Attitudes shifting on 377A but Singapore Government cannot ignore views of ‘middle ground’: Shanmugam
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam was speaking to the BBC's Stephen Sackur in a wide-ranging interview.
SINGAPORE: Attitudes towards Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, are shifting – but the Singapore Government cannot ignore the views of a “significant proportion” of the population who do not want the law repealed, said Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.
He was responding to a question about the justification for the law, during a wide-ranging interview with BBC’s Stephen Sackur for the programme HardTalk, which aired on Wednesday (Jun 29).
Mr Shanmugam stressed that even though the “old piece of law” makes gay sex an offence, the position in Singapore is that people engaging in it will not be prosecuted.
“Why are we taking this approach? Because a significant proportion of our population, the middle ground as it were, don't want that law repealed," said the minister.
“Attitudes are shifting somewhat, but still, governments cannot, the Singapore Government cannot ignore those views.
“So we have arrived at this sort of messy compromise the last 15 years and we have taken this path because these issues are difficult. They are not easily settled.”
He stressed that LGBTQ+ individuals are “entitled to live peacefully without being attacked or threatened”, and there are laws that protect the community.
Mr Sackur then asked if the unwillingness to repeal Section 377A encouraged “a culture of shame of homophobia”.
In response, Mr Shanmugam reiterated that it is “a compromise that we have arrived at, because of where our society is”.
“And if you believe in a democracy, you've got to take into account where your main ground is,” he said.
“But our approach, to deal with these issues in Parliament, and I've said earlier this year that we are relooking our laws, and our laws have to change and keep pace with the times.”
He added that the Government is engaging in “a wide set of consultations to try and arrive at some sort of landing”.
Mr Shanmugam had said in March that the Government will consider different viewpoints carefully in considering the "best way forward" on Section 377A.
“And if and when we decide to move, we will do so in a way that continues to balance between these different viewpoints, and avoids causing a sudden, destabilising change in social norms and public expectations,” he said in Parliament on Mar 3.
When Mr Sackur pointed to an IPSOS survey that showed shifting societal attitudes reflecting greater openness towards same-sex relationships, asking if it meant Singapore could repeal Section 377A in the near future, Mr Shanmugam said that the survey seemed “a little bit of an outlier” compared to other internal and public surveys that have been done.
And while attitudes are shifting, the minister said he is “not quite sure they are shifting as much as what IPSOS has said”.
He added that he cannot provide answers on any changes with finality, as nothing can be announced until a decision has been reached within the Cabinet.
REPORTERS WITHOUT BORDERS “COMPLETELY NONSENSICAL”
Mr Sackur also asked about criticisms from independent non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders over Singapore’s Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA).
The hotly debated legislation, which was passed last October, gives authorities powers to counter foreign interference in domestic politics, such as by ordering social media sites and internet providers to disclose user information and block content deemed to be hostile.
Mr Sackur noted that Reporters Without Borders described FICA as a “legal monstrosity with totalitarian leanings”.
Mr Shanmugam lambasted the organisation, taking issue with its World Press Freedom Index, for instance, which has put Singapore below countries such as Gambia, Guinea, South Sudan and Myanmar.
The index is meant to “assess the state of journalism” in 180 territories, according to the body.
Referencing South Sudan’s refugee crisis and Myanmar’s coup, Mr Shanmugam said: “I don't see journalists queuing up to go to South Sudan, Philippines and Myanmar as opposed to Singapore.
“Take a young female BBC journalist – do you think she will feel safer or freer to report from any of these countries compared to Singapore?
“I dismiss Reporters Without Borders. Completely nonsensical. We invited them in for a select committee hearing, and in the true heritage of free speech, they chickened out.”
RACISM HAPPENS “MUCH LESS” IN SINGAPORE THAN ELSEWHERE: SHANMUGAM
Moving on to race, Mr Sackur asked Mr Shanmugam if he was worried about evidence of “routine systemic discrimination”, particularly against Malay and Indian people in Singapore, as observed by The Economist magazine.
This includes discrimination in the search for housing or jobs, said Mr Sackur.
Mr Shanmugam said “no one will deny that racism exists in Singapore”, just as it exists in most other multi-racial societies. “The question is, how systemic it is, and how much does it happen?”
“But my own experience as a minority in Singapore, and the experience of many others is - on the whole, compared with many other societies, it’s much less in Singapore.”
The minister also noted that the vast majority of Singaporeans live in their own housing. “So, what you're talking about are foreigners who are seeking housing in Singapore. So, you know, people get their facts confused and mixed up," he said.
Mr Sackur then suggested that the “biggest test of all of this will be what happens at the very top”.
“Isn't it the reality that you, with your Indian heritage, are never going to be able to be Prime Minister of Singapore, and that is a great shame, is it not?” said the BBC journalist.
Mr Shanmugam responded: “Leaving me aside, I don't think it is accurate to say an Indian cannot be a Prime Minister, or a Malay cannot be a Prime Minister.”
Race does indeed matter in politics, he added, noting surveys that have shown that each ethnic group showed a “substantial preference” for a person of their own race to be the Prime Minister.
“So, if a Malay or an Indian, starts with, if I remember my numbers right, about a 20 per cent gap. But it's not unbridgeable," said Mr Shanmugam.
“A good candidate, in my view, a Malay or Indian candidate, can bridge it as long as the MPs have the confidence that he can lead them into the General Elections and win the elections. I think it's entirely possible, so I would not rule it out. And I don't refer to myself.”
NOT PICKING SIDES BETWEEN US AND CHINA
Wrapping up the interview with geopolitics, Mr Sackur asked which side Singapore would pick amid growing hostility between the United States and China.
Mr Shanmugam said Singapore will not pick sides as that “is not the right way to go”.
It was a point he reiterated later in the interview, saying: "We will not choose sides. We will go with what we think is right."
When Mr Sackur suggested that Singapore’s rebuke of Russia for its invasion of Ukraine showed the country is “actually closer to Washington than (it is) to Beijing”, Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore also opposed the US invasion of Grenada.
“So it's a matter of principle, it's not choosing one over the other. As a small country, with a very keen eye towards survival, sovereignty, the international law is extremely important.”