus that it should be repealed and, as such, we would not be calling for its abolition.
That leaves only thirteen PAP MPs who spoke on Section 377A during the debate on amendments to the entire Penal Code. It should be noted however that even though the majority of PAP MPs did not speak in the debate, there was a thunderous ovation given to Thio Li-Ann after she made her venomous speech. One can therefore deduce from that where the typical PAP MP stands.
As most readers are aware, one of the amendments to the Penal Code was to repeal the old Section 377, which made it an offence to engage in “acts against the order of nature” which by court precedent means anal and oral sex. However, the amendments did not include repeal of Section 377A which punishes “gross indecency” between two men. The effect of this pair of action and non-action was to legalise anal and oral sex between heterosexual and lesbian couples but to keep any and every kind of sex between two males an offence.
Siew Kum Hong (NMP) presented a petition to parliament to repeal Section 377A as well. This proved controversial, such that while there were plenty of other amendments proposed to the Penal Code, the non-inclusion of Section 377A for repeal was the topic that took most of the debate.
Synopses of the 13 MPs’ positions
Christopher de Souza, devoting a major part of his speech to 377A, kept referring to the “homosexual lifestyle” — a derogatory term much favoured by the Christian Rightwing for its implication of hedonistic whoring and that homosexuality is merely behaviour that can be changed.
He argued that repealing Section 377A would mean that the “homosexual lifestyle no longer remains private but travels into spheres traditionally reserved for heterosexual couples.” As examples of the loss of exclusive privilege by heterosexuals, he listed marriage, adoption, tax benefits and spousal rights (“Same-sex partners may be statutorily entitled to benefits because of their new-found spousal status.”). His speech came with the assumption that anyone hearing him would shudder at the idea that heterosexuals shouldn’t enjoy these privileges exclusively.
He ended his speech with a flourish: “Do we want to see our children being taught that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle choice?”
Zaqy Mohamad, speaking in Malay, said that in his opinion, the status quo position adopted by the government was “for the benefit for society as a whole”. He noted that the majority view was still conservative. Reporting on the feedback from his “constituents and community leaders”, he said they trusted the government to make the “appropriate decision that will reflect our social situation in Singapore.”
Indranee Rajah devoted a large part of her speech on Penal Code amendments to the specific issue of 377A. Contesting Siew Kum Hong’s assertion that this law denied gay people full equality, a guarantee found in our constitution, she said: “”We do not look at your sexual orientation in determining whether or not you should be prosecuted or you should be
Defending the retention of 377A, she compared the situation in Singapore today to the situation in other countries when they had slavery.
At the time when they had slavery, there were laws in place which reflected the public morality of that time. If you had been in America at that time when they had slaves and you had said to somebody, ‘You should not have slaves because slavery is wrong’, nobody there, at that time, would have agreed with you because the society was such that that was the correct thing at that time.
The gist of her argument was that an unenlightened majority had a right to deprive minorities of their rights. Citing another example, she pointed out that some countries today have “institutionalised discrimination on the basis of either race or religion as part of their official policy. And for those countries, they consider it right.”
So there’s nothing wrong with discrimination against a section of Singapore’s population when “society” wants it, she argued.
Alvin Yeo devoted his entire speech to 377A. Echoing Indranee Rajah, he said the meaning of equality is contingent upon the values and beliefs of society. Presumably he means that if society thinks it treats people of a different colour equally even when they are enslaved, that meaning of equality remains valid. With specific reference to gay citizens, he felt that their equality can be compromised because the “principle of equal treatment of all has to be moderated by our aim of preserving harmony among our different races.” It sounded like a call not to frighten the fundamentalist Christian horses.
He concluded with an observation that “laws can and do change” and that gay citizens should put up with their discrimination in the meantime and “try to give this issue more time and not let it be something that divides our society.”
Hri Kumar argued that “laws must meet the three Cs, i.e. be clear, consistent and concrete, meaning that they must be substantive, effective and make sense.” Section 377A, he pointed out, falls short of these tests. When the government keeps a law yet say they will not enforce it, it becomes counterproductive, inviting attacks on the integrity of the law.
He also pointed out that claiming homosexuality to be immoral is no argument, since:
society has done away with criminalising a whole host of other conduct, which is far more damaging to family values, such as adultery, which carries a more direct threat to the integrity of the family. And adultery was one of the original Ten Commandments.
and, referring to the government’s refusal to criminalise a husband raping his wife:
I cannot imagine any Member of the House believing that it is acceptable for a man to force himself on a woman under any circumstances, regardless of whether they are married. But we do not completely outlaw marital rape.
He also spoke out against those who used religious arguments: “we must remind ourselves that we are a secular state. . . . and . . . decisions will always be made on secular grounds.”
Moreover “it is stretching logic to suggest that the repeal will lead to a sudden proliferation of homosexual activity.” And as for fears about HIV,
making something illegal only forces it underground. That will restrict the ability of the Government to respond to the HIV threat through promotion and education, when Government agencies feel that they cannot engage with the gay community in any way except a condemnatory one.
Concluding, he posed this question: “assume we are here debating whether to include section 377A into our Penal Code, would we do it?”
The rationale will be that since Singapore is a generally conservative society, we should single out and criminalise all sexual activities between two men while accepting that the same activity of anal and oral sex between a heterosexual couple and sexual activity between two women need not be offences.
