Gay rights

A recent milestone for gay rights hides further hurdles for Singapore’s same-sex couples

Recently announced plans to repeal Section 377A, a law criminalising homosexuality were celebrated by the gay community. But a promised constitutional amendment safeguarding traditional definitions of marriage holds progress back

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September 15, 2022
A recent milestone for gay rights hides further hurdles for Singapore’s same-sex couples
Supporters attend the annual "Pink Dot" event in a public show of support for the LGBT community at Hong Lim Park in Singapore on 18 June 2022. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Andee Chua’s proposal was a Singaporean fairytale. In a quiet corner of Cé La Vie, the glitzy ship-shaped skyscraper bar overlooking the sequinned lights of Singapore’s cityscape, the employee engagement specialist and prominent LGBTQ+ rights advocate popped the question. That balmy February evening his shocked and delighted boyfriend became his fiancé. 

Since then, nothing.

Chua, the self-confessed “planner” is on indefinite pause. While same-sex marriage remains illegal in the Lion City, he and his partner are in limbo, and settling down for a long engagement. 

Andee Chua at Amsterdam Gay Pride in August. Photo: supplied

“The plan is to wait,” Chua shrugged. “We wait 20 years, maybe we could still get married.”

This feeling of elation followed by hopeful, yet uncertain stagnation, struck him again in August this time from the double-hit of two major announcements that will significantly impact the progress of LGBTQ+ rights in the city-state. 

Following months of rumours and rumblings in local media, Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced plans to repeal Section 377A, a law left over from British colonial rule that criminalises sex between consenting male adults, as part of his National Day rally speech on 21 August. 

But in the same speech he promised to “uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage,” later promising a constitutional amendment that experts fear will prevent gay couples from being legally married. Now, awaiting further announcements, the community is torn between celebration and the painful uncertainty of their future as  their  legal rights seem even further away. 

Screenshot of the Singaporean Government’s broadcast of PM Lee’s National Day Rally Speech. Screen capture: Amanda Oon for Southeast Asia Globe. From video: Singapore Government/YouTube

The announcement of 377A’s repeal triggered a long-awaited celebration for many across Singapore. But within hours of the news, online backlash and abuse started. Even some who accepted decriminalisation worried that the traditional ideal of a heteronormative family unit was being threatened. 

“Most Singaporeans accept that sexual acts in private between consenting men should be decriminalised,” said Eugene Tan, Associate Professor of Singapore Management University. “They also see the need to retain the family as the basic unit of society comprising a man and a woman.” 

Prime Minister Lee seemed well-prepared for this potential pushback. The following day, his Home Minister K. Shanmugam confirmed a constitutional amendment which would grant parliament authority to define marriage. Within hours, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Lawrence Wong, a frontrunner for Lee’s successor, had promised the public there would be no change to the heteronormative defintion of marriage should he be elected to leadership in the 2025 general election. 

The move has arguably allowed Lee’s government to decriminalise homosexuality while simultaneoously appeasing more conservative voters.

Part of the aim of introducing such an amendment would be to prevent parties from commencing legal challenges against the government, contending that preventing homosexual marriage  is discriminatory and a breach of equality law, according to legal experts and human rights groups  

“A constitutional amendment will more deeply embed in law the existing discriminatory definition of marriage,” said Téa Braun, Chief Executive of the Human Dignity Trust. “It is disappointing and means that even after decriminalisation, LGBT people will not be equal citizens.”

But for many of the LGBTQ+ community, it added a sourness to the recently won success. 

Bhavish Advani, a Singaporean lawyer living in the Netherlands with an American partner  described his feeling of resignation as he watched the news.

“It was a relief. But then, after that, when they went down the track of the parliamentary definition of marriage, I thought “oh well, what a surprise.”

People walk past the Supreme Court entrance in Singapore on 13 November 13, 2019. – That day, the Court began hearing new challenges against a law banning sex between men, under Section 377A, which would eventually be repealed in August 2022. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

This is not the first time that Singapore’s courts have challenged the country’s gay rights policies.  Although Prime Minister Lee assured that the government would not act on 377A in a 2007 speech, Singaporean Tan Eng Hong was handcuffed by police and charged with “gross indecency” under the article in 2010. His only crime was having sex with a consenting man in a mall toilet cubicle. 

Tan later challenged the constitutionality of 377A, arguing it violated Article 12, which guarantees equality and equal protection of the law to all people. He was unsuccessful, but his case became a landmark for gay rights in Singapore, leading the statute eventually being described by the courts as “unenforceable” in February, following further constitutional challenge by a trio of LGBTQ+ activists, including Roy Tan Seng Kee, a retired general practitioner and main organiser of Singapore’s frist Pink Dot, an event that promotes diversity, inclusion and LGBTQ+ rights. 

These events have made Advani question, not only the promised safeguarding of marriage, but also the message behind the government’s treatment of 377A itself. He also doubts any  real value of repealing a law already deemed unenforceable by the courts. 

“It seemed that they were more concerned about the technical possibility of a breach [of Article 12] without recognising the fact that the Constitution says people should be treated equally,” he said.

