Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code

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Section 377A of the Penal Code of Singapore is the main remaining piece of legislation which criminalises sex between mutually consenting adult men, even when it is performed in private.

The Penal Code (Chapter 224): Chapter XVI: Offences affecting the human body: Sexual offences: Section 377A (Outrages on decency) states that:

"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 2 years."

Origin

To understand the background of Section 377A, the enactment of its mother statute, the original Section 377 which criminalised sex "against the order of nature" and was popularly known as the "unnatural sex" law, must first be explained.

The former Penal Code (Chapter 224): Chapter XVI: Offences affecting the human body: Sexual offence: Section 377 (repealed in 2007) stated that:

"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.
Explanation. Penetration is sufficient to constitute the carnal intercourse necessary to the offence described in this Section."

Ecclesiastical roots in Britain under Henry VIII

Henry VIII, the monarch who enacted Britain's anti-sodomy laws

An exhaustive analysis of the origin of British laws which sought to prohibit buggery and their evolution into Section 377 is found in an academic paper by Prof. Douglas Saunders (see main article and archive of the paper "377 and the unnatural afterlife of British colonialism").

The first civil anti-buggery law in Britain was enacted in 1533. The offences of buggery or sodomy had previously been dealt with by the ecclesiastical courts. The Buggery Act 1533, formally An Acte for the punysshement of the vice of Buggerie, was an Act of the Parliament of England piloted by Henry VIII's chief minister, Thomas Cromwell.

The wording used in the Buggery Act, which included "abominable" (taken from Leviticus in the Bible), in addition to "buggery" (which, by the 13th century, had become associated with sodomy and was later defined by the courts to include only anal penetration and bestiality) and "vice", confirms its religious character.

The Act prescibed death as the punishment for buggery with man or beast. Some have suggested that bestiality was specifically included because of the fear of hybrid births!

The Buggery Act 1533 stated that:

"Forasmuch as there is not yet sufficient and condign punishment appointed and limited by the due course of the Laws of this Realm for the detestable and abominable Vice of Buggery committed with mankind of beast: It may therefore please the King's Highness with the assent of the Lords Spiritual and the Commons of this present parliament assembled, that it may be enacted by the authority of the same, that the same offence be from henceforth ajudged Felony and that such an order and form of process therein to be used against the offenders as in cases of felony at the Common law. And that the offenders being herof convict by verdict confession or outlawry shall suffer such pains of death and losses and penalties of their good chattels debts lands tenements and hereditaments as felons do according to the Common Laws of this Realme. And that no person offending in any such offence shall be admitted to his Clergy, And that Justices of the Peace shall have power and authority within the limits of their commissions and Jurisdictions to hear and determine the said offence, as they do in the cases of other felonies. This Act to endure till the last day of the next Parliament."

Walter Hungerford was the first man to be executed under the Buggery Act

This meant that a convicted sodomite’s possessions could be confiscated by the government, rather than going to their next of kin, and that even priests and monks could be executed for the offence - ironic, in view of the fact that priests and monks could not be executed even for murder. Henry later used the law to exterminate monks and nuns (thanks to information his spies had gathered) and take their monastery lands. The same tactics had been used 200 years before by Philip IV of France against the Knights Templar.

The Buggery Act was formulated in the context of Henry VIII's engineered break from papal authority to establish the Anglican church. It aimed to justify the seizure of the Catholic monasteries and the confiscation of their other rich properties. The pretext was the alleged sexual immorality of those in the religious vocation. Without this anti-Catholic agenda, it seems unlikely that the Act would have been enacted.[1]

In July 1540, contravention of the Act, along with treason, resulted in the first conviction. Walter Hungerford, 1st Baron Hungerford of Heytesbury, became the first person executed under the statute, although it was probably the treason that cost him his life. Being a nobleman, he was beheaded at Tower Hill, an elevated spot northwest of the Tower of London (commoners were hung at another public execution site, Tyburn). Ironically, Thomas Cromwell, the man who introduced the Buggery Act to parliament, was also beheaded there the very same day, on 28th July, after he fell out of favour with Henry VIII. Nicholas Udall, a cleric, playwright, and Headmaster of Eton College, was the first to be charged for violation of the Act alone, in 1541. In his case the sentence was commuted to imprisonment, and he was released in less than a year.

The Buggery Act remained in force until its repeal in 1828. It was replaced by Section 15 of the Offences against the Person Act 1828, and Section 63 of the Criminal Law (India) Act 1828, which provided that buggery would continue to be a capital offence.

Buggery remained a capital offence in England and Wales until the enactment of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. The last execution for the crime took place in 1836.

Codification of law, particularly criminal law, became a major reform project in Britain in the 19th century, pushed by Jeremy Bentham and the utilitarians. Codes were well-suited to British colonialism, providing a single, orderly written version of areas of law. This made them easy to enact in a colony.

The Indian Penal Code

Lord Thomas Macaulay
In the early years of British colonialism in the East, the British government enacted several Indian Charter Acts which gave the East India Company exclusive rights of trade and commerce in India and subsequently, also the right to rule its largest colony. Amongst these was the Charter Act of 1833 which introduced legislative centralisation in India, thereby extending the tenure of the commercial grant of the company for another 20 years. The Charter Act of 1833 required the appointment of a Law Commission to consolidate, codify and improve Indian laws. Lord Thomas Macaulay was appointed president of that commission in 1835. He drafted the Indian Penal Code with the help of many experienced lawyers to replace Hindu criminal law. The latter was based on the Manusmriti, generally known in English as the Laws of Manu or Dharmic discourse to Vedic rishis on the "way of living" for various classes of society, and had hitherto held sway in the greater part of India. The Indian Penal Code was incorporated by the British colonial administration in the late 1850s.

Macaulay's draft included a Section 377, a statute based on English criminal law which sought to prohibit "buggery" or sodomy, largely taken to mean anal sex between men. Under Hindu law, consensual sex between adult males was never an offence. The classic Indian text, Kama Sutra, also dealt without ambiguity or hypocrisy with all aspects of sexual life including marriage, adultery, prostitution, group sex, sadomasochism, male and female homosexuality, and transvestism. In the new Indial Penal Code, however, Section 377 criminalised "carnal intercourse against the order of nature". The latter phrase was a new legal concoction, not previously found in British law. It was derived from words attributed to, amongst others, Thomas Aquinas and Sir William Blackstone. A fine and/or up to 10 years' imprisonment were specified for these activities. It is of interest to note that Lord Macaulay never married and his closest companion was his sister Hannah.[2] (For a detailed history of Macaulay's enactment of India's Section 377, see main article and archive of the academic paper, "Section 377 and the dignity of Indian homosexuals"[3] by Alok Gupta).

Hindu temple sculptures in Khajuraho depicting homosexual sex

Colonial diffusion

Section 377 became effective as part of the British-imposed Indian Penal Code from January 1, 1862, and was adopted by the colonial masters, also as Section 377 into the Straits Settlements Penal Code in 1871. The cloned and transplanted law came into operation in the Straits Settlements of Singapore, Penang and Malacca on September 16, 1872.

Similarly worded legislation, also under the same numbered section of each country's penal code, that is, "377", as if it were a trademark, was introduced by the British into their other Asian colonies such as India, Pakistan, Hong Kong, Malaya (now Malaysia), Brunei and Burma (now Myanmar) in the late 19th century.

Sri Lanka, the Seychelles and Papua New Guinea have the key wording from India's Section 377, but different article numbers. Parallel wording appears in the criminal laws of many of the former colonies in Africa.[4]

Section 377A (Outrages on decency) was added to the sub-title "Unnatural offences" in the Straits Settlements Penal Code in 1938. Both Sections were absorbed unchanged into the Singapore Penal Code when the latter was passed by Singapore's Legislative Council on January 28, 1955.

Scope

The original Section 377 (repealed in October 2007)

Unnatural sex or sodomy was not defined in the Indian Penal Code drafted by the British. Legal records show that Indian legislators in the 19th and early 20th centuries interpreted "carnal intercourse against the order of nature" between individuals (of all sexes - the law being non-gender specific with its use of the word "whoever") to include anal sex, bestiality and, often after much courtroom deliberation, oral sex as well, namely, any form of sexual intercourse which did not have the potential for procreation.

Therefore, both heterosexual and homosexual oral and anal sex were criminal offences. In this respect, Section 377 did not discriminate against homosexuals. However, early cases tried in India mainly involved forced fellatio with unwilling male children and one unusual case in 1934, Khandu vs. Emperor, of sexual intercourse with the nostril of a buffalo[5],[6].

Theoretically, even lesbian sex which involved penetration, eg. of a finger, tongue or sex toy into the vagina or anus, would be covered under the law, although there are no records of any judge in India or Britain's numerous other colonies interpreting the law to include sex between women.

In the Singaporean context, recent cases had established that heterosexual fellatio was exempted if indulged in as foreplay which eventually leads to coitus. The Singaporean margin note of the original Section 377 further explained that mere penetration of the penis into the anus or mouth even without orgasm would constitute the offence. The law applied regardless of the act being consensual between both parties and done in private.

Owing to overwhelming public support and the realisation by the politico-legal system that the statute was no longer relevant to contemporary society, Section 377 was repealed in October 2007 during the extensive review of the Singapore Penal Code. A new Section 377, which criminalises sex with dead bodies ("Sexual penetration of a corpse")[7], was substituted in its place.

Section 377A

Transgender sex workers posing near the Bugis Street area in the 1960s
Section 377A was introduced into the Straits Settlements Penal Code in 1938 to criminalise all other non-penetrative sexual acts between men, eg. mutual masturbation or frottage. Research is currently underway, facilitated by the digitisation of local newspapers in 2008, to fathom the reasons why the colonial administration sought to enact such a law here when there were more pressing concerns in an era where civilised nations were on the brink of the second World War.

One hypothesis is that prostitution, including that by transvestites, was rife during the early decades of the 20th century. In endeavouring to curb it, the British must have found it difficult to use Section 377 to prosecute cross-dressers, who were legally men, for having sex with their male clients if prima facie evidence of anal or oral sex could not be found. In these cases, a new law such as Section 377A which was vague enough to convict any form of non-penetrative sexual activity between men, or more accurately, a cross-dressing man and his outwardly male partner, could be used as a backup. The fact that two "men" were found naked together in a brothel room would be sufficient for a charge to be made against them.

It is highly unlikely that in the 1930s, Section 377A was enacted to curb sex between men who were both outwardly male in appearance as these activities had a much lower profile, were largely invisible to the public eye and were non-commercial in nature. However, in later decades, especially at the turn of the 20th century, the existence of the law enabled the police to harass homosexuals who cruised in public places and to charge them if they had sex. The law has since been used mainly for this purpose, even though it was probably not the initial intention of the British colonial legislators.

The Labouchère Amendment

The term "gross indecency" used in the statute was based on the wording of the Labouchère Amendment, also known as Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885 of the UK. It was not a euphemism for buggery or sodomy, which was already a crime but rather, any other sexual activity between men.

Wording

It was worded thus:

"Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or is a party to the commission of, or procures, or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency shall be guilty of a misdemeanour, and being convicted shall be liable at the discretion of the Court to be imprisoned for any term not exceeding two years, with or without hard labour."

The almost identical phrasing between the Labouchère Amendment and Section 377A is the best evidence that the latter was derived from the former.

Reason for enactment

Henry Labouchère

In the 1880s, Britain was in the grip of a moral panic about the extent of prostitution. At the time, it was legal to have sex with teenage girls as young as 13 years of age, while a thriving trade buying and selling girls for prostitution alarmed many middle-class citizens. The Criminal Law Amendment Bill was thus drafted in 1881 to combat this. However, it languished for four years until a new scandal in July 1885 - a newspaper undertaking investigative journalism managed to buy a girl - roused parliament into renewed action.

On 6 August 1885, a member of parliament, Henry Labouchère, proposed a last-minute amendment to the bill making “gross indecency” between males an offence. There was hardly any debate although one member of parliament, Charles Warton, questioned whether Labouchère's amendment had anything to do with the original intent of the bill, namely, the prohibition of sexual assault against young women, and prostitution. Speaker Arthur Peel responded that under procedural rules any amendment was permitted as long as Parliament permitted it.

Without a record of a debate, it is difficult to know what the UK Parliament’s intention was with respect to the “gross indecency” clause. But if one considers that the Amendment Bill as a whole was designed to address prostitution and human trafficking, and if one realises that not only was female prostitution rife, but so was male prostitution, one can more or less guess why. The main part of the Criminal Law Amendment Act was gender-specific about girls as victims. Without the Labouchère Amendment, it would not have addressed male prostitution at all.

Punishment

The former Attorney-General, Sir Henry James, while supporting the amendment, objected to the leniency of the sentence, and wanted to increase the penalty to two years' hard labour. Labouchère agreed, and the proposed amendment was tacked onto the full Criminal Law Amendment Bill. The latter was rushed through and passed as the Criminal Law Amendment Act in the early hours of 7 August 1885.

Vagueness

As a result of the vagueness of the term "gross indecency," this law allowed juries, judges and lawyers to prosecute virtually any male homosexual behaviour where actual sodomy could not be proven. The sentence was relatively light compared to sodomy, which remained a separate crime.

Prosecutions

Oscar Wilde and his lover, Lord Alfred Douglas
Alan Turing, Great Britain's mathematical genius who was sentenced to chemical castration under the Labouchère Amendment

Lawyers dubbed the Labouchère Amendment or Section 11 of the Criminal Law Amendment Act 1885, the "Blackmailer's Charter." It was ceremoniously invoked to convict the celebrated author Oscar Wilde ten years later, in 1895. Wilde was given the most severe sentence possible under the act, which the judge described as "totally inadequate for a case such as this."

The brilliant mathematician, logician and cryptanalyst Alan Turing was convicted under the same law in 1952. In September 2009, UK Prime Minister Gordon Brown issued a postmortem formal apology to Turing for his “appalling” and “utterly unfair” treatment just because of his homosexuality. Turing's work led to the breaking of World War II Germany’s Enigma codes as well as developing theories which would ultimately result in the development of the modern computer. Despite his genius and contributions, he was charged for a felony and lost his security clearance and his job. He was sentenced to chemical castration with female hormones in lieu of a prison sentence. Two years later, he committed suicide by poisoning himself with cyanide[8].

Repeal

The law was repealed in part by the Sexual Offences Act 1967 when homosexual acts were decriminalised in England and Wales, with remaining provisions being deleted later.

Singapore's Section 377A

Singapore's Section 377A is descended from the Labouchère Amendment.[9] There is no compelling evidence to support the legend that lesbians were not included in similar legislation all across the Commonwealth because Queen Victoria refused to believe that they were capable of such behaviour.

In the local context, "gross indecency" is a broad term which, from a review of past cases locally, has been applied to mutual masturbation, genital contact, or even lewd behaviour without direct physical contact. As with the former Section 377, performing such acts in private does not constitute a defence. There has never existed any law in Singapore equally specific to non-penetrative lesbian sex. Although Section 377A has been in the statute books since the 1930s and was retained even after the Penal Code review of October 2007, it is only sporadically enforced.

However, its presence is used to justify much of the discrimination faced by gay men in Singapore. Some examples are the prohibition by the Ministries of Education and Defence of teachers and higher-ranking military personnel from coming out, and curtailment of employment opportunities and promotion in these sectors. It also influences censorship guidelines by the Media Development Authority which prevents positive portrayals of LGBT people in films and the broadcast media and public advertisements targeting the LGBT community.

After the erstwhile Section 377 was replaced by the current law criminalising sex with corpses, it has become a standing joke in the LGBT community that in the Penal Code, gay sex (377A) is now sandwiched between sex with dead bodies (the new Section 377) and sex with animals (Section 377B, "Sexual penetration with a living animal").[10]

The Anis Abdullah case

Minister of State for Home Affairs in 2004, Ho Peng Kee

The movement to repeal Singapore's original Section 377 was galvanised by the Anis Abdullah case. In November 2003, police constable Anis Abdullah was found guilty of oral sex with a 16-year-old girl and sentenced to 2 years' jail. Although it was consensual, he was charged under the former Section 377[11]. Many letters were written to the press, shocked that in this day and age, consensual oral sex was still a criminal offence.

In response to the public outcry, the Ministry of Home Affairs said that they were reviewing this aspect of the law. In January 2004, the Minister of State for Home Affairs, Ho Peng Kee reiterated in Parliament that the decriminalisation of oral sex was under review, but only for heterosexuals.

Penal Code review

In 2006, the Ministry of Home affairs announced that it would be carrying out an extensive review of the entire Singapore Penal Code, the first in 22 years. The exercise took over a year and gathered extensive feedback from the public via the press, the internet and live forums.

Repeal or retain Section 377A?

The most heated debate concerning the major review of the Singapore Penal Code was not over which laws were to be repealed or amended, but over the statute which would be retained, i.e., Section 377A, the anti-gay law.

Arguments raised

Map of the world showing the status of LGBT rights in each country

Advocates of the repeal often cited reasons of civil liberty, human rights, and increasing scientific evidence that homosexuality was inborn[12] and found in nature[13].

Britain, the former British colony of Hong Kong, and Australia have since repealed laws prohibiting sex between men in 1967, 1991 and 1997 (in the state of Tasmania, the last Australian state to do so) respectively. India effectively repealed her Section 377, by "reading down" the law in 2009 (see video). Fiji was the first Pacific island nation to repeal her version of Section 377 in 2010[14],[15]. Elsewhere in East and South-east Asia, apart from Singapore, only Myanmar, Malaysia and Brunei, all former British colonies, and recently Indonesia's Aceh province (applicable only to Muslims), continue to criminalise sex between men.[16]

Opponents of the repeal based their arguments on the conviction that to decriminalise homosexuality would result in a breakdown of the family unit, compromise Singapore's position on procreation, and lead to future undesirable scenarios such as the approval of bestiality and paedophila.

They also emphasised the wishes of the putative conservative majority to retain 377A. This was despite there being no formal survey or census done specifically on the topic. In various Singaporean online forums, such as Reach, and the AsiaOne Forum, strong opinions such as homosexuality being a genetic disease, the existence of a militant gay agenda originating from the West, homosexuality being a product of Western decadence incompatible with Singapore, were repeatedly posted. Conversion treatments, such as those by NARTH, were also recommended.

Forums organised

Speakers and the audience at the forum on Christianity and homosexuality organised by Safehaven

In the lead-up to the overhaul of the Penal Code, forums were organised to discuss the issue of homosexuality in Singapore and the repeal of Section 377A.

A seminar entitled, "Christian Perspectives on Homosexuality and Pastoral Care" was organised by Safehaven, a ministry of the Free Community Church. It was held at the Amara Hotel on 10 May 2007.

MP Baey Yam Keng and NMP Siew Kum Hong look at gay activist Alex Au as he makes a point during the Section 377A repeal forum organised by W!ld Rice

During the dialogue, Dr. Tan Kim Huat, who was the Chen Su Lan Professor of New Testament and Dean of Studies at Trinity Theological College said, "Singapore is a pluralistic society...There must be spaces for it", referring to homosexuals in society. This was the reason he gave for supporting the repeal of Section 377A.[17]

Another forum to discuss the repeal of Section 377A was organised on Sunday, 15 Jul 07 by theatre company W!ld Rice in conjunction with Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol 3, a gay play that was then being staged. The forum, held at the National Library, attracted some 250 people.

For the first time in the history of forums on gay issues in Singapore, a member of parliament from the ruling People's Action Party, Baey Yam Keng, and a Nominated Member of Parliament, Siew Kum Hong, were part of the 5-member panel convened to debate the issue.

Baey publicly voiced his support for the law to be repealed, saying, "Personally, I think that the whip should be lifted for a very open debate and open expression of opinion by the MPs. And if that is so, I would vote for a repeal of the act."[18]

The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) was quoted in The Straits Times of 18 September 2007 saying that public feedback on the issue had been "emotional, divided and strongly expressed", with a majority of people calling for Section 377A to be retained.[19] The MHA also said that it recognised that "we are generally a conservative society and that we should let the situation evolve".

Video appeals and online campaigns

The prospect for the repeal of both Sections 377 and 377A in Singapore captured the attention of gay activists worldwide. In August 2007, on a visit to Singapore, award-winning movie star and thespian Sir Ian McKellen made an appeal to the authorities to get rid of this remnant of British colonial law, just as his country of origin had done (see video).

On 3 October 2007, another online appeal was launched via the website Repeal377A.com to gather signatories for an open letter to the Prime Minister calling for the repeal of Section 377A. In response, a counter-petition on the website Keep377A.com was set up by entrepreuneur Martin Tan to give citizens a channel to voice support for the Government's retention of the law. By 1:30 p.m. on 20 October, Keep377A had overtaken Repeal377A by 7,068 to 7,058 signatories in just two days of its launch.[20] (The content of the Keep377A.com website was removed in 2009, although its web address remains. This may be evidence that the resolve of the Keep377A camp is weaker than that of the proponents of repeal, despite claims of the former to have garnered more support in the form of signatures.)

On 12 October 2007, in an initiative headed by impresario Alan Seah, leading members of Singapore's arts fraternity, both gay and straight, took part on a promotional rap video titled Repeal 377A Singapore!. It was produced and directed by Edgar Tang and theatre celebrity Pam Oei.

Concerned with what was perceived as the video's narrow presentation of issues, a "Families Petition"[21] was launched by an independent focus group FamilyOverFreedom to run until 9 August 2015 as an awareness campaign aimed at educating the middle-ground of undecided voters on the potential long-term impact of a repeal on the institution of the family.

Credibility of Keep377A.com and Repeal377A.com

Screen grabs from the Keep377A.com and Repeal377A.com websites

As online petitions, both websites suffered the same doubts regarding the credibility of the numbers of their signatories. There was no mention of whether technical measures were taken to ensure that multiple-voting by the same person was prevented.

In addition, the opening page of Keep377A.com was amended to include the following conclusion:

"Take time to hear from friends who are gay so that we too can understand their point of views personally. In our democracy, we can learn to agree to disagree, peacefully and respectfully."

The statement was incongruous with forum postings in other parts of the site which repeatedly used derogatory terms and called for Section 377A to be actively enforced.

Research cited by Keep377A.com

One of the references cited within Keep377A.com was a 2005 research article titled "Singaporeans’ Attitudes toward Lesbians and Gay Men and their Tolerance of Media Portrayals of Homosexuality",[22] written by Benjamin H. Detenber and Mark Cenite of the Wee Kim Wee School of Communication and Information, Nanyang Technological University. The article reported findings on the attitudes of Singaporeans towards homosexuals, with an emphasis on the comfort of viewing homosexual acts in the mass media. The conclusion highlighted a significant level of negativity. It was not, however, mentioned in the article whether this negativity translated into a specific desire to criminalise homosexual acts. The objectives of the research also did not involve gauging attitudes relating to legislation. A follow-up study by Detenber in 2010 revealed a softening of attitudes towards homosexuality:[23].

Copycat sites

Towards the end of October 2007, at least one copycat site emerged - Support377A.com. Created in virtually the same format as its predecessors, it nevertheless only featured letters to forums against the repeal, and supposed church sermons given on the subject by the Cornerstone Community Church and the Church Of Our Saviour.

Parliamentary petition

Organisers of the parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377A - George Hwang, Tan Joo Hymn and Dr. Stuart Koe
Presenters of the Open Letter to the Prime Minister - Ivan Heng, Alan Seah and Pam Oei

In the second weekend of October 2007, a parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377A was organised by human rights lawyer George Hwang, CEO of LGBT web portal Fridae.com Dr. Stuart Koe and housewife Tan Joo Hymn [24]. It was revealed during a press conference that it had garnered 2,519 signatures from Singaporeans and Singapore residents (see video).

The parliamentary petition was a democratic instrument that had lain dormant until resurrected by its organisers. The last time such a petition was presented to Parliament was over 20 years ago. The current one was endorsed by the Clerk of Parliament and scheduled to be presented by NMP Siew Kum Hong on Monday, 22 Oct 07.

Open letter to the Prime Minister

On 5 Oct 07, an Open Letter urging the abolishment of Section 377A was organised online [25].

The 400-page letter which was supported by 8120 signatories was hand-delivered to the Prime Minister's office at the Istana on Monday at 2.30pm by co-organiser Alan Seah, theatre director and actor Ivan Heng and actress Pam Oei.

Parliamentary debate

SiewKumHong377A001.jpg
ThioLiAnn377A001.jpg

On Monday, 22 October 2007, Nominated Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong tabled a petition to the Parliament of the Republic of Singapore in support of the repeal of Section 377A (see videos: [26], [27],[28]). A petition is required to pass through the scrutiny of the Public Petitions Committee in order for the issue to be fully debated in Parliament. The debate which ensued regarding the petition was the most heated in recent Parliamentary history.

The most impassioned opposition to the petition was provided by fellow NMP Thio Li-ann, imploring the government to retain Section 377A (see video).

There were Members of Parliament, however, who spoke up in support of repealing Section 377A or to highlight its legal and moral inconsistencies. They were PAP MPs Charles Chong (see video), Baey Yam Keng (see videos:[29],[30] ) and Hri Kumar Nair (see video, transcript of speech). (For a complete list of MPs who spoke regarding Section 377A, see: [31])

PAP MPs who spoke up in favour of repealing Section 377A - Baey Yam Keng, Charles Chong and Hri Kumar Nair

Other PAP backbenchers, while endorsing the retention of Section 377A, did offer words of support for the gay community (see video).

Ms. Indranee Rajah, a PAP Member of Parliament and former chairperson of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs, reiterated the Ministry of Home Affairs' "assurance" that it would not actively prosecute people under that Section. "But in recognition of the fact that there is still quite a strong majority uncomfortable with homosexuality, the Section must stay," she said. However, she suggested that Singaporean society could evolve to accept homosexuality in the future (see video).

Disappointingly, opposition MP and Workers' Party chairperson Sylvia Lim did not take a stand regarding the repeal of Section 377A (see video). She proposed the setting up of a Select Committee to scrutinise the wording and execution of the Penal Code and to comprehensively archive and make publicly available feedback from all civic groups.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong makes his concluding speech on the debate over the repeal of Section 377A

In his concluding speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong highlighted the point that Singapore was "basically a conservative society" with many being "uncomfortable with homosexuals, more so with public display of homosexual behaviour" (see video and transcript of speech). However, as recognition that homosexuals “are often responsible, invaluable, and highly respected contributing members of society”, the government would not "proactively enforce Section 377A on them."

Other important statements which the Prime Minister made, revealing Singapore's concept of human rights, were that his government did not "consider homosexuals a minority, in the sense that we consider, say, Malays and Indians as minorities, with minority rights protected under the law" and that it would not "allow or encourage activists to champion gay rights as they do in the West."

He said, "The decision on whether or not to decriminalise gay sex is a very divisive one and until there is a broader consensus on the matter, Singapore will stick to the status quo."

The eventual decision by Parliament was to retain Section 377A. (See archives of all parliamentary speeches made with regard to the Penal Code review on Monday, 22 Oct 07 and Tuesday, 23 Oct 07).

The anomaly in decriminalising oral and anal sex for heterosexuals but not for male homosexuals was highlighted in the international media[32].

Repealing the non-gender specific Section 377 while retaining Section 377A, which criminalises sex specifically between men, effectively served to enshrine discrimination against male homosexuals and MSMs (men-who-have-sex-with-men) in the Singapore legal system. Whether this is constitutional or not is still being hotly debated.

