Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has announced that his country will decriminalise sex between men, but will continue to uphold the legal definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.
In his annual national day rally speech, Lee said on Sunday that he believed repealing Section 377A of the penal code, a colonial-era law that criminalises sex between men, is the “right thing to do” as most Singaporeans were becoming more accepting of gay people.
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“Private sexual behaviour between consenting adults does not raise any law and order issue. There is no justification to prosecute people for it nor to make it a crime,” Lee said.
“This will bring the law into line with current social mores and I hope provide some relief to gay Singaporeans.”
It was unclear when exactly Section 377A would be revoked.
Lee pledged the repeal will be limited and not shake Singapore’s traditional family and societal norms, including how marriage is defined, what children are taught in schools, what is shown on television, and general public conduct.
He said the government will amend the constitution to ensure that there can be no constitutional challenge to allow same-sex marriage.
“Even as we repeal Section 377A, we will uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage,” Lee said. “We have to amend the Constitution to protect it. And we will do so. This will help us repeal Section 377A in a controlled and careful way.”
Section 377A of the Penal Code was introduced under British colonial rule in the 1930s. Offenders can be jailed for up to two years under the law, but it is not currently actively enforced. There have been no known convictions for sex between consenting adult males for decades and the law does not include sex between women or other genders.
LGBTQ groups have brought multiple legal challenges attempting to strike down the law, but none has succeeded.
Since 2007, when the Singaporean parliament last debated whether to repeal Section 377A, its position was to keep the law but not enforce it. But gay men say the law hangs over their heads and discriminates against them. Thousands of activists annually stage a rally in the city-state known as the “Pink Dot” in support of the LGBTQ community.
Lee said he hopes the government’s move will help reconcile and accommodate both the concerns of conservative religious groups and the desires of gay Singaporeans to be respected and accepted.
“All groups should exercise restraint, because that is the only way we can move forward as a nation together,” he said. “I hope the new balance will enable Singapore to remain a tolerant and inclusive society for many years to come.”
One of Lee’s nephews, Li Huanwu, is gay. The son of Lee’s estranged younger brother Lee Hsien Yang married his partner in South Africa in 2019. Li Huanwu has attended Pink Dot events with his partner and parents.
LGBTQ groups welcomed Lee’s decision but also expressed concern that ruling out same-sex marriage would help to perpetuate discrimination.
In a statement signed by more than 20 groups, gay rights campaigners said they were “relieved” by Lee’s announcement.
“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. For those that long for a more equal and inclusive Singapore, repeal signifies that change is indeed possible,” they said.
But the groups also urged the government not to heed calls from religious conservatives to enshrine the definition of marriage in the constitution, saying this would signal that LGBTQ+ citizens were not equal.
An alliance of more than 80 churches meanwhile expressed strong disappointment over Lee’s decision.
“The repeal is an extremely regrettable decision which will have a profound impact on the culture that our children and future generations of Singaporeans will live in,” it said.
Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious society of 5.5 million, with Buddhist, Christian and Muslim communities. It has a predominantly ethnic Chinese population with sizeable Malay and Indian minorities, according to the 2020 census.
Lee’s move makes Singapore the latest Asian country to move towards ending discrimination against members of the LGBTQ community.
In 2018, India’s Supreme Court decriminalised gay sex by overturning legislation from its own period under British rule, while in 2019, Taiwan took the unprecedented decision to legalise same-sex marriage, becoming the first place in Asia to do so.
Thailand also recently approved plans allowing same-sex unions.
Other former British colonies still retain laws that criminalise sex between men, including Malaysia where a former deputy prime minister was jailed twice for sodomy. He was sentenced in 2000 and again in 2014.