The Government has decided to repeal section 377A of the Penal Code. Since these plans were first revealed, many Aljunied GRC residents have reached out to me to express their views about this issue.
Residents spoke to me during my house-to-house visits, came to my Meet-the-People Sessions, sent me WhatsApp messages, emails and petitions, and wrote detailed letters explaining their arguments. Several invited me to their homes where they gathered their friends and family to passionately express their concerns and urge me to raise them in Parliament.
These included representations from members of the LGBT community who see section 377A as a law that discriminates against them and victimises them, and who support its repeal. I acknowledge these sentiments as they cut to the core of who members of the LGBT community see themselves.
My constituents’ feedback can be grouped into several, sometimes overlapping categories:
First, there are concerns that the repeal of section 377A will remove an important societal marker and open the door to an erosion of traditional values in our society.
Second, some are worried that after this law is repealed, there will be a domino effect on other regulations and policies leading towards a normalisation of homosexuality in our society — from changes to sexuality education in schools, to more liberal media portrayals, and eventually the legalisation of same-sex marriage.
Third, many, especially those from the younger age groups, are concerned that as the societal narrative shifts, they will find it harder to freely express their own beliefs without being labelled as homophobic. They worry about getting “cancelled” or suffering discrimination in school or at the workplace because of their beliefs.
Fourth, some have expressed concerns that the higher health risks of some types of sexual practices are not being adequately communicated to young people for fear of sounding discriminatory.
Fifth, others are worried that the disruption to the current equilibrium will lead to increased advocacy by groups on both sides and spark the type of “culture wars” seen in some other nations, which will present challenges to Singapore’s national cohesion.
Sixth, some have argued that the LGBT community is already disadvantaged by the laws that support a heteronormative family and that repealing section 377A does not confer any tangible disadvantages on those who oppose the change. These residents are of the view that section 377A should be repealed.
Seventh, residents on both sides of the debate have cited the need to “live and let live”, and called for greater tolerance for different views.
These are diverse and often opposing positions on what is clearly a very controversial issue. Those on one end of the spectrum rue the day that this marker is removed, while those on the other end see it as one of many social changes they wish to see in our country. I have also noticed a large middle ground which does not have strong opinions on this issue, and is more concerned with bread-and-butter issues.
There is in fact some agreement on both sides of the divide. Both agree that section 377A bears significant symbolic weight in our society. They both also anticipate that the repeal of section 377A will open the door to many more challenges to the prevailing norms in our society.
These are all valid concerns and sincere feedback expressed by Singaporeans, all of whom have the interests of our nation at heart. They included young, middle aged and older Singaporeans.
Listening to constituents on both sides of this contentious debate presented challenges for me on how to raise them both in this House. I see it as my responsibility as a Member of Parliament to reflect the feedback and concerns of my constituents in this House. However, as an elected representative, I will also need to take a stand to vote on these Bills.
My vote will be based first and foremost on what I believe to be in the best long-term interests of our nation. This will take into consideration the viewpoints of my constituents and my own conscience.
Mr Deputy Speaker, it is my sincere belief that retaining section 377A without enforcing it provides the best balance of the conflicting interests in our society.
I have come to agree with what the Prime Minister said in Parliament on 23 October 2007, when he explained that the Government was retaining section 377A but not proactively enforcing it.
This was, to quote the Court of Appeal, a “political compromise” that was “conceived with the express intention of accommodating divergent interests, avoiding polarisation and facilitating incremental change.”
Attorney-General Lucien Wong took further steps in 2018 by noting that the Police will not proactively enforce section 377A, for instance by conducting enforcement raids. He added that the Public Prosecutor has taken the position that prosecution of two consenting adults in a private place under section 377A, absent other factors, would not be in the public interest. This assurance was strengthened when the Court of Appeal ruled in February 2022 that section 377A is “unenforceable in its entirety” unless and until the Public Prosecutor of the day provides clear notice that he intends to reassert his right to enforce section 377A proactively by way of prosecution and will no longer abide by the representations made by Attorney-General Wong in 2018.
Section 377A is therefore no longer a sword of Damocles hanging over men in same-sex relationships. They will not be prosecuted or convicted under section 377A for consensual sexual acts done in private. Furthermore, 377A has never criminalised same-sex attraction between men or same-sex relations between women.
The final reason for the vote I am about to cast is that my conscience does not allow me to vote in favour of a repeal of section 377A. I am grateful to the Leader of the Opposition for lifting the Whip on Workers’ Party MPs for the vote on both Bills. This permits WP MPs to cast “conscience votes” on these Bills.
Sir, I entered politics almost 14 years ago because I wanted to contribute to the democratic development of our country and propose policies that would improve the welfare of our people. It is important to me, and the example I set for my children, that I hold fast to the values that I have established to be true, without wavering because of political headwinds.
While some, especially those in the LGBT community and many of my friends, residents, Party members and volunteers, may strongly disagree with my position, I hope they will accept that these are my sincerely held values which I am trying my best to uphold. My vote is not an attack on their values or a diminishing of their humanity in any way.
Some have criticised me for allowing my faith to inform my vote in Parliament, arguing that the two should be kept separate. However, what one Member, informed by their faith and conscience, believes to be in the best interest of the country in some issues may differ from what another Member believes. This issue is certainly one of such issues.
I have been told in my face by a constituent that he will not vote for me in future because of my stand on this issue. I accept the importance that many Singaporeans place on their elected MPs’ positions on these Bills, to the extent that it will be a factor in their decision at the polls. However, I hope Singaporeans will consider the broader issues at hand. There are too many important issues that affect the lives of Singaporeans for one’s vote to be decided based on this single issue.
Unity in diversity
Mr Deputy Speaker, this has been one of the most difficult speeches for me to prepare. I was worried that I may come across as prejudiced against members of the LGBT community. Hand on heart, I am not. LGBT persons are our fellow human beings, worthy of the same amount of love and respect that we accord to any other person. Many are our family members, friends, colleagues and fellow Singaporeans. Disagreeing with LGBT positions is not an attack on LGBT persons. In fact, I hope that my speech will open up a platform for more difficult but respectful conversations on this issue.
However, we must recognise that the LGBT issues are sensitive issues, just like race and religion. People who subscribe to one faith do not force their beliefs on others. Religious beliefs are also not taught as facts in our school curriculum that students are expected to accept without question. Similarly, we should treat LGBT issues as sensitive topics just like religion. We should not force people to accept one view or another, or risk being labelled as bigoted or immoral. This is not to say that the issue should not be discussed at all. On the contrary, discussion should be encouraged, but as a balanced discussion on different viewpoints, not as a lesson on facts.
It is inherent in a society as diverse as Singapore’s that there will be fundamental differences in values and worldviews among our people. This need not be a source of conflict. While we may disagree on some issues, there are so many other issues that we agree on and can work together to advance. We do not need to descend into labelling, name-calling or questioning the worth of our fellow humans. Instead, we need to open up spaces for our people to hold different views at work, in schools and even within families. By looking beyond our differences and working together on what we have in common, we will build that better society we all aspire towards.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I will vote against the Penal Code (Amendment) Bill and vote for the Constitutional (Amendment) Bill.
Delivered in parliament on 28 November 2022