Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Amendment) Bill & Penal Code (Amendment) Bill – Speech by LO Pritam Singh

Mr Speaker, beyond the bread-and-butter matters of economics and material well-being, Singaporeans must occasionally confront issues that concern our collective values, how we see each other as a citizen-community, and what kind of place we want Singapore to be.

Section 377A of the Penal Code—which I will henceforth refer to as 377A—that criminalises homosexual conduct in private is such an issue. For some Singaporeans, it is a very difficult subject.

For others, especially younger Singaporeans, they wonder why it has to be a difficult subject, and why people of a different sexual orientation can’t be treated as equal Singaporeans.

In recent years, the issue has caused growing tensions between groups who identify themselves for and against the repeal of section 377A.

Singaporeans have formed organisations and groups on the issue. At a personal level, the conversations can be uncomfortable, and discussing the subject without measure and consideration can quickly pull people apart.

Lifting the whip

Speaking in their individual capacities, the WP MPs have different views on a repeal of 377A.

In normal circumstances, I would not lift the whip for Parliamentary debates given the party political structure that overlays elected MPs in the House.

However, 377A is unique in that it is conceived through a religious lens by many in Singapore, in addition to being a matter of conscience for a no less significant number. 

The PAP has announced that it is not lifting the Whip for this debate. Given the varied public opinion on the impending repeal of 377A, there is a risk that the democratic value of Parliament could be diluted if the views of Singaporeans on this subject are not adequately ventilated in this House.

Not lifting the Whip would deny WP MPs not in favour of a repeal of 377A the opportunity to vote freely and in doing so, to also represent Singaporeans who see this issue as a matter of deep religious belief and conscience.

So I have decided to lift the whip for the WP MPs. In doing so, I have also asked all who will speak to carefully reflect on the position they take and to envision a set of principles or perspectives from which society as a whole, with its different views, can move forward. That is the challenge.

We know society is divided on 377A. How can we mitigate this and contribute to lowering temperatures and ensuring Singapore is a home for everyone? 

For the record, both MPs Faisal Manap and Louis Chua are not present for this debate as they are COVID-19-positive. Mr Faisal disagrees with the repeal of 377A as a matter of religion and conscience, while Mr Chua agrees to a repeal. The other WP MPs will state their positions on the matter in the course of their speeches.

WP on 377A

Mr Speaker, since 2007, the Government has settled on what was called an “uneasy compromise”—that 377A would be kept on the books, but not enforced. In 2019, in my first term as Secretary-General of the Workers’ Party, I stated the Workers’ Party’s position on 377A in a speech to the NUS Political Association. The Party position I advanced was similar to that of Singapore as a whole. It was varied and diverse, with no consensus as to whether 377A should be repealed.

The depth of the impasse in Singapore society at the time was stark and encapsulated somewhat in a panel discussion between SM Tharman Shanmugaratnam and Prof Tommy Koh on the Institute of Policy Studies’ 30th anniversary in late 2018.

Prof Koh said, and I quote, “A mutual friend of ours was recently invited by one of our religious organisations to speak at a conference on a secular topic. He accepted, prepared the paper and then he was disinvited. And why was he disinvited? Because he signed a petition to repeal 377A.” Unquote.

Such has been the divisiveness over 377A.

In my 2019 speech, I said that the LGBT community should not be exploited for political points. At that time, I believed there was more to consider than deciding which was the ‘right’ side in this matter, particularly in a society which generally eschews hosting open and frank conversations on difficult matters in the public realm. Against this political culture and backdrop, the Workers’ Party neither took up the cause of LGBTQ+ rights, nor stood against it.

I still believe that had the Workers’ Party openly supported a repeal of 377A, it would not have been good for Singapore politics. More crucially, it would have not served the interests of the LGBTQ+ community. On issues of great social division and contending values, we do not need politicians to be seen as siding with particular groups.

Where do we go from here?

From my vantage point as the Leader of the Opposition, my personal belief is that the repeal of 377A does not in any way signal the State’s hostility towards the family unit or religious freedom. 

Rest assured, the family remains and I dare say, will always be at the core of our social norms. I would also like to reiterate that defending the Singaporean family also means doing more to protect its different forms, including families with single, widowed, and divorced mothers and fathers. We must do more to help caregivers who perform the labour of caring for aged parents and those with special needs.

What the repeal of 377A certainly does not signal is Singapore becoming a more liberal or permissive society. What it does is make room in our shared public space, for members of our common Singaporean family to not be discriminated against due to their sexual orientation.

Religious Singaporeans are free to maintain their beliefs about homosexuality, but this should not interfere with what is legal in our public sphere. Likewise, supporters of repeal have no business interfering with the private beliefs of religious Singaporeans.