It’s always good to talk about not just the problems, but also talk about what are some of the possibilities”

Andee Chua, LGBTQ+ spokesperson and activist

This is partly because heteronormative ideals have long been ingrained, not just in the Lion City’s colonial-era laws but also its current religious narratives,  While Singapore is a secular state, around 80% of the population practice a religion, according to a Department of Statistics poll. Some of the strongest opposition to 377A’s repeal came from the major religious groups. 

“As homosexuality is forbidden in Islam… JMAS sees the possible adverse impact of repealing Section 377A on Muslims of Singapore,” Raza Zaidi, Honorary Secretary of the Jaafari Muslim Association Singapore (JMAS) told the Globe.

A statement from Dominic Yeo, general superintendent of The Assemblies of God, a network of 48 Christian churches across Singapore, called for the government to enshrine heterosexual marriage in the Constitution, adding that “the way God intends marriages and families… will not change even as social norms evolve.” 

But Chua views these criticisms as positive signs of progress. He believes Section 377A’s repeal is a first step towards more open discussion, especially with oppositional  parties. 

“Let’s aim for more conversations, for more initiatives and campaigns…even bring religious groups together and have more open forums,” Chua  suggested. “It’s always good to talk about not just the problems, but also talk about what are some of the possibilities.”

A view of Housing Development Board (HDB) public residential apartments in Singapore. Photo: Roslan Rahman/AFP

Some  possibilities include a wider tackling of the legal discriminations that still restrict Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community. 

Around 80% of Singaporeans live in Housing Development Board (HDB) government subsidised accommodation, a heralded success of the governing People’s Action Party (PAP)’s social and economic policy. Married or engaged heterosexual couples are eligible to apply for an HDB flat from the age of 21. Same-sex couples either take single ownership and live as landlord and tenant, or apply for  “joint singles” ownership. They are restricted to smaller flats in less developed areas of Singapore and eligible for fewer government housing grants.

But for Chua, it is the stalemate of more waiting that frustrates him most. Single owner applicants are not eligible for HDB housing before the age of 35. As he enters his thirties, he feels his hetero peers are racing ahead. 

“I do feel like an outsider,” he admitted. “My friends are getting married, having kids, getting houses. All in a year that I have been fighting for equal rights.”

He is open to starting a family, but “for now, we don’t see the light at the end of the tunnel.” While Singapore remains home, he may be forced to choose between the country he grew up in and a committed future with his partner. 

“I really love Singapore. It’s a great place to work. I have all my friends here. I grew up here. I wouldn’t wish that one day I have to move away one day because I felt like I was not welcome,” Chua said. 

Advani has already made his decision. After living as a couple for years, he and his partner would find it hard to readjust to a life where their relationship was unrecognised.

“It’s odd for modern and well educated society to be pushing this kind of 1950s style concept of the nuclear family, ” he said. “I never left Singapore because of these issues. But now, in terms of considering whether to move back… nothing has really changed…and so many other places seem to have moved [forward].”

In the meantime, the city-state’s ASEAN neighbours are making their own progress. Thailand took a significant step towards becoming the first Southeast Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage in June when the Cabinet ratified a bill to legalise same-sex unions. 

Successes are not set in stone. Thailand’s bill needs to clear several more hurdles before becoming law and it is still unclear whether recognition will mean civil unions or full marriage equality. But these changes could be a sign of a greater regional shift as ASEAN countries watch each other’s progress, with an eye on their own upcoming elections. 

This photo photograph on June 9, 2017 shows youths walk past a banner promoting an upcoming gay-rights gathering at the entrance of a shopping mall in Singapore in 2017. Singapore’s advertising watchdog asked organisers of the Pink Dot rally to remove the statement “Supporting the freedom to love”, said the mall. Photo: Toh Ting Wei/AFP

Within the city-state, attitudes are also shifting. According to a recent poll, 67% of surveyed adults aged 18 – 29 are more accepting of same-sex relationshps than they were three years ago. 

Amongst respondents aged above 50, 29% acknowledged greater acceptance. The PAP, which has governed since the country’s 1965 independence, will need to navigate  evolving viewpoints and voter demographics as they look towards the 2025 general elections and a potential leadership transition.

Advani wonders whether, in preparation for the next election, the PAP is already looking towards a generation of first-time voters who are focusing on social issues including LGBTQ+ rights. 

“They need to look a little more with the times,” he said. 

Chua points to the increasing presence of MP’s engaging with prospective voters through social media platforms. Succession favourite Wong has amassed 52.7 thousand followers on his TikTok account, which mixes clips of G20 discussions with dance moves and Queen soundtracks. 

“They are trying to be more on the ground,” Chua said. “They are also trying to become more digital, listen to the people and what young people want – the future voters.”

In the meantime, the community remains almost unchanged: decriminalised but still marginalised. The government has yet to announce a date for Section 377A’s repeal or exact details of the constitutional amendment on same-sex marraige.

As Singaporeans wait, Chua is worried the current spark will fizzle out. 

“I think that the ultimate goal is, one day, we won’t have to scream loudly and wave our rainbow flag, we’ll just be like other people,” he said. “I just hope the conversation just keeps going, that it doesn’t lose steam, because the work is still undone. There is so much more to be done.”

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