INTO more

Impact
Diplomat Urges Singapore to Overturn Colonial Law Banning Gay Sex

Top diplomat Tommy Koh called for the repeal of Singapore’s colonial law banning gay sex following a groundbreaking ruling in India.

In a Monday op-ed published in The Straits Times, Koh referred to Section 377a of Penal Code of Singapore as “antiquated,” claiming it leaves the island city-state increasingly in the minority on LGBTQ rights. Of the 196 member states in the United Nations, just 72 have laws on the books criminalizing homosexuality.

Singapore’s ambassador-at-large argued the municipality remains “part of the minority mainly because [it] inherited from the British a penal code which criminalises sodomy.”

“For a country which embraces science and technology, it is surprising that, on this one aspect, the law has not been updated in the light of the scientific evidence,” he said in a column for the English-language pro-government publication.

Although a majority of Singapore’s more than 5 million residents still support laws banning gay sex, Koh said society must draw a distinction “between a sin and a crime.” On this matter, the professor cited former attorney general Walter Woon, who has claimed many Singaporeans “regard adultery and fornication as sinful but they are not criminal behavior.”

“[S]odomy may be a sin, but it should not be made a crime,” Koh wrote.

Although people of faith may hold views that homosexuality is immoral, the former U.N. ambassador added that religion should not dictate the rule of law in a “secular state.”

“[Singapore] is not a Christian country or a Muslim country,” Koh claimed. “It is not the business of the state to enforce the dogmas of those religions. In Singapore, there is a separation between religion and the state. Church leaders and Islamic leaders should respect that separation.”

Koh’s op-ed is one of a number of calls in recent weeks to overturn its sodomy ban following a groundbreaking verdict from the Indian Supreme Court.

In a September decision, Chief Justice Dipak Misra called the country’s 157-year-old codes criminalizing homosexuality “irrational, arbitrary and manifestly unconstitutional.” “History owes an apology to the LGBTQ people” for the decades of harassment, abuse, imprisonment, and even blackmail they faced under the colonial-era law, added Judge Indu Malhotra.

After the historic ruling came down, 37-year-old Johnson Ong filed a lawsuit to challenge Section 377a, which modeled its own anti-gay regulations on the India law.

Although supporters of the sodomy law argue it is rarely enforced, Ong claimed the historic laws profoundly impact the status of LGBTQ people in Singaporean society. He said queer and trans individuals rarely have the opportunity to see themselves “represented positively on mainstream media, if at all.”

“Without access to help and resources, navigating through life is a lonely and often stressful process for every LGBTQ Singaporean,” Ong told Channel News Asia.

“Most importantly, I am not a criminal and I do not want to go through life being branded as one by my own country,” he added. “It takes a psychological toll on you going through life thinking you are less than everyone else.”

Section 377a has faced previous challenges.

In 2013, Lim Meng Suang and Chee Mun Leon, a gay couple, claimed the statute is in direct violation of Singapore’s constitution. The 53-year-old document states that every citizen is “equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law,” guaranteeing freedom from discrimination based on the characteristics of descent, place of birth, race, and religion.

A year later the Singapore Court of Appeal upheld the constitutionality of Section 377a. In a 92-page ruling, Justice Quentin Loh claimed the court should not supersede public opinion on issues which have “yet to gain currency.”

Loh added that the matter of LGBTQ rights is an issue for Parliament to decide.

Calling the decision “wrong,” Koh hoped that future court appeals would encourage the bench to reconsider the sodomy ban. In Monday’s op-ed, he cited Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion in 2003’s Lawrence v. Texas, in which the conservative judge claimed LGBTQ people are “entitled to respect for their private lives.”

“The state cannot demean or control their destiny by making their private sexual conduct a crime,” Kennedy said in the groundbreaking ruling, which served to decriminalize homosexuality in the United States.

Koh said that the time for Singapore to follow suit and “declare 377a to be unconstitutional.”

“[T}he scientific evidence is that homosexuality is a normal and natural variation of human sexuality,” he concluded. “It is not a mental disorder. … Section 377A is an antiquated law, not supported by science, and should be repealed.”


Nico Lang

Nico Lang is a staff writer for INTO, covering news, politics, and global LGBTQ issues.