The lengthy session in Parliament on Monday, Nov. 28 had two agendas: to debate the bill repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, and another bill to amend Singapore’s constitution to protect the definition of marriage from legal challenges.
For some context, 377A is a colonial-era law from 1938 that penalizes sex between men, while marriage is defined under Section 12 of the Women’s Charter as being between a man and a woman – plenty to discuss between these individuals in Parliament.
At this year’s National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that gay sex would no longer be classified as a crime in Singapore.
But Lee also said that there would be amendments to the constitution to prevent the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman from being challenged in courts. He said the government has no intention of allowing same-sex marriage or changing policies relating to public housing, education, adoption, advertising and film classification.
Thirty politicians lined up to speak during today’s session. They provided some interesting points but also some sadly ‘are-we-surprised’ moments as well.
First things first – there was majority support for both bills, which means 377A will be repealed and there will be amendments to protect the traditional definition of marriage.
Here come the buzzwords
As it is a contentious debate – and our majority political view is conservative – there was a lot of talk about what these bills would mean for future generations. By the time the session reached the halfway mark, terms and phrases like “divisive”, “remove the stigma”, “religious institution”, “family values”, “sanctity of marriage”, “institution of marriage”, “complexity of the issue”, “struck down”, “building blocks of society” and “safe space” had been heard a lot.
“I’ve got gay friends but…”
The majority of the politicians supported the repeal of 377A. Law Minister K Shanmugam (PAP-Nee Soon) said that it is the right thing to do and society is now ready to accept its repeal.
Most politicians agreed that gay people deserve dignity, respect, and acceptance, as well as to be protected from discrimination and bullying.
Baey Yam Keng (PAP-Tampines) said that it is the right thing to do to “ensure that Singapore is an inclusive and diverse place to live in and for everyone to be a part of.” He added that he hopes that the government will never have to wait 23 years to address this issue again.
He also mentioned Ricky Martin in his speech as an example of an illustrious homosexual person.
There were also some speakers like Dennis Tan (WP-Hougang) and NMP Hoon Hian Teck who opposed 377A’s repeal.
Tan said that, despite having friends in the gay community, his religious faith guided his decision.
“This is both a most difficult decision and it’s the most difficult speech I have (had) to make to date, given the divided issues at play for different segments of my constituents and for Singaporeans. Being very careful not to cause hurt or offence and yet having to be principled with my own beliefs,” Tan said.
“It is also not made easier because, like many fellow MPs and Singaporeans, I also have many friends and good friends who are from the LGBTQ community,” he added.
Several politicians felt the need to bring up that they have gay friends, perhaps hoping to make their argument sound more credible. Vivian Balakrishnan (PAP-Holland-Bukit Timah) even brought up the AIDs epidemic in the 80s that affected “some of his friends.”
The “sanctity of marriage” triumphs
No surprise here – most of the politicians who spoke said they believe that marriage should stay between a man and a woman and that all children need a father and mother.
“There is strong consensus in society that marriage is between a man and a woman, and children should be born and raised within such families,” said Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli (PAP-Tampines) who kicked off the debate.
Masagos also spoke extensively about policies that are pro-family, saying that families are the building blocks of society. “Governments will come. Governments will go. But this endures. Hence, our policies also reflect and reinforce this basic idea about marriage and family,” he said.
“It encourages parenthood within marriage, we do not support same-sex family formation, and we maintain our policy against planned and deliberate single parenthood, including using assisted reproduction techniques.” He also covered the issue of adoption, which he said should only be available to couples whose marriage is legally recognized in Singapore.
Jessica Tan (PAP-East Coast) said, “To give further reassurance, DPM (Lawrence) Wong has given PAP’s commitment that the definition of marriage as that of the union between man and a woman and will not change under the watch of the current leadership of PM Lee and if the PAP government were to win the next general election, it would not change under his watch.”
The issue of Singaporean identity and values was also brought up multiple times. Darryl David (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) said that the Singapore community is made up of people with different views, beliefs and also sexual preferences – and that he hopes that our society is one that will welcome open discussions and mutual respect.
Shanmugam said, “Gay people must have a place in society and they are entitled to their private lives. But there were still very different views among Singaporeans on whether homosexuality was acceptable or morally right, thus LGBT advocacy should not set the tone for the rest of Singapore’s society.“
Let the people decide
However, there were also some who did not believe that the marriage issue should be decided in Parliament. NCMP Hazel Poa (PSP) said that the definition of marriage should be decided by a national referendum.
Sylvia Lim (WP-Aljunied) on the other hand also questioned if it was the right thing to do “to exclude judicial scrutiny on this topic.”
“The Constitution is the fundamental legal safeguard of citizens, to protect them against illegal laws and policies that violate the Constitution. And it is the job of the Courts to assess whether any law is constitutional or not,” she said. Lim also agreed that 377A should be repealed and does not oppose the constitutional amendment Bill, but she will abstain from voting on it.
Time to get educated
Darryl David was one of the speakers who said education and dialogue in schools and institutions should play a role when it comes to discussions of LGBT identity and rights.
However, most of the speakers hoped that the education system would continue to promote pro-family values in schools. Lim Biow Chuan (PAP-Mountbatten) said he wished for the government to “make clear” its stance that “our policies on sexuality education in schools, our content guidelines for publications, for video games and various types of media will remain pro-family.”
Mohd Fahmi Aliman (PAP-Marine Parade) said he wanted to see research on the impact of the repeal on madrasah education in Singapore.
No bullying allowed and cancel culture
Cancel culture was mentioned a few times during the debate. Opposition leader Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied) said that “Just because one group has a position on an issue does not mean it can impose that position as a public expectation on everyone else.”
He added that although we are a secular society, it doesn’t stop religious Singaporeans from holding views that are reflective of their religious norms and values.
“It is fully understandable that the faithful wish to propagate their religious convictions. There is no basis for us to feel cancelled provided our views are not set as an expectation for all society,” he said.
A law that should not be enforced?
Years ago, when 377A was still enforced, the decision to stop enforcing it was said to be a pragmatic solution for the way our society was at the time. While 377A itself was not actively enforced, repealing it also brings new issues to the table – like the marriage one.
So what do we do and what does it mean to have a law we cannot enforce? Whether it will ever amount to anything more than a symbolic marker in the law rests entirely on how Singapore will move forward with it.
This debate has been adjourned and will resume tomorrow, Nov. 29 at noon.