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  4. September 2011 - Volume Vol. 65
  5. Being Gay (Lesbian or Transgender) in Singapore

 
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FOCUS September 2011 Volume Vol. 65

Being Gay (Lesbian or Transgender) in Singapore

Sylvia Tan

Singapore is one of nine countries in Asia - alongside Bangladesh, Bhutan, Maldives, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Brunei, Malaysia and Myanmar - that criminalizes male-to-male sexual relations. Female-to-female sex is not criminalized.
A legacy of its British colonial past, Section 337A of Singapore's Penal Code provides for up to two years imprisonment if a male is convicted of having sexual relations with another male person, even if it is among consenting adult men in private. Section 377A states:

 Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.

In 2007, at the end of a year-long review of the Penal Code - the most wide-ranging in twenty-two years, the Singapore government announced its decision to retain the law that criminalizes oral sex among males while decriminalizing oral and anal sex among opposite-sex parties.
The old Section 377 states:

 Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine.

As a result of gender-neutral Section 377 being abolished, female-to-female sex is now legal.1
Section 377A now sits between Section 377 that proscribes sexual penetration of a corpse and Section 377B that proscribes sexual penetration with living animal.
Despite the retention of the law, the government has made public assurances that consensual sex among adult men in private will not be prosecuted.
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said during the parliamentary debate in 2007 that his government's current legal position to not enforce the law is a "practical arrangement that has evolved out of our historical circumstances" that "reflects the social norms and attitudes." He further said that2

 we have decided to keep the status quo on section 377A. It is better to accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity. It works, do not disturb it.

Lobby for Repeal

In November 2006, the Ministry of Home Affairs announced its decision to retain gay sex laws although laws that criminalize anal and oral sex between consenting heterosexual adults would be repealed.
In the lead up to the parliamentary debate on 22 and 23 October 2007 about the proposed Penal Code amendments, a fiery debate raged in the mainstream media and on the Internet.
Pro-repeal advocates organized two major campaigns: An Open Letter to the Prime Minister, and a parliamentary petition.
The Open Letter, which gathered 8,120 signatories using the Internet, was hand-delivered to the Prime Minister's office at the Istana.3 The parliamentary petition, with 2,341 physical signatures was presented by Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong in Parliament on 22 October 2007.
The petition argues that if "an act performed by a heterosexual couple is permitted, while the same act performed by a homosexual or bisexual male couple is criminalized," the law is discriminatory as it "infringes the right of homosexual and bisexual men to equal treatment by and protection before the law, as set out in Article 12(1) of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore."4
The campaigns however also attracted an opposing group that launched a website of its own to campaign against the repeal of the penal law.5
Although it was unsuccessful, the petition marked the first attempt in twenty years by a citizens' group to use formal parliamentary procedures to change the law.
Arguing for the law to be retained, Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs, Ho Peng Kee, said Singapore remains a largely conservative society and that "the majority find homosexual behaviour offensive and unacceptable."
He reiterated his position that the police has not been pro-actively enforcing the provision and will not enforce the law6 if the parties involved were consenting and the encounter was in private, a position MARUAH, a local human rights group finds unacceptable.
A MARUAH (Singapore Working Group for ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism) spokesperson commented on this issue:

 The intentional maintenance of laws that are deliberately not enforced will tend to bring the law into disregard, which should be avoided. As a human rights group, we see the law as a critical mechanism for the protection of rights and of minorities, and accordingly any provisions that would tend to bring the law into disrepute should be repealed.

