The proposed addition of Article 156 pertaining to the “Institution of Marriage” to the constitution has been tabled. The constitutional amendment effectively shields marriage from constitutional challenges under all forms of Fundamental Liberties, instead of just Art 12 of the constitution – a bold, sweeping and prudent move. But is it enough?
While Art. 156 shields the institution of marriage from a judicial challenge, it also shifts all activism and agitation away from the judicial realm, and squarely into the political and social sphere. And with the sentinel of 377A almost summarily felled by a parliament that believes killing it would be “the right thing to do”, one can reasonably expect that Singapore’s LGBT activists will now embark on a full-throated, multi-pronged campaign to change the hearts and minds of Singaporeans on a wide range of issues. For instance, what schools teach as natural sexual expression, who should be allowed to marry, who should be allowed to adopt and parent children, and what constitutes hate speech and discrimination, just to name a few. Instead of forestalling the culture wars, the government may unwittingly have accelerated them.
And indeed, the tide of public sentiment is changing in a cultural price-taker like Singapore where the moral compass of the nation is heavily influenced by the culture from the goggle-box.
The latest survey by IPSOS revealed that 44% of the respondents expressed support for Section 377A, while 20% opposed it. This is down from 55% supporting the law, and only 12% opposing it, in an IPSOS’s 2018 survey – a notable shift. The proportion of respondents who neither support nor oppose the law or preferred not to express their opinion on the matter remained stable across the two surveys.
The same survey, which would like us to believe that 12% of Singapore identifies as LGBT, also reports “significant support for parenting rights for same-sex couples”
While many speculate over the reasons for the seeming shift in balance towards opposing 377A, it is interesting to consider why the ‘neutral’ camp has remained so stable. Are people undecided as they feel the legislation does not concern them? Are they torn between friends who either support or oppose the law? Perhaps they simply lack interest in the matter?
Regardless takes a closer look at what the repeal of 377A means for those who live in Singapore – where there’s common ground between the two ‘blocs’, where such ground ends, and how it will affect regular Singaporeans who remain neutral on this issue.
Common Ground: 377A is More Than About Criminalising Male Homosexuality
Following the latest Court of Appeal’s judgement dismissing challenges to 377A, activists promptly wrote about their disappointment with the judgement and cited various arguments that 377A is more than a law which criminalises sex between men.
In a blog post by Heckin Unicorn following this judgement, the author argued that “377A isn’t about sex between men”. Pink Dot’s statement concerning the Court of Appeal’s judgement mentioned that “Section 377A’s real impact lies in how it perpetuates discrimination across every aspect of life: at home, in schools, in the workplace, in our media, and even access to vital services like healthcare.”
Even while the government was still deciding on how to proceed with the “best way forward” concerning 377A before the repeal was announced, activists had already begun their efforts to realise goals beyond the repeal of 377A. A conference entitled “Beyond Repeal Conference 2023” is currently being organised, seemingly anticipating a repeal within 2022.
This is Not Surprising
The rush to discuss topics beyond 377A is not surprising given that even in 2007, then Prime Minister Lee had already anticipated the fervour of such activism when he said:
“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’.”
To those who fervently oppose the existence of 377A, there is nothing essentially wrong or deviant concerning homosexuality. They believe that the mere existence of 377A sends a (wrong) moral signal that homosexuality is immoral. From this starting point, they then argue that simply viewing ‘homosexuality as immoral’ has “real, discriminatory implications on the daily lives of LGBTQ+ Singaporeans”.
So in short, beyond what 377A technically prohibits (without enforcement), the ‘real impact’ of the law is in its moral signal which brings about so-called “discriminatory” implications in various aspects of LGBTQ+ Singaporeans’ lives. It may be worth stopping to ask however whether the claim of discrimination is valid to begin with.
The View of the Moralists
On the other hand, supporters of 377A also view s377A as carrying a moral signal, which impacts various policies or guidelines. This is despite their willingness to keep the law in an unenforceable state. Minister Shanmugam made a brief mention of this by stating that “if a law criminalising sex between men is repealed, every ministry will have to work through the potential impact and consequences, and ascertain what needs to be done in line with society’s values.”
One such example can be found in a 2018 pastoral letter by Cardinal William Goh who referred to s377A as a “safeguard to prevent champions of “gay rights” from taking their cause beyond the mere repeal of s377A” and that “until and unless Parliament puts in place a formulation that more perfectly encapsulates the spirit of the law… (he is) of the view that s377A should not be repealed under the present circumstances.”