Reaction of the public

Subhas Anandan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers

While conservative Singaporeans who had agitated for the retention of Section 377A were pleased, the LGBT community and more progressive factions were enraged.

Subhas Anandan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers in Singapore, questioned the rationale for not repealing Section 377A in a Channel News Asia interview:

"If you are a homosexual or a lesbian, I think you can get into trouble. We are talking about an inclusive society and being more broad-minded. Why do we want to keep these people away, out of the circle? I think we should be more broad-minded, more sympathetic and allow these people to be included in our society."[33]

Consequences of retention

The debate over whether or not to repeal Singapore's anti-gay law attracted the attention of the international media (see video), as it was perceived to be a bellwether of Singapore's human rights record.

In view of the lack of precedent of there being a law in the Penal Code retained only for symbolic reasons, not to be enforced, plus the ambiguity over what constituted "gross indecency", and the repeal of the original Section 377 criminalising carnal intercourse against the order of nature, some academic lawyers have argued that ironically, homosexual anal sex in Singapore was no longer illegal even though the apparently less abhorrent gay oral sex still was [34].

In January 2008, subsidiary legislation was implemented to amend the schedules of various criminal statutes so as to bring them in line with the recent Penal Code reforms which took effect on 1 Feb 08. One of the changes was that after the latter date, all persons convicted under Section 377A would no longer need to be registered, i.e. they would not have any criminal record for this offence [35]. At the time of writing, the legal and social implications of this were still unclear.

Singapore's human rights report card

On 31 Oct 10, at least 8 civil society groups, including the LGBT one, People Like Us (PLU), submitted their views on Singapore's human rights track record to the United Nations ahead of the 1 Nov 10 deadline. The move was part of the Universal Periodic Review of all UN member states and was the first time that Singapore's human rights record came under scrutiny by the UN. The discrimination against homosexuals under Section 377A was one of the issues highlighted (see video).

Section 377A actively enforced again

In an apparent reneging of Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong's word and the government's promise never to apply Section 377A again, the police employed a decoy to entrap an Indian Malaysian man allegedly cruising for gay sex around the disused cemetary at Jalan Kubor in 2010. This episode of the police entrapment of gay men occurred after almost a decade of cessation of the operations.

Section 377A was again used to charge two men having for having oral sex in a toilet cubicle at Mustafa Centre. The gay community was indignant because the non-gay discriminatory Section 294(a), which criminalises "any obscene act in any public place" irrespective of gender (see below) could have easily been used instead.

Constitutional challenge

Well known human rights and criminal lawyer, M. Ravi

On Friday, 24 Sep 10, well known criminal and human rights lawyer M. Ravi filed an application in the High Court to challenge the constitutionality of Section 377A on behalf of his client Tan Eng Hong, who was charged for allegedly having oral sex with another consenting adult male, Chin, in a locked cubicle of a public toilet.[36],[37]. Ravi's main argument was that oral and anal sex between heterosexual and lesbian couples were not illegal but the selfsame acts between consenting adult men were. This law therefore discriminated against gay men in Singapore. A considerable amount of background research regarding the case was done by law undergraduate Indulekshmi Rajeswari.

Tan was originally charged under Section 377A but to avoid the inconvenience of a constitutional challenge which would set a precedent and open the floodgates to other constitutional challenges, the Attorney-General’s Chambers (AGC) withdrew the 377A charges in mid-October and substituted charges under Section 294(a) instead.

Section 294(a) of the Penal Code states:

"Whoever, to the annoyance of others does any obscene act in any public place...shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 3 months, or with fine, or with both"

High Court judge, Lai Siu Chiu

Section 294(a), in contradistinction to Section 377A, does not discriminate against gay men as it applies to anyone who has sex in a public place, regardless of gender. Section 294(a) also carries a lighter penalty of a maximum of 3 months' imprisonment as compared to Section 377A's maximum of 2 years in jail, even for sex in a private environment.

On 10 November 2010, Chin pleaded guilty to the substituted charge of Section 294(a) and was fined S$3,000. In mid-December 2010, Tan also pleaded guilty under Section 294(a) and was likewise fined S$3,000.

During a forum on Section 377A organised by V. Wijeysingha and chaired by Mathia Lee on Saturday, 27 Nov 10, M. Ravi spoke regarding his forthcoming constitutional challenge (see video).

At the hearing of the constitutional challenge on Tuesday, 7 December 10, the Assistant Registrar agreed with the Attorney-General’s application to strike out the case on the grounds that the plaintiff did not have standing ("locus standi" in legal terminology) since he was no longer being charged under Section 377A but under Section 294 instead, and therefore the proceedings were frivolous, vexatious and an abuse of process. Tan then appealed to the High Court to reverse the Assistant Registrar’s striking-out decision.

In a judgement dated 15 March 2011, High Court judge Lai Siu Chiu dismissed the first appeal relating to the constitutional challenge against Section 377A filed by Tan Eng Hong[38]. However, she ruled that Tan did have "locus standi", that is, he was affected by this law to have a legitimate interest in the issue but that there was no "real controversy" which required the court’s attention ("real controversy" being legalese meaning that it was not a matter of importance to be decided by a court), thus reaffirming the Assitant Registrar's striking-out decision (see full text of judgement[39],[40]). Many observers regarded Justice Lai's judgement as incongruous, as how could the issue be of no "real controversy" when the law affected the lives of thousands of gay men in Singapore?

M. Ravi's appeal against Justice Lai's "no real controversy" ruling took place on Tuesday, 27 September 2011[41],[42],[43],[44]. Owing to widespread publicity by Roy Tan in the LGBT community[45],[46], the court's gallery, for the first time in this particular case, was packed with interested observers. These were the arguments M. Ravi used to bolster his case:[47],[48].

Landmark ruling

Court of Appeal judges VK Rajah, Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash

On Tuesday, 21 August 2012, after nearly a year of deliberation, Singapore’s Court of Appeal, in a 106-page judgement, overturned High Court judge Lai Siu Chiu’s decision on 15 March 2011 when she ruled that there was no "real controversy" which required the court’s attention [49],[50],[51],[52].

The 3 presiding Judges of Appeal, Justices VK Rajah, Andrew Phang and Judith Prakash, found an arguable case on the constitutionality of Section 377A that ought to be heard in the High Court. They explained that Tan was at the outset arrested, investigated, detained and charged exclusively under Section 377A. This, they said, squarely raised the issue as to whether Tan's initial detention and prosecution were in accordance with the law. Secondly, there was a real and credible threat of prosecution under Section 377A.

They said Tan would be allowed to vindicate his rights before the courts based on a finding that there was an arguable violation of his constitutional rights. The judges also wanted to acknowledge that Section 377A in its current form extended to private consensual sexual conduct between adult males, adding that "this provision affects the lives of a not insignificant portion of our community in a very real and intimate way. The constitutionality or otherwise of Section 377A is thus of real public interest. We also note that Section 377A has other effects beyond criminal sanctions." (See full text of judgement in main article: Archive of Judgement of Court of Appeal dated 21 August 2012).

See also

References

  • Section 377A on Singapore Statutes Online:[53].
  • Section 294(a) on Singapore Statutes Online:[54].

Further reading

  • Au, Alex (March 2011). "High Court waves away 377A controversy". Yawning Bread. [55]
  • Au, Alex (March 2011). "When you should vote PAP". Yawning Bread. [56]
  • Chen, Jianlin (1 October 2010). "Singapore's Culture War Over Section 377A: Through the Lens of Public Choice and Multi-Lingual Research". Social Science Research Network.[57]
  • Young, Ted (24 October 2007). "Our Time Has Come". Trevvy. [58]
  • Sanders, Douglas (October 2007), (PDF). "377 – and the unnatural afterlife of British colonialism". Fridae. [59]
  • Au, Alex (May 2007). "Why Section 377A is redundant". Yawning Bread. [60]
  • Gopalan, Mohan (May 2007). "A heftier list of s. 377A cases". Yawning Bread. [61]
  • Sanders, Douglas (30 March 2007). "The mystery of 377". Fridae.[62]
  • Gupta, Alok (November 2006). "Section 377 and the Dignity of Indian Homosexuals". The Economic and Political Weekly.[63],[64]
  • Au, Alex (March 2005). "The picture that emerges". Yawning Bread. [65]
  • Au, Alex (March 2005). "List of Section 377 and 377A cases". Yawning Bread. [66]
  • Au, Alex (January 2004). "The blowjob that blew down our oral sex law". Yawning Bread. [67]
  • Chua, Lynette J. Kher Shing (2003). "Saying No : Sections 377 and 377A of the Penal Code". Singapore Journal of Legal Studies: 209–261 .
  • [Lim], Wee Kuan (1 October 2002). "Gay law : Emancipation and emasculation". Safehaven, Free Community Church. A review of all Singaporean laws governing homosexual behaviour.[68]

External links

  • Repeal377A.com – campaign for the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code:[69]
  • Singapore Daily page on 377A – collection of blogger postings on Section 377A of the Penal Code:[70]
  • A YouTube playlist of all archived news clips relating to Section 377A by Roy Tan:[71]
  • List of documents relating to LGBT rights in Singapore on the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission(IGLHRC) website:[72]

Acknowledgements

This article was written by Roy Tan.