Singapore Gay Sex Ban: Court Rejects Appeals To Overturn Law


On March 30th, 2020, a bid to overturn a law that criminalizes gay sex in Singapore was dismissed by the country’s High Court. Three gay men, a doctor, a DJ, and an LGBT rights advocate challenged the court in order to prove the unconstitutionality of the law. However, the High Court dismissed all three of them, ruling that the law did not violate articles of the constitution regarding equality and freedom of speech. The court also disregarded the lack of enforcement of the law, although the complainants argued that this lack of enforcement “render[ed] it redundant.”

A summary of the judgement by Judge See Kee Oon stated that “Legislation remains important in reflecting public sentiment and beliefs.” Singapore’s leaders, including its current Prime Minister, have chosen to maintain the law, claiming that “it reflects the conservative mores of the city state’s society,” according to an article by the BBC. Meanwhile, M Ravi, a lawyer for one of the complainants, was “very disappointed” by the ruling, saying that “It’s shocking to the conscience and it is so arbitrary.” Bryan Choong, one of the complainants, told Reuters news agency that “my eyes are firmly on the road ahead.”

The most damaging part of this reversal is its supposed reflection of public sentiment and beliefs. After India repealed a similar law, a prominent Singapore diplomat pushed for similar challenges, and Law Minister K. Shanmugam stated that a “growing minority” wished for the repeal of the law, and that laws should keep pace with societal change. Polls in Singapore reflect these sentiments. Téa Braun, director of Human Dignity Trust, a London-based rights group, said that “In declining to strike out this archaic and discriminatory law, the court has reaffirmed that all gay men in Singapore are effectively unapprehended criminals.”

This quote strikes at the heart of this issue. Rather than treating those members of apparently non-traditional societal groups as normal citizens, Singapore and many other nations choose to criminalize them. Not only must they face potential discrimination and harassment from their fellow citizens, but also from the government that is meant to protect them. This treatment is cruel and unusual, and although the law is not enforced, the knowledge that one is an ‘‘unapprehended criminal’’ for an unchangeable trait can be incredibly damaging to the psyche.

This lack of enforcement is the most telling part of this anti-LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgender) culture. Despite the fact that the letter of the law no longer matters to the government, they choose to uphold it solely for the purpose of reinforcing a conservative class that may soon be overtaken by a liberal minority. Decriminalizing homosexuality would change nothing about the use and implementation of the law; however, it would improve the lives and mental health of the innocent people whose own relationships are affected by this law. Although the Singaporean government believes that it is taking a neutral stance by maintaining such legislation, the government is actively harming its own citizens in order to, supposedly, build up a conservative class that is quickly shrinking in size.

The law, Section 377A, was first introduced in 1938 by British colonial rulers. It carries a maximum penalty of two years in jail for homosexual acts. The first challenge to the law was dismissed in 2014. This repeated failure stands in sharp contrast to other Asian states. India’s Supreme Court decriminalized gay sex in 2018 by overturning similar legislation created during their time during British rule, and Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019. There are currently 70 countries which criminalize same-sex relations.

This ruling is a major setback in the progression of LGBT rights not only in Singapore, but throughout Asia. The status quo may remain the same, but it has been deeply reinforced. By refusing to improve the lives of its citizens, Singapore has reaffirmed to the world that it only cares for those that fit into the mainstream of their culture. This implicit cruelty will linger over its head and over the heads of its citizens until this legislation can be overturned and Singapore signals to the world that it does worry for the lives of its citizens, no matter how progressive or traditional they appear to be.