In 2007, Lee Hsien Loong, Singapore’s prime minister, rejected calls to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalised acts of “gross indecency” between men, in favour of the status quo because it’s “better to accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity”. Fifteen years later, his government led the charge to repeal the same law because, in the words of K Shanmugam, minister for home affairs and law, it’s not “fair that gays have to live this way.” Could Martin Luther King Jr be right that the arc of the moral universe does bend towards justice?
Perhaps, but not so soon. In addition to repealing S377A, the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP), with a huge supermajority in Parliament, also enacted a new Article 156 in the Constitution that immunises any law or executive action based on a heterosexual definition of marriage from judicial scrutiny (on the basis that they violate a person’s fundamental liberties like the right to equality). In other words, Parliament can define marriage however it wants—and if that definition violates your constitutional rights, you can no longer challenge it in court. Numerous ministries have separately emphasised that there will be no change to education, housing, adoption and media policies that currently discriminate against queer people.
What do these legal developments mean for the pursuit of queer equality in Singapore and where do we go from here? Given that Article 156 forestalls the route to marriage equality, it may be necessary for the queer movement in Singapore to consider how we could strive for queer equality without—and even beyond—marriage. To do so, we must expand our understanding of queerness as not just about those who identify as LGBTQ, but more broadly those who fall outside Singapore’s constrictive definition of “normal”.
In striving for all this, it’s important to understand the shifting socio-political ground around queer equality, including the implications of repeal for political, government and civil society actors. A good place to start is to try to make sense of the government’s U-turn on the repeal of S377A.
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