Many in Singapore cheered the sight of Henry Kwek, a People’s Action Party (PAP) politician, at last week’s Pink Dot. It was apparently the first time in 14 years that a ruling party politician had attended the event.
In another picture Jamus Lim, a Workers’ Party (WP) politician there in his personal capacity, is seen next to an attendee carrying a placard, “Change starts now”.
The sight of these two politicians there is remarkable because one of the things the PAP and WP have hitherto agreed on is that there will be no change, both seemingly content with the status quo: the maintenance of the S377A law that criminalises sex between men accompanied by a sort of legally contentious *wink wink* caveat that the cops won’t enforce it (an oddity in this supposedly “rules-based” society).
At least the PAP and the WP have been clear about their positions. The two other major parties, the Singapore Democratic Party (SDP) and the Progress Singapore Party (PSP), have not. (The SDP called for repeal as far back as 2007 but in recent years has appeared to dodge the issue.)
So why was Kwek there? Rumours suggest that the PAP has decided to repeal S377A. One theory is that it will be a swansong of Lee Hsien Loong, the prime minister, before he hands over the party’s reins to heir apparent Lawrence Wong, a sort of sop to Singapore’s long-disaffected liberal segment (that the party hopes to win back).
Another suggests that K Shanmugam, the law and home affairs minister—and the person who brought Kwek into politics—will also carry the change, staring down any unhappiness from conservatives while continuing his tireless efforts to parade himself as a champion of women and minority groups.
The PAP may also have been jolted into action now because its leaders may prefer for change to occur through parliament rather than the courts. Over the years, the succession of constitutional challenges to S377A have slowly, progressively exposed the law’s inadequacies and contradictions, testament to the tireless work of solicitors and their clients.
In the latest judgment this February, the Court of Appeal observed that S377A would not violate Articles 9 (right to life and liberty) and 14 (freedom of expression and assembly) of the constitution. But it left open the question on the equal protection guarantee under Article 12. The court appears to have dodged the most important question in the case.
”My reading of the judgment is a warning from the court to the government that it will strike down S377A under Article 12 if the issue comes before the court again,” Daryl Yang, lawyer and activist, told me. “Repealing the law before the court strikes it down saves the government’s face and also stymies the further development of our equality jurisprudence, which can potentially lead to more radical changes regarding, for example, racial discrimination.”
So for all those reasons there is a sense that the PAP would rather it—not the courts—effect the change. Therefore, the suspicion is that Kwek (pictured) is the first of many politicians, PAP and perhaps opposition, who will want to publicly show allegiance before it happens. Hey, we were your allies all along. Rainbow emoji.
This may be a cynical view of their motives though it is in keeping with politicians elsewhere, some of whom have misread how quickly societal views on gay rights have evolved over the past three decades. In 2013, Hillary Clinton famously changed her view on same-sex marriage only after polls showed that a majority of Americans supported it. The “Full Flop”, as PolitiFact described it, is likely a major reason why many on the left in the US have long distrusted her.
Singaporean politicians in favour of repeal have rarely shared their personal views on gay rights. Notable exceptions include the PAP’s Baey Yam Keng, Charles Chong and Hri Kumar in the landmark 2007 debate on S377A. Their party had the luxury of numbers, with countless others warning about the dangers of repeal. There was little electoral risk to the PAP.
Opposition parties aren’t so lucky. At that 2007 debate WP had two parliamentarians, Sylvia Lim and Low Thia Khiang. Working off a low base, opposition parties generally feel compelled to erect a big tent to draw support from across the ideological spectrum. Their liberals dare not stake out progressive positions on social issues lest they unwittingly tar the entire party with the same brush. Some would call it pragmatism, others cowardice.
Perhaps all this pussyfooting affords the PAP and other parties plausible deniability in conversations with the two apparently competing factions, the pro-repeal liberals and the pro-S377A conservatives (mostly Christian and Muslim). They can keep whispering sweet nothings into both sides’ ears, so it goes, while continuing to furiously work behind the scenes to do what’s best for Singapore.
