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Modern Singapore grapples with Victorian sex statutes

Gay community senses threat in 19-century 'gross indecency' law


With its gay bars and same-sex couples publicly displaying affection, the Tanjong Pagar district offers a glimpse of a Singapore whose outlook contrasts with its more conservative image.

Located in the city’s central business area, it is also home to offices and government buildings. Its bars come to life at night, part of a gay scene that continues to evolve.

But while gay and lesbian couples openly live together and are gaining social acceptance, a law whose origins go back to the 19th century, when Singapore was a British colony, is still seen as a threat by the community.

A provision in the penal code known as Section 377A makes it a crime for men to have sex with each other and sets a maximum prison term of two years for offenders. Even though it is not enforced actively by Singapore authorities, campaigners are demanding its repeal.

Gary Lim, 44, and his 37-year-old partner, Kenneth Chee, say they decided to challenge the law’s constitutionality because they did not want to continue living in fear of being prosecuted someday. The High Court recently ruled against them but the couple decided to elevate it to the Court of Appeal for a final ruling.

Lim argues that although the government seems to turn a blind eye, the law’s presence is felt indirectly, particularly in instances where emergency services might be required.

“Many fear calling the police in situations of domestic violence, theft or rape because they may be charged” for being gay, said Lim. “This creates a group that is unable and fearful of tapping upon essential public services.”

A second petition by Tan Eng Hong, 50, seeks to scrap the provision and is currently pending.

Church conservatives are putting up a robust fight to preserve the law, sparking a heated debate with supporters of gay rights. Senior pastor Lawrence Khong hit out at the legal challenges in January, calling them “a looming threat to this basic building block” of society — the traditional family.

The government, while openly promising that gays will not be hounded under the law, maintain that Section 377A must stay in the books because most Singaporeans are still conservative and do not accept homosexuality.

Legal experts say the government’s position of not enforcing the provision but leaving it intact is intended to send a social message.

“Keeping 377A in the books is a message that being gay is still not what the mainstream norms are,” said Lynette Chua, assistant professor of law at the National University of Singapore (NUS).

Michael Hor, a criminal law professor at NUS, said “the government probably sees the nonrepeal of an unenforced 377A as a political compromise — giving both contending lobbies something to take home.”

Singapore’s media environment is highly controlled and local outlets have in recent years given gay issues sporadic coverage. But attitudes are changing and increasing numbers of Singaporeans have been openly supportive of gay rights.

Benjamin Detenber, head of the Nanyang Technological University’s school of communication and information, tracked a “small but significant shift” toward greater acceptance of gays and lesbians based on a survey he conducted in 2005 and again in 2010.

“If the courts were to repeal 377A on legal grounds, there would be challenges to it, people would have trouble, but I think ultimately people will accept it,” said Detenber. “There is a great deal of respect for the judiciary in Singapore. The rule of law is held in very high regard.”

Jean Chong, cofounder of local lesbian activist group Sayoni, said Section 377A “doesn’t just criminalize gay men” but “justifies a wide range of abusive behaviors and institutionalizes discrimination” against LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual) people.

“It sends the wrong signal to the world that Singapore is a backward and regressive state,” Chong said.