On Friday, 5 October 2007, an online campaign urging the Government to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises gay sex was launched via an open letter to Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong on the website www.repeal377a.com. The main authors of the letter were Dr Tan Chong Kee and Alan Seah, with valuable contributions and feedback from about 18 other stakeholders. The latter comprised men and women in their 20s to 40s, both homosexuals as well heterosexuals.
By Tuesday, 9 October 2007, the campaign had collected over 2,200 signatures and was gathering support with many backers signing in their real names.
The spokesman for www.repeal377a.com, Alan Seah, said the online letter was set up by 'about 20 concerned individuals' - some gay, others straight - who felt the section of the law was 'discriminatory and not good for Singapore'.
In the comprehensive review of the Singapore Penal Code completed in September 2007, the Government decided to keep the status quo on the gay sex law.
A Home Affairs Ministry spokesman said that this acknowledged Singapore as 'a generally conservative society', though the Government would not actively prosecute people under that section of the law.
Those signing the letter were asked to state their real names, voting constituencies, jobs, and companies they worked for. These details, which did not have to be disclosed, were then published online.
While most chose to stay anonymous, the 40 or so pages of signatures included many people who revealed their names and those of their employers.
The signatories ranged from multinational company executives to engineers and teachers, as well as several arts personalities, people working in the media and civil society activists. Probably the most senior corporate figure to sign the letter was NETS (Network for Electronic Transfers) chief executive officer Poh Mui Hoon. Poh, who signed in her personal capacity, declined to be interviewed by the press.
A gay 31-year-old Singaporean government scholar working in an elite statutory board said he did not believe there would be repercussions to signing with his and his employer's name.
If that happened, 'so be it, I have enough credibility in my area of work that this would not be an issue', he said, although he declined to be named in the press.
Another signatory, research assistant Low Soo Mei, said she signed because she felt sad that her homosexual friends should have to 'live in fear that they can be prosecuted (under Section 377A)'. Low, 25, is straight.
While pleased at the positive response, gay activist Alex Au acknowledged that 'online petitions don't have a very stellar history of effectiveness'.
He applauded those who put their real names to the letter, noting that there was significant 'social and institutional discrimination' against the gay community and those who supported them.
For the same reason, it was 'understandable' why so many chose to stay anonymous, although this clearly hurt the campaign's credibility, lamented Seah.
Another boost for the campaign came from celebrities such as Pamela Oei, Hossan Leong, Beatrice Chia and Mark Richmond, who made a rap song to raise awareness. The song was uploaded to YouTube in mid-October 2007.
The creative industry has traditionally been one of the gay equality movement's stronger supporters.
The letter was taken offline on 19 October 2007, and the names of the signatories consolidated and sent to the Prime Minister's Office.
Hand delivery to IstanaEdit
At 2:30pm on Monday, 22 October 2007, 3 organisers of the Open Letter, theatre practitioner Ivan Heng, entrepreneur Alan Seah and actress Pamela Oei hand delivered the 400-page letter with 8120 signatures to the Prime Minister's office at the Istana. All signatories submitted as of midnight, 22 October 2007 went towards the final document.
Seah said, "It's as if 8000 people walked up to the Prime Minister and shook his hand, introduced themselves politely and respectfully but firmly explained their heartfelt views on this important issue.
It is clear from the debate in Parliament yesterday that many Singaporeans still have many misconceptions about the gay community and what this whole issue is about. There is a real lack of understanding. I hope the Open Letter will help explain why we feel it is so important that the discrimination against us must end. And that we need the leadership of our Government to help end it."
The following were some unedited comments from signatories published on repeal377a.com:
I'm a doctor. People tell me that's a noble profession. My parents are proud of me. My teachers are proud of me. You would be proud of me too, dear prime minister, if I were your son. But I'm ashamed of myself. Why so? Because I'm gay. Because I'm born not to feel sexual attraction and romantic love for women. Because I'm deeply in love with my partner, another man. Because I express my love for my partner in the same ways as you would, dear prime minister, your beloved wife. Therefore, I'm a criminal. I'm a criminal working in one of our restructured hospitals. It doesn't matter how many lives I save, it doesn't matter how much suffering I relieve, it doesn't matter how much good I do, it doesn't change one shameful fact. I'm a criminal doctor.
- criminal doctor
I am 69 years old, a mother of a gay son who's in his 40s. He and his partner have been living with me under the same roof for more than 13 years. They are the best things that happen to me in all my 69 years in Singapore. Please tell me, Mr. PM, why are you teaching me to be ashamed of them? If this country doesn't want them, where can they go? Please tell me.
