Students Weigh in as Discussions on Section 377A reignite in Singapore
story | Casidhe Ng, Aryan Chhabra, Contributing reporters; Justin Ong, Executive Editor
photo | Peh Yi Lin, Visuals Editor
The debate on whether Singapore should retain or repeal Section 377A — legislation criminalizing sex between consenting males — has been reignited on campus following India’s repeal of a similar colonial law, Section 377, on Sept. 6.
Initial reactions on campus were jubilant, with renewed discussions about whether Singapore could follow suit. However, among those The Octant interviewed, a small minority said that they hoped the law would remain.
Though not enforced, Singapore’s Section 377A of the penal code criminalizes sex between men, with offenders facing up to two years in prison.
For Pragya Sethi ’19, who is an Indian citizen, the hours leading up to the repeal of Section 377 were so nerve-wracking that she not only skipped class, but a couple of meals. The Indian supreme court’s verdict was a rapturous moment for her.
“I was just in my room and crying; there was no one around me. I was literally seeing the history of my country being remade in front of my eyes,” she said.
Daryl Yang ’19, co-founder of Community for Advocacy and Political Education (CAPE), said that India’s repeal of Section 377 “is a wonderful moment for [India], after a very long drawn out litigation process.” He hopes that “attitudes on the ground will change following this legal development.”
A Singapore Divided
In a Facebook comment, Ambassador-at-Large at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Tommy Koh encouraged the gay community to “challenge the constitutionality of 377A.” When a Facebook user replied that this had been done before, Mr. Koh commented, “try again.”
The previous legal challenges for the repeal of Section 377A in 2014 had failed. In September, the Singaporean Government conducted the first review of the Penal Code in more than a decade, and called for 169 changes on laws such as those penalizing marital rape and the abuse of vulnerable groups, like children. Section 377A, however, was not amongst the laws called up for review.
Minister of Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam said on Sept. 7 that the nation is “deeply split,” and emphasized the Government’s neutrality on the issue. “Society has got to decide which direction it wants to go, and the laws will have to keep pace with changes in society and how society sees these issues,” Mr. Shanmugam said.
In response to buzzing discussion surrounding 377A, over 108,000 people signed a petition created on Sept. 8 urging the government to keep section 377A “to convey to future generations that marriage act should only be an acceptable norm between a man and a woman.”
On the other hand, Ready 4 Repeal, a petition to repeal 377A started on Sept. 9, garnered over 49,000 signatures, including the likes of the author of This is What Inequality Looks Like Teo You Yenn, former Attorney-General Walter Woon and Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong.
The petition to keep the law closed on Sept. 24, while Ready 4 Repeal closed on Sept. 27. Both petitions have been submitted to the Ministry of Home Affairs.
A Campus United in Voice, Divided in Silence
On campus, the decision also sparked differing opinions, with many who support the repeal, some who are against it, and some preferring to stay silent.
In a Facebook post by The G Spot, Mr. Tan endorsed the repeal of 377A by saying that “if my value system teaches me to discriminate, then I think I must reexamine [that] system.” In that same post was a photo of Mr. Tan holding a placard saying “I signed to support repealing 377A because 377A is obsolete.”
Mr. Tan told The Octant that signing the petition was his personal decision. “People shouldn’t be pressured to conform [to support the repeal] just because the president has taken a position.”
Many Yale-NUS students took to Facebook to share the Ready 4 Repeal link, encouraging their friends to sign the petition.
Paul Jerusalem ’19, a member of The G Spot, said that conversations about Section 377A are crucial in raising awareness of the negative impact of such a law.
Yale-NUS is “often likened to a ‘microcosm’ of various things,” he said. “It’s easy to mistake the freedom that several LGBT individuals at Yale-NUS have to express themselves as something that all other LGBT individuals in Singapore share.”
Jerusalem added that section 377A is also partly to blame for workplace discrimination, negative media representation of those in the LGBT community and obstacles to specific healthcare needs.
“While Section 377A only legally criminalizes sex between men, we cannot ignore the trickle-down effects that it has, as it institutionalizes homophobia and transphobia in Singapore society,” he added.
However, a student who wants to only be referred to as K, said that while he is homosexual, he does not believe that signing a petition for the repeal of 377A would make a big difference.
K said that while “the Yale-NUS community is generally for the repeal of 377A … there’s possibly a stronger conservative population than we think,” and that a greater part of the whole community remains “on the fence.”