More recently, there was the ProtectSingapore townhall held on 23 July 2022 where organisers called for the installation of safeguards for marriage and family, children and freedom of conscience before any move on s377A. The team behind this inaugural townhall was also responsible for the protect377a.sg website and petition.
This townhall also rallied the “silent majority” to speak up on the maintenance of societal values in Singapore and to raise their concerns about LGBTQ activism and ideology with their respective Members of Parliament.
So it does seem that there is a common ground between those who are for and against s377A. Both sides believe that it is more than simply legislation on male homosexual behaviour. Rather, it has implications on the moral climate and policy landscape, even when left unenforced.
This is where most common ground between activists on both sides ends. Let’s take a look at the new grounds of contention in a post-repeal Singapore, where even those who might want to be left alone and remain uninvolved will feel the effects of change.
Uncommon Ground: Media Spaces
Media codes and guidelines in our country affect the kind of content we consume, and such content has the ability to shape public and personal perceptions. Everyone living in Singapore is affected by what these codes/guidelines permit or prohibit.
There are at least 15 media codes and guidelines under the Infocomm Media Development Authority (IMDA) which take reference from s377A. Language used in these codes includes indirect references to s377A as the ‘prevailing law’ and ‘the standards of morality in Singapore’.
Consider for instance the Internet Code of Practice, which classifies material that “advocates homosexuality or lesbianism, or depicts or promotes incest, paedophilia, bestiality and necrophilia” as ‘prohibited material’, under paragraph 4 (2)(e).
Each of the mentioned types of sexual content are currently prohibited by law: Homosexuality (s377A), Incest (s376G), Paedophilia (s376A-s376E, s377BG-s377BO), Bestiality (s377B), Necrophilia (s377).
When s377A is repealed, what happens to these codes? Even if people agree that homosexuality is not equivalent to incest or bestiality, they might not want to see it normalised and mainstreamed, given its highly political nature and associated health risks. Will all LGBT content likewise receive the green light for mainstream, non-restricted consumption regardless of age given that a repeal of s377A signals a shift in ‘the standards of morality’ in Singapore?”
For now, the answer seems to be no. But for how long?
Apart from a political promise governed by a reading of the tea leaves of public sentiment, upon the repeal of 377a, what structural anchors exist to safeguard Singapore’s moral fabric?
Uncommon Ground: Sexuality Education
Sexuality education has been regarded as an important yet sensitive piece in the development of a child’s life. In an ideal world, sex education should begin at home and parents should be their primary guides. However, as many parents are not well-equipped to have ‘the talk’, sexuality education provided by schools has become the de facto alternative that could easily be over-relied on.
Taking a look at other nations that have gone forward with normalising homosexuality and/or LGBTQ ideas in society, sexuality education stands out as a key flashpoint between parents and activists in normalising LGBT identities and behaviours through programs like “Comprehensive Sexuality Education”, variants of which are advocated for by organisations such as AWARE.
This has led to demands for accountability from school management and authorities by parents citing excessively sexualised education present in the content taught in such sexuality programs, or even books permitted in school libraries.
In Singapore, the current Sexuality Education programme by the Ministry of Education (MOE) mentions “sexual orientation” (which includes homosexuality) in its curriculum. This is however done in a manner that is both in line with national values and national laws.
Specifically, MOE’s web page explains that “Sexuality Education teaches students what homosexuality is, the importance of respect and empathy, and the law concerning homosexual acts in Singapore.”
There is currently only one law concerning homosexual acts in Singapore – s377A.
With s377A removed, we forecast more disagreements over sexuality education in Singapore, with activists pushing for it to normalise homosexuality, along with other forms of sexual identities and desires.
Parents who may themselves be tolerant of homosexual practices but continue to hold the view that it should not be normalised as it is unnatural / contra natural law will likely react to this. As in other nations where sex-ed has become politicised, serving the interests of adults and activists rather than the needs of children, Singapore’s parents will similarly require accountability from authorities regarding questions like: “what safeguards will be in place to prevent the normalisation of homosexuality/LGBTQ paradigms if s377A is to be repealed?”, or “will the school be teaching something against the values I wish to impart to my children?”.
