‘I’ve got gay friends, but…’: Key takeaways from parliament’s debate on repealing 377A and definition of marriage

The lengthy session in Parliament on Monday, Nov. 28 had two agendas: to debate the bill repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, and another bill to amend Singapore’s constitution to protect the definition of marriage from legal challenges.

For some context, 377A is a colonial-era law from 1938 that penalizes sex between men, while marriage is defined under Section 12 of the Women’s Charter as being between a man and a woman – plenty to discuss between these individuals in Parliament. 

At this year’s National Day Rally, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that gay sex would no longer be classified as a crime in Singapore. 

Lee stated that the constitution would be amended to protect the definition of marriage between a man, and a women from being challenged in court. He It was stated that the government does not plan to allow gay marriage or alter policies related to public housing and education.

Thirty politicians lined up to speak during today’s session. They provided some interesting points but also some sadly ‘are-we-surprised’ moments as well. 

First things first – there was majority support for both bills, which means 377A will be repealed and there will be amendments to protect the traditional definition of marriage. 

Here are some buzzwords 

As it is a contentious debate – and our majority political view is conservative – there was a lot of talk about what these bills would mean for future generations. By the time the session reached the halfway mark, terms and phrases like “divisive”, “remove the stigma”, “religious institution”, “family values”, “sanctity of marriage”, “institution of marriage”, “complexity of the issue”, “struck down”, “building blocks of society” and “safe space” had been heard a lot. 

“I’ve got gay friends but…”

Majority of politicians supported 377A’s repeal. K Shanmugam (PAP–Nee Soon) the Law Minister stated that it is right and that society is now ready for its repeal. 

Most politicians agree that gay people should be treated with dignity, respect and acceptance. They also need to be protected against discrimination and bullying. 

Baey Yam Keng (PAP-Tampines) said that it is the right thing to do to “ensure that Singapore is an inclusive and diverse place to live in and for everyone to be a part of.” He He added that he hopes the government won’t have to wait another 23 years for this issue to be addressed. 

He Ricky Martin was also mentioned in the speech as an example illustrious homosexual. 

There were also some speakers like Dennis Tan (WP-Hougang) and NMP Hoon Hian Teck who opposed 377A’s repeal.

Tan stated that despite being friends with gay people, his religious beliefs guided him to make his decision. 

“This is both a most difficult decision and it’s the most difficult speech I have (had) to make to date, given the divided issues at play for different segments of my constituents and for Singaporeans. Being very careful not to cause hurt or offence and yet having to be principled with my own beliefs,” Tan said.

“It is also not made easier because, like many fellow MPs and Singaporeans, I also have many friends and good friends who are from the LGBTQ community,” he added.

Many politicians felt the need for their gay friends to be mentioned, possibly to strengthen their arguments. Vivian Balakrishnan (PAP-Holland-Bukit Timah) even brought up the AIDs epidemic in the 80s that affected “some of his friends.”

The “sanctity of marriage” triumphs

No surprise here – most of the politicians who spoke said they believe that marriage should stay between a man and a woman and that all children need a father and mother. 

“There is strong consensus in society that marriage is between a man and a woman, and children should be born and raised within such families,” said Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli (PAP-Tampines) who kicked off the debate. 

Masagos spoke extensively about policies that support families, saying that they are the foundation of society. “Governments will come. The government will disappear. This idea will not be lost. Hence, our policies also reflect and reinforce this basic idea about marriage and family,” he said.

“It encourages parenthood within marriage, we do not support same-sex family formation, and we maintain our policy against planned and deliberate single parenthood, including using assisted reproduction techniques.” He He also discussed the issue of adopting, which should only be open to those whose marriages are legally recognized in Singapore. 

Jessica Tan (PAP-East Coast) said, “To give further reassurance, DPM (Lawrence) Wong has given PAP’s commitment that the definition of marriage as that of the union between man and a woman and will not change under the watch of the current leadership of PM Lee and if the PAP government were to win the next general election, it would not change under his watch.”

Singaporean values

Multiple times, the topic of Singaporean identity/values was also raised. Darryl David (PAP-Ang Mo Kio) said that the Singapore community is made up of people with different views, beliefs and also sexual preferences – and that he hopes that our society is one that will welcome open discussions and mutual respect. 

Shanmugam said, “Gay people must have a place in society and they are entitled to their private lives. But there were still very different views among Singaporeans on whether homosexuality was acceptable or morally right, thus LGBT advocacy should not set the tone for the rest of Singapore’s society.“

Let the people decide 

There were others who disagreed with the idea that Parliament should decide on the issue of marriage. NCMP Hazel Poa of the PSP stated that the definitions of marriage should only be made by national referendums.

Sylvia Lim (WP-Aljunied) on the other hand also questioned if it was the right thing to do “to exclude judicial scrutiny on this topic.”

“The Constitution is the fundamental legal safeguard of citizens, to protect them against illegal laws and policies that violate the Constitution. And it is the job of the Courts to assess whether any law is constitutional or not,” she said. Lim agreed with the repeal of 377A and she does not support the constitutional amendment Bill. However, she will vote against it. 

Time to learn

Darryl David was one the speakers that said education and dialog in schools and institutions should play an important role when it comes down to LGBT identity rights and rights discussions. 

Many speakers expressed hopes that the education system would continue promoting pro-family values at schools. Lim Biow Chuan (PAP-Mountbatten) said he wished for the government to “make clear” its stance that “our policies on sexuality education in schools, our content guidelines for publications, for video games and various types of media will remain pro-family.”

Mohd Fahmi Ailman (PAP-Marine Parade), stated that he would like to see research about the effects of the repeal on madrasah education and in Singapore. 

No bullying and no cancel culture

The debate included mentions of cancel culture a few times. Opposition leader Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied) said that “Just because one group has a position on an issue does not mean it can impose that position as a public expectation on everyone else.”

He added that although we are a secular society, it doesn’t stop religious Singaporeans from holding views that are reflective of their religious norms and values.

“It is fully understandable that the faithful wish to propagate their religious convictions. There is no basis for us to feel cancelled provided our views are not set as an expectation for all society,” he said.

What law should not be applied?

It was years ago that 377A was still being enforced. The decision to end its enforcement was seen as a pragmatic solution to the society of the time. While 377A itself was not actively enforced, repealing it also brings new issues to the table – like the marriage one.

What do we do? And what does it mean for a law that we can’t enforce? The future of Singapore is the only way it can be used as a marker. 

The debate was canceled and will resume tomorrow at noon.

Also see:

There is no such-sex marriage, nor access to health or public housing. The plan is not yet finalized.

22 August 2022

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