K also questions the motivations of some who have signed the petition to repeal the law. “How much of the signing is a flippant feel good gesture to them, and how much of it is a genuine desire to see the political landscape change?” K asked.
For those less-than-informed about the concerns raised by Section 377A, awareness events around campus were in no short supply.
A public event organized by CAPE in conjunction with The G Spot and Inter-University LGBT Network titled “Why Can’t We Just Repeal 377A,” discussing the intricacies of the law, was led by Yang on Sept. 25. Another event titled “Why Can’t We Stop Talking About 377A” was organized by The G Spot on Sept. 16 and sought to discuss the practical implications of 377A on queer people in Singapore.
When asked about his thoughts behind the campaigning efforts on campus, Louis Ngia ’20, who identifies as heterosexual, said campaigning had been “carried out in a completely respectful manner.”
However, Ngia echoed K’s sentiments that no matter how many voices are heard, there will always be a silent part of the student body. “It is their right to be silent, as much as it is another’s right to engage, criticize and exhort in constructive ways,” Ngia said.
He said that one’s right to be silent, however, does not mean that being neutral is okay. “There is a civic duty to engage in difficult questions that one’s society faces,” Ngia said, “and to engage effectively is to take a position… this starts from empathizing and informing oneself.”
Religion, Conservatism, A Silent Population
When The Octant reached out to the executive committee of the Yale-NUS Christian Fellowship (CF), they declined to give an official stance on the retainment or repeal of section 377A.
“For Christian Fellowship, we are primarily committed towards proclaiming to all the central message of our faith: the good news of Jesus Christ,” said a CF representative. “We fear that an official comment on this issue will alienate and focus attention away from this core message of our faith.”
The representative also said that “a variety of opinions have emerged over this issue even among Christians, with no one single stance [on Section 377A] among them.”
“We [would] like to give more time and space for individuals in our community to understand this issue further by themselves … releasing an official comment on a public forum might be counterproductive towards that,” the representative added.
The Yale-NUS Christian Fellowship Facebook group — which has over 260 members — remains largely free of any discussion or promotion of events regarding Section 377A. There was only a single post by a member of the group reminding other members to bear in mind a verse from 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 of the Bible, which speaks of unconditional love “in the midst of all this 377A debate.”
The Octant spoke to two students who identify as Catholic, but both preferred to remain off the record.
The National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS), which represents about 200 churches, said in a statement on Sept. 13 that it does not support the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code. That view was also endorsed by the Archbishop of Singapore Reverend William Goh, in a letter to the Catholic community on Sept. 18. The Archbishop is generally considered to be the clergy member of greatest authority in the Singapore Archdiocese.
Reverend Goh said that he would not oppose the Repeal of 377A if “it were merely aimed at removing all potential criminal penalties against homosexuals.” In return, however, he insisted that Parliament had to ensure the rights of the majority who favored the traditional family and that “no further demands” would be made to legalize same-sex unions, adoption of babies by same-sex couples, surrogacy or even prosecuting those who do not support the “homosexual lifestyle.”
Several Yale-NUS students responded online to this statement, including Yang in a blog post. He noted that the statement was incongruous with the Holy See’s position on homosexuality, which urges nations not to discriminate against homosexuals and to do away with criminal penalties against them — and that Reverend Goh’s statement does not address this.
He also said that the Reverend’s demand that the possibility of further rights for LGBT people such as marriage and adoption be extinguished in exchange for the decriminalization of Section 377A is “troublingly undemocratic.”
“If the Most Reverend William Goh supports the decriminalization of Section 377A in principle but would rather hang that over the heads of gay people in exchange for what he may believe is to the benefit of society, that seems both exploitative and disingenuous,” Yang added.
Asher Chua ’19, who identifies as Christian, said that “it is painful to see what [some] people think of Christianity, but in a certain sense that’s also what we’ve presented.”
He acknowledged that “some members of the Christian community have fallen short [by having] a sense of superiority… and some have caricatured and singled out those … who don’t share the same view.”
Chua said that according to the Bible, homosexual acts are just like any other sin, and that “Christians believe that we are all sinners, and we’ve all fallen short.”
A student, who wanted only to be referred to as L and who is both a member of The G Spot and CF, said that they do not allow the constitution of the church dictate their faith and identity. “A lot of what I do and believe is based on my relationship with God rather than the legalistic aspects of it,” L said.
