September 11th, 2012

Beyond 377A

Sexual orientation and gender identity remain one of the most taboo subjects in Singapore. Recent developments both at home and in the region, however, are slowly but surely making gay rights an increasingly visible issue, and a crucial litmus test for a society’s respect for human rights.

In August this year, a Buddhist same-sex wedding ceremony was performed in Taiwan, Province of China, for the first time, garnering much international attention. A bill to legalize same-sex marriage is currently pending in the government of Taiwan, Province of China.

Vietnam is also considering legalizing gay marriage, and hosted its first gay pride parade this year, as did Myanmar and Laos. In August, gays, lesbians, transgender people and their supporters in Nepal marched to demand recognition as a third gender in citizen certificates, to allow same-sex marriage and to criminalize discrimination based on sexual preference.

In Singapore, change is also afoot. In a Channel News Asia programme about sex education for students that aired on July 11, Liew Wei Li, Director of Student Development Curriculum for the Ministry of Education, said: “We do teach that they should respect everyone regardless of their sexual orientation, because we want relationships, then, to form, good sound relationships, based on friendships, based on love, based on respect.”

This would seem to be a significant shift from MOE’s previous position on its sex education programme, which, as described in a 2009 statement, “does not promote homosexuality” and “reflects the mainstream views and values of Singapore society, where the majority of Singaporeans hold conservative views on sexuality”.

Singapore’s Court of Appeal also recently reversed a High Court decision about a constitutional challenge against Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men. In its judgment, released on Aug 20, the Court of Appeal stated that the existence of Section 377A carried a credible threat of prosecution, and “affects the lives of a not insignificant portion of our community in a very real and intimate way”.

Writing for the Sayoni website, lawyer Indulekshmi Rajeswari described this judgment as “nothing less than earth-shattering for the LGBT community. For the first time, the Courts have acknowledged the existence of the gay person, and the gay community, and their interests”. Indeed, Section 377A has long been a catalyst for galvanizing the LGBT community here, having inspired repeal campaigns in 2007.

Beyond this piece of legislation, however, there remain numerous areas of discrimination that affect the LGBT community in Singapore. At the AWARE Roundtable Discussion held on Aug 16, speakers Jean Chong and Kelly Then touched on some of these issues. Jean and Kelly are members of Sayoni, a community that works to empower queer women, and People Like Us, the pioneer gay and lesbian advocacy group in Singapore.

“A lot of social institutions are built around the idea that one is attracted to someone else, and wants to be with that person,” said Kelly. When same-sex relationships are not recognized under the law, this means that the people in these relationships are barred from basic rights and social support networks that those in heterosexual relationships may take for granted.

As same-sex marriages are not recognized in Singapore, women in such relationships are not allowed to undergo in-vitro fertilization (IVF) or any other form of assisted reproduction. (This prohibition applies to single women in Singapore as well.) Jean noted that this led to the emergence of ‘lesbian flights’ to Bangkok for IVF.

A member of the audience at the Roundtable also mentioned that children of couples in heterosexual relationships are granted more than 200 types of legal protection that are not available to children of couples in same-sex relationships. This includes rights of access in parenting.

Individuals who are in same-sex relationships cannot be recognised as related by marriage. For example, if a person’s parents reject their same-sex relationship, they can legally prevent their partner from visiting them in the hospital.

Those in LGBT relationships may not enjoy spousal benefits, as most companies do not recognize such relationships (although a number of MNCs do). They also cannot access state-sponsored social support schemes like Medisave and get less in housing grants, and are not entitled to jointly purchase property using their CPF.

Pressure from prevailing social attitudes are not countered by any significant State support. While there is no data for Singapore, the worldwide rates of depression, substance abuse and suicide are higher for LGBT youths; they are often teased and bullied in school because of their perceived sexual orientation and gender identity. There is no information on safe sex for gay teens in the current sex education syllabus, and no state-sponsored institutions that have expertise in providing counselling for those grappling with LGBT issues.

Jean also mentioned that a study that has shown that many gay people go back into the closet when they grow old, because old folks’ homes are not open to the idea of same-sex relationships.

In the absence of decriminalization and State recognition, it is therefore crucial to include LGBT perspectives in areas such as research, advocacy, and social services, said Kelly. These include the Convention On The Elimination Of All Forms Of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), sex education, maternal and paternal leave, violence in relationships, singles, de facto relationships (where couples may cohabit for extended periods but not marry), ageing, poverty, and sexual harassment – all issues that impact the LGBT community.

For example, in the case of de facto relationships, which are becoming increasingly common for both straight and gay persons, Kelly mentioned that the law will have to deal with issues that arise.

One of the areas where progress is not being made is in the media. Positive portrayals of homosexuals or homosexual relationships are still subject to censorship in the local media, and outlets are penalized if they are seen to be ‘promoting’ homosexuality.

However, censorship is no longer as great a hurdle as it was in the past due to the arrival of new media. For example, TV shows or movies that are censored either in whole or in part by governmental bodies can now be easily downloaded or streamed online through the Internet. With greater access to information and perspectives, younger generations are more open and less discriminatory toward LGBT persons.


  1. C

    Section 377A needs to be repealed. It’s a blatant and written discrimination against part of the Singapore community. The most common excuse I’ve heard regarding the conservative view about homosexuality in Singapore is that “it’s a Western thing. We shouldn’t be too Westernized.” That is a poor excuse. It’s not about bending to Western perspectives but about basic human and civil rights. LGBT members are people too and should be granted the same rights and privileges.

    Right now, Singapore has Pink Dot, which is great but one day in the future, I would like too see a full on pride parade down the length of Orchard road.

    • Sh

      i think an even better thing that can happen compared to full parade down the length of Orchard road is the day when there is no need for such pride thing any more, which simply means that LGBTs are regarded as part of our community and that there is nothing unusual or special which calls for such parades.

  2. ng

    Section 377A should NOT be repealed to protect the rights of all human race.
    Why is AWARE always on the side of LGBT? Have you not seen the truth about how we are made in the natural form. Marriage is between a man and a woman – the only way, since the beginning of human race, to have offsprings.
    ALL other ways lead to disaster one way or another. Period!

    Stephen Goode. “Efforts to Deal with Diversity can go Astray.” Insight Magazine, September 10, 1990. pages 15 to 19

    • AWARE

      AWARE believes in the rights of women and men to have equal opportunities in all aspects of their lives, and as the article clearly states, many current policies, or lack thereof, are discriminatory towards members the LGBT community.

  3. Patrick

    The confusion in this world is caused by the lack of understanding about the importance of the Natural Universal Law. Anyone going against this Natural Universal Law contributes to the dys-functioning of this world we are living. A terrorist bombing innocent lives. A dictator massacred an ethnic group he does not like and so forth. Although sexually is considered a private matter, but once something unnatural like homosexuality is set as “natural”, in due time sex with animals will also become considered as “natural”.

    My question is whether we want a country where our children marry the same sex; considering the problem of low birth rate and also the fact that homosexuality is not a natural phenomenon. Will we want our children to have sex with animals eventually?

    Learning to live with homosexuality is not about making it “natural”. We need to love these people and help them understand about the Universal Natural Law of this Earth, and not agreeing with their ignorance and worse still to legalize it as a norm. That is plain stupidity!

    • Fab

      Sorry, Patrick. You must informe yourself about science reseaches about this matter. Homossexuality is commom in all humanity on a rate from 5 to 10% This means that 1 to 2 people is gay among a group of 20 in your community. There are many animal that have homossexual behaviour. And the most known genetic researchs about this had proved that part of the cause of someone being gay is decided by his or hers on DNA. Debate about sexuality in Singapore are ages late.

  4. […] case provides a few striking parallels to Singapore. Although arguably undertaking some positive change (albeit hesitantly), Singapore’s relationship with the LGBT community has been underscored by […]

  5. […] is Singapore’s gender equality organization.  Here is a link to their beyond 377a page. (newly […]