Singapore’s life after 377A

It’s a humid Sunday evening in Singapore on August 21, 2022. A sizeable crowd of LGBTQ+ people and their allies gathers at a bar by the Singapore River. They congregate around a large screen, watching as Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong addresses the nation during his annual National Day Rally speech. It’s a speech that garners the attention of millions of Singaporeans within the highly patriotic country. On the screen, Lee stands in front of an ochre backdrop, taking a breath before announcing his government will repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code. History has been made for Singapore’s LBGTQ+ community. Cheers erupt and tears are shed as the crowd witnesses the end of a decades-long crusade to decriminalise sex between men.

“I believe this is the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept. This will bring the law into line with current social mores, and I hope, provide some relief to gay Singaporeans,” Lee says.

Cheers fill the room at Projector X: Riverside, an independent cinema and bar at the centre of Singapore’s Clarke Quay. Video: Boo Junfeng.

Singapore’s Parliament passed legislation to enact the repeal on November 29. A constitutional amendment to prevent Singaporeans arguing for same-sex marriage rights through the courts was also passed in a move by the government to protect its right to define marriage.

A large lawn in front of a building
Singapore’s Parliament House. Photo: Seamus Harrison.

Singaporean LGBTQ+ author, activist and researcher Ng Yi-Sheng wears a floral blue shirt and crosses his legs atop a grey sofa chair. Diffuse light shines on his jovial face as he eloquently describes his country’s long and arduous journey to decriminalising male homosexuality.

“It just felt like a wave crashing and crashing against a dam until suddenly, the dam broke,” the two-time Singapore Literature Prize winner says.

Ng recalls hearing rumours Prime Minister Lee would announce 377A’s repeal during his annual National Day Rally speech.

“There had been news about it happening. But I didn’t dare to believe the news. Because, I mean, this is something we’ve been fighting for through the court since 2011,” he says.

Despite being accompanied by a marriage-rights concession, Ng says the repeal is cause for celebration.

“At long last, after thirty years of activism, we’ve won. Sure, it’s not a perfect victory, but it’s the first major one we’ve scored within my lifetime,” he says.

Introduced in 1938 when Singapore was under British colonial rule, Section 377A identified sex between two consenting adult males as a criminal offence. It carried a sentence of up to two years in prison, but had not been actively enforced since September 2, 2010, when Singaporean Tan Eng Hong was charged with the law after he was arrested for public sex. Later that month, Tan went on to launch the first unsuccessful Supreme Court challenge calling into question the constitutionality of 377A.

Ng and other LGBTQ+ campaigners in Singapore say the repeal is important because it gives the community a way forward in their fight for inclusion in Singapore’s housing, adoption, and anti-discrimination policies.

Speaking in Singapore ahead of the repeal on November 29, LGBTQ+ advocate Bryan Choong says such policy changes would need to undo decades of institutional discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.

“377A has a trickle down effect on public policy,” he says. “Government agencies and ministries take their cues from their political masters.

“So as long as 377A is in place, public policy will continue to be shaped by it. For example, it continues to affect whether we can introduce anti-discrimination protections for LGBTQ+ people in the workplace. It also means we continue to face the restriction of sexuality education in Singapore’s mainstream schools.”

A man sitting in front of a laptop
When Bryan Choong completed a master’s degree in public health at the University of Edinburgh, part of him didn’t want to return to Singapore because he had experienced living without a concern for laws persecuting his sexuality. Photo: Supplied.

Choong is demonstrably familiar with the impacts of 377A on Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community. He was the executive director of Oogachaga, Singapore’s only LGBTQ+ dedicated counselling and community education organisation, from 2009 to 2015. He has also been involved with two of the country’s three Supreme Court challenges to the constitutionality of 377A.

In 2011, same-sex couple Lim Meng Suang and Kenneth Chee filed Singapore’s second ever Supreme Court challenge to 377A. The couple of 15 years at the time argued the law was inconsistent with Article 12 of the Constitution, which states everyone is “equal before the law and entitled to the equal protection of the law”.

Choong recalls: “I wrote in a supporting affidavit as the head of Oogachaga highlighting how the existence of the law itself can actually cause a lot of detrimental results to a lot of people, especially gay and bisexual men in Singapore.”

He was also among a group of people who fronted fundraising efforts to support Suang and Chee’s court battle. The group managed to raise S$100,000 ($A108,869) overnight.

“We actually managed to raise the money at such a fast speed that we surprised ourselves and were surprised by the community,” he says.

Choong was more directly involved in the latest court challenge, which was launched in 2018 and was fought until it was struck down in March this year by Singapore’s Court of Appeal, just five months before Prime Minister Lee announced 377A’s repeal. Choong joined the challenge, also fronted by Roy Tan Seng Kee and Johnson Ong Ming, to try to remove the legal barrier preventing Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community from accessing public policies.

“I can work as an LGBTQ+ counsellor and I can raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues as an activist. But if the root issue [377A] is not resolved, we will just be constantly scratching the surface,” he says.

Will the repeal impact access to housing?

