Parliament votes in favour of repeal of Section 377A, amendment of Singapore’s Constitution to protect the definition of marriage

Section 377A criminalises sex between men, while marriage is currently defined under the Women's Charter as being between a man and a woman.

Amanda Tan

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Published: 29 November 2022, 7:38 PM

Bills to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, and to amend the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage from legal challenges were passed in Parliament on Tuesday (Nov 29).

The debate started on Monday with Minister of Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli laying out the reasons for the amendment to the Constitution. Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam then explained the reasons for the repeal of Section 377A.

Section 377A criminalises sex between men, while marriage is currently defined under the Women’s Charter as being between a man and a woman.

In Singapore, Section 377A was substantially debated in Parliament in 2007 – 15 years ago. The Government’s intention to repeal Section 377A was subsequently announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong during the National Day Rally earlier this year.

Mr Shanmugam said: “The time has come for us to remove Section 377A. It humiliates and hurts gay people.

“Most gay people do not cause harm to others. They just want to live peacefully and quietly, and be accepted as part of society the same as any other Singaporean.”

Beyond it being “the right thing to do”, Mr Masagos added that there is a significant legal risk of Section 377A being struck down.

As with regards to the Constitution Amendment Bill, Article 156, Mr Masagos noted that the constitutional amendment provides “greater protection than today, not just for the definition of marriage, but also related policies”.

“Above all, we want to ensure that Parliament should be the main platform to discuss sensitive issues and not the courts.”

In a similar vein, Mr Shanmugam said that leaving the resolving of such difficult societal issues to the courts to decide would be “irresponsible and wrong”.

“In Parliament, there can be consultation, discussion, debate – considerations going well beyond the law can be taken into account, whereas courts can only consider the legal issues.

“If they (the courts) strike down Section 377A, they will do so without being able to consider the consequential effects of their decision on the definition of marriage, for example.”

A total of 31 Members of Parliament (MPs), Non-Constituency Members of Parliament (NCMPs) and Nominated Members of Parliament (NMPs) spoke.

Leader of the Opposition Mr Pritam Singh lifted the party whip for Workers’ Party MPs in this debate, allowing party members free to vote according to their conscience. 

NCMPs Hazel Poa and Leong Mun Wai of Progress Party Singapore voted against the constitutional amendment. Workers’ Party’s Mr Dennis Tan and Mr Gerald Giam, and NMP Mr Hoon Hian Teck voted against the repeal of Section 377A. 

On voting against the repeal of Section 377A, the three cited reasons such as personal belief and faith.

Mr Tan shared: “Like many fellow MPs and Singaporeans, I also have many good friends who are from the LGBTQ community. And some have over time shared with me some of their very difficult circumstances and experiences in life, which makes my decision today even more difficult. I humbly seek their understanding.

“The position I take today does not change how I treat all my constituents and all Singaporeans. I will continue to serve all my constituents to the best of my ability.”

Mr Giam added that since the Government’s decision to repeal Section 377A was revealed, many Aljunied GRC residents have reached out to him, raising the concern that the repeal of Section 377A will remove an important societal marker and open the door to an erosion of traditional values. 

Some were also worried that after this law is repealed, it will lead to other regulations and policies leaning towards the normalisation of homosexuality in society, said Mr Giam.

“I believe that keeping the current law serves to provide an important marker to preserve the present structure of the family and its supporting institution,” said Mr Hoon.

While all MPs from the People’s Action Party voted in favour of the repeal of Section 377A, ​​Mr Lim Biow Chuan stated that he had received feedback that employees in multinational corporations located within Singapore are “harassed in their workplace if they do not support the gay beliefs or if they refused to attend a pride event” and that “if you do not agree with the pro-gay movement, you may be penalised at work or face discrimination”.

Workers’ Party’s Sylvia Lim said she is in support of the Penal Code Amendment Bill due to the likely “unconstitutionality” of Section 377A for violating Article 12, which guarantees all persons equality before the law and equal protection of the law.

As for Article 156, she said she is unsure what some of the sub articles “actually achieve”.

“To now include the definition of marriage is something that the courts cannot assess for constitutionality does not appear to me to be justified.

“To clarify, I am not advocating for gay marriages here. My concern is purely about whether it is justified to exclude judicial scrutiny on this topic. From a governance standpoint, I find this position very difficult to accept,” she added

Mr Singh noted that for some Singaporeans, Section 377A is a difficult subject, and for others, especially younger Singaporeans, they wonder why it has to be a difficult subject.

Moving forward, “in view of the socially divisive nature of 377A”, he emphasised that any conversation must recognise that there is a distinction between public and private perspectives. 

“It is fully understandable that the faithful wish to propagate their religious convictions. There is no basis for us to feel cancelled provided our views are not set as an expectation for all society.

“But as with most difficult conversations in search of a landing point, it will be crucial to adopt a gentler tone, an enlightened perspective that extends and considers the impact on broader community and society, and most fundamentally, a spirit of empathy,” he said.

Mr Singh voted in support of both the Penal Code and Constitution amendment.

Mr Masagos reiterated that Singapore’s education policies and curriculum “remain anchored” on the country’s prevailing family values and social norms, which most Singaporeans want to uphold.

“These include the family as the cornerstone of our social fabric and marriage between a man and a woman. In our schools, all students learn and practise values such as mutual understanding, respect, and empathy for everyone,” said Mr Masagos.

International schools operating in Singapore should be careful “not to cross the line into advocacy on issues in Singapore that could be socially divisive, such as how sexual orientation is handled in laws and public policy”, he added.

“These are matters for Singaporeans to discuss and decide.”

The minister also clarified that there are no plans to allow people to remove their registered gender from their NRIC or passport.

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