In any secular society, sin and crime are separate categories. They may sometimes align; for example, we have laws prohibiting crimes such as murder, that are also considered wrong in many belief systems. But we also do not outlaw many activities considered sinful in some religious communities. Consuming alcohol and pork are legal, but not permissible to Muslims. There are also no laws against eating meat, though this is not an option for Jains, and for some Hindus and Buddhists.

One may argue that section 377A is much more complex, that not regulating sexual practices has greater social consequences.

But let us remember that when section 377 of the Penal Code was amended in 2007, it decriminalized other sex acts that some still find unorthodox. In singling out homosexuality between men in particular, the decision to keep 377A appears to the LGBTQ+ community and not a small number of Singaporeans to be unjust and unequal.  

An important reality is that the “political compromise” in place since 2007 undermined the sense of belonging of Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community. Though unenforced, one should not underestimate its symbolic message that they are outsiders. Additionally, this so-called compromise is not binding on future governments who could choose to enforce the law.

Yet repealing 377A will no doubt cause anxiety, if not outrage, amongst Singaporeans who believe that our laws must also reflect cultural or religious attitudes towards homosexuality. There are Singaporeans who see this as an erosion of the family as a basic unit of Singapore society. The reality of our political culture, which leans towards conservatism on social issues, is that such concerns cannot be summarily ignored or dismissed.

In the main, the Court of Appeal judgment in Tan Seng Kee v AG appears to have precipitated the Government’s decision to repeal 377A.

But the stark reality before this House and Singaporeans today is that there were never any good options before the Government that could please everybody with regards to managing the tensions of 377A.

Keeping to the status quo indefinitely would only shine an ever-brighter spotlight on the issue, particularly as social mores—globally, regionally and locally continue a steady shift towards greater acceptance and accommodation of LGBTQ+ individuals.

Like many Singaporeans I could understand why the “uneasy compromise” set out by the Prime Minister in 2007 was deemed to be a mid-point that would keep any excessive social cleavage in check.

Likewise, I see the decision to protect marriage from constitutional challenge as an institution between men and women only, through a very narrow lens—it represents a balancing exercise to ensure that society doesn’t fray over the decision to repeal 377A. I hope Singaporeans who are against the repeal of 377A approach this issue, in spite of their personal beliefs and religious convictions – which I and my colleagues respect—through this lens of compromise and accommodation.

In repealing 377A, religious Singaporeans are not asked to endorse homosexuality, but to instead honour the equality of all Singaporeans in the eyes of the law, that no consenting adults should be regarded as criminals because of what they do in private. 

Equality and justice – both stars in our flag –  are plenty and bountiful. Unlike finite resources, we do not have less of either by extending it to our fellow citizens. We all gain from a more just and equal society.

We can also look to some of the timeless principles shared amongst all great faiths. The blessed irony is that religion plays a huge part in inspiring our best qualities as human beings: to be generous, to love our neighbour, to be merciful. These qualities do not weaken, but strengthen our faith. Wherever you stand on this decision, I hope Singaporeans approach our LGBTQ+ community who are a small minority of our population—like they are anywhere in the world—with these qualities in mind.

More than ever, with the impending repeal of 377A, Singaporeans on all sides must come together in good faith and mutual trust, to not let this issue further tear our social fabric. I am certain the decision of this House is not a panacea that repairs the tension between camps. We should anticipate that new battle lines will be drawn. For the LGBTQ+ community, the march towards greater equality has not ended. Some conservatives are likely to mobilise to try and stop any further expansion of LGBTQ+ rights. 

Looking ahead

In view of the socially divisive nature of 377A, I would suggest three points that could help in keeping things from boiling over. I hope Singaporeans can consider these as guideposts, should they deem them useful.

First, any conversation must recognise that there is a distinction between public and private perspectives. 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. Why? Because in Singapore, there must be a place for everyone. The public space is for all to share, and where we encourage a live-and-let-live, give-and-take attitude towards our fellow Singaporeans. The public space is where we create conditions for all Singaporeans to succeed and certainly not to feel marginalised. The public space is where we are tolerant of Singaporeans who are different in as far as the law allows.

Second, the fact that we are a secular society does not 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 them to feel ‘cancelled’, provided their views are not set as an expectation for all society. There must be a secular approach to politics and governance even as we celebrate and protect the freedom of religion in Singapore. The Workers’ Party cannot conceive of any other way for different groups and religious communities to live harmoniously with each other in Singapore.

Finally, and perhaps most pertinently, as we are free to share our views and propagate our beliefs, let us be thoughtful and put ourselves in the other person’s shoes as we welcome conversation and even vigorous debate. But as with most difficult conversations in search of a landing point, it will be crucial to adopt a gentler tone, an enlightened perspective that extends and considers impact on the broader community and society, and most fundamentally, a spirit of empathy.

Mr Speaker, I support both the Penal Code and the Constitution amendment bills.

Delivered in Parliament on 28 November 2022