[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]
In his National Day speech on 21st August 2022, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the government would repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sexual activity between men. The news caused a stir across the country, especially among gay men who have been subject to this law for many years. Section 377A was officially repealed on 29 November 2022, following a 10-hour debate that began the previous day.
As a former British colony, Singapore’s Penal Code derives from its Commonwealth counterpart India, which was also under British rule. The original Section 377 made any ‘unnatural’ sexual intercourse, such as oral and anal sex, with another person or animal illegal; a subsection, Section 377A, criminalises gross indecency between men in Singapore.
In 2007, the Singapore Parliament undertook a significant review and debate of the Penal Code, which decided to repeal Section 377. Although oral and anal sex is no longer illegal, Section 377A, which regulates sex between men, has been retained. At that time, the government claimed that Singaporean society was conservative, and many people still did not accept the concept of gender diversity, adding that it would cause social divisions if the law was repealed. Therefore, s. 377A was retained after a heated debate in 2007.
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There have been many discussions about the impact Singapore’s attempt to repeal s. 377A will have on the LGBT community in Singapore. That debate will not be rehearsed here; instead, we would like to point out the economic, political, and social implications of this amendment on Singapore’s future.
We need to understand the reasons behind Singapore’s unexpected decision to repeal s. 377A. If it were purely for domestic political reasons, Singapore would keep s. 377A because there are still many people in Singapore who oppose homosexuality. A poll by The Straits Times on 11 September 2018 found that 55 per cent of Singaporeans support retaining s. 377A. The Singaporean government’s insistence on repealing 377A, despite clear public support for retaining s. 377A, shows that there are other considerations. One of these considerations is the future development of Singapore.
After independence, Singapore often competed with Hong Kong – a British colony and member of the Commonwealth until 1997. In recent years, due to Hong Kong’s national security law and political factors, Hong Kong’s status as an Asian financial centre and aviation hub has gradually declined. According to Robert Walters, a staffing consultancy outfit, more than 700 senior financial talents have moved from Hong Kong to Singapore in 2021. Singapore has also stepped up to attract global talent. On 29 August 2022, eight days after announcing its intention to repeal s. 377A, the Singapore government announced the introduction of a new 5-year visa; as long as the applicant can earn US$250,000 a year, they can live and work in Singapore. However, s. 377A does not match Singapore’s image as an open, diversified global financial centre. Many Singapore-based multinational companies said the law had hampered their efforts to attract talent because many multinational companies have sexually diverse staff members and executives who either belong to the LGBT community or are LGBT rights conscious. The notion of sex between two adult men still being consisted as a criminal offence does not echo the values many of these multinational firms believe in.
Another reason for Singapore’s rush to repeal s. 377A is Lee Hsien Loong’s upcoming retirement. As Lee Kuan Yew’s son, he is best suited to handle this controversial issue because of his influence in Singapore’s politics. Moreover, since Lee is quitting the scene, so no matter how sensitive the issue is, it will not affect his political future. If the issue of repealing s. 377A is handed over to any successor leader within his People’s Action Party, it may create a political crisis for the Party.
Enoch M. Lieu is an independent researcher & Andrew Yu is a researcher in Celtic & Scottish Studies, University of Edinburgh, UK.