By Shailendree Wickrama Adittiya
On Sunday (21 August), Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said the country will decriminalise sex between men, repealing Section 377A of the country’s penal code, and lawyers and activists in neighbouring countries, including Sri Lanka, have asked if others will follow suit.
At the annual National Day rally speech, the Singaporean Prime Minister said: “I believe this is the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept. This will bring the law into line with current social mores, and I hope, provide some relief to gay Singaporeans.”
While a clear date of when the law will be repealed has not been given, until it is, anyone found guilty under Section 377A can face up to two years’ imprisonment.
According to Lee, there are no plans to change the legal definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, and activists have highlighted that this could perpetuate discrimination.
A community statement by LGBTQ+ groups in Singapore was issued on the repeal of Section 377A, expressing relief, and calling it a significant milestone, despite being long overdue. “The demise of 377A represents something different to each of us. For everyone who has experienced the kinds of bullying, rejection, and harassment, enabled by this law, repeal finally enables us to begin the process of healing.”
The statement adds that for those who long for a more equal and inclusive Singapore, the repeal signifies that change is indeed possible, while also being proof and encouragement that allyship makes a difference.
The LGBTQ+ groups go on to acknowledge the harm caused by delays in repealing this law, saying it will never be able to fully right the historic wrongs faced by the past victims of Section 337A, and its cascading effects, including threats of police entrapment, raids, and criminal charges.
“In his speech, Prime Minister Lee also announced that changes would be made to the constitution to prevent future legal challenges to the existing definition of marriage, on the basis of inequality. Any move by the Government to introduce further legislation, or constitutional amendments that signal LGBTQ+ people as unequal citizens is disappointing.”
The groups went on to say that the true impact of the repeal would be determined by how the people of the country respond to it and treat each other in the days and months to come.
The statement was shared by “Pink Dot SG”, a non-profit movement started in 2009 by a group of individuals “who care deeply about the place that LGBTQ+ Singaporeans call home”.
The move has been welcome by other organisations as well, with Amnesty International tweeting: “Singapore’s decision to repeal Section 377A, a colonial-era law that criminalises sex between men, is a historic moment, and a long-overdue victory for LGBTI rights.”
They added: “Despite this win, authorities also wrongly plan to amend the constitution to define marriage as between a man and a woman. They must urgently drop this discriminatory plan.”
Amnesty International went on to say that when it comes to love, there should be no compromise, noting: “Love is a human right.”
Looking at the Asian region, Singapore is the latest country to make a progressive move towards ending LGBTQ+ discrimination. Just three years ago, Taiwan became the first Asian country to legalise same-sex marriage, after lawmakers passed a bill allowing same-sex couples to form “exclusive permanent unions” and apply for a “marriage registration” with government agencies. The decision came after a top court in the country ruled two years before, that not allowing same-sex couples to marry violated the Constitution. The Taiwanese Government was given until 24 May 2019 to make changes or see marriage equality enacted automatically.
In neighbouring India, the country’s Supreme Court in the 2018 case Navtej Singh Johar vs. Union of India, decriminalised consensual homosexual intercourse.
Meanwhile, as recently as 3 August, Vietnam’s Health Ministry officially instructed medical examination, and treatment establishments “not to consider homosexual, bisexual, and transgender an illness”, and to not interfere nor force treatment upon these groups of patients. The country’s Health Ministry also called for the enhancement of information propagation, and dissemination so that medical doctors, staff and patients have a correct understanding about homosexual, bisexual, and transgender persons.
While LGBTQ+ communities in countries like Singapore and Vietnam are seeing steps being taken to right many wrongs done to them, activists and organisations have highlighted the need for Sri Lanka as well, to follow in the same footsteps.
Equal Ground, which seeks equitable human and political rights for the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, and questioning community of Sri Lanka, shared a tweet posted by Singaporean Prime Minister Lee, and said: “Singapore PM says it’s the right thing to do! We hope Sri Lanka too will do the right thing!”
Meanwhile, human rights activist Aritha Wickramasinghe said: “Huge welcome news from Singapore! What an incredible win! Waiting for Sri Lanka to catch up with the rest of the world.”