Why we should leave Section 377A alone: PM Lee Hsien Loong

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke in Parliament on Section 377A, which criminalises gay sex. Here are edited excerpts from his remarks

‘Mr Speaker Sir, this parliamentary debate is on the amendments to the Penal Code, but the hottest debate is on one section which is not being amended – Section 377A.

Both Mr Siew Kum Hong and Professor Thio Li-Ann quoted me with approval in their speeches yesterday so I think I should state my position, and the Government’s position on this matter.

Because of the review of the Penal Code and the amendments, I think the gay community and the activists have staged a push to get the Government to open this subject and to abolish Section 377A.

They have written an open letter to me as PM. They’ve also petitioned Parliament on this issue on the grounds of constitutional validity and the constitutional argument was made by Mr Siew Kum Hong yesterday in Parliament.

I don’t have to go into the details. It was rebutted very cogently by Indranee Rajah and very passionately by Prof Thio Li-Ann.

They are not my legal adviser. I take my legal advice from the Attorney-General and his advice to the Government is quite clear: The continued retention of Section 377A would not be a contravention of the Constitution.

The Government has not taken this matter lightly. We had a long discussion among the ministers; we had an extensive public consultation on the Penal Code amendments; and we decided, on this issue, to leave things be.So let me today focus on the policy issue – what we want the law to be – and explain our thinking, our considerations, why we came to this conclusion.

I would ask these questions: What is our attitude towards homosexuality? ‘Our’ meaning the Government’s attitude and Singaporeans’ attitude, too; and how should these attitudes and these values be reflected in our legislation.

Many Members have said this, but it’s true and it’s worth saying again: Singapore is basically a conservative society. The family is the basic building block of this society. It has been so and by policy, we have reinforced this, and we want to keep it so.

And by family in Singapore we mean one man, one woman marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit.

And if you look at the way our Housing Board flats are, our neighbourhoods, our new towns, that’s by and large the way Singaporeans live. It’s not so in other countries, particularly in the West anymore, but it is here.

I acknowledge that not everybody fits into this mould. Some are single, some have more colourful lifestyles, some are gay. But a heterosexual, stable family is a social norm. It’s what we teach in schools. It’s what parents want to see, want their children to see as their children grow up, to set their expectations and encourage them to develop in this direction.

And I think the vast majority of Singaporeans want to keep it this way, want to keep our society like this, and so does the Government.

But at the same time, we should recognise that homosexuals are part of our society. They are our kith and kin.

This is not just in Singapore, this is so in every society, in every period of history, back to prehistoric times – or at least as long as there have been records, biblical times and probably before.

What makes a person gay or homosexual? Well, partly it could be the social environment.

If we look at ancient Greece and Romans, it was quite normal for men to have homosexual relationships – an older man with a young boy. And it doesn’t mean that that’s all they do. They have wives, they have children, but socially that’s the practice. So I think the social environment has something to do with it. But there is growing scientific evidence that sexual orientation is something which is substantially inborn. I know some will strongly disagree with this, but the evidence is accumulating.You can read the arguments and the debates on the Internet.

And just to take one provocative fact: Homosexual behaviour is not observed only amongst human beings, but amongst many species of mammals.

So, so too in Singapore. There is a small percentage of people, both male and female, who have homosexual orientations and they include people ‘who are often responsible, invaluable and highly respected contributing members of society’. I quote from the open letter which the petitioners have written to me.

And it is true. They include people who are responsible, invaluable, highly respected contributing members of society. And I would add that among them are some of our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters, or some of our children.

They too must have a place in this society and they too are entitled to their private lives. We shouldn’t make it harder than it already is for them to grow up and to live in a society where they are different from most Singaporeans.

And we also don’t want them to leave Singapore to go to more congenial places to live.

But homosexuals should not set the tone for Singapore society.

Nor do we consider homosexuals a minority in the sense that we consider, say, Malays and Indians as minorities, with minority rights protected under the law – languages taught in schools, culture celebrated by all races, representation guaranteed in Parliament through GRCs and so on. And this is the point which Ms Indranee Rajah made yesterday in a different way.

This is the way Singapore society is today. This is the way the majority of Singaporeans want it to be.

So we should strive to maintain a balance: to uphold a stable society with traditional heterosexual family values, but with space for homosexuals to live their lives and to contribute to the society.

We’ve gradually been making progress towards achieving a closer approximation to this balance over the years. I don’t think we will ever get the perfect balance, but I think that we have a better arrangement now than was the case 10 or 20 years ago.

Homosexuals work in all sectors, all over the economy; in the public sector as well, and in the civil service as well. They are free to lead their lives, free to pursue their social activities.

But there are restraints and we do not approve of them actively promoting their lifestyle to others or setting the tone for mainstream society.

They live their lives, that’s their personal life, it’s their space. But the tone of the overall society, I think it remains conventional, it remains straight and we want it to remain so.

So, for example, the recent case of Mr Otto Fong, who is a teacher in Raffles Institution. He’s gay, he’s a good teacher by all accounts. He put up a blog which described his own sexual inclinations and explained how he was gay. And he circulated it to his colleagues and it became public.

So, (the) Ministry of Education looked at this, the school spoke to the teacher. The teacher understood that this was beyond the limit, because what you live is your own thing. But what you disseminate comes very close to promoting a lifestyle. So spoke to him, he took down his blog, he posted an explanation, he apologised for what he had done and he continues teaching in RI today.

So there is space, there are limits.

De facto, gays have a lot of space in Singapore. Gay groups hold public discussions, they publish websites, I’ve visited some of them. There are films, plays on gay themes. In fact sometimes people ask ‘Why are there so many? Aren’t there other subjects in the world?’ But since we have allowed it the last few years, maybe this is a letting off of pressure. Eventually, we will find a better balance.

There are gay bars and clubs. They exist. We know where they are. Everybody knows where they are. They don’t have to go underground. We don’t harass gays. The Government does not act as moral policeman. And we don’t proactively enforce Section 377A on them.

But this doesn’t mean that we have reached a broad social consensus that this is a happy state of affairs, because there are still very different views among Singaporeans on whether homosexuality is acceptable or morally right. And we heard these views aired in Parliament over these last two days…

Some are convinced, passionately so, that homosexuality is an abomination, to quote Prof Thio Li-Ann’s words yesterday. Others, probably many more, are uncomfortable with homosexuals, more so with public display of homosexual behaviour. Yet others are more tolerant and accepting.

There’s a range of views.There’s also a range of degrees to which people are seized with this issue. Many people are not that seized with this issue. And speaking candidly, I think the people who are very seized with this issue are a minority. And (for) the majority of Singaporeans, well, it is something which they are aware of, but it’s not at the top of their consciousness – including I would say, among them, a significant number of gays themselves.

Also I would say amongst the Chinese-speaking community in Singapore. Chinese-speaking Singaporeans, they are not as strongly engaged either for removing 377A or against removing 377A. Their attitude is live and let live.

And so even in this debate, these two days, you will have noticed there have been very few speeches made in Parliament in Mandarin on this subject. I know Mr Baey Yam Keng made one this afternoon, but Mr Low Thia Khiang did not. And it reflects the focus of the Chinese-speaking ground and their mindsets. So for the majority of Singaporeans, the attitude is a pragmatic one – we live and let live.

The current legal position in Singapore reflects these social norms and attitudes, as Miss Indranee Rajah and Mr Hri Kumar explained yesterday.

It is not legally neat and tidy. Mr Hri Kumar gave a very professional explanation of how untidy it is. But it is a practical arrangement that has evolved out of our historical circumstances.We are not starting from a blank slate, trying to design an ideal arrangement. Neither are we proposing new laws against homosexuality.

We have what we have inherited and what we have adapted to our circumstances. And as Mr Hri Kumar pointed out, we inherited Section 377A from the British – imported from the English Victorian law, from the period of Queen Victoria in the 19th century, via the Indian Penal Code, via by the Straits Settlement Penal Code into Spore law.

Asian societies don’t have such laws: not in Japan, not in China, not in Taiwan.

But it’s part of our landscape. We have retained it over the years. So the question is, what do we want to do about it now? Do we want to do anything about it now?

If we retain it, we are not enforcing it proactively. Nobody has argued for it to be enforced very vigorously in this House.

If we abolish it, we may be sending the wrong signal that our stance has changed and the rules have shifted.

But because of the Penal Code amendments, Section 337A has become a symbolic issue – the point for both opponents and proponents to tussle around.

The gay activists want it removed. Those who are against gay values and lifestyle argue strongly to retain it. And both sides have mobilised to campaign for their causes.

There was a petition to remove Section 377A. It accumulated a couple of thousand signatures and was presented in this House. Therefore there was a counter-petition to retain it which collected 15,000 signatures, at least according to the newspapers I haven’t counted the signatures – 16,000, 15560 signatures. Probably gone up since last we started speaking.

Also with an open letter to me. And the ministers and I, we have received many e-mails and letters on this subject. And I have received e-mails too in my mailbox. Very well written, all following a certain model answer style. So it’s a very well organised campaign.

And not only writing letters but people, constituents have visited MPs at Meet-the-People Sessions to see the MP, not because there’s anything they want done, but to congratulate the MP on what a good Government this is that we are keeping Section 377A, and ‘please stay a good Government and please don’t change it’.

So I don’t doubt the depth of the sentiments and the breadth of the support. But it’s also a very well organised pressure campaign.

But I’m not surprised that this issue is still contentious because even in the West, even when they have liberalised, homosexuality still remains a very contentious issue.

They decriminalised homosexual acts decades ago, in the 1960s, ’70s. And they have gone a long way towards accepting gays in society. They not only have gays in prominent places – if you want to have a complete Cabinet or a complete line-up when you go for elections, you must have some on your list so that you’re seen to have been inclusive. Certainly so in Europe. Also true in America.

But still, the issue is bitterly disputed. So in America, there are fierce debates over gay rights and same-sex marriages. And the conservatives in America are pushing back. President George Bush has been calling for a constitutional amendment to define marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and not between a man and a man or a woman and a woman. This is in America.

So the issue is still joint.

Even within the churches, it’s a hot subject. The Anglican Church, Church of England. The Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, he had liberal views on gay issues. He became the Archbishop. He’s moderated his views because he has to reflect the church as a whole.

And even within the church – the church in England, the church in America – have a very serious disagreement with the Anglican churches in Asia and in Africa, who almost split away on this issue of ordination of gay people as bishops.

And they’ve patched up and compromised recently in America. And the Archbishop of Canterbury, who’s head of the church, had to plead with the community to come to some understanding so that they maintain the Anglican communion.

So this is not an issue where we can reach happy consensus.

And abolishing Section 377A, were we to do this, is not going to end the argument in Singapore.

Among the conservative Singaporeans, the deep concerns over the moral values of society will remain.

And among the gay rights activists, abolition isn’t going to give them what they want because what they want is not just to be free from Section 377A, but more space and full acceptance by other Singaporeans. And they said so.

So supposing we move on 377A, I think the gay activists will push for more, following the examples of other avant garde countries in

Europe and America – to change what is taught in the schools, to advocate same-sex marriages and parenting, to ask for ‘exactly the same rights as a straight man or woman’. This is quoting from the open letter which the petitioners wrote to me.

And when it comes to these issues, the majority of Singaporeans will strenuously oppose these follow-up moves by the gay campaigners. And many who are not anti-gay will be against this agenda. And I think for good reason.

Therefore, we’ve decided to keep the status quo on Section 377A. It’s better to accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity. It works, don’t disturb it.

Mr Stuart Koe, who is one of the petitioners, was interviewed yesterday and he said he wanted the Government to remove the ambiguity and clarify matters.

He said the current situation is like having a ‘gun put to your head and not pulling the trigger. Either put the gun down, or pull the trigger’.

First of all, I don’t think it’s like that. Secondly, I don’t think it’s wise to try to force the issue. If you try and force the issue and settle the matter definitively one way or the other, we are never going to reach an agreement within Singapore society.

People on both sides hold strong views. People who are presently willing to live and let live will get polarised and no views will change because many of the people who oppose it do so on very deeply held religious convictions, particularly the Christians and the Muslims; and those who propose it on the other side, they also want this as a matter of deeply felt fundamental principle.

So discussion and debate is not going to bring them closer together. And instead of forging a consensus, we will divide and polarise our society.

I should therefore say that as a matter of reality, that the more gay activists push this agenda, the stronger will be the push-back from conservative forces in our society, as we are beginning to see already in this debate and over the last few weeks and months. And the result will be counter-productive because it’s going to lead to less space for the gay community in Singapore. So it’s better to let the situation evolve gradually.

We are a completely open society. Members have talked about it, the Internet, travel, full exposure. We cannot be impervious to what’s happening elsewhere. As attitudes around the world change, this will influence the attitudes of Singaporeans.

As events, developments around the world happen, we must watch carefully and decide what we do about it.

When it comes to issues like the economy, technology, education, we’d better stay ahead of the game… moving and adapt faster than others; ahead of the curve, leading the pack.

And when necessary in such issues, we will move even if the issue is unpopular or controversial. So we are moving on CPF changes; we are moving on so many economic restructuring changes, we move on integrated resorts. It’s a difficult subject. Not everybody supports the Government, but we decide this is right, we move.

On moral values, on issues of moral values, with consequences to the wider society, first we should also decide what is right for ourselves.

But secondly, before we are carried away by what other societies do. I think it’s wiser for us to observe the impact of radical departures from traditional norms on early movers. These are changes which have very long lead times before the impact works through, before you see whether it’s wise, unwise, is this positive? Does it help you to adapt better? Does it lead to a more successful, happier, more harmonious society? So we will let others take the lead. We will stay one step behind the frontline of change; watch how things work out elsewhere before we make any irrevocable moves.

We were right to uphold the family unit when Western countries went for experimental lifestyles in the 1960s – the hippies, free love, all the rage. We tried to keep it out. It was easier then. All you had was LPs and 45 RPM records, not this Cable Vision and the Internet and travel today.

But I’m glad we did that because today, if you look at Western Europe, where marriage as an institution is dead, families have broken down, the majority of children are born out of wedlock and live in families where the father and the mother are not the husband and wife living together, bringing them up. And we’ve kept the way we are. I think that has been right.

I think we have also been right to adapt, to accommodate homosexuals in our society, but not to allow or encourage activists to champion gay rights (as) they do in the West.

So I suggest, Mr Speaker, and I suggest to the Members of the House, we keep this balance, leave Section 377A alone. I think there is space in Singapore and room for us to live harmoniously and practically all as Singapore citizens together.’