Licensed real estate agent William Tan takes a seat outside a French pastry shop in Tiong Bahru, Singapore’s oldest public housing estate. The area is full of hip cafes and shops. It exudes an antiquated charm not often found among the high-rise apartments and buildings that populate the city-state. Tan explains how many of the flats around the bakery are now privatised and often bought or leased by expatriates. He says the private housing market is one of the few options same-sex couples have when purchasing housing. In a country where 80 percent of citizens live in government housing, however, this option is inaccessible for most same-sex couples looking to buy their first property.

“For someone to buy a private property often isn’t possible because of financial restraints. Buying government housing has some incentive to it, but private property is very expensive in Singapore.”

Tan offers real-estate advice to Singapore’s LGBTQ+ community through his organisation Prident. He often meets with young gay Singaporeans to discuss their housing options.

“Most of the time, when I sit down with an individual who is maybe in his late 20s or early 30s, we go through the financial calculations, and I often end up telling them ‘you don’t have enough savings or money to go into that, you have to wait until you’re 35’. It’s very challenging for them,” he explains.

Young same-sex couples often have to wait until they’re 35 to enter the housing market. That is when they qualify to buy property from Singapore’s Housing and Development Board (HDB) under the government’s Singles Scheme. Existing policies deny gay couples access to government housing initiatives that allow heterosexual couples to purchase HDB flats from the age of 21 if they are engaged. Tan says this can leave gay couples in a worse-off position financially than their heterosexual counterparts because their ability to build their assets is delayed. He explains this disparity exists because Singapore’s public housing policy is centred around the need to form a family nucleus.

“The definition of family nucleus is very clearly defined as either a married couple, or parents and children,” he says.

“Same-sex couples are not included in the government’s definition of a family nucleus. There’s actually no mention in public housing policy of LGBTQ+ people at all.”

A man standing in front of a building
Tan gives a tour of Tiong Bahru. Photo: Seamus Harrison.

Despite leaving much room for improvement when it comes to a fair HDB housing policy for same-sex couples, Tan says a positive impact of 377A’s repeal will be felt by gay renters. He says the law currently gives people a reason to label gay men as criminals. This can see same-sex couples face discrimination in the rental market because all tenancy contracts contain a clause that says you aren’t allowed to use the rental property for any illegal activities.

“A gay man or a gay couple who rents a place can potentially be seen to be engaging in an illegal activity because of the very fact that 377A says two-men having sex even within a private compound is still illegal,” he explains.

“It always lingers there, you know, that a potentially unfriendly landlord could use that as an excuse to evict a tenant. So 377A coming down is going to be good for people who are renting because they don’t have to worry about that anymore.”

What does the repeal mean for same-sex parents?

Australian Cameron Sutherland and Singaporean Andre Ling are no strangers to uncomfortable encounters with real estate agents and landlords in Singapore. Married in Australia, the pair moved to the country with their now three-year-old son Tyler in 2019. They relocated to work on the Singaporean branch of their web-hosting business, and for Tyler to be closer to his Singaporean grandparents. The parents also wanted their son to be exposed to Singapore’s many cultures, and for him to experience the nation’s world-renowned education system. Speaking over a video call from their home, the pair recalls some of their strange experiences finding a rental property.

“When we were looking at properties to rent, the real estate agent would ask where the mother was,” says Sutherland.

“At one place we were looking to move into, the agent came back and said that the landlord wanted to see Tyler’s birth certificate.”

A group of people sitting posing for the camera
From left to right: Tyler Sutherland-Ling, Andre Ling and Cameron Sutherland. Photo: Supplied.

In Singapore, the couple’s union is not recognised. Tyler is registered as Sutherland’s dependent child and has no legal link to Ling. This forms a part of the reason they believe 377A’s repeal is only a very small step forwards for LGBTQ+ rights in Singapore.

“It’s not something that anybody apart from single gay individuals will focus on, especially when you have a family,” says Ling.

“It means nothing much to us really.”

Sutherland says much more work needs to be done to address institutional discrimination against same-sex parents in Singapore.

“We have friends that are permanent residents and citizens here who have kids through surrogacy. They’re going to have to leave Singapore because the government will not issue their children student passes,” he says.

“Singapore has very strong definition of what they consider to be a family unit. So, one father, one mother. They do not accept that a child can be born through surrogacy, IVF, or to same-sex parents. This causes an issue for same-sex parents whereby the government just will not grant student passes to the children of same-sex parents who are permanent residents or citizens for that reason.

“I hold an employment pass here in Singapore and Tyler is my dependent so he can attend school without the need of a student pass. That’s where we as a family are more fortunate than a lot of Singapore citizens and permanent residents.”

Changing attitudes

A June survey by global market researcher Ipsos found only 36 percent of Singaporeans believe people should be able to participate in same-sex relationships. This number is low, however there is progress in the 45 percent of Singaporeans who say they have become more accepting of same-sex relationships over the last three years. Attitudes are changing. Slowly, but surely.

Certified tour guide and Pride Community co-founder Isaac Tng says the laws of the day have a strong influence on what many Singaporeans believe to be right or wrong. He hopes the repeal will contribute to Singapore’s already changing attitudes towards same-sex relationships.

“Sometimes you’re unable to free the minds of people who think this way unless as a person of authority, you say that these [LGBTQ+] people deserve rights,” he says.

“So if the government starts implementing more rights to individuals like us, my hope is that society at large will start to open up more.”

The 2022 Curtin Journalism Singapore Study Tour was funded under the federal government’s New Colombo Plan scheme.