Singapore’s highest court heard
challenges to a 76-year-old ban on gay sex, a divisive issue
after India reversed a decision to strike down a similar law and
same-sex marriage was allowed in New Zealand last year.
“Just because a matter is controversial does not mean the
judiciary should shy away from upholding its constitutional
mandate,” Deborah Barker, a lawyer for Kenneth Chee and Gary
Lim, said today while arguing that the 1938 law violates rights
to equal protection and should be declared void. Parliament, not
the courts, is the right forum, a government lawyer argued.
Singapore lawmakers in 2007 agreed to keep the law, known
as Section 377A, when they repealed related provisions that made
heterosexual oral and anal sex a crime. Gay-rights activists and
church groups advocated last year against and for the ban, which
the government says it hasn’t actively enforced since the
mid-1990s. That prompted the Attorney General’s Chamber to warn
that comment on the case could be in contempt if calculated to
affect the court’s decision.
“The majority of the population still favors the current
legal framework,” Law Minister K. Shanmugam told Bloomberg News
last month when asked about the case and its background. While
society is evolving and social mores are changing, “the
government has taken the position that this is a situation where
it is best to agree to disagree.”
Police issued an advisory asking attendees at this year’s
annual gay-pride rally Pink Dot on June 28 to “keep the peace”
and avoid comments on race and religion. The warning followed
Muslim and Christian groups calling on their followers to wear
white on the day to signify “purity” and to oppose the event.
Gay activists early last year started an online petition
for abolition ahead of a lower court hearing on the law’s
constitutionality, and a group of pastors met Shanmugam to
present their views on defending the nation’s “moral future.”
The Singapore Court of Appeal hearing today comes as
battles over gay rights gained prominence in the past two years.
India in December overturned a 2009 verdict legalizing
consensual gay sex. Russia enacted anti-gay laws, stoking
international ire, and New Zealand became the first Asia-Pacific
nation to legalize gay marriages.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling triggered uncertainty in the
country, where states have a patchwork of laws and court rulings
allowing gay marriage in some and banning it in others.
Recent survey results on gay acceptance in Singapore
“shows the controversy in society,” the country’s Chief
Prosecutor Aedit Abdullah said today.
“These are arguments that should lie with the
legislature,” Aedit told the three-judge panel led by Andrew
Phang. “We’re concerned about the knock-on effects and the
effects on other statutes and laws,” he said.
M. Ravi, a lawyer for Tan Eng Hong who has a parallel
appeal against the ban, said Section 377A was biased against
He said it would be almost impossible for a sexually-active
gay man to remain on the right side of the law, which bans acts
of “gross indecency” between males. Offenders face mandatory
jail terms of as long as two years.
The law should either be declared void or modified to
exclude acts between consenting adults in private, Barker said.
High Court Judge Quentin Loh had agreed with government
lawyers when he heard both cases last year, saying the courts
should be slow in overturning parliament’s decision.
There were a total of 185 people convicted under section
377A over a 10-year period from 1997 to 2006, according to
figures from the Home Affairs Ministry. Seven people were
convicted in 2006, with 1999 having the highest at 31.
In the early 1990s, undercover police arrested several men
in sting operations, charging them with molestation and public
solicitation, according to reports in The Straits Times. A
magazine with advertisements targeting homosexuals had its
publishing license suspended and some theater plays deemed as
promoting homosexual lifestyles were censored.
Even so, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told parliament in
2007 that “the government does not act as moral policemen.”
Singapore is a conservative society with space for homosexuals,
he said then. Lee said in January 2013 it was best for
Singaporeans to “agree to disagree” on the issue of gay
About 47 percent of 4,000 Singaporeans in a survey
commissioned by the government rejected “gay lifestyles,”
according to the results released in August. Twenty six percent
were receptive and 27 percent neutral.
Then-Chief Justice Yong Pung How wrote in a 1995 ruling
that he was “confident that the judicious exercise of
prosecutorial discretion will prevail” in applying the law.
In 2003, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said homosexuals
were allowed to work in the civil service. Singaporean media
published stories at the time touting the so-called pink dollar
of affluent gay tourists. The following year, police banned a
planned year-end celebration by a gay events group for being
“contrary to public interest.”
While authorities have allowed a separate gay-pride event,
Pink Dot, to be held since 2009, three children’s titles were
withdrawn from national libraries recently — including one
based on a real-life story of two male penguins that hatched an
egg at the New York Zoo — after complaints that they weren’t
“pro-family.” Books in the adult section do contain titles
with homosexual themes, the National Library Board said.
A record 26,000 pink-clad people turned up last month at
Pink Dot, sponsored by companies including Google Inc. since
2010, Barclays Plc since 2012, and Goldman Sachs Group Inc.,
which became a sponsor this year.
Edward Naylor of Goldman Sachs and John McGuinness of
Barclays said their banks supported events like Pink Dot as part
of their commitment to diversity and inclusive workplaces.
“Attracting, retaining and motivating people from diverse
backgrounds, including people of all sexual orientations, is
essential to our success,” Naylor said.
“Barclays is committed to a culture of meritocracy, where
people are judged on professional performance rather than their
personal lives,” McGuinness said.
Robin Moroney, a spokesman for Google, referred to the
company’s comment in a May Pink Dot announcement that
encouraging diversity “can lead to brilliant and inspiring
The cases are Lim Meng Suang v Attorney-General, CA54/2013.
Tan Eng Hong v Attorney-General, CA125/2013. Singapore Court of
To contact the reporter on this story:
Andrea Tan in Singapore at
To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Douglas Wong at
Singapore Top Court Tackles Challenge to 1938 Gay-Sex Ban