ST: Why we should leave Section 377A alone: PM (Oct 24)

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Oct 24, 2007
Why we should leave Section 377A alone: PM
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke yesterday on Section 377A,
criminalises gay sex.

Here are edited excerpts from his remarks

'Mr Speaker Sir, this parliamentary debate is on the amendments
to the
Penal Code, but the hottest debate is on one section which is
being amended - Section 377A.

Both Mr Siew Kum Hong and Professor Thio Li-Ann quoted me with
approval in their speeches yesterday so I think I should state my
position, and the Government's position on this matter.

Because of the review of the Penal Code and the amendments, I think
the gay community and the activists have staged a push to get the
Government to open this subject and to abolish Section 377A.

They have written an open letter to me as PM. They've also
Parliament on this issue on the grounds of constitutional
validity and
the constitutional argument was made by Mr Siew Kum
Hong yesterday in

I don't have to go into the details. It was rebutted very cogently by
Indranee Rajah and very passionately by Prof Thio Li-Ann.

They are not my legal adviser. I take my legal advice from the
Attorney-General and his advice to the Government is quite clear:
continued retention of Section 377A would not be a contravention
the Constitution.

The Government has not taken this matter lightly. We had a
discussion among the ministers; we had an extensive public
consultation on the Penal Code amendments; and we decided, on this
issue, to leave things be.

So let me today focus on the policy issue - what we want the law to
- and explain our thinking, our considerations, why we came to this

I would ask these questions: What is our attitude towards
homosexuality? 'Our' meaning the Government's attitude and

Singaporeans' attitude, too; and how should these attitudes and these
values be reflected in our legislation.

Many Members have said this, but it's true and it's worth saying
again: Singapore is basically a conservative society. The family is
the basic building block of this society. It has been so and by
policy, we have reinforced this, and we want to keep it so.

And by family in Singapore we mean one man, one woman marrying,
children and bringing up children within that framework of a
family unit.

And if you look at the way our Housing Board flats are, our
neighbourhoods, our new towns, that's by and large the way
Singaporeans live. It's not so in other countries, particularly in the
West anymore, but it is here.

I acknowledge that not everybody fits into this mould. Some are
single, some have more colourful lifestyles, some are gay. But a
heterosexual, stable family is a social norm. It's what we teach in
schools. It's what parents want to see, want their children to see as
their children grow up, to set their expectations and encourage them
to develop in this direction.

And I think the vast majority of Singaporeans want to keep it this
way, want to keep our society like this, and so does the Government.

But at the same time, we should recognise that homosexuals are part of
our society. They are our kith and kin.

This is not just in Singapore, this is so in every society, in every
period of history, back to prehistoric times - or at least as long as
there have been records, biblical times and probably before.

What makes a person gay or homosexual? Well, partly it could be the
social environment.

If we look at ancient Greece and Romans, it was quite normal for men
to have homosexual relationships - an older man with a young boy. And
it doesn't mean that that's all they do. They have wives, they have
children, but socially that's the practice. So I think the social
environment has something to do with it. But there is growing
scientific evidence that sexual orientation is something which is
substantially inborn. I know some will strongly disagree with this,
but the evidence is accumulating.

You can read the arguments and the debates on the Internet.

And just to take one provocative fact: Homosexual behaviour is not
observed only amongst human beings, but amongst many species of mammals.

So, so too in Singapore. There is a small percentage of people, both
male and female, who have homosexual orientations and they include
people 'who are often responsible, invaluable and highly respected
contributing members of society'. I quote from the open letter which
the petitioners have written to me.

And it is true. They include people who are responsible, invaluable,
highly respected contributing members of society. And I would add that
among them are some of our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our
brothers and sisters, or some of our children.

They too must have a place in this society and they too are entitled
to their private lives. We shouldn't make it harder than it already is
for them to grow up and to live in a society where they are different
from most Singaporeans.

And we also don't want them to leave Singapore to go to more congenial
places to live.

But homosexuals should not set the tone for Singapore society.

Nor do we consider homosexuals a minority in the sense that we
consider, say, Malays and Indians as minorities, with minority rights
protected under the law - languages taught in schools, culture
celebrated by all races, representation guaranteed in Parliament
through GRCs and so on. And this is the point which Ms Indranee Rajah
made yesterday in a different way.

This is the way Singapore society is today. This is the way the
majority of Singaporeans want it to be.

So we should strive to maintain a balance: to uphold a stable society
with traditional heterosexual family values, but with space for
homosexuals to live their lives and to contribute to the society.

We've gradually been making progress towards achieving a closer
approximation to this balance over the years. I don't think we will
ever get the perfect balance, but I think that we have a better
arrangement now than was the case 10 or 20 years ago.

Homosexuals work in all sectors, all over the economy; in the public
sector as well, and in the civil service as well. They are free to
lead their lives, free to pursue their social activities.

But there are restraints and we do not approve of them actively
promoting their lifestyle to others or setting the tone for mainstream

They live their lives, that's their personal life, it's their space.
But the tone of the overall society, I think it remains conventional,
it remains straight and we want it to remain so.