This notion that societal change occurs through ageing patriarchs who, in their infinite wisdom, must weigh competing tensions and strike backroom deals, was hinted at last year in commentaries about the government finally allowing nurses to wear tudungs. It may be marshalled again if and when S377A is repealed.
Public sentiment will probably be used to buttress the argument, especially given that a recent Ipsos survey has, with suspiciously perfect timing, found that support for S377A has now dropped below 50%. Public sentiment seems a reasonable gauge in any democracy, though relying on it here is also problematic.
Most importantly, basic human rights cannot depend on a majority. Every democracy has an obligation to protect minority rights, not succumb to majoritarianism. There are colossal battles occurring in democracies such as India on this very point.
If public sentiment is used to justify the repeal of S377A, the effective messaging is that the government will follow the majority’s view on rights-based issues. Well, what if a majority of Singaporeans do not want an ethnic Malay president?
Recall that in the lead-up to the constitutional change that led to the 2017 reserved presidency, the government said it needed to act in order to counter public sentiment (that supposedly favoured ethnic Chinese leaders). With the potential repeal of S377A, we may hear an argument that the government is acting to support public sentiment.
What next? If Singaporeans surveyed are in favour of same-sex marriage, will the PAP push for it? If a majority want cannabis legalised, will Shanmugam toke up?
Fat chance. It’s no surprise that many perceive the PAP’s maneuverings with great skepticism. It often appears as if a decision is first taken by elders in the backrooms, and only then the substantive work done.
In any case, activists are already looking past the repeal. “I dream of a queer movement that will settle for nothing less than our collective liberation,” said Kokila Annamalai, a community organiser, at Pink Dot. “Discrimination did not start with 377A and it will not go away when it is repealed,” said Remy Choo, a lawyer and committee member of the Ready4Repeal movement. “We need to carry that fight forward.”
Thus while many of us will cheer the long-awaited repeal—assuming it happens—we will also remain clear-eyed about the challenges that remain. For instance The Adoption of Children Act 2022, passed this May, has outlawed adoption by same-sex couples. (The previous act afforded the authorities some discretion in deciding.) Many believe that this was the backroom quid pro quo for conservatives ahead of the repeal of S377A. Underpinning this ban is the bigoted, corrosive and outdated belief that same-sex family units are somehow morally inferior. Other issues include housing access and censorship of queer content.
The incrementalists, moderates and radicals within the queer community will have different ideas about the pace of change, about what the next “fight” should be. It will be interesting to see how societal debates evolve. Perhaps repeal will embolden a younger generation of politicians to become more transparent about their inclinations on prickly social issues. And hopefully that will engender more genuine public debates on those issues, moving weighty discussions from the backrooms to the commons, thereby making our democracy more participatory and creating the space for citizens to feel more ownership over decisions.
Finally, repeal will not mask the PAP’s long, chequered history when it comes to gay rights.
In the 1990s, Lee was deputy prime minister when Singaporean cops engaged in sting operations to attract and catch gay men. In parliament in 2007, Indranee Rajah, when making a point about individual liberty, compared the freedom to love with the freedom to kill, referencing “homosexuals” and “a murderer” in the same breath. (Reading her whole speech, it seems like an unintentional slip, though still, not the framing and language about a vulnerable group one expects from an apparently sharp lawyer.) And ahead of the general election in 2011, Vivian Balakrishnan and his team famously questioned the supposed gay “agenda” of one of their opponents, Vincent Wijeysingha, smearing him and poisoning the contest.
These are examples from three current cabinet members, some of Singapore’s most powerful politicians, yet there are many more. If the rumours are true, and repeal does occur soon, what will be the party’s legacy? Will the mainstream media offer us a proper review of this global city’s tumultuous journey to repeal? Will the PAP swoop in to claim credit, whitewashing its own history while downplaying the efforts of activists and the other real agents of social change?
Some might bemoan these questions in a time of general bonhomie for the queer community. Yet it would be a mistake to allow for any historical amnesia, which is unfortunately common in Singapore. A frank conversation, to accompany any prospective legislative change, is not only what a thinking society deserves, but is what will strengthen the community’s belief in the authenticity of our politicians’ motives.
Correction. An earlier version said that Henry Kwek and Jamus Lim were photographed together. They were not. Sorry.
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