- Mak Oon Ling
My son is gay. He came out to me when he was 22. And I was upset and I blamed myself why is my son gay... I blamed myself all the time. But he is my son. He has not changed since the first day i gave birth to him or the person he is today. I love him for who he is, for what he is. It sickens me that people think suggests that just because he is gay, our family isnt what it is. We are a family. What people do in their private lives shouldnt be an issue to anyone aslong as it doesnt harm anyone else. He doesn't know i am doing this but I support this repeal. He is my son and he is not a criminal. If I can accept him, his mother who gave birth to him, who these people who so quickly judge him and condemn him?
I am a Singaporean residing in Germany with my German male partner. My company and host country RESPECT me, my partner and our homosexuality with no discrimination. I hope to return home to Singapore one day with my partner to serve HER as proud sons with human dignity and rights. But, we often struggled inside us: "Do we want to continue living in Germany as "free" men or return home to Singapore hiding as "criminals"?" Like all proud Singaporeans, I only ask to be able to return home a dignified Singapore gay son, and not a "criminal" I was never borned to be. I, therefore, support the repeal to have Section 377A abolished.
- Oh Hock Chong
Abolishing Section 377A of the Penal Code will not contradict the Government's stand of promoting Family values. It will actually send a clear signal that we should accept our fellow citizens and family members as they are. My vision for Singapore is one where its youth can develop to its fullest potential instead carrying the heavy burden of leading a double life. Singapore should be a place where we can respect each other for who we are. Having such a nurturing environment will enable our future generations to take Singapore to greater heights.
- Dr. Alvin Koh
The question is not whether the law should reflect conservative values, it is whether gay people should be put in jail for sexual acts between consenting adults. The law is not meant to placate any section of the community with political clout, it is meant to protect those without.
Even the MNC company I worked for have the written clause on non-discrimination and among its list contains also sexual orientation. How could this givernment claimed to be progressive and yet even behind a MNC company in its non-discrimination mind set towards gay people.
Screenshot of Open LetterEdit
Editable text of Open LetterEdit
The Prime Minister
Mr. Lee Hsien Loong
Prime Minister's Office
Dear Prime Minister,
As a citizen of Singapore, I write to appeal to your sense of fairness and equality, to take the lead to move Parliament and your party on issues related to s377A, Penal Code. I strongly believe that it should be repealed, not just for the benefit of the gay community, but also for the good of all Singaporeans. I also firmly believe that the time to repeal s377A, Penal Code is now, not later.
The reasons why this repeal is so important are manifold.
1. Singapore’s Founding Principles.
2. Constitutional and Legal Rights.
3. International Social Mores and Trends.
4. Domestic Social Mores and Trends.
5. Damage to the Gay Community.
6. Pragmatism, Leadership and the Future.
1. Singapore’s Founding PrinciplesEdit
Singapore was founded on the basis of justice and equality. This is reflected in our pledge. From the start, Singapore as a nation has staunchly upheld multiculturalism, with diverse groups living together in harmony by respecting each other's differences. This has been the cornerstone of our country’s success. Since then, these principles have been further strengthened. For example:
- In 1966, a Constitutional Commission was formed to study how the rights of minorities can be safeguarded.
- The implementation of the GRC in our electoral system ensures that racial minorities are adequately represented.
- The Women’s Charter was amended to safeguard women’s rights.
Legislating that certain sexual acts are legal for heterosexuals but illegal for gay men is tantamount to our country taking an active step (for the first time) to discriminate against a minority group. That goes against everything we, as Singaporeans, have been taught to believe in and hold dear.
2. Constitutional and Legal RightsEdit
Section 377A contravenes Singapore’s Constitution which grants equal rights to treatment and protection for everyone. This law is unequivocally discriminatory. We believe a gay man should have exactly the same rights as a straight man or woman.
We understand that there are elements of our society that do not see being gay in a positive light. They are entitled to their opinion. But their opinion should not infringe upon the rights of this – or any – group of Singaporeans. This holds true even if those who disapprove of gay people outnumber those who support them. In fact, it is the responsibility of any democratically elected government to protect minorities from the “tyranny of the majority”.
Section 377A violates an individuals's right to privacy. Especially since what we are talking about is a choice between consenting adults and hurts no one.
Furthermore, the government's self-avowed compromise of having s377A on the books but not enforcing it will bring Singapore’s justice system into disrepute. The Council of the Law Society states in its report to the Ministry Of Home Affairs dated March 30, 2007, that the law as it stands “cannot be justified”. The Council goes further to argue that the proper function of criminal law “is to protect others from harm by punishing harmful conduct. Private consensual homosexual conduct between adults does not cause harm recognisable by the criminal law. Thus, regardless of one's personal view of the morality or otherwise of such conduct, it should not be made a criminal offence”.