L added that “I will be answerable to God on my own terms,” and that “I shouldn’t worry about God punishing me or not giving me something and hence do something to ‘please’ Him.”
L also said that the repeal of 377A will not matter to the Christians if they hold firm to their faith. “If the repeal of the law shakes you and your faith, then maybe it’s a good time to strengthen your relationship with God,” L said.
The Muslim community also weighed in on the topic. The Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas) said in a statement on Sept. 19 that the repeal of 377A can “cause several worrying implications,” amongst them the threat to “the importance of the traditional family unit as the foundation of a society.”
Faris Joraimi ’21, who is Muslim and also queer, said that he “[has] to participate in discussions about section 377A,” but that these have been largely in private with his friends to whom he is out, but not with his family.
“In the public sphere, it is more difficult for me and other queer Muslims to engage in discourse and take a stance because it entails visibility and renders us vulnerable to severe backlash from other Muslims as well as members of our own family,” Faris said.
He said that of the many queer Muslims who have taken on the role of ambassador in support of the repeal, some have faced death threats.
The Islamic community consists of a plurality of voices, Faris said, but “the loudest voices of Muslims in the conversation are from those vehemently against repeal.” However, there are also “many [Muslims] that view Divine justice and mercy as taking precedence over our instinct for persecution and discrimination,” he added.
The Octant reached out to two other students who identified as Muslim, but both declined to comment.
The statement by Pergas went on to say that “our relationship with those from the LGBTQ community, just as how we interact with others, should be filled with mercy (rahmah) as we extend kindness to all.”
Though Faris said the statement is consistent with the way he views his faith, he believes that it also represents “intransigence on the part of conservative elements in Singapore’s Muslim community.” He said that this will only “pay lip-service to extending Divine mercy” instead of “engaging seriously with the LGBT community’s concerns.”
Ultimately, Faris said that “the State has no business regulating what happens in private if it does not harm or infringe the freedom of people of faith to practice their religion.”
This was the decision made in India’s landmark ruling, according to Pragya, where the Chief Justice of India established from the first day of the hearing that majoritarian views will not rule the decisions of the judiciary.
“That was enough to make a very broad claim that the majority can think whatever they want … but that does not mean we are going to undermine the rights of minorities,” Pragya added
Is there a Way Forward?
Despite the reignited discussions and optimism of repeal amongst the LGBT community and its allies, Yang said that India’s repeal of section 377 will have little influence on Singapore — for now.
“Judicial politics in Singapore are very different from India,” he said. The Singapore Court of Appeal is of the view that “developments abroad have at best a not very persuasive influence on the development of the law in Singapore,” he added.
Mr. Tan, however, told The Octant that he has a “much bigger vision.” He said that Yale-NUS can become a test bed for how Singapore can deal with such issues over the future.
“We can show how we can have disagreements but do so cordially and still engage with each other,” said Mr. Tan. “Currently the two sides in Singapore refuse to speak […] The church is afraid of a slippery slope yet doesn’t want to discriminate. How do you reconcile that?”
He said that one solution is to have student leaders emerge and guide the discussions along. “I would like to assume that people who come to this college have open minds; I would hope that people can sit down and engage, continue persuading,” said Mr. Tan, noting that “it will take time” to see changes.
“It’s got to be a culture of mutual trust and understanding. I want to create that culture,” he added.
Though Jerusalem agrees that listening to both sides of the conversation is helpful, he said that equal representation of voices may not be entirely productive. He wrote in a blog post that “when you say ‘let’s be objective and listen to both sides equally,’ you’re ignoring the fact that 377A has very different implications for Christians and for gay people.”
“For Christians, 377A is a ‘hot topic’,” he said, but “for [the LGBT community], it is something so deeply personal to us that has affected the way we perceive ourselves growing up.”
Aside from concerns about equal representation, Chua said that the comment sections on social media have become a “highly charged space,” and that he does not participate in online debate “because it is very binary” and can become “alienating.”
“Saying that I’m in support of the law opens everything else up for criticism without actually weighing the [justifications],” Chua said.
Chua said that rather than engaging in words, he would much rather “engage in a way that [goes] back to loving and extending grace to individuals.”
“When I relate to you as a person, then it changes things completely,” he said.