Debates over LGBTQ+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, etc.) matters have been ongoing in Singapore, as with many parts of the world.
In Singapore, the debate has been over Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises acts of “gross indecency” between men. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has described in 2007 as “a symbolic issue, a point for both opponents and proponents to tussle around”. The Progress Singapore Party has described the law as “a proxy combat zone for other issues like the sanctity of traditional family structures, marriages, parenthood and gender identities”.
In late February 2022, the Singapore Court of Appeal (the highest court) declared the law “unenforceable in its entirety”, until and unless the Attorney-General clarifies his position on prosecution. Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam stated in Parliament shortly after, that the Government is considering “the best way forward” on Section 377A. He added in a separate speech that if there are changes in the law, every Ministry will have to work through the potential impact and consequences, and ascertain what needs to be done, in line with our society’s values.
Will repealing Section 377A satisfy the LGBTQ+ lobby? As many can plainly see, the answer is clearly no.
“Host Our Same-sex Wedding”
Parkroyal Pickering Hotel, located right next to Hong Lim Park where the annual Pink Dot event is held, has been embroiled in a controversy after a staff communicated to a same-sex couple that “the hotel does not allow same sex couples to have wedding ceremony and celebration due to the regulation”.
The incident was posted on Prout’s Instagram page. Prout describes itself as “A safer meetup and support platform for the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore and beyond.”
In response, Parkroyal Pickering Hotel has publicly apologised on Instagram, stating: “Thank you for your patience as we seek to understand this unfortunate mistake and misinformation from one of our team members at PARKROYAL COLLECTION Pickering. We are an inclusive hotel, and we are truly sorry for the disappointment and inconvenience this may have caused. We have since reached out to the couple and will do our best to assist them with their special occasion at our hotel.”
In further statements to the press, Parkroyal Collection Pickering’s general manager Phil Smith said that the hotel would “like to extend its sincere apology again for causing this disappointment to both the couple and community as a whole”. Mr Smith added that: “We found that the associate who had replied had made a truly regrettable mistake, with a wrongful assumption of the law, and replied without checking on this with the department leader.” After speaking with the staff in question, the hotel added that “the associate feels very remorseful for this error and understands the upset it has caused for the couple, whose special day was impacted.”
Clarifying the Issues
At this point, it is worth clarifying a number of issues.
The Position of Same-sex Marriage in Singapore
Singapore has a dual system of laws governing marriage. There is civil marriage, governed by the Women’s Charter, and Muslim marriage, governed by the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). Civil marriage is monogamous, whereas a Muslim may marry up to four Muslim wives with the approval of the religious authorities, under AMLA.
The definition of “monogamous marriage” is laid down in the Interpretation Act, and is defined as “a marriage which is recognised by the law of the place where it is contracted as a voluntary union of one man and one woman to the exclusion of all others during the continuance of the marriage”. The Women’s Charter goes further by providing that: “A marriage solemnised in Singapore or elsewhere between persons who, at the date of the marriage, are not respectively male and female is void.”
However, the Women’s Charter also permits a post-operative transsexual person to marry according to that person’s new legal sex. Under Section 12(2) of the Women’s Charter, provided other requirements for marriage are complied with, “a marriage solemnised in Singapore or elsewhere between a person who has undergone a sex reassignment procedure and any person of the opposite sex is and shall be deemed always to have been a valid marriage”.
In short, a same-sex marriage would be “void” under Singapore law. The authorities will not recognise a same-sex marriage, whether it has been entered into locally or overseas.
Is it Illegal for a Hotel to Host a Same-sex Wedding?
There is no provision that prohibits a hotel from hosting a same-sex wedding in Singapore per se. However, it is not immediately clear that a hotel is legally permitted to host a same-sex wedding ceremony without consequence.
Under Section 40(3) of the Women’s Charter: “Any person who marries or purports to marry or goes through a form of marriage with any person contrary to any of the provisions of Part 3 shall be guilty of an offence and shall be liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 3 years and shall also be liable to a fine not exceeding $5,000.”
Part 3 of the Women’s Charter contains provisions including “Avoidance of marriages by subsisting prior marriage” (Section 11), “Avoidance of marriages of convenience” (Section 11A), as well as “Avoidance of marriages between persons of same sex” (Section 12).
Thus, it is at least unclear as to whether or not a person who goes through a same-sex marriage or purports to marry or go through a form of such marriage is committing an offence under the Women’s Charter. It is also unclear, as a result, whether or not a hotel which hosts such a same-sex wedding ceremony would be committing an offence of abetment under the law.
What this Controversy Reveals
Leaving aside the issues above, this incident is one out of many examples which show that Section 377A is but a surface issue beyond a wider debate about a host of matters.
In a nutshell, it shows that LGBTQ+ activists will not be satisfied with the mere repeal of Section 377A, but have and will continue to push for other changes to law, policy, and society, including same-sex marriage and the compulsion of others to participate in the conduct of same-sex marriage.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong recognised this back in 2007, stating:
So, supposing we move on 377A, I think the gay activists would push for more, following the example 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, to quote from their letter, “…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.
Indeed, Pink Dot and Oogachaga have written to the United Nations Human Rights Council in their October 2020 Universal Periodic Review (UPR) submissions, recommending: “For the purpose of eligibility for public housing, ownership and inheritance, recognise same-sex long-term partnerships and marriages conducted in other jurisdictions.”
The Parkroyal Pickering Hotel incident takes this a step further, and raises the issue of whether there should be laws – to quote one of the lawyers interviewed by TODAY – to “legally compel a private establishment to serve [a same-sex couple]
Likewise, a group of LGBTQ+ organisations – including Sayoni, Prout, Indignation, etc. – have in their UPR submissions asked for the Singapore government to: “Amend Section 12(1) of the Women’s Charter, and permit and recognise registration of same-sex marriages and partnerships in Singapore or elsewhere”.
Will it be a situation of “live and let live”, or will it be a zero-sum game involving winners and losers?
Thus, in debates over Section 377A and considering “the best way forward,” it will not be suitable or enough to limit the conversation to just Section 377A. Neither will it be good for society to adopt an “us versus them” attitude in such debates, as this is necessarily polarising for society. Instead, it will be important for the whole of society to make a collective decision to move as a whole, if and when it decides to do so.
This piece was first published at http://ionsg.blogspot.com/