Beyond parents of schooling children, sex education in schools will also have an impact on everyone in society. Narratives around sexual behaviour will slowly change, as programmes like Comprehensive Sexuality Education seek to use a “human rights”-based approach to cloak their hyper-sexualised agenda. Such programmes will seek to impart “progressive” values under language like “sexual and reproductive health and rights,” discussions around “gender roles”, “human rights”, “gender autonomy”, paying disproportionate attention to what are framed as marginal and victim groups such as sexual and gender minorities at risk of suicide, young people who use drugs, young people living with HIV, and young transgender people.”
For example, the UN CSE curriculum teaches children from 5-8 years old on the importance of biological sex and gender, and introduces to them various family structures and conceptions of marriage around the world. It goes further to recommend that teenagers aged 15 to 18 years old should be taught to advocate for local and/or national laws that support ‘human rights’ that impact sexual and reproductive health, (with human rights encompassing sexual orientation and gender identity issues).
This seeks to raise a generation of ‘activists’ who will challenge people who hold a different view from what they are taught in the programme, which includes campaigning for further “LGBTQ rights” such as same-sex marriage, same-sex adoption, access to surrogacy services and more.
Strong rights-based narratives are more prevalent in hyper-individualised, liberal societies, unlike in many more communitarian societies with a strong emphasis on group identities, communities, and the responsibilities of such groups and individuals. Singapore currently tends towards the latter, and there will be increased clashes as society becomes more infatuated with rights-based and individualistic paradigms of social life.
Uncommon Ground: Public Libraries
In 2014, there was a national uproar over two controversial children’s books in the National Library. There were statements made both opposing and defending the books, petitions on them, and eventually, these books were promised to be relocated to adult sections of the library.
It seems that over the years, more LGBTQ-affirming books have been added to the children’s and teen’s collections. Today, anyone can easily find several other titles that feature same-sex couples, transgender persons and other LGBTQ themes in our national libraries. The removal of s377A could further impact the way the National Library Board (NLB) screens books for children and teens. This is yet another flashpoint for LGBT activists and those who disagree.
Parents who oppose the introduction of sexual identities to their children or teens may begin to view the NLB with caution, and take responsibility to personally screen the books to avoid their children being exposed to LGBTQ books against their consent. This will probably lead to concerned parents organising themselves as has been done overseas.
Uncommon Ground: Businesses
Working professionals of various occupations have found themselves increasingly subject to thought and speech policing in the name of “anti-discrimination” against LGBTQ persons.
This is happening even in professional settings that are supposed to cherish freedom of thought and speech such as in universities, regular public schools and medical institutes that rely on biological realities in order to properly serve clients.
Such policing will increase when society has embraced and normalised homosexuality and LGBTQ ideology. Whenever unsettling information about LGBTQ sexual behaviour or subcultures surfaces, it is often branded immediately as “discriminatory” or “creating stigma”. Some will undoubtedly see this as a welcome move to stamp out “discrimination,” while others will oppose it due to their conscience or religious beliefs. Others who are more centrist and less involved may still call out its excesses.
In recent months, the world has been standing at the precipice of a Monkeypox epidemic. Yet, news outlets are finding it difficult to report facts about the ongoing outbreak. Some have described the outbreak in milder terms as “concentrated among men who have sex with men” instead of what the World Health Organisation has reported (98% among men who have sex with men) to avoid “creating stigma”. We suspect self-censorship to avoid online bullying like this will only increase in a post-repeal Singapore, where homosexuality is not just legally normalised but actively pushed upon the public by LGBT activists.
The “Best Way Forward”
There are more policies, guidelines, and even social norms that are affected by s377A which are not exhaustively listed here. However, it is also important to note that what has happened in other countries doesn’t necessarily have to happen in Singapore. Appropriate actions can be taken to avoid what are perceived as the ‘negative impacts’ seen in other countries—that which Singapore is seeking to defend the institution of marriage and society writ-large from.
Legislative changes have a massive impact on individuals and our society as a whole. Good legislative changes address legitimate pain points without creating new ones, or landing society in a worse situation. Seeing how other countries have supposedly ‘progressed’, there is strong evidence that the normalisation of homosexuality will eventually bring our society to a similar state of conflict and confusion. It would not bode well if we as a society reach a point where we no longer know what is a man or a woman as has become the case in many post-enlightenment Western nations. If it can happen there, it can happen here.
As Singaporeans, we should all seek the common good of our people and nation. If there are areas where injustice and bullying are taking place, we should do our best to prevent it. But as deliberation over the fate of a post-repeal Singapore continues in our nation, we will have to be very careful to manage the many different flashpoints that will arise, learn to live and let live, and be clear on our common identity despite differences – so that we can move forward as a nation, together.