Singapore’s New Marriage Laws Are Not Any Better

Last week, Singaporean Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made a landmark announcement on an infamous article of legislation – section 377A, which explicitly forbids sex between men on penalty of two years prison, would be repealed in the coming months. The announcement elaborated that the constitution would be amended to define marriage as an institution existing solely between a man and a woman.

The PAP, Singapore’s ruling party, has long maintained the formerly British legal systems on the principle that the country was and remains profoundly conservative, which has been validated by popular opinion. However, since parliamentary debate in 2007, the law has not been enforced. This was upheld by a landmark 2018 case which ruled that 377A was unenforceable but could not (yet) be struck down. But beneath passive tolerance for gay couples, institutionalised homophobia in
“public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards and film classification” runs deep, according to SAFE. The average observer will note movies with gay representation are
rated “R”, are trimmed, or both, books in stores discussing homosexuality are wrapped in cellophane and labelled with a warning, and schools scare students with graphic photos of gay men with STIs.

To date, only one landmark case allowed a gay man to be granted legal guardianship of a child birthed by a surrogate mother abroad, without the man’s husband being
granted guardianship. The court further underlined that Singaporean laws on marriage were applicable extraterritorially, and that future cases would face great difficulty being granted
guardianship in similar circumstances.

Despite this discriminatory background, the past decade’s remarkable globalisation of LGBT values have markedly affected public opinion: support for the law fell below 50% for the first time in 2022. A shifting zeitgeist spurs decriminalisation – following increasing social pressure visible in events such as the Pink Dot parade, law minister K. Shanmugam among others promised new legislation that would balance conservative values with shifting social currents.

When this resulted in the recent announcement, the LGBT community’s jubilee was dampened by the powerful
reaffirmation of institutionalised homophobia; 22 groups previously campaigning for the law’s abolition released a joint statement expressing that the decision would “codify further
discrimination into supreme law, and tie the hands of future Parliaments”. On the opposite side of the issue, the National Council of Churches of Singapore warned that the government must maintain its role as a “moral signifier”, and impressed that schools and churches must be given
the liberty to stand against the normalisation of LGBT values. The Singaporean Archdiocese echoed this, calling for marriage to be enshrined in heterosexuality before the law was struck
down, lest a “slippery slope” weaken the “bedrock of holistic families and marriages”. Nevertheless, many groups opposed to gay marriage expressed lukewarm relief at the assurance
of the constitutional amendment.

Should a good compromise not leave everyone unhappy? This does not seem like one. De facto decriminalisation had been in place since 2007, but soon Singaporeans will see an uncomfortable grey area transformed into an iron-clad constitutional rule. The PAP’s decision is less of a move towards middle ground and more an entrenchment of the ostracisation of gay families, all the
while congratulating itself on social progress – when none has been made. The decision is directly harmful to the personhood of gay people into Singaporean society, it serves to perpetuate the fictitious notion that LGBT people are somehow an extra-societal entity – a controversial minority to be regulated, but never integrated.

Once discrimination is constitutionally reified, it will take massive political upheaval within parliament to replace it – two thirds of parliament must vote against the amendment in a country
where a party in favour holds 90% of parliament’s seats. Given a long history of power consolidation by the PAP, we cannot reasonably expect it to lose the majority within the foreseeable future. Consequently, any endeavour to integrate the gay population must steel itself
for a herculean battle of public opinion. The likeliest route to an improvement (short of total electoral reversal) is if public pressure reaches a fever pitch so strong the government is obliged to reconsider. As public support for LGBT rights blooms, this is not impossible – but it now seems much further away.