Welcome to the Roundtable, a forum for incisive commentary and analysis
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
on cases and developments in law and the legal system.
By Ashley Min Joo Kim
Ashley Min Joo Kim is a rising freshman at the University of Pennsylvania.
Singapore today is seen as a commercial and “modern” city-state, continuously progressing towards reforming its society. However, some laws in place call into question how truly modern this nation actually is. Sodomy laws against homosexuals continue to exist in Singapore, despite its growing LGBT population.
In 2003, the sodomy laws outlined by section 377 of the Singapore Penal Code were cast under scrutiny. Section 377, which stated, “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 10 years, and shall also be liable to fine,” was perceived to be outdated and therefore underwent review.  While section 377 was amended, section 377A, which maintained sodomy laws for male homosexual acts, remained untouched. S377A details, “Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to two years.” 
Since then, this law has been criticized by those who believe that it is in contention with Singapore’s constitution, which guarantees basic civil liberties and defines all Singaporean persons as equal under Article 9 and Article 12.  In 2010, Tan Eng Hong and another man were taken into custody for engaging in oral sex in a public bathroom stall. Tan filed an application for the Singapore High Court to review the constitutionality of s377A.  In a different case, Gary Lee and Kenneth Chee, a gay couple who had been together for fifteen years at the time that they filed against Singapore’s sodomy laws, also hoped for s377A to be declared unconstitutional. 
Both cases moved from the High Court to the Court of Appeals on October 10, 2013, to be heard together. The Court of Appeals, however, ruled that section 377A was constitutional. According to the court, “the phrase ‘life or personal liberty’ [in Article 9] refers only to a person's freedom from an unlawful deprivation of life and unlawful incarceration.”  Similarly, while Article 12 outlaws “discrimination against citizens of Singapore on the ground only of religion, race, descent or place of birth,” the court stated that the Constitution does not explicitly prohibit discrimination on the grounds of gender, sex or sexual orientation. 
Countries with more progressive stances towards such issues like the United States have moved past sodomy laws against homosexuals and have made strides towards even more monumental human rights reforms, such as legalizing same-sex marriage. As for sodomy laws, the decision from Lawrence v. Texas found over a decade ago in 2003 that “the Texas statute making it a crime for two persons of the same sex to engage in certain intimate sexual conduct” is unconstitutional.  The question is whether or not Singapore can follow in the footsteps of other nations that outlawed sodomy laws years ago.
Recently, when the Prime Minister of Singapore was asked about gay individuals and specifically gay marriage, he said, “There are gay groups in Singapore. There are gay people in Singapore. And they have a place to stay here, and we let them live their own lives. And we do not harass them, or discriminate against them.” At the same time, he claimed that Singaporean society “is basically a conservative one,” and while Singapore is evolving as a nation, the LGBT community “should not push the agenda too hard.”  However, many wonder whether homosexual behavior and activity should be forbidden and punishable by law, even in a conservative society. The sodomy laws in Singapore and its government’s firm inability and unwillingness to deviate from ingrained, conservative views fall in sharp contrast to the prime minister’s claims of openness to gays in Singapore. Since Singapore’s cultural beliefs are still for the most part traditional, it seems unlikely that the country’s conservative legal system will catch up to its modern economy and way of life anytime soon.
 Penal Code (Chapter 224), Section 377, 1987, http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/aol/search/display/view.w3p;ident=be654e11-186a-47af-ba36-a54317993ecc;page=0;query=CompId%3Aacf05a57-86b5-4871-b4f4-d20ceca99e62%20ValidTime%3A30%2F03%2F1987%20TransactionTime%3A30%2F11%2F2008;rec=0#pr377-he- (accessed July 6, 2015).
 Penal Code (Chapter 224, Section 377A, 2008, http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/aol/search/display/view.w3p;ident=be654e11-186a-47af-ba36-a54317993ecc;page=0;query=CompId%3Aacf05a57-86b5-4871-b4f4-d20ceca99e62%20ValidTime%3A30%2F03%2F1987%20TransactionTime%3A30%2F11%2F2008;rec=0#pr377-he- (accessed July 6, 2015).
 J.F., “Gay Rights in Singapore: On permanent parole,” The Economist, October 30, 2014, accessed July 5, 2015, http://www.economist.com/blogs/banyan/2014/10/gay-rights-singapore.
 Lum, Selina, “Court of Appeal rules that Section 377A that criminalises sex between men is constitutional,” The Strait Times, October 29, 2014, accessed July 6, 2015, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/court-of-appeal-rules-that-section-377a-that-criminalises-sex-between-men-is.
 Tan, Jeanette, “Couple files challenge to S'pore law criminalising gay sex,” Yahoo! News, November 30, 2012, accessed July 6, 2015, https://sg.news.yahoo.com/gay-couple-files-377a-challenge-in-high-court-114540383.html.
 Constitution of the Republic of Singapore (Chapter CONST), Article 9 and Article 12, http://statutes.agc.gov.sg/aol/search/display/view.w3p;ident=aa74f082-6a82-4885-a5e4-6cfe5894da40;page=0;query=DocId%3A%22cf2412ff-fca5-4a64-a8ef-b95b8987728e%22%20Status%3Ainforce%20Depth%3A0;rec=0#P1IV- (accessed July 6, 2015).
 Lum, Selina, “Why Court of Appeal rejected arguments that Section 377A was