In 2007, the Law Society of Singapore, the professional association of lawyers in Singapore, formed an ad hoc committee of sixteen members to study the matter and issued a report saying, "the retention of s. 377A in its present form cannot be justified."8

Legislation Regarding Transgenderism

Individuals who have undergone a sex re-assignment procedure can legally change their gender (as being of the sex to which the person has been re-assigned) on all documents such as passport and identity card (but not birth certificate). The Women's Charter was amended in 1996 to allow a transgender person (who has legally changed his or her gender) to legally marry any person of the opposite sex.9 But the Women's Charter maintains the general rule: same-sex marriage is void in Singapore.10

Consequences of Section 377A

The existence of Section 377A of the Penal Code has various adverse consequences such as the following:

a. Safer sex outreach

Singapore's only HIV/AIDS- related NGO Action for AIDS (AfA) reports that the police had stopped volunteers from distributing materials containing information on homosexuality and safer sex practices even though these materials were given out at gay venues and events.
Professor Roy Chan, President of Action for AIDS Singapore, wrote in a position paper about this matter:11 

 The reasons repeatedly given by the authorities was that because homosexual sex is illegal, it cannot be mentioned; therefore providing information on safe sex relevant to MSM [men having sex with men] is also illegal. At a party catering to MSM, AfA was ordered to close its information booth by the police, the reason given for the order was that information materials contained references to homosexual sex.

The group also points out Section 377A to be an obstacle in reaching out to young men who have sex with men or contemplating of having sex with men.

b. Sex education in schools

The government announced in 2010 that it had approved six vendors - four of whom are known t o be part of conservative Christian groups -to conduct sex education programs in schools. The decision follows a high-profile takeover attempt in 2009 by a group of Christians who thought that a women's rights group (Association of Women for Action and Research or AWARE) had gone overboard for not condemning homosexuality in its sex education program for teenaged students. AWARE's sex education program has since been suspended.
According to the Ministry of Education's policy, students will only be taught that homosexual acts are illegal.12 The curriculum will not discuss homosexuality or safer sex techniques, and will focus on abstinence in general.

c. Censorship in the media

Television programs that "advocate" or "promote "homosexuality are routinely censored. During the 2009 Oscar awards broadcast, speeches by winners Dustin Lance Black and Sean Penn who spoke about discrimination against gays and lesbians were snipped.13
In 2008, Singapore's state- owned television was fined S$15,000 (US$10,800) by the Media Development Authority for broadcasting an episode of a home and decor reality television show "Find and Design," in which the host helped a same-sex couple decorate a nursery for their adopted child. A statement from MDA read: "This is in breach of the Free-to-Air TV Programme Code which disallows programmes that promote, justify or glamourise gay lifestyles.”
It further stated:14

 MDA also consulted the Programme Advisory Committee for English Programmes (PACE) and the Committee was also of the view that a gay relationship should not be presented as an acceptable family unit.

On the same day of the announcement, a three-minute segment of the Ellen DeGeneres Show where the host condemned homophobia and spoke about a fatal shooting of a fifteen-year-old gay student in school, was censored on MediaCorp's Channel 5.15
In the same year, a Singapore cable television operator was fined S$10,000 (US$7,200) for airing a commercial that showed two women kissing.16

d. Freedom of Assembly

While there are over a dozen LGBT-related community groups active in Singapore, none are officially registered or recognized. Pioneer gay advocacy group People Like Us had been unsuccessful in both its attempts in 199717 and 200418 to register formally as a society. In 2007, the Registry of Societies [ROS] (under the Ministry of Home Affairs) refused to provide any reason for rejection of application despite repeated requests. In 2004, PLU was told by the ROS that its application was rejected on the ground that the society would likely be prejudicial to public peace, welfare or good order, and that it would be contrary to the national interest.
Although the ROS in 2004 introduced a scheme where certain types of societies can be automatically registered, groups whose purpose is to represent, promote or discuss gender or sexual orientation has specifically been excluded from this scheme alongside groups that deal with politics and religion.19
When contacted to ask why it is so, the Societies Executive of ROS responded in June 2010 via email saying: "Scrutiny of such societies is required to ensure that these groups which aim to promote a particular cause, do not conduct their activities in a manner which could be prejudicial to our national interests when they engage actively in pushing their agenda, without due regard for those who may not agree with their cause."

