In its 57 years as a republic, Singapore has strived to be at or near the top of the global class. Survival meant nothing less than being a haven for foreign corporations — and, with some caveats, the talent they require. Implicit in that largely successful message is that Singapore should avoid too many strikes against it. That is one way to interpret the scrapping of a contentious law outlawing gay sex — in addition to moral arguments for its abolition.
After a long period of deliberation and consultation, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (李顯龍) on Sunday said the government would abolish a colonial-era law that prohibits sex between men. The step, elevated by its inclusion in the prime minister’s National Day Rally address that also emphasized the need to attract top brains to the city-state, rids Singapore of what Lee called an “untidy compromise” — or “state-sanctioned discrimination” as the LGBTQ community described it.
The regulation, known as Section 377A of the Penal Code, has remained on the books since the 1930s, though not actively enforced for more than a decade. Leaders acknowledged attitudes have evolved, but were wary of a potential backlash from religious groups.
“This is the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept,” the prime minister said.
While the repeal is a win for the LGBTQ community, it comes with important caveats. Lee signaled a limited appetite for further liberalization: His speech stopped short of embracing same-sex unions and officials foreshadowed legal changes that would protect the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman.
“Most Singaporeans do not want the repeal to trigger a drastic shift in our societal norms across the board, including how we define marriage, what we teach children in schools, what is shown on free-to-air television and in cinemas, or what is generally acceptable conduct in public,” Lee added.
It is unclear what, if any, legal protections will guard against discrimination for LGBTQ citizens, beyond not having committed an offense. Tough questions loom. Given same-sex relationships are not legally recognized, will hospitals prevent a partner from visiting their spouse or taking medical decisions on their behalf? Will landlords feel free to discriminate against tenants, current or prospective? And what of visas for partners of the talented executives and entrepreneurs Singapore is trying hard to attract?
Rival Hong Kong allowed gay expat workers to bring in their partners on dependent visas after a court ruling in 2018. We will have to wait to see the contours of Singapore’s legislation — and what accompanies it.
Do not look for too much envelope pushing, at least publicly. While ministers had signaled for months that change was coming, they stressed that companies and people should stay in their lane. By linking careful deliberation over 377A to communal harmony, officials limited the space for advocacy that might be considered too edgy.
The local LGBTQ scene was not underground by any means; each year a park on the edges of the financial district played host to a vibrant pride festival. One thing the state did not want is multinational corporations, or foreign leaders, to take a high profile.
Foreign employers were warned off sponsoring the festival years ago. This month, when a visiting US Congressional delegation led by US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi asked business to support the gay community, given more US firms were coming to Singapore, there was a swift rebuke.
“These are matters for Singaporeans to discuss and come to a consensus on how to move forward,” the Ministry of Home Affairs said in a statement.
Lee did not explicitly tie 377A to Singapore’s relative attractiveness as a regional base camp for global capital and labor. However, it is hard to ignore the links. Over the years, companies have faced difficulties in obtaining visas for same-sex partners, although the government has handled some of this on a case-by-case basis. Lee’s speech on Sunday warned Singaporeans against closing up shop. That is important because during the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath, Singapore did convey a sense that it was not entirely open to the rest of the world.
“In this global contest for talent, Singapore cannot afford to be creamed off, or left behind,” Lee said.
While Hong Kong’s brand has been tarnished by its poor handling of the pandemic and the imposition of the National Security Law, Singapore cannot allow itself to be left behind. It needs to balance its innate conservatism against a changing neighborhood. India’s top court legalized sex between men in a landmark ruling in 2018 that also abolished S377 from its penal code.
Thailand this year has moved toward allowing these unions. Same-sex marriage has been legal in Australia for several years. Lee saved the big news on 377A for the English version of his speech Sunday, leaving it out of the Malay and Chinese statements.
Pragmatism is often said to be a trademark of Singapore. Only through a surplus of practicality and attentiveness to trends beyond its shores does the tiny republic stand a chance of surviving, let alone thriving. The limbo on 377A became more problematic than it is worth.
Singapore is ready to move on — but no further than it considers absolutely necessary.
Daniel Moss is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering Asian economies. This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.
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