Senior members of Singapore’s business, political and legal elite have backed fresh attempts to overturn the colonial-era section of the country’s penal code that criminalizes gay sex.
Leading the push are former ambassador to the U.S. Tommy Koh, former attorney general Walter Woon, Banyan Tree Holdings Ltd. founder and executive chairman Ho Kwon Ping, National University of Singapore board chairman Hsieh Fu Hua, and Shangri-La Hotel Ltd executive chairman Kay Kuok.
“377A is a bad and unjust law,” said Koh of the law introduced to Singapore by the British in 1938. “In my view it is also a violation of our constitution.”
Home to an estimated 37,400 international companies and ranked fourth behind Hong Kong on a list of the world’s most competitive financial centers, repealing section 377A would put Singapore on a more level playing field in the race for global talent. It could also boost the city-state’s $324 billion economy. The campaign comes after last month’s landmark ruling in India decriminalizing homosexuality, and follows a Hong Kong court decision in July which paved the way for visas for same-sex spouses.
“There is no better time for equality than the present,” said Johnson Ong, 43, a Singapore-based DJ who filed a court challenge against section 377A four days after the Indian court decision. “India’s recent ruling and Professor Tommy Koh’s statements have energized me.”
Countries with laws that were more inclusive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender citizens had higher economic growth, benefiting by a gross domestic product per capita increase of as much as $2065 for every additional right granted, according to a 2018 study by the UCLA School of Law. And with an estimated 35 million international LGBT travellers spending around $200 billion a year globally, changing the law could help boost pink dollar tourism.
“Destinations that support equality for their citizens are more likely to see increased numbers of LGBTQ travellers who prefer to spend their dollars in places that make them feel safe and welcome,” John Tanzella, the chief executive officer of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, said in an email.
Adding momentum, the online movement ‘Ready 4 Repeal’ last week presented a petition with just under 50,000 signatures to a government committee that’s reviewing the penal code, even though Section 377A was formally excluded from the process.
Yet with a rival petition urging the government to keep Section 377A collecting nearly 109,000 signatures, and surveys showing a majority of Singaporeans still support Section 377A, politicians seem reluctant to take a stand.
Among those opposing the change are Singapore’s influential Christian churches. The National Council of Churches, the Alliance of the Pentecostal-Charismatic Churches, and the Roman Catholic Archdiocese have all come out strongly against any move to legalize gay sex. “I think the politicians are afraid of the public reaction,” said Jean Chong, 40, program field director for OutRight Action International and the co-founder of Sayoni, a Singapore-based queer women’s organization. “This is still a very conservative country.”
While Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told parliament in October 2007 the law would not be actively enforced, it can still be used against gay men — a final decision on whether to prosecute rests with the Attorney General.
In a statement on Tuesday, Attorney General Lucien Wong said while the government’s position was that police will not proactively enforce this provision, “if there are reports lodged by persons of offences under section 377A, for example, where minors are exploited and abused, the police will investigate.”
Singapore Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam said while a growing minority want the law repealed, “public opinion is often relevant” when it comes to policymaking. “The majority oppose to any change to section 377A,” Shanmugam told Channel News Asia on Sept. 8. A 2014 court challenge against the law failed when Singapore’s Supreme Court ruled it was constitutional.
Despite the India precedent, legal experts say not much has changed to warrant the Supreme Court overturning its 2014 decision. “While Singaporean courts can consider the reasoning of Indian judges, they are not obliged to follow their approach,” Lynette J. Chua, associate professor of law at the National University of Singapore, said by email.
The parliament can still pass a bill to repeal the law, Chua added, but “in various public statements, key politicians have pointed to public opinion and taken the view that the majority still disapproved of homosexuality or wanted to keep section 377A.”
Singapore’s High Court will most likely refer the initial application challenging section 377A to the Court of Appeal, said Ong’s lawyer Eugene Thuraisingam, who expects the case to be heard in the second half of next year. “Section 377A remains a constant reminder to me that I am a lesser citizen, even when not being enforced,” Ong said via email. “To have to live with this constantly takes a psychological toll on you.”