Gay Activism and Visibility

Singapore currently hosts two Lesbian-Gay-Bisexual-Transgender (LGBT) or LGBT- supportive events: IndigNation and Pink Dot.
Indignation is the closest thing Singapore has to a gay pride festival. First held in August 2005, the month-long festival typically features talks, art exhibitions, poetry readings, film screenings and social activities; and notably does not feature any public street parades which have become synonymous with gay pride festivals around the world.
While People Like Us coordinates the events, different groups or people who contribute their events to the joint calendar separately organize each event.
The festival started the year after the government banned a gay Christmas party in 2004 and the annual Gay Nation party in 2005 after a government minister hypothesized without providing any proof or data that gay parties in Singapore might have led to sharp rise in new AIDS cases.20
It should also be noted that holding IndigNation was only possible in 2005 after government authorities liberalized restrictions on indoor meetings in 2004. The liberalized rules does not require government permit for indoor events if the subject is not about religion and does not harm racial harmony. Prior to that, a permit was needed for all public events regardless of the subject matter.
Held for the second year in 2010, Pink Dot is Singapore's first and only mass LGBT-supportive event to support "freedom to love" regardless of sexual orientation and to show support for and acceptance of LGBT people in mainstream society. The event which was held at a public park - Singapore's only government- designated venue for public assembly and free speech where a police permit is not required - drew two thousand five hundred people in 2009,21 four thousand people in 2010,22 and ten thousand people in 2011.23
Google Singapore became the first multinational company to publicly support Pink Dot.
It is impossible to predict what the government would do about the current anti-gay law but I think I can say that: Given that events like Pink Dot and businesses openly catering to LGBTs were largely unimaginable in the 1980s and 1990s, the gay movement with its desire for greater visibility and equal treatment is likely to move at a greater pace than before as an ever increasing number of LGBTs are better informed of worldwide developments and willing to take a more assertive stand while working within the limitations of the law.

Gay Entrepreneurship and Social Space

Singapore has a thriving gay scene with numerous publicly known gay karaoke bars and dance clubs, gay bathhouses/saunas, lesbian parties and other businesses targeting gay and lesbian patrons and details of which are easily found on the Internet.
Fridae.asia, Asia's largest gay and lesbian portal, chiefly operates out of its subsidiary company in Singapore although the company is officially based in Hong Kong. Dr Stuart Koe, who founded Fridae in 1999, said that they decided to use the system to circumvent regulations by the Media Development Authority (under the Ministry of Information, Communications and the Arts) that prohibited any material that "advocates homosexuality or lesbianism" under the Internet Code of Practice.24
While gay men and lesbians do not appear to be gaining any traction in terms of legal rights or protections, more than before they are able to access a range of publicly identified gay- affirmative community services and organizations such as the LGBT-oriented Pelangi (rainbow in Malay) Pride Center library, Oogachaga Counselling and Support, and Free Community Church.

image.jpg

PinkDot 2011 held in Hong Lim Park in Singapore last June 2011
(photo courtesy of PinkDot Singapore).

Sylvia Tan is the editor and Singapore correspondent of Fridae.asia, Asia's largest gay and lesbian portal.

For further information, please contact: Sylvia Tan, sylvia@f ri dae. asi a>; www.fridae.asia/.

Endnotes

1. Offences Affecting the Human Body, text available at http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/non_version/ cgi-bin/cgi_getdata.pl?actno=1872 -REVED-224&doctitle=PENAL%20CODE%0A&date=late&segid=888373002-001939.
2. The Prime Minister and Minister for Finance (Mr Lee Hsien Loong) , Penal Code ( Amendment ) Bill, www.parliament.gov.sg/reports/public/hansard/title/ 20071023/20071023_S0003_T0002.html.
3. For more information on the Open Letter that was submitted to the prime minister in 2007 with 8,000 signatures, visit www.fridae.com/newsfeatures/2007/10/23/1973.open-letter-to- the-prime-minister-submitted-with-8000-signatures.
4. Petition presented by Siew Kum Hong (Nominated Member), www.parliament.gov.sg/reports/public/hansard//appendices/20071022/SiewKumHong- Petition(latest).pdf

