Singapore repeals colonial-era law criminalizing gay sex. In other countries in the region, however, homosexuality is still a punishable offense.
Munich/Singapore – Once a year, half of Singapore gathers in front of the television. Always shortly after the Asian city-state’s national day, the prime minister steps in front of the TV cameras to talk about his government’s plans for the future. The “National Day Rally” has been an integral part of the country’s political folklore for decades; in the days that followed, it dominated the newspaper headlines, and pollsters asked citizens what they thought of the speech.
Joshua Simon watched Premier Lee Hsien Loong’s performance this time with his best friend. “When the speech began, I was frozen,” says the young man. “We looked at each other and then back at the screen and could hardly believe it.” Because what Prime Minister Lee announced that evening at the end of August was a small revolution: According to the 70-year-old, his government would abolish a decades-old law that criminalizes sex between men. “I had never heard the word ‘gay’ on TV so often before,” Joshua Simon said a few days after the historic speech. “We shrieked and applauded when it was announced that Section 377A was to be repealed.”
Paragraph 377A dates back to British colonial times and was introduced in 1938. Only men were affected, not women. There have been many attempts to abolish it, but so far these have been in vain. For years, the Singapore government performed a strange balancing act: In order not to anger either side – neither the gay activists nor the representatives of conservative groups – paragraph 377A remained in force, but was no longer applied. So sex between men remained forbidden, but there were no convictions.
Premier Lee: ‘Given some relief to gay Singaporeans’
For Joshua Simon, however, the end of the “gay paragraph” was an important step. “Gay men are finally no longer treated like criminals,” he says in an interview with the Frankfurter Rundschau of IPPEN.MEDIA . Simon is one of the two hosts of the English language podcast The SG Boys. Together with Sam Jo, the 32-year-old talks about gay relationships, coming out and love in the age of dating apps once a month.
However, few men in Singapore are as open about their homosexuality as Joshua Simon. Because the society of the country with 5.5 million inhabitants is still very conservative. But things are gradually changing: According to a survey in 2018, more than half of those surveyed were in favor of Section 377A remaining in force. Four years later it was only 44 percent. A success of activists who have repeatedly pointed out that the country’s constitution actually guarantees its citizens equality before the law.
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“Like any human society, we have gay people in our midst,” Prime Minister Lee said in his speech announcing the end of the discriminatory paragraph. “They are our fellow citizens in Singapore. They are our colleagues, our friends, our family members.” Repealing the gay rights paragraph is “the right thing to do and something that most Singaporeans will accept.” He hopes, Lee said, that the move “will bring some relief to gay Singaporeans.”
Singapore: The opening of marriage for all is still a long time coming
At the same time, Prime Minister Lee made it clear that marriage will not be opened up to same-sex couples any time soon. On the contrary: the son of the founder of the state, Lee Kuan Yew, wants to change the constitution to ensure that neither two men nor two women will be able to exchange vows in the future.
Podcaster Joshua Simon nevertheless believes that Singapore will eventually introduce “marriage for all”. “Many of us didn’t think that Section 377A would be repealed in our lifetime – but it’s happening now!” he says. Not quite so optimistic is Faze, a 28-year-old stockbroker. “Marriage for everyone? Someday maybe,” he says. “People here are still conservative, so one step at a time.”
Opposition to the opening of marriage comes primarily from the Catholic Church, but also from representatives of other religions. Almost every third resident of Singapore describes himself as a Buddhist, almost a fifth as Christians, and 16 percent are Muslims. Paragraph 377A is now being repealed, even against their sometimes bitter resistance.
But discrimination against homosexuals persists in other areas. “Traditional” family values should continue to be taught in schools, for example. Educational institutions should “not become places where socially divisive issues are advertised or argued about,” the Ministry of Education recently declared. In addition, the country’s Ministry of Communications made it clear that films showing “alternative sexualities” can still only be released to viewers aged 21 and over.
Homosexuality in Asia: between same-sex marriage – and 20 years in prison
Joshua Simon from the “SG Boys” does not want to let his optimism be taken away. “Society is changing because people’s mentalities are changing,” he says. Indeed, not only in Singapore but elsewhere in Asia, there is reason for hope. India, for example, abolished its paragraph 377 four years ago, which also dates from the time of British colonization and has made sex between men a crime since the mid-19th century.
Thailand, which wants to be the second country in Asia to introduce marriage for all, could soon go one step further. In Taiwan it was already 2019, same-sex couples have been able to get married there ever since. With Audrey Tang, there has even been a transgender minister in the government of the democratically governed island state for a few years.
That would be unthinkable in China, where so many people and accordingly more gays and lesbians live than in any other country in the world. There, the government of state and party leader Xi Jinping has been taking action against allegedly “unmanly” behavior for years. Lesbian kisses are cut out of Hollywood films, and there are hardly any public coming-outs by Chinese celebrities. At the same time, however, the operator of Blued, which claims to be the world’s largest dating app for gay men, is based there.
The situation is even grimmer than in China, just a few kilometers from Singapore, in Malaysia. Homosexuality is illegal in the predominantly Muslim country, violators face up to 20 years in prison and beatings with a stick. That won’t change any time soon, believes Han, a student from Malaysia who lives in Singapore. “The fact that Section 377A is to be abolished here has no impact on politics in Malaysia,” he says. Many Malays are proud of their Muslim heritage and see homosexuality as an “import from the West”. “And they reject Western values,” says Han. After all, he can live and love openly gay in Singapore – and now it’s completely legal.