In a speech at Singapore’s annual National Rally day on Sunday, August 21, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced that the nation would decriminalize sex between men, setting the stage to repeal a long-standing law originally passed in 1938. This anticipated shift in policy begs the question: What will the actual legal, cultural, and social effects of this change be for LGBTQ+ persons and the Singaporean citizenry as a whole?
The act in question, Section 377A of Penal Code of 1871, 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 2 years.”1
This move by Prime Minister Lee serves as a step forward for human rights, and specifically LGBTQ+ rights, in Singapore, and several human rights groups and intergovernmental organizations were quick to laud the announcement. One such example was Taoufik Bakkali, the Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific region for UNAIDS (the United Nations agency pointed towards addressing and eradicating the AIDS epidemic). In a statement on 22 August 2022, he said, “UNAIDS welcomes this as a significant step towards respecting the human rights of LGBT people in Singapore and creating a more open, tolerant and inclusive society where people can be who they are and love who they want without fear of being imprisoned.”2 UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet made similar comments celebrating Prime Minister Lee’s statement as important for reducing stigma and increasing open conversation surrounding LGBTQ+ rights in Singapore.3
However, not all human rights advocates see repealing Section 377A as a total victory. To understand the move’s mixed reception (and some parties’ doubts) it is important to contextualize the law, discuss what led to this decision to repeal it, and what legal results this will actually bring.
As previously stated, this section of the code was added to Singapore’s body of law in the 1930s, at a time when it was still under British colonial rule. After gaining independence from Britain in 1965, Singapore’s legislative body voted to retain Section 377A in its own penal code. Importantly, however, while the statute has remained de jure in Singaporean law since its induction, it has officially not been enforced de facto in over a decade. Specifically, in the last debate on the law in 2007, Parliament voted to retain the section to appease the majority-conservative status quo in Singapore, but Loong, being the prime minister at that time as well, stressed that it would not be enforced to respect the privacy of gay Singaporeans.4 Furthermore, in February of this year, the Singapore Court of Appeal ruled in Tan Seng Kee v. Attorney General that the statute cannot be used to prosecute the sexual actions of citizens in private , although this decision did not declare Section 377A unconstitutional.5
Following much debate within the country paired with the court’s unwillingness to enforce the law, the announcement to repeal Section 377A seems somewhat unsurprising to many, following its trajectory in the past few decades. Notably, too, Prime Minister Lee emphasized that this repealing of the statute is as far as the country will go on the subject. Namely, he indicated his intent to uphold the national policy of heterosexual marriage as the sole legal union in the state, emphasizing that the Singaporean government has no intention of “changing the definition of marriage.”6 As such, it could be argued that the move is solely performative without much substance to make tangible change in human rights.
However, even if Singapore’s move to repeal this colonial-era law may not change much in legal enforcement and prosecution or in marital rights, its message is important in the global trend toward a greater protection of human rights. The announcement puts Singapore in line with Botswana, Angola, Antigua and Barbuda, and Bhutan as having recently decriminalized same-sex intercourse, marking a growing international trend toward tolerance.7 Decriminalization of homosexual acts, alongside perhaps breaking down actual legal barriers for many individuals, works to reduce worldwide stigma toward the global LGBTQ+ community, especially in historically socially-conservative countries like Singapore. Indeed, although both the announcement and the law itself refer solely to gay men and do not mention women, this reduction in stigma will likely impact LGBTQ+ individuals regardless of gender by reducing social shame surrounding homosexuality as a whole.
As a trend, massive human rights progress, including and especially concerning LGBTQ+ rights, does not occur overnight, and it is important to note the progress in this move while perhaps still calling for stronger legal protections for the LGBTQ+ community in Singapore.
1 Singapore Penal Code 1871, s 377a
2 ‘UNAIDS Welcomes The Repeal of the Law That Criminalized LGBT People in Singapore’ (UN Geneva, 22 August 2022) <https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/news/2022/08/singapore-un-rights-chief-welcomes-repeal-colonial-era-law-banning-sex> accessed 22 August 2022
3 UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, ‘Comment by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Michelle Bachelet on repeal of Singapore law banning sex between men’ (22 August 2022) <https://www.ohchr.org/en/press-releases/2022/08/comment-un-high-commissioner-human-rights-michelle-bachelet-repeal-singapore> accessed 24 August 2022
4 Imelda Sad, ‘PM Lee: Why Singapore Must ‘Leave Section 377A Alone’ The Straits Times (Singapore, 23 October 2007) 30 <https://www.straitstimes.com/politics/pm-lee-why-singapore-must-leave-section-377a-alone> accessed 24 August 2022
5 Tan Seng Kee v Attorney General  SGCA 16
6 Speech by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (21 August 2022) <https://www.pmo.gov.sg/Newsroom/National-Day-Rally-2022-English> accessed 5 September 2022
7 ‘UNAIDS Welcomes The Repeal of the Law That Criminalized LGBT People in Singapore’ (UN Geneva, 22 August 2022) <https://www.ungeneva.org/en/news-media/news/2022/08/singapore-un-rights-chief-welcomes-repeal-colonial-era-law-banning-sex> accessed 22 August 2022