Taking on the we-are-asian argument,
While almost all western countries do not have similar laws, we will argue that it is not relevant for us to take reference from them. However, we are also choosing not to benchmark Singapore against countries like China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines which do not have laws that criminalise male homosexual activity.
As for claims that Singapore is conservative and social attitudes ought to be reflected in law,
Based on the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2003, 93% in Indonesia and 84% in Vietnam say that homosexuality should not be accepted by society, but these countries have no equivalent of section 377A.
In any case, he pointed out, such public opinion is highly questionable.
However, whether the perceived majority holding the status quo view has enough knowledge and understanding of the subject matter to make an informed opinion, is another question. I suspect a significant segment of our society does not really care and some are just uncomfortable with this topic and choose the convenient way to stick with the status quo without knowing what the Act exactly is and does. Last week, a resident came to my meet-the-people session and said that she is happy that the government is retaining section 377A. I asked her, “Do you know what section 377A is about?” She said, “I don’t know.”
Ong Kian Min opened with cannon fire: “I would state categorically that I am not in favour of mainstreaming the homosexual lifestyle.”
He also said that his constituents whom he likened as the (often wronged) silent majority had come out forcefully — the contradiction within his own metaphor seems to have been lost on him — to demand that moral standards and family values be upheld.
The overwhelming sentiment of Singaporeans is that they are not prepared to compromise their conservative family values by opening up to alternative sexual behaviour, nor allowing it to permeate across time honoured boundaries into the conventional family sanctity.
He took pains to thank Thio for her speech and finished with a call that gave away his religious affiliation. Using archaic English phrasing only found among Christians, he implored, “Let the family unit not be compromised.”
Cynthia Phua only mentioned 377A briefly in her speech, choosing to deal with other amendments to the Penal Code instead. However, she too argued for a relativistic interpretation of equality: “In the application of the rule of law, it has to be in accordance with the social, cultural and political values of each society.”
She wanted Singapore to “protect and uphold the traditional core family structure and values.”
Mohammad Faishal Ibrahim, spent a good part of his speech on 377A. He tried to appear modern by saying that “gay Singaporeans have contributed to our nationbuilding process and, like most Singaporeans, been loyal to our nation,” but quickly added that repealing Section 377A would be “against the mainstream approval of most Singaporeans.”
The gay community, in his opinion, have the “vote and enjoy the benefits that most Singaporeans are accorded”, concluding by expressing his “strong support that section 377A be retained in the Penal Code.”
Charles Chong’s unique angle was in how many of the other amendments to the Penal Code represented moves to make the law more gender-neutral: “Sir, other steps in the same direction include the substitution of “spouse” for “wife” and “child” for “son” in various provisions of the Code.”
He then expressed his puzzlement why some other sections which were also appropriate for “gender-neutralisation”, were left alone. The result was a “blemish” on what would otherwise have been a good exercise in updating the law.
As for Section 377A specifically, he was not convinced that Singapore would
rapidly slip down the slippery road if we were to repeal section 377A, as suggested by some Members. The slippery road argument has less of an impact on me these days, as I have heard that sort of arguments used many times before
we have abolished that archaic regulation and permitted bar-top dancing for some years already, and the world has not come to an end yet.
Referring to points made by both Lee Kuan Yew and Lee Hsien Loong that sexual orientation is inborn, “then it would be quite wrong for us to criminalise and persecute those that are born different from us, regardless of how conservative a society we claim to be, especially if their actions do not cause harm to third parties.”
Like Hri Kumar, he posed the question:
if we did not have section 377A in the Penal Code today, would we think it fit and proper to enact a provision in exactly the same terms? Would we not be seen as being narrow-minded, perhaps even bigoted in our philosophy towards people who are born different and engage in practices not approved by the majority, even if no harm is done to others?
He announced that he did not agree with the practice of homosexuality (interesting that he saw homosexuality as ‘practice’) and declared that many residents whose views he sought agreed with him.
He then tried to appear Christian by adding that “The fact that I disagree with the practice of homosexuality does not mean that I despise homosexuals,” but nevertheless Parliament had to send a message that “Singapore is a conservative society whereby the family unit is still seen as the basic structure of society.”
Seah Kian Peng devoted a substantial part of his speech to 377A. Rebutting the argument that retaining 377A would be tyranny of the majority against a minority, he claimed that there is no such thing in Singapore, as evidenced by the fact that we are so enlightened, we even have a system of Group Representation Constituencies “where minorities are protected.”
I am a Member of Parliament who believes that, as a nation, our families are not ready to have an open acceptance of the gay lifestyle, including same-sex marriages and gay adoption of young children. I believe that these key institutions would be weakened by the repeal of section 377A. This view, like this debate, is a matter of principle, not of numbers.
As evident from the above quote, unlike other MPs who argued for retention of 377A on the ground that the majority of Singaporeans wanted it, Seah’s view was that numbers didn’t matter. Criminalising gay men would always be right even if the majority changed their views and he was the only one left.
* * * * *
At this point, I have no firm information which constituencies these men and women will be standing for election in, at the coming polls, or even if they’re standing at all. Moreover, if they are part of a GRC team it is entirely possible to find one with a Pro-equality meter reading teamed up with another with an Anti-equality meter reading making it very hard to decide. Furthermore, much depends on the stance taken by the opposing party in their constituency.
Nonetheless, I hope the information provided here will enable you to decide whom to support and whom to roundly reject should an opportunity arise for you make such a choice.