Singapore’s top court on Wednesday heard the first legal challenges to its colonial-era gay sex law since similar legislation was scrapped in India last year, an issue that divides the socially-conservative city-state.
Three activists are arguing that Section 377A, a rarely-used law under which a man found to have committed an act of gross indecency with another man could be jailed for up to two years, was unconstitutional. The law does not apply to lesbians.
Previous efforts to repeal the law in 2014 failed, but activists have been emboldened by the landmark Indian ruling, polls suggesting attitudes towards homosexuals are changing, and a perceived softening in tone from establishment figures.
Homosexual males are not lesser Singaporeans. They…deserve the same respect and legal protection under the Constitution. Section 377A…violates those fundamental constitutional protections, Brian Choong, one of the three, said in a written submission seen by Reuters.
Wednesday’s hearings, the first of a number to be heard over the coming weeks, were not open to the public. The Attorney-General’s Chambers, acting as defendant, did not respond to a request for comment.
India scrapped its gay sex ban in September 2018, a landmark judgement that prompted celebrations across India and elsewhere in South Asia, where activists hoped to push for similar reform.
Gay sex is criminalised in about 70 countries globally, according to International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association.
Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has previously said that Singapore society is not that liberal on these matters.
However, following the Indian decision, a prominent Singaporean diplomat called for challenges to the legislation while law minister K. Shanmugam said a growing minority wanted it repealed and that Singapore’s laws should keep pace with societal change.
Recent surveys show there is growing acceptance of homosexuality. In a poll released in May by Singapore think-tank Institute of Policy Studies, opposition to gay marriage fell to 60%, down from 74% in 2013.
In his submission filed by his lawyers, Choong also argues that recently declassified documents from the UK National Archives show that that original purpose of the law was to stamp out male prostitution and it should therefore not apply more broadly to all male homosexuals.
The ruling will be watched closely in neighbouring Malaysia where gay sex is also a crime and led to the conviction of prominent politician Anwar Ibrahim, who is now broadly seen as the country’s prime minister-in-waiting.