Protecting what we have today, while removing discrimination: PM Lee on repeal of Section 377A

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that Singapore will repeal Section 377A but also emphasised that the Government will uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage by amending the Constitution.

He made the announcement at the National Day Rally 2022 today (Aug 21).

Protecting what we have today

PM Lee shared that based on the Government’s engagements and soundings over several months, most Singaporeans do not want the repeal to trigger a drastic shift in our societal norms across the board, including how we define marriage when we teach children in schools, what’s shown on free to air television and in cinemas.

Citing various policies that rely upon the definition of marriage such as public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards and classification, he added that the Government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage nor these policies.

“By and large, Singapore is a traditional society with conservative social values. We believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Children should be born and raised within such families. That traditional family should form the basic building blocks of our society,” he explained.

“Most Singaporeans would like to keep our society like this. And this is the government’s position to we have upheld and reinforced the importance of families through many national policies and we will continue to do so.”

Removing discrimination

Originally introduced in the 1930s by the British colonial government, Section 377A reflected moral attitudes and social norms that prevailed back then.

“But over the decades, homosexuality has become better understood scientifically and medically in many societies including Singapore, gay people have become more accepted for who they are, instead of being shunned and stigmatised,” he said.

While there are still differing views among Singaporeans on whether homosexuality is right or wrong, most accept that a person’s sexual orientation is private and personal, and sex between men should not be a criminal offence.

“From the national point of view, private sexual behaviour between consenting adults does not raise any law and order issue. There is no justification to prosecute people for it.”

He also added that there’s a significant risk of Section 377A being struck down on grounds that it breaches the Equal Protection Provision in the Constitution.

“For these reasons, the government will repeal Section 377A and decriminalise sex between men. I believe this is the right thing to do and something that most Singaporeans will now accept. This will bring the law into line with current social mores and I hope provide some relief to gay Singaporeans.”

Courts not right forum to decide such issues

Moving on to the timing of the repeal and reason for enshrining the definition of marriage in the Constitution, PM Lee explained that the definition can be challenged on the same constitutional grounds Section 377A has been challenged.

“If one day such a challenge succeeds here, it could cause same sex marriages to become recognised in Singapore. And this would happen not because Parliament passed any such law, but as the result of a court judgement,” he said.

“I do not think that for Singapore the courts are the right forum to decide such issues.”

Judges are experts in interpreting and applying the law but they don’t have the expertise and mandate to settle political questions or to rule on social norms and values.

Those who seek change may still try to force the pace through litigation, which is adversarial in nature and would highlight differences, inflame tensions and polarise society.

“I’m convinced this would be bad for Singapore. We will therefore protect the definition of marriage from being challenged constitutionally in the courts.”

Political accommodation

Rounding up his speech, PM Lee spoke about a “political accommodation” for Singapore.

“What we seek is a political accommodation, one that balances different legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans.”

In a society where opposing groups have diverse groups have strongly-held opposing views, everyone has to accept that no group can have things all their way, he reminded the audience.

Citing some western societies where cancel culture is used to browbeat opponents and split society into warring tribes, PM Lee warned that there are some signs of similar things starting to happen here in Singapore.

“I say let us not go in this direction. All groups should exercise restraint because that’s the only way we can move forward as one nation together.”