Some 25 years after China, 31 years after Hong Kong, and 66 years after Thailand, Singapore has decriminalised consensual sex between men. Gay rights activists and the brave lawyers who’ve led a succession of constitutional challenges deserve immense credit for prompting social change.
The mainstream media has suggested that the process of repeal has been considered and respectful. It was indeed heartening to see numerous politicians from the ruling People’s Action Party (PAP) and the opposition Workers’ Party (WP) searching themselves and showing empathy for the plight of gay men in Singapore.
“...the time has come for us to remove Section 377A [the colonial-era law that criminalises sex between men], because it humiliates and hurts gay people,” said K Shanmugam, home affairs and law minister.
Yet it would be naive to ignore the appalling aspects of last week’s parliamentary session. Different politicians from both parties advanced homophobic positions, marshalled bogeymen to incite fear, and just generally exposed their hollow understanding of human rights and equality.
What should have been a rainbow-themed bash, a celebration of our polyglot city’s intrinsic tendency to welcome and include, instead exposed some of our worst instincts.
This was “Equality” dished out not on a gleaming platter but in a poisoned chalice; given not with love but in the most begrudging way possible. Gay people? Fine, if we must.
Jom believes that there are three issues that deserve serious scrutiny: the separation of powers in a democracy; the role of religion in politics; and the bounds of free speech.
Consider first the problematic political motivations and machinations behind the repeal of S377A. Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, had announced in August that the PAP intended to repeal it, mostly because the courts might soon rule it unconstitutional (according to the equal protection guarantee under Article 12). The repeal was always less about equality than opportunism.
Last week, Shanmugam said that Parliament “abdicates” its responsibility if it does not repeal a law that the courts might rule unconstitutional.
This is a curious position to adopt. It presupposes legal proceedings and decisions, and seems to deny a basic role of the judiciary: to safeguard the Constitution and strike down unconstitutional laws. This is what Singapore’s Parliament says about its own separation of powers: