Shanmugam has commented publicly several times on LGBT rights in Singapore and also agreed to meetings with both pro- and anti-LGBT equality activists where he has listened intently to their viewpoints but endeavoured to maintain a neutral stance.
However, it was under his purview as Minister of Law that the Public Order Act was amended in November 2016 to prevent foreigners from participating in events at Speakers' Corner, Hong Lim Park, ostensibly mainly in acquiescence to homophobic complaints against the exponential growth in attendence at Pink Dot and the strong support the event received from the most successful multinational companies in the world like Google and Facebook which had very LGBT-friendly human resources policies.
Comments on Section 377A of the Penal CodeEdit
On Thursday, 2 July 2009, a New Delhi high court issued a landmark ruling which overturned Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code, a 150-year-old British colonial law criminalising penetrative homosexual sex (see video:). 3 days later, on Sunday, 5 July 2009, Shanmugam was asked by female grassroots leader Khartini Abdul Khalid during a dialogue session at Punggol Central Division whether it was time for Singapore, whose laws were "copied" from India by the British, to repeal Section 377A. Shanmugam replied "no" because Singapore society was "not ready" for it.
Shanmugam explained that India's laws on homosexuality had not changed, saying, "It is a court-interpreted decision. It wasn't a change of the law by the government." Instead, it was the New Delhi High Court's interpretation that "with the current evidence available and the current social situations in many parts of the world ... you can no longer consider homosexuality to be a wrongful sexual activity." He stressed that Singapore's courts were likewise free to interpret the law the same way. "Whether the courts will take the same interpretations, I don't know, but it's up to the courts."
Singapore had not repealed Section 377A despite appeals from some quarters to do so as the Government "cannot move ahead of public opinion". This was because while the Government had to "set the standard and take the lead" in many other areas, there remained areas where it had to "be careful about being ahead of public opinion." "If the majority of our population is against homosexuality, then it's not for the Government to say we are going to force something against the wishes of the people", reiterating the Government's stance when a parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377A was intensely debated in 2007.
Sexuality and personal issues were some areas where the Government preferred to defer to public opinion. He said, "There is a group that is actively committed to saying that homosexuality is okay, but probably a majority of Singaporeans are still very conservative and say that this is totally not acceptable. So, the Government has to respect both sides."
He conceded that the current situation, in which the law against homosexuality was in place but not strictly enforced, "is a little bit messy". "We have to accept a bit of messiness. The way society is going, we don't think it will be fair to prosecute people who say that they are homosexuals. But at this time, our society is not ready for us to say we will pass legislations which say homosexuality is no longer an offence."
In June 2014, when asked by Bloomberg News about the Section 377A constitutional challenge and its background, Shanmugam replied “The majority of the population still favours the current legal framework,” . He added that while society was evolving and social mores were changing, “the government has taken the position that this is a situation where it is best to agree to disagree.”
"SECTION 377A – A DEBATE THAT SINGAPOREANS NEED TO HAVE
Bharati: Something else that you have been in the news for recently is statements against the harassment of any group due to their opposition or support for the LGBT community. Within some sections of the LGBT community, there are still some issues with Section 377A that criminalises sex between men.
Looking at it as a matter of law, the Ministry of Home Affairs has said before that it will not be proactive in enforcing this section against adult males who are engaging in consensual sex in private. But if the intention is not do anything at all, why have the law there? Some might say it’s a bad law because it’s on the books but not enforced.
Shanmugam: I can only refer you to the Prime Minister’s speech. There was a whole debate on the matter. Our society is still largely conservative. Internal surveys show that two-thirds of the population either don’t want any change in the law or actually want 377A to be enforced. It’s therefore a slightly messy position that we have the statute; there is a large majority that either want to see it enforced or at least not removed. There is a minority who’d like to see things changed. The Government is in between.
I’ve said the debate speaks for itself – the MPs who spoke for it, MPs who spoke against it. The Government has not taken an ideological or dogmatic position on this. Our position has been – laws have to fit in with social mores. And today, given the state of public opinion, this is what is doable and we’re at a landing where we think (it) is doable, and a sort of solution that works for our society.
People may not be happy with that – those who want to see it abolished will want to see it abolished, those who want to see it more strictly enforced will push for that and the debate has to take place. We aren’t going to stop that debate. And this is a debate that Singaporeans need to have, and then come to a landing.
Bharati: But if we spoke about it just clinically, as a matter of law. There is a law in the books that’s not enforced …
Shanmugam: We cannot speak about laws clinically because laws need support from the people.
Bharati: But while you say laws have to fit in with social mores, shouldn’t laws also set the tone for social mores?
Shanmugam: The Government’s position is to also lead and explain to people why certain things have to be done. But at the same time you also have to judge where the weight of public opinion is likely to be, particularly when the laws touch on, or are closely linked to social mores. And there cannot be too far a gap between a law and what people want. If there is, that law will not find favour. So the Government’s duty is both to lead when it believes that it is good for the country, but also to be very careful about having laws in place that can command public support. And you cannot afford to just go and put something in that a large majority of people will instinctively reject.
Bharati: Of course I’ve spoken to some activists about this from an ideological perspective, and they are of the view that maybe you are surveying the wrong people. Do you think that it’s time perhaps to again relook at the barometer?
Shanmugam: We don’t do surveys to give us answers that we want. These are scientifically, systematically valid surveys. In the end, we are in Government, we have to do the right thing, and we have to understand what our people want. If we don’t understand, or we get it wrong, the people will punish us.
Bharati: Yes, you’ve said this several times during this interview."
Shanmugam: It’s something that runs through our thinking."
Meeting with SayoniEdit
On 6 October 2012, Jean Chong of Sayoni, frustrated with the state of institutionalised discrimination against Singapore's LGBT citizens, left a note on Shanmugam's Facebook page. Chong wrote of friends leaving and the National Conversation making no effort to acknowledge that LGBT people were Singaporeans too. She highlighted Sayoni's trip to the United Nations in 2011 to present its shadow report detailing the kind of discrimination that the government so often denied. She said that if LGBT Singaporeans were not wanted, he should tell them, so that they could all forget the struggle and move on to wherever they needed to be.
Shanmugam replied, “There can be no suggestion that LGBT citizens are not wanted. The bigger question is, with the diverse viewpoints in our society and often held strongly by various groups, the government is often caught in the middle trying to decide what would be acceptable to the majority." He further agreed to a meeting with representatives from Sayoni which subsequently took place on 27 November 2012.
On 4 January 2013, Shanmugam posted a short note on Facebook about the meeting:
"I recently met up with some activists from Sayoni, a Singapore-based platform for lesbian, bisexual and transsexual Asian women. I found the discussion useful. They posted a description of our meeting on their blog."
Meeting with Full Gospel Business SingaporeEdit
On Thursday, 24 January 2013, The Straits Times reported that Shanmugam had received more than 50 e-mails on the issue of homosexuality since he disclosed 3 weeks prior that he had met up with gay activists from Sayoni. These e-mails were in addition to almost 1,500 online comments left on 3 of his Facebook posts. However, he did not reveal the content of the e-mails. Shanmugam said that on Tuesday, 22 January 2013, he had met 14 members of a Christian group - Full Gospel Business Singapore (FGBS) - and a few other individuals but declined to disclose what was discussed,.
FGBS, an interdenominational group of Christian professionals, posted a report about the meeting on its Facebook page and Shanmugam wrote a message containing a copy of the report on his page on the night of Wednesday, 23 January 2013:
"I had earlier said that yesterday I met with a group of people from a Church group and some others who had wanted to meet me to discuss LGBT issues. The group (Full Gospel Business Singapore) has put up a post on its FB on the meeting.
Here is the post that they forwarded to me:
"A 14-member delegation led by the President of Full Gospel Business Singapore (FGBS) met with Mr. K Shanmugam, Minister for Law and Minister for Foreign Affairs on 22 Jan. The feedback is as given below:
1. We had a positive, lively and at times, spirited discussion.
2. Minister shared his views in a very candid manner. He came across as sincere and open and spoke from his heart.
3. We welcomed and accepted the Minister's suggestion for a continuing dialogue so that we can all help make Singapore become a better place for all.
4. We thank the Minister for his warmth and friendly conversation with us.
5. One of those present commented: "The Minister's approach is very refreshing. He is very open, listens carefully, and engages deeply. It was an excellent dialogue."
Meeting with LoveSingaporeEdit
On Friday, 15 February 2013, Shanmugam met with the leaders of LoveSingapore, a network of 100 churches, to discuss views on the gay community. In a Facebook post the following Monday, 18 February 2013, Shanmugam said that Faith Community Baptist Church pastor Lawrence Khong had asked to meet him, following Shanmugam's dialogue with queer women's group Sayoni. The post stated that he met with Khong, who headed LoveSingapore, as well as other pastors like Yang Tuck Yoong of Cornerstone Community Church and included a link to a report written by Khong on the LoveSingapore Facebook page,,:
"15th February 2013 was Total Defence Day. Interestingly, in the afternoon of that same day, our LoveSingapore Team met with Mr K Shanmugam, Minister for Law and Minister for Foreign Affairs to talk about defending the moral future of our nation! It's our first time meeting the Minister in person. Often first impressions are lasting impressions. We came away inspired. Here is a man in high office and he has no airs! The Minister is a very good listener. His personable style sets the ambience for respectful dialogue. And so, YES, we enjoyed our conversation with the Minister on a hot and emotional topic - the LGBT issue - looking at it through different lenses and from many angles. He explained the multiple viewpoints on the topic, his engagement with many different groups, and how their viewpoints differed. In response to our query, the Minister stated that the position of the government on S377A is as set out by the Prime Minister in Parliament in 2007."