5. Agence France Press, “Government does not endorse gay lifestyle: Singapore minister,” 22 October 2007. Text available at http://afp.google.com/article/ALeqM5h6vmB -ijv8maeiq5-9xNtQw3EUkw.
6. Sylvia Tan, “Allow space for gays but gay sex ban to stay: Singapore PM,” Fridae, 24 October 2007, www.fridae.com/newsfeatures/2007/10/24/1970.allow-space- for-gays-but-gay-sex-ban-to-stay-singapore-pm.
7. “Singapore: Law Minister reiterates no repeal, non-enforcement stand on gay sex law,” www.fridae.com/newsfeatures/2009/07/06/8576.singapore-law-minister-reiterates-no-repeal- non-enforcement-stand-on-gay-sex-law.
8. See People Like Us, "Law Society presses for decriminalisation," 5 April 2007. Text available at www.plu.sg/society/?p=65.
9. Section 12 (2), Avoidance of marriages between persons of same sex, Part III, Solemnization of Marriages, Act 353, Women's Charter, provides:

 It is hereby declared that, subject to sections 5, 9, 10, 11 and 22, a marriage solemnized in Singapore or elsewhere between a person who has undergone a sex re-assignment procedure and any person of the opposite sex is and shall be deemed always to have been a valid marriage. www.familycourtofsingapore.gov.sg/principles/act353/acts_act353_frame.htm.

10. The Women’s Charter provides:

 12. —(1) A marriage solemnized in Singapore or elsewhere between persons who, at the date of the marriage, are not respectively male and female shall be void.

11. Roy Chan, "Sections 377 and 377A of the Penal Code - Impact on AIDS Prevention and Control," The Act, Issue 34, 2007, text available at www. afa. org. sg/otherpublications/Penal%20Code%20Sections%20377,%20377A%20and%20Effect%20o%20AIDS %20Prevention%20in%20%20Singapore.pdf.
12. Ministry of Education (Singapore), Policies on Sexuality Education, www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/social-emotional-learning/sexuality-education/ policies/.
13. “Oscar winners Dustin Lance Black, Sean Penn push gay marriage rights,” at www.fridae.com/newsfeatures/2009/02/23/2222.oscar-winners-dustin-lance-black-sean-penn- push-gay-marriage-rights.
14. See press release of Media Development Authority entitled "MediaCorp TV Channel 5 fined for breaching Programme Code" in www.mda.gov.sg/NewsAndEvents/PressRelease/2008/Pages/24042008.aspx.
15. Fridae, “Singapore TV station fined S$15,000 for showing a ''normal'' gay family,” 25 April 2008, available at www.fridae.com/newsfeatures/2008/04/25/2047.singapore-tv- station-fined-s-15000-for-showing-a-normal-gay-family.

16Fridae, “Singapore censors fine cable TV operator S$10,000 for ad featuring lesbian kiss,” 10 April 2008, available at www.fridae.com/newsfeatures/2008/04/10/2040.singapore- censors-fine-cable-tv-operator-s-10000-for-ad-featuring-lesbian-kiss.
17. “History of PLU: the first registration attempt 1996-1997,” in www.plu.sg/society/? p=24.

18. “History of PLU: the second registration attempt, 2004,” in www.plu.sg/society/?p=32.
19. The Schedule - Specified Societies, available at http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/non_version/ cgi-bin/cgi_getdata.pl?actno=1967-REVED-311&doctitle=SOCIETIES+ACT&date=latest&method=part&segid=1094637071-000093.
20. “Gay parties may have led to sharp rise in new Aids cases,” www.yawningbread.org/ apdx_2005/imp-184.htm
21. “Singapore gays in first public rally,” http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia- pacific/8054402.stm
22. “Hong Lim Park becomes a sea of pink, with over 4,000 turning up for Pink Dot 2010,” http://theonlinecitizen.com/2010/05/hong-lim-park-becomes-a-sea- of-pink-with-over-4000-turning-up-for-pink-dot-2010/.
23. Amelia Tan, "Pink Dot event draws 10,000 this year," The Straits Times, June 18, 2011, www.straitstimes.com/ BreakingNews/Singapore/Story/STIStory_681339.html.
24. For the text of the Internet Code of Practice, visit www.mda.gov.sg/Documents/PDF/licences/mobj.981.Internet_Code_of_Practice.pdf.