29th October 2014 marked the end of an arduous and emotional four-year battle for Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee, a couple in Singapore who have been together for 17 years. These brave individuals, joined by Tan Eng Hoon, a man arrested in 2010 for allegedly engaging in a homosexual act, spearheaded a historical campaign to challenge the country’s criminalisation of homosexual acts between males. This is found in Section 377A of the Penal Code, which is a continued relic of British colonial rule. The appellants argued that 377A contravenes Singapore’s Constitution which guarantees that ‘no person shall be deprived of his life or personal liberty save in accordance with the law’, and that ‘all persons are equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law’.
Their appeal was, however, struck down. The Court found that ‘freedom of individuals and groups to practice their values within the boundaries of the law’ cannot extend to ‘an insistence by a particular group or individual that its/his values be imposed on other groups or other individuals’.
Why should it be an imposition for a segment of society to seek equal rights that other Singaporeans are entitled to? To deny rights to individuals purely on the basis of whom they love is clearly discriminatory as it disallows them from living their lives autonomously and free from government interference and prejudice. The law ultimately denies them freedoms which are recognised in international law: Human Rights Watch has noted that the statute is wholly out of step with international rights standards that guarantee protections for sexual orientation and gender identity. Members of this community are effectively ‘second-class citizens’ and, as lawyer M Ravi stated, a ‘core aspect of a [homosexual] individual’s identity’ is criminalised. It forces us to question if Singapore is truly a country based on the ideals of ‘justice and equality’ as is so stated in its national pledge.
The government has argued that the statute is rarely invoked, with Singapore demonstrating some levels of tolerance towards the gay community in recent years. For example, Pink Dot is an event that supports the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community. The event drew 26,000 people to its event this year such that it quickly became the largest ever civil society gathering in the country.
So long as the statute remains in place though, tolerance remains conditional. Individuals, albeit few in number, continue to be prosecuted under the Statute and 377A’s retention continues to legitimise prejudice and discrimination towards the LGBT community. It implicitly fuels movements such as the recent anti-Pink Dot ‘Wear White campaign’, which aimed to discourage supporters from attending the event. It motivates groups to continue to harness prejudices against the LGBT community and exclude them from society. Ultimately, it is contradictory for a society that prides itself on being ‘one united people’ (as stated in the pledge) to call itself ‘united’ at all if the statute continues to foster feelings of indifference and disunity.
The situation, however, is anything but hopeless. Individuals like Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee have inspired increasing numbers of people both inside and outside of the gay community to speak out in the face of prejudice and inequality. There is no doubt that individuals will continue to fight to see 377A struck down and equal rights to one day be realised. Events like Pink Dot demonstrate the changing cultural landscape in Singapore, exemplifying the beginnings of a society that is learning to accept and appreciate different ways of life and the importance of inclusivity.
As Singapore slowly evolves into a more open and inclusive society, the government must reconsider the implications of 377A and its place in the Constitution. After all, the Constitution exists to safeguard the legal protections of minority groups and ensure that the majority does not unduly oppress these individuals. There is nothing that qualifies the government to deny the existence of the LGBT community as a minority group and render them undeserving of the same legal protections that any other minority group is afforded. Singapore must move towards recognising its citizens, all of its citizens, as equal. It must entitle each and every one of them, regardless of their race, language, religion, sexual orientation or gender identity, to be treated with respect and dignity. It is only then that it can truly call itself a society ‘based on justice and equality’.
Cover image: Flickr/Jnzl under Creative Commons licence.