SINGAPORE: The question is not if but when Singapore’s anti-gay law will be repealed, said members of the “Ready4Repeal” movement on Sunday (Sep 30) at a private town hall discussion attended by over 800 people.
The group is calling for the removal of Section 377A of the penal code, a remnant from British colonial rule which criminalises sex between men.
A similar law was scrapped by India in early September, sparking a nationwide debate in Singapore. An online petition by Ready4Repeal closed on Thursday with 44,650 signatures by Singaporeans and PRs.
The petition is authored by theatre director and filmmaker Glen Goei and legal trainee Johannes Hadi. Lead signatories include prominent figures such as diplomat Tommy Koh, academic Kishore Mahbubani and Ho Kwon Ping, founding chairman of the Singapore Management University (SMU).
In response to media queries, a Ministry of Home Affairs spokesman said: “The Ministry of Home Affairs and Ministry of Law have received the petition from Ready4Repeal. As the Government has recently made clear, however, there are no plans to repeal Section 377A.”
SMU became the venue for the town hall after Suntec Convention Centre reportedly cancelled due to what organisers called “unforeseen circumstances”.
The university, however, has stressed that it is only leasing out space to the organisers. It said it is not connected to the Ready4Repeal movement and remains “neutral on the matter”.
Speaking to the media after the event, Mr Johannes said: “It’s a matter of when 377A will change, not if. But when it does, we hope Singaporeans will be ready for it. We don’t want them to be unprepared or alienated by it.”
He said the key to achieving this is for both LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender) and heterosexual communities to start public engagement now, by way of sharing personal stories with one’s environment - including political representatives, in view of changes to the penal code set to be tabled in Parliament in November.
“Talk to your friends, family, colleagues,” Mr Johannes urged the crowd earlier. “Talk to your MPs (Members of Parliament) - educate them, encourage them to listen.”
Other speakers at the event also stressed the need to voice out. “Share your stories on what it’s like to be LGBT in Singapore, and how 377A affects you,” said Mr Clement Tan of Pink Dot SG.
Human rights lawyer Remy Choo was one of those who took the stage to address the legal challenges behind repealing 377A. He pointed out that the government, too, had acknowledged the law’s origins as cryptic.
“It is bad legislation that even our former colonial masters couldn’t justify it in the 1960s,” he said, referring to when Britain decriminalised gay sex.
“Section 377A belongs in the dustbin of legal history,” Mr Choo went on. “The defence of marriage; the slippery slope; religious freedom - these are red herrings. What we are trying to repeal is bad colonial legislation.”
Former Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) president and petition signatory Constance Singam also spoke at the event.
It’s not just about signing petitions every few years - “you have to be an activist every day of your life,” she said. “It’s about changing the value system of our society to be more welcoming, more respectful of all differences.
“Every time a community is discriminated against, we dehumanise them and dehumanise ourselves. Nobody is free, unless everybody is free.”
Venture capitalist Dr Finian Tan and his wife Fiona then echoed her points, as they talked about wanting to bring up children “in a society that embraces differences and appreciates diversity”.
This past month since the Indian court ruling, news about 377A has occupied headlines in Singapore - from disc jockey Johnson Ong filing the latest constitutional challenge to religious bodies issuing missives urging for the law to remain in place.
Thus far only the non-sectarian Buddhist Fellowship has taken an opposite stance - it is a lead signatory in the Ready4Repeal petition, along with advocacy groups like Action for Aids (AFA) and MARUAH.
At the government level, Education Minister Ong Ye Kung also waded into the issue when he declared there was “no discrimination” against the LGBT community in the areas of work, housing and education.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam described Singapore as “deeply split” on the issue, but noted that laws will have to keep pace with changes in societal views - and ultimately, it is up to Singapore society to decide which direction it wants to take.