The Singapore government has taken a monumental step forward in accepting the LGBTQ+ community as it announced the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code. Yesterday, prime minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his National Day Rally speech that the government will revoke the law which criminalises sex between men, without changing the definition of marriage or national policies on public housing, education, adoption rules, and advertising standards and film classification.
Along with that, the government will also amend the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage which is currently recognised as that between a man and a woman. The news was met with applause from those attending the Rally, and since then social media has been flooded with comments from the public. According to Truescope, a majority (40-50%) of those on social media expressed approval and joy towards the decision to repeal Section 377A. Meanwhile, around 20-39% expressed disappointment towards the decision to repeal Section 377A, stating that they did not expect PAP to “give in” to the masses. Less that 19% disapproved of the decision to repeal Section 377A, and less that 19% also expressed disappointment towards same-sex marriage still not being legalised.
However, Meltwater data presented a different picture where sentiments are mostly neutral (66%), but negative sentiments are pretty high at 25%. Positive sentiments are only at 8%.
“Many agreed that the move, on paper, was a step in the right direction in the sense that it no longer criminalised queer people. However, some recognised that this move was announced alongside other non-progressive moves such as amending the constitution to set heterosexual marriages in stone, which resulted in a loss for the LGBTQ+ movement as it shuts off possibility of more equal rights for this community,” said the statement from Meltwater. Others also said the government “was simply doing the bare minimum”, and missing the whole point of repealing 377A. The data added that many understood that the move as a means to gain political power, and some felt that PAP holds too much political power.
Many organisations supporting causes around LGBTQ+ have also released statements regarding the news. Organisers of Pink Dot said they were relieved by the government’s intention to repeal Section 377A, and said this is a “significant milestone and a powerful statement that state-sanctioned discrimination has no place in Singapore”. “For those that long for a more equal and inclusive Singapore, the repeal signifies that change is indeed possible,” the statement said while noting that the change did come late for many.
On the changes to the constituency on what defines a marriage, however, Pink Dot organisers added: “Any move by the government to introduce further legislation or constitutional amendments that signal LGBTQ+ people as unequal citizens is disappointing. We urge the government not to heed recent calls from religious conservatives to enshrine the definition of marriage into a constitution.”
Meanwhile, AWARE Singapore also lauded the striking of the law saying that Section 377A served as a primary barrier to dignity and well-being for LGBTQ people in Singapore. "Now that it has been struck down, the work begins to heal and uplift the community even as it grapples with continued institutional discrimination: in public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards and film classification. This work has to happen at all levels – state, societal and individual. It is one thing to not be a criminal, and another to be treated as a valued and respected member of society. In that regard we still have some ways to go," it added.
According to an article on CNA, several religious groups also supported the government’s decision to amend the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage and define it clearly.
The announcement comes 15 years after the last debate in 2007 regarding Section 377A and PM Lee said that attitudes have “shifted appreciably” since then. Yet, for the past 15 years, the issue remained a thorn at the side of the otherwise modern-looking cosmopolitan state. In fact, in a recent interview, conducted approximately a week ago, between deputy PM Lawrence Wong and the editor-in-chief of Bloomberg John Micklethwait, Micklethwait said to the DPM having such a law must be "embarrassing".
He said: “Personally, you [Lawrence Wong] are a modern man. You have studied abroad, you have studied at Harvard, you are cosmopolitan. It must be very embarrassing having a law like [Section 377A] when you are trying to bring people to come to Singapore.”
To which the DPM said: “We all understand the history and the reason why this role was in place. It is not something that the Government in Singapore introduced. It was a legacy. […]”. He added that there are many segments in Singapore who feel that it is not just about the law, but the law is a marker for other things such as society, societal values, family, and marriage.
“We are having this conversation even right now, engaging different groups and considering how best we might move forward in a way that will not cause deeper divisions in our society,” said DMP Wong.
Commenting on what the repeal of the law does for “Brand Singapore”, which is now on its way to attracting foreign talent, former politician and director of strategic advisory at PRecious Communication Jose Raymond said that the move was a right one as the law has been an albatross around the government’s neck, and a blight on its positioning as a global, cosmopolitan and modern society.
“The decision is not just a victory for the LGBT community. It is a victory for the many activists, lawyers, academics and others who have been fiercely contesting 377A over decades. It is historic and momentous,” Raymond added.
Sentiments in Singapore on same-sex relationships
In June, a survey done by IPSOS also found that many Singaporeans are becoming more supportive of same-sex relationships, where 50% of those surveyed were willing to speak out against prejudice towards the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community. It added that attitudes towards same-sex relationships have become more favourable in the past three years, especially among young adults.
While the older age group remains largely opposed to same-sex relationships, a significant percentage also reported a softening in their stance. Around 45% of all respondents in the 2022 Ipsos study say they are more accepting of same-sex relationships than they were three years ago, among young adults aged 18 - 29, 67% indicate greater acceptance now and 29% of respondents aged 50 years old and above acknowledge that they are more accepting of same-sex relationships than they were three years ago.
Support for, or opposition to, Section 377A is often viewed as a proxy for attitudes towards same-sex relationships. In this regard, the study also revealed a change in attitudes in recent years with the number of respondents opposed to Section 377A increased by 8 percentage points from 12% in 2018 to 20% in 2022. The percentage of those who remain supportive of the penal code fell to less than half - from 55% in 2018 to 44% in 2022.
Melanie Ng, director of public affairs at Ipsos in Singapore said attitudes towards same-sex relationships are gradually becoming more inclusive as Singaporeans get exposed to diverse perspectives through mass media and social channels, and have more direct exposure to same-sex relationships around them.
“Dialogue around same-sex relationships started in earnest in 2008, with the launch of the Pink Dot SG movement to raise awareness of, and support for, the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) community in Singapore.
Today, we continue to see a steady shift in societal attitudes, led by younger adult Singaporeans who are more ready to see the country embrace same sex relationships. At the same time, while the older generation of Singaporeans remains largely opposed to same-sex relationships, we also see attitudes slowly changing,” she added.
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