Meeting with OogachagaEdit
"Met with Bryan Choong and Leow Yangfa yesterday. Both work for Oogachaga Counselling and Support. This is a non-profit organisation which offers counselling and personal development for LGBTQ individuals.
They spoke about discrimination against persons from the LGBT community, and in particular transgender persons. They also spoke about the bullying that goes on in schools. They also discussed some ideas on how such discrimination can be reduced, and society be made more tolerant."
Statements in aftermath of Orlando shootingEdit
In the aftermath of a massacre at a gay nightclub in Orlando, Florida, on Sunday, 12 June 2016, when a lone attacker named Omar Mateen gunned down some 50 people in the deadliest mass shooting in American history, Shanmugam posted the following message on Facebook on the night of Tuesday, 14 June 2016:
I was asked by the media about the Orlando shooting incident. I said: The motives of the gunman are not yet clear. Investigations are continuing. But it looks like the gay community has been targeted. This is unacceptable. Violence against any group and any form is not acceptable. Here, the Government will act decisively, if there is threat or violence against anyone or any group.
The Government's duty is to protect everyone. Their race, their religion, their sexual orientation - these are not relevant in terms of the Government’s duty to protect. We have a duty to protect everyone. And I think in this incident, (it) again highlights the threat of terror, whether it's targeted at religious groups or whether it's targeted at specific people, individuals. And we, as Singaporeans, have to come together, unite together to fight this terror.
Home Team News (Singapore)"
Earlier that evening on 14 June 2016, Shanmugam also responded to reporters' queries on the shooting incident and on terrorism:
Conversation with Bryan Choong of OogachagaEdit
In June 2017, Oogachaga invited Shanmugam, to have a conversation on issues important to the LGBT community. The Minister visited the Oogachaga office in Chinatown and agreed for the meeting to be videoed. The two issues discussed were:
- Oogachaga’s work with those affected by drug use in the LGBT community and
- public criticism of Pink Dot.
During the meeting, Oogachaga was represented by professional counsellor and former executive director, Bryan Choong. There was a frank exchange with the Minister on the Government’s views regarding these issues:
- Singapore political parties' politicians' views on homosexuality
- PAP MPs against the repeal of Section 377A
- PAP MPs for the repeal of Section 377A
- Singapore Democratic Party politicians' views on homosexuality
- Workers' Party politicians' views on homosexuality
- Reform Party politicians' views on homosexuality
- National Solidarity Party politicians' views on homosexuality
- Democratic Progressive Party politicians' views on homosexuality
- SingFirst politicians' views on homosexuality
- Singapore political parties’ positions on LGBT concerns – General election 2011
- Archive of parliamentary debate on Section 377A (22, 23 October 2007)
- Lee Kuan Yew's views on homosexuality
- Sue-Ann Chia, "Homosexual acts: No change in actual Indian law", The Straits Times, 6 July 2009.
- "S'pore not swayed by India's gay sex ruling: minister", Asia One, 6 July 2009.
- Teo Xuanwei, "Law Minister says Govt careful of being ahead of public opinion", TODAY, 6 July 2009.
- Indulekshmi Rajeswari, "Singapore says no. And maybe", Sayoni, 8 July 2009.
- Andrew Loh, "Cheering bigotry in the House", Public House, 12 April 2013.
- Tessa Wong, "Law Minister, MPs receive e-mails on gay issues", The Straits Times, 24 January 2013.
- Ian Poh, "Law minister has 'frank discussion' on LGBT issues", The Straits Times, 23 January 2013.
- Tessa Wong, "Shanmugam meets LoveSingapore pastors to discuss gay issue", The Straits Times, 18 February 2013.
- Tessa Wong, "Law Minister meets church leaders over gay issues", The Straits Times, 19 February 2013.
- Tessa Wong, "Minister to meet church group over gay issues", The Straits Times, 19 January 2014.
- Andrea Tan, "Singapore Top Court Tackles Challenge to 1938 Gay-Sex Ban", Bloomberg, 14 July 2014.
- Nur Asyiqin Mohamad Salleh, "Shanmugam meets counsellors who offer support to gay community", Singapolitics, 17 February 2015.
- Audrey Tan, "Government will protect people regardless of race, religion or sexuality: Shanmugam", The Straits Times, 14 June 2016.
- Bharati Jagdish, "Do wrong, go soft or don't deliver, and no party machinery will keep PAP in power: K Shanmugam", Channel NewsAsia, 15 July 2017.
This article was written by Roy Tan.