So, for example, the recent case of Mr Otto Fong, who is a teacher in
Raffles Institution. He's gay, he's a good teacher by all accounts. He
put up a blog which described his own sexual inclinations and
explained how he was gay. And he circulated it to his colleagues and
it became public.

So, (the) Ministry of Education looked at this, the school spoke to
the teacher. The teacher understood that this was beyond the limit,
because what you live is your own thing. But what you disseminate
comes very close to promoting a lifestyle. So spoke to him, he took
down his blog, he posted an explanation, he apologised for what he had
done and he continues teaching in RI today.

So there is space, there are limits.

De facto, gays have a lot of space in Singapore. Gay groups hold
public discussions, they publish websites, I've visited some of them.
There are films, plays on gay themes. In fact sometimes people ask
'Why are there so many? Aren't there other subjects in the world?' But
since we have allowed it the last few years, maybe this is a letting
off of pressure. Eventually, we will find a better balance.

There are gay bars and clubs. They exist. We know where they are.
Everybody knows where they are. They don't have to go underground. We
don't harass gays. The Government does not act as moral policeman. And
we don't proactively enforce Section 377A on them.

But this doesn't mean that we have reached a broad social consensus
that this is a happy state of affairs, because there are still very
different views among Singaporeans on whether homosexuality is
acceptable or morally right. And we heard these views aired in
Parliament over these last two days...

Some are convinced, passionately so, that homosexuality is an
abomination, to quote Prof Thio Li-Ann's words yesterday. Others,
probably many more, are uncomfortable with homosexuals, more so with
public display of homosexual behaviour. Yet others are more tolerant
and accepting.

There's a range of views.There'
s also a range of degrees to which
people are seized with this issue. Many people are not that seized
with this issue. And speaking candidly, I think the people who are
very seized with this issue are a minority. And (for) the majority of
Singaporeans, well, it is something which they are aware of, but it's
not at the top of their consciousness - including I would say, among
them, a significant number of gays themselves.

Also I would say amongst the Chinese-speaking community in Singapore.
Chinese-speaking Singaporeans, they are not as strongly engaged either
for removing 377A or against removing 377A. Their attitude is live and
let live.

And so even in this debate, these two days, you will have noticed
there have been very few speeches made in Parliament in Mandarin on
this subject. I know Mr Baey Yam Keng made one this afternoon, but Mr
Low Thia Khiang did not. And it reflects the focus of the
Chinese-speaking ground and their mindsets. So for the majority of
Singaporeans, the attitude is a pragmatic one - we live and let live.

The current legal position in Singapore reflects these social norms
and attitudes, as Miss Indranee Rajah and Mr Hri Kumar explained

It is not legally neat and tidy. Mr Hri Kumar gave a very professional
explanation of how untidy it is. But it is a practical arrangement
that has evolved out of our historical circumstances.
We are not
starting from a blank slate, trying to design an ideal arrangement.
Neither are we proposing new laws against homosexuality.

We have what we have inherited and what we have adapted to our
circumstances. And as Mr Hri Kumar pointed out, we inherited Section
377A from the British - imported from the English Victorian law, from
the period of Queen Victoria in the 19th century, via the Indian Penal
Code, via by the Straits Settlement Penal Code into Spore law.

Asian societies don't have such laws: not in Japan, not in China, not
in Taiwan.

But it's part of our landscape. We have retained it over the years. So
the question is, what do we want to do about it now? Do we want to do
anything about it now?

If we retain it, we are not enforcing it proactively. Nobody has
argued for it to be enforced very vigorously in this House.

If we abolish it, we may be sending the wrong signal that our stance
has changed and the rules have shifted.

But because of the Penal Code amendments, Section 337A has become a
symbolic issue - the point for both opponents and proponents to tussle

The gay activists want it removed. Those who are against gay values
and lifestyle argue strongly to retain it. And both sides have
mobilised to campaign for their causes.

There was a petition to remove Section 377A. It accumulated a couple
of thousand signatures and was presented in this House. Therefore
there was a counter-petition to retain it which collected 15,000
signatures, at least according to the newspapers I haven't counted the
signatures - 16,000, 15560 signatures. Probably gone up since last we
started speaking.

Also with an open letter to me. And the ministers and I, we have
received many e-mails and letters on this subject. And I have received
e-mails too in my mailbox. Very well written, all following a certain
model answer style. So it's a very well organised campaign.

And not only writing letters but people, constituents have visited MPs
at Meet-the-People Sessions to see the MP, not because there's
anything they want done, but to congratulate the MP on what a good
Government this is that we are keeping Section 377A, and 'please stay
a good Government and please don't change it'.

So I don't doubt the depth of the sentiments and the breadth of the
support. But it's also a very well organised pressure campaign.

But I'm not surprised that this issue is still contentious because
even in the West, even when they have liberalised, homosexuality still
remains a very contentious issue.

They decriminalised homosexual acts decades ago, in the 1960s, '70s.
And they have gone a long way towards accepting gays in society. They
not only have gays in prominent places - if you want to have a
complete Cabinet or a complete line-up when you go for elections, you
must have some on your list so that you're seen to have been
inclusive. Certainly so in Europe. Also true in America.