Singapore has always taken pride in being a country where the rule of law is transparent, fair and clear cut. This reputation has served us well and contributed in no small way to our country’s success and should not be eroded by this aberration.
3. International TrendsEdit
The courts of many major countries have held the equivalent of s377A to be discriminatory, an invasion of privacy and unconstitutional. This is not only in Europe and America. It includes the UN Human Rights Committee, S, Africa and most recently Hong Kong. The legislatures in UK, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Cambodia, Vietnam, Indonesia and even China have also passed laws decriminalising such acts.
Singapore will be woefully out-of-step with the rest of the world should it move to retain this Victorian legislation only weeks after Newsweek magazine’s cover story proclaimed that “the battle for gay rights is gaining ground across the globe” and hailed the repeal of laws similar to s377A across the globe as “a global civil-rights revolution”.
4. Domestic TrendsEdit
The attitude of Singaporeans have become much more accepting of alternative sexuality. Between 2000 and 2005, the level of acceptance has changed from 10% to more than 30%. The latest figure is taken from Mark Cenite and B. Detenber's article in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research. Furthermore, the Straits Times online census in July 2007 indicated a tolerance level of 55%.
Admittedly, different public polls can often illustrate contrasting views and the sum of all these statistics makes it difficult to get a clear view of popular sentiment. However we believe that the law of our land does not exist to be popular, but to be fair and just for all people. This is a belief we know is shared by many.
5. Damage to the Gay CommunityEdit
If the current amendment bill succeeds, the resulting law will become a bitter symbol to many gay Singaporean men, young and old. It will hinder greater understanding and integration of these people, who are often responsible, invaluable and highly respected contributing members of society. The only thing that makes these people different from the majority of Singaporeans is that they are biologically-pre-disposed to love differently. It will be a slap in the face to their significant contributions and encourage many more to leave our shores for more open-minded societies. Singapore’s most valuable resource is its citizens. We cannot afford to lose them.
S377A will also affect the status and moral citizenship of gay men in society. The government has openly welcomed gays and lesbians into the civil service. But this law will only discourage equal-treatment for gay employees everywhere and diminish the moral standing these men and have rightfully earned. We fear it will be a seed for further acts of discrimination.
Criminalising gay sex also impedes effective safer-sex messages being disseminated effectively to gay men and other men at risk of contracting HIV. There are numerous studies which have concluded that HIV prevention programs in environments where gay sex is criminalised are resoundingly ineffective. The fight against HIV/AIDS is an important issue which affects all Singaporeans. There should be no impediment to getting this life saving information out.
Branding gays as outlaws will be destructive to the self-worth of those individuals and could lead to an increased incidence of self-harm. Thought should also be given to gay youth who struggle deeply with this issue. This law would only add more trauma to what is already a very difficult period in their lives.
6. Pragmatism, Leadership and the FutureEdit
You and our government have always shown a willingness to make tough pragmatic decisions for the best interests of our country. Decisions made with conviction, despite opposition from various interest groups, religious organisations and minorities.
In a recent address at NUS, you talked about this issue and said that “we will not reach consensus however much we discuss it. The views are passionately held on both sides. The more you discuss it, the angrier they become. The subject will not go away.” Having admitted that we are at an impasse, it seems only logical that the way to move forward is for the government to take a lead with the same conviction and leadership it has always shown.
We keep hearing that Singapore society is ‘too conservative’ for this law to be repealed. This is not a strong enough reason to deny a group of Singaporeans equal rights. Far more conservative countries have done away with laws like these and are none the worse for it. We are a modern, democratic and secular state. While there will always be a place for conservative mores, we also need to protect and nurture space for tolerance and open-mindedness to flourish.
You have often said that your goal is to create a tolerant and progressive society for all Singaporeans. We urge you to now demonstrate your commitment to achieve this goal. Repealing this biased law will be a symbolic milestone to signal to fellow Singaporeans and the world that this is the vision of Singapore that we all share.
- Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code
- Parliamentary petition to repeal Section 377A
- Lee Hsien Loong's views on homosexuality
- Chua Hian Hou, "Online campaign to repeal gay sex law", The Straits Times, 10 October 2007.
- Chua Hian Hou, "Online campaign to repeal gay sex law picks up", The Straits Times, 9 October 2007,.
- Sylvia Tan, "Open letter to the Prime Minister submitted with 8000 signatures", Fridae, 23 October 2007.
- Sylvia Tan, "Singapore's repeal s377A petition tops 2,500 signatures", Fridae, 18 October 2007.
This article was written by Roy Tan.