377A: Gay marriage looms as new frontline in Singapore battle for LGBT rights

On Sunday night, groups of gay Singaporeans and their friends gathered across the island to watch history unfold on national TV.
On screen, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that the country would repeal the controversial 377A law – effectively legalising homosexuality.

Many cheered, and some waved rainbow flags. But their joy was immediately tempered by uncertainty and disappointment as Mr Lee followed up with another announcement.

Since most Singaporeans do not want a “drastic shift”, he said, his government would also “protect” the definition of marriage as one between a man and a woman – effectively ruling out the possibility of marriage equality for now.

And so, even as some Singaporeans celebrate a landmark decision, a new front line has already emerged in the battle for LGBT rights.
Officials told local media they would amend the constitution so that parliament alone has the power to redefine marriage.
This puts any decision on gay marriage firmly in the hands of the government, not the courts.
Mr Lee argued in his speech that this was necessary as gay marriage is fundamentally a political issue, not a legal one.
But legal experts say it shuts off a path to recognising same-sex unions as it makes it more arduous to mount constitutional challenges. In some countries, such as the US, gay marriage had become a reality through landmark court decisions.
“One reason must be that the government needed to achieve a balance between competing interests,” Singapore constitutional law expert Suang Wijaya said.
“They want to be seen as giving something to the LGBT community, but also not give a defeat to the conservatives. They don’t want it be a ‘I win and you lose’ situation as it would result in division.”

RELATED: 377A repeal: Singapore turns page on dark LGBT history

Standing in Singapore’s tranquil Esplanade Park, Russell Heng pointed to the spot where he was once caught by the police – just for being gay.
It looks like any other tree-lined corner in the city. But back in the 1980s, before the age of the internet and Grindr, it was a popular meeting spot for gay men in a country where homosexuality was effectively criminalised.

Nicknamed the Feet of Five Trees, the spot’s towering raintrees provided cover and seclusion, recalled Mr Heng, a playwright and activist.

“We were roaming about that night. And then suddenly, there was a loud voice – a plainclothes policeman – who started shouting at us,” he said.

The men were forced to line up in a row as the policeman fiercely berated them. “He said ‘You should be ashamed of yourself’.
“We were just walking in the park,” he said. “You felt psychologically that maybe you did something wrong… basically it was bullying.”
For decades, Singapore’s government preserved the controversial 377A law inherited from British rule, which banned sex between two men.
Authorities argued that it reflected Singapore society’s view that homosexuality was not acceptable.
But last week its parliament repealed the law, just months after leader Lee Hsien Loong’s surprise announcement they would scrap the ban because of changing attitudes.

The repeal of 377A turns the page on a dark chapter of Singapore history that is rarely talked about these days, where gay men not only faced intense social stigma but were even actively targeted by authorities.

Mr Heng and the other men at Esplanade Park that night were let off with only a warning. But others were not so lucky.
For several decades, the police would conduct so-called “anti-gay” raids on nightclubs that gay men were known to frequent, or cruising spots in beaches and parks.

RELATED: 377: The British colonial law that left an anti-LGBTQ legacy in Asia

For much of the past two centuries, it was illegal to be gay in a vast swathe of the world – thanks to colonial Britain.
Till today, colonial-era laws that ban homosexuality continue to exist in former British territories including parts of Africa and Oceania.

But it is in Asia where they have had a significantly widespread impact. This is the region where, before India legalised homosexual sex in 2018, at least one billion people lived with anti-LGBTQ legislation.

It can be traced back to one particular law first conceptualised in India, and one man’s mission to “modernise” the colony.

‘Exotic, mystical Orient’

Currently, it is illegal to be gay in around 69 countries, nearly two-thirds of which were under some form of British control at one point of time.


By: Miss Cherry May Timbol – Independent Reporter

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