Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has reiterated his position on section 377A of the Penal Code, the law which criminalises sex between adult males, even if the act is consensual.
“My personal view is that if I don’t have a problem, this is an uneasy compromise, I am prepared to live with it until social attitudes change,” Mr Lee said in an interview with the BBC’s Stephen Sackur, for the programme HARDTalk which will be aired today, Wednesday.
Mr Sackur had asked for Mr Lee’s personal views on the contentious issue, and whether Mr Lee would, all things being equal, prefer to get rid of s377A.
The anti-gay law, as it is sometimes called, is a subsection of s377, a pass-down from British times.
Section 377 itself criminalised oral and anal sex between consenting adults, both heterosexual and homosexual. However, in 2007, the government under PM Lee, repealed s377 but retained the subsection 377a.
The government had said, and maintains to this day, that Singapore society is not ready for it to be repealed; and that s337a in the law books serves as a sign post of society’s disapproval of homosexuality, especially as part of a nucleus family unit.
Indeed, as recently as 2015, in a report to the United Nations, the government said that the LGBT issue is a sensitive one especially given Singapore’s multi-religious society where, it says, segments “continue to hold strong views against homosexuality for various reasons, including religious convictions and moral values”.
Its approach, it explained, is to seek to “accommodate the sensitivities of different communities so that there is room for all to exist harmoniously together”.
The government also said it did not “proactively enforce” s377a, and that “all citizens, regardless of their sexual orientation, are free to lead their lives and pursue their activities in their private space without fear or violence or personal insecurity.”
But would PM Lee change his mind about the law if any of his children or grandchildren was gay?
Here, it is interesting to compare PM Lee’s answer with that given by his late father, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew, when the latter was asked the same question for his book, Hard Truth To Keep Singapore Going, in 2011.
PM Lee’s reply to Mr Sackur’s question veered, somehow inexplicably, towards the question of gay marriage, instead of whether he would change the law on gay sex.
“I think that it’s a law which is there,” PM Lee said.
He then elaborated on his point:
“If I remove it, I will not remove the problem. Because if you look at what has happened in the west, in Britain you decriminalised it in the 1960s, your attitudes have changed a long way but even now gay marriage is contentious. In America, it’s very contentious. Even in France, in Paris, they’ve had demonstrations in the streets against gay marriage.”
This was the senior Lee’s respond to the same question posed to him for his book in 2011:
Q: This is more of a personal question, but how would you feel if one of your grandchildren were to say to you that he or she is gay?
Lee Kuan Yew: That’s life. They’re born with that genetic code, that’s that. Dick Cheney didn’t like gays but his daughter was born like that. He says, “I still love her, full stop.” It’s happened to his family. So on principle he’s against it, but it’s his daughter. Do you throw the daughter out? That’s life. I mean none of my children is gay, but if they were, well that’s that.
Mr Lee gave a more direct question compared to that offered by his son.
Mr Lee had, on several occasions when the subject was raised, always taken a scientific attitude on why some are gay.
He didn’t, for example, think homosexuality was a lifestyle, and that gay people could choose whether they wanted to be gay. Mr Lee believed that it was genetic.
“No, it’s not a lifestyle,” he had said. “You can read the books all you want, all the articles. There’s a genetic difference, so it’s not a matter of choice. They are born that way and that’s that.”
Ultimately, however, Mr Lee’s position on the law itself does not differ from that of PM Lee.
When asked if he would abolish s377a if he were still the prime minister then, Mr Lee replied:
“If I were the prime minister I would hesitate to push it through against the prevailing sentiment, against the prevailing values of society. You’re going against the current of the people, the underlying feeling. What’s the point of that, you know, breaking new ground and taking unnecessary risk? It will evolve over time, as so many things have, because after a while my own sort of maturing process will take place with other people.”
Let society evolve and the government will follow suit, is what the government is saying.
But isn’t it true, as one commentator online posted in response to PM Lee’s remarks, that more progressive laws often usher in more progressive social attitudes?
And that discriminatory laws, such as s377a, prolong discriminatory attitudes?
For gay people and activists who want to see change, perhaps the way to convince the government of this is that society’s attitudes have, in fact, changed. And when it is proved that this is so, the government’s last and only reason it has offered for retaining the law vanishes.
There would then be no reason for s377a not to be repealed, forever.
Until then, unfortunately, it seems all other arguments, no matter how well-thought out, are not going to nudge the government into decriminalising consensual sex between adult males.
Here is the short clip of the interview: