During the General Elections 2020 campaign, candidates in Singapore have raised and spoke about many issues. However, almost none of them has addressed Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalizes gay sex.
It's such a taboo subject in the city-state that when Progress Singapore Party (PSP) candidate from Tanjong Pagar GRC Terence Soon spoke about it during the 'Ask me anything session' on Instagram on July 5, it was removed from the highlights.
However, when pressed, PSP emerged as the only political party to comment on the subject. The party in a statement said that it would not object to repealing the law if it only removed the criminal punishment. And that's about it. No other party mentioned anything about gay rights in their election manifesto.
"Currently the debate over 377A is not just about criminal punishment. It has become a proxy combat zone for other issues like the sanctity of traditional family structures, marriages, parenthood and gender identities," the PSP statement said. "These are long-standing human and moral institutions. So, before 377A is removed, there must be guarantees that these institutions remain undisturbed," it added.
Even Heng Swee Keat, Deputy Prime Minister who is touted to be the next PM of the Republic, swiftly avoided the subject when a resident asked him during a walkabout in Bedok on July 7 while his People's Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since 1965, mostly avoided talking on the matter. PM Lee Hsien Loong previously had termed the matter as an 'uneasy compromise'.
The law was originally enacted in 1938 when Singapore was a British colony. While Britain has abolished it, the city-state has struggled to end discrimination. However, 377A has no mention of same-sex activities in the female gender, thus it's not illegal.
Growing Voice and An Ally in 'Other' Lee
When India, an erstwhile colony of the British empire repealed the Section 377 that criminalized homosexuality in 2018, the voice has started growing in the city-state. Many gay rights activists proposed three major constitutional changes to the 377A but were turned down promptly in March by the High Court.
At present, while Europe and America lead by example in upholding gay rights, in Asia the situation is changing fast. All the East Asian countries including China have legalized homosexual activities while in Southeast Asia, a few countries like Thailand, Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia (partially barring a few provinces) have decriminalized homosexuality.
"It's a non-topic with the parties, the choices we have. As much as I want to make my decision based on their stance on that, there isn't any material to work with," Victor Ong told Reuters. The 44-year-old Singaporean married his British partner Harry in London but their marriage is not recognized in Singapore. They are also not eligible for housing and tax benefits for the same reason.
However, the progress among the lawmakers is stagnant. Political analysts consider any move to repeal or speak in favor of the topic is a political suicide and hence, no steps have been initiatied to work on it or at least decriminalize it.
"That tacit acceptance of the status quo is giving way to a sense of frustration amongst the younger voters," said Clement Tan of Pink Dot SG, which hosted an online rally last month for Singapore's LGBT community.
LGBTQ rights activists have, however, found an ally in Lee Hsien Yang, PM's estranged younger brother and the son of country's founding father Lee Kuan Yew. One of Yang's sons is gay and has married his partner overseas. Yang, who has recently joined PSP, has been vocal against his father's party PAP and his PM brother's policies. He believes that even decriminalizing it would end discrimination.
"The tidal wave against discrimination on sexual orientation has swept across the world. The British, from whom we 'inherited' 377A, have repealed it decades ago. A repeal merely decriminalizes and ends this discrimination," said Yang, who did not run in the GE2020.
Thailand cabinet endorses same-sex union bill
Meanwhile, Thailand took one more step towards legalizing gay marriage. The country's cabinet, on Wednesday, July 8, approved a bill to allow same-sex union that has all but same rights as a married couple.
If the bill is passed by Parliament, the legislation would make the country only second in Asia to allow same-sex union, giving them the right to adopt a child and joint property rights similar to heterosexual couples. However, one in the same-sex union must be a Thai to enjoy the rights.
"The Civil Partnership Bill is an important step for Thai society in promoting equal rights and supporting the rights of same-sex couples to build families and live as partners," Ratchada Thanadirek, a deputy government spokesperson wrote on Facebook.