Last week, Vincent Wijeysingha became the first Singaporean politician to come out of the closet — in the conservative city-state where men were convicted for homosexual behavior as recently as seven years ago. He is advocating for the law to be scrapped.
In an interview on Monday, Wijeysingha, treasurer of the opposition Singapore Democratic Party, said that although the government resists decriminalizing homosexuality, “society will eventually overtake it on this question.”
“I am entirely convinced the law will eventually be repealed,” he said.
The decades-old law makes “gross indecency” between men punishable by up to two years in prison. It has not been actively enforced in recent years, but 185 men were convicted under the law between 1997 and 2006, government data showed.
Complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation have become less common in Singapore, but until a decade ago, government policies barred gays from “sensitive positions” in the civil service and imposed strict censorship on gay-related content in movies and TV shows.
Gay rights have grown around the world; more than a dozen countries and 13 US states now allow same-sex marriage. However, according to the UN, about 75 countries continue to criminalize homosexual behavior; in a few of them, it is punishable by death.
Singapore’s High Court in April rejected a bid by a gay couple to scrap the city-state’s law, ruling that parliament should be responsible for making any changes.
Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) said earlier this year that these were “not issues that we can settle one way or the other, and it’s really best for us just to leave them be, and just agree to disagree.”
Gay-rights activists said that is unacceptable to the growing number of gays in the nation. Saturday’s Pink Dot gay advocacy rally drew more than 20,000 people, the best showing ever for the event, an annual event held since 2009.
The rally played a role in Wijeysingha’s announcement. He had spoken at past forums on gay issues, and associates and friends had known that he is gay, but he confirmed it publicly on his Facebook page by saying “yes, I am going to Pink Dot ... and yes, I am gay.”
“It’s the first time he has said it so explicitly in public,” said Siew Kum Hong, a lawyer and political commentator. “To that extent, it does show that Singapore society is opening up more, since he obviously does not think that it is fatal to his electoral chances.”
Baey Yam Keng, a lawmaker from the ruling People’s Action Party, said that although he is unsure how most Singaporeans feel about homosexuality, “the time will come for parliament to open up another debate” on decriminalizing it.
“There is a lot of stigma still associated with homosexuality in Singapore,” Baey said. “Even though more people showed up at this year’s Pink Dot event, including straight people, it’s hard to say if homosexuality is widely acceptable yet in Singapore. But I think it is important for stakeholders and the government to be open and have continuous engagement regarding this issue.”
Wijeysingha said the best response he has received is from young people who have told him that he has given them courage by coming out. He added that he will work on more than gay rights.
“My value system is one of equal rights to all,” he said. “Human rights are indivisible.”