But still, the issue is bitterly disputed. So in America, there are
fierce debates over gay rights and same-sex marriages. And the
conservatives in America are pushing back. President George Bush has
been calling for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a
union between a man and a woman, and not between a man and a man or a
woman and a woman. This is in America.

So the issue is still joint.

Even within the churches, it's a hot subject. The Anglican Church,
Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he had
liberal views on gay issues. He became the Archbishop. He's moderated
his views because he has to reflect the church as a whole.

And even within the church - the church in England, the church in
America - have a very serious disagreement with the Anglican churches
in Asia and in Africa, who almost split away on this issue of
ordination of gay people as bishops.

And they've patched up and compromised recently in America. And the
Archbishop of Canterbury, who's head of the church, had to plead with
the community to come to some understanding so that they maintain the
Anglican communion.

So this is not an issue where we can reach happy consensus.

And abolishing Section 377A, were we to do this, is not going to end
the argument in Singapore.

Among the conservative Singaporeans, the deep concerns over the moral
values of society will remain.

And among the gay rights activists, abolition isn't going to give them
what they want because what they want is not just to be free from
Section 377A, but more space and full acceptance by other
Singaporeans. And they said so.

So supposing we move on 377A, I think the gay activists will push for
more, following the examples of other avant garde countries in

Europe and America - to change what is taught in the schools, to
advocate same-sex marriages and parenting, to ask for 'exactly the
same rights as a straight man or woman'. This is quoting from the open
letter which the petitioners wrote to me.

And when it comes to these issues, the majority of Singaporeans will
strenuously oppose these follow-up moves by the gay campaigners. And
many who are not anti-gay will be against this agenda. And I think for
good reason.

Therefore, we've decided to keep the status quo on Section 377A. It's
better to accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity. It works,
don't disturb it.

Mr Stuart Koe, who is one of the petitioners, was interviewed
yesterday and he said he wanted the Government to remove the ambiguity
and clarify matters.

He said the current situation is like having a 'gun put to your head
and not pulling the trigger. Either put the gun down, or pull the

First of all, I don't think it's like that. Secondly, I don't think
it's wise to try to force the issue. If you try and force the issue
and settle the matter definitively one way or the other, we are never
going to reach an agreement within Singapore society.

People on both sides hold strong views. People who are presently
willing to live and let live will get polarised and no views will
change because many of the people who oppose it do so on very deeply
held religious convictions, particularly the Christians and the
Muslims; and those who propose it on the other side, they also want
this as a matter of deeply felt fundamental principle.

So discussion and debate is not going to bring them closer together.
And instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and polarise our

I should therefore say that as a matter of reality, that the more gay
activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push-back from
conservative forces in our society, as we are beginning to see already
in this debate and over the last few weeks and months. And the result
will be counter-productive because it's going to lead to less space
for the gay community in Singapore. So it's better to let the
situation evolve gradually.

We are a completely open society. Members have talked about it, the
Internet, travel, full exposure. We cannot be impervious to what's
happening elsewhere. As attitudes around the world change, this will
influence the attitudes of Singaporeans.

As events, developments around the world happen, we must watch
carefully and decide what we do about it.

When it comes to issues like the economy, technology, education, we'd
better stay ahead of the game... moving and adapt faster than others;
ahead of the curve, leading the pack.

And when necessary in such issues, we will move even if the issue is
unpopular or controversial. So we are moving on CPF changes; we are
moving on so many economic restructuring changes, we move on
integrated resorts. It's a difficult subject. Not everybody supports
the Government, but we decide this is right, we move.

On moral values, on issues of moral values, with consequences to the
wider society, first we should also decide what is right for ourselves.

But secondly, before we are carried away by what other societies do. I
think it's wiser for us to observe the impact of radical departures
from traditional norms on early movers. These are changes which have
very long lead times before the impact works through, before you see
whether it's wise, unwise, is this positive? Does it help you to adapt
better? Does it lead to a more successful, happier, more harmonious
society? So we will let others take the lead. We will stay one step
behind the frontline of change; watch how things work out elsewhere
before we make any irrevocable moves.

We were right to uphold the family unit when Western countries went
for experimental lifestyles in the 1960s - the hippies, free love, all
the rage. We tried to keep it out. It was easier then. All you had was
LPs and 45 RPM records, not this Cable Vision and the Internet and
travel today.

But I'm glad we did that because today, if you look at Western Europe,
where marriage as an institution is dead, families have broken down,
the majority of children are born out of wedlock and live in families
where the father and the mother are not the husband and wife living
together, bringing them up. And we've kept the way we are. I think
that has been right.

I think we have also been right to adapt, to accommodate homosexuals
in our society, but not to allow or encourage activists to champion
gay rights (as) they do in the West.

So I suggest, Mr Speaker, and I suggest to the Members of the House,
we keep this balance, leave Section 377A alone. I think there is space
in Singapore and room for us to live harmoniously and practically all
as Singapore citizens together.'