ST Insight: Society ready to move forward on gay sex debate?

Saturday, May 12, 2007

May 11, 2007
Society ready to move forward on gay sex debate?

By Lynn Lee

RECENT remarks by Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew about homosexuality, and whether Singapore might have to change its stance on its criminalisation at some point, have resurfaced a debate among conservatives and others here.

Those at one end of the spectrum argue that the ban on homosexual sex is outdated and archaic. Those at the other end see any easing of laws as a move down a slippery slope.

Mr Lee said at a Young PAP event that while the authorities are not the moral police on the issue, they could not ignore the concerns of conservative citizens.

What was needed was a practical and pragmatic approach.

In an interview with the Reuters news agency just days later, he was asked about those comments and whether homosexual sex should be decriminalised eventually.

He replied: 'Eventually I cannot put a finger on it.

'But I would say if this is the way the world is going and Singapore is part of that interconnected world, and I think it is, then I see no option for Singapore but to be part of it.'

The remarks came several months after the Home Affairs Ministry, in looking at changes to the Penal Code, said it would retain a ban on acts of 'gross indecency' between men.

The ministry said homosexuality was not widely accepted here, but added that it would not be 'proactive' in enforcing this law against consensual acts that take place in private.

A website run by Washington-based gay activist Bob Summersgill, which tracks sodomy laws worldwide, lists Singapore among a clutch of Asian and African countries which deem sodomy to be illegal. This is unlike most developed countries which have done away with such laws.

Adding fuel to the recent debate, was a commentary in The Straits Times last week by National University of Singapore law academic Yvonne Lee, who argued that decriminalising homosexual sex would be an error, with far-reaching legal and social implications.

Insight contacted five MPs, all lawyers, for their take on the issue, on the question of decriminalisation, and how the debate can move forward.

There were, not surprisingly, divided views. But they took heart from the fact that such issues are being aired.

Said Hong Kah GRC MP Alvin Yeo: 'What is helpful is that debate actually takes place, rather than the silent harbouring of prejudice; and that it takes place in an objective environment which is tolerant of different viewpoints.

'That itself is the mark of civil society.'

It would also take time for the wider Singapore society to change its stance on the question of decriminalisation, said Sembawang GRC MP Ellen Lee.

'You move at the pace of the most conservative members of society. We do not have a homogenous society and we are a multiracial, multi-religious society. We have to respect their concerns and anxieties. I do not think Singapore will lose out in any way in this respect just because the world is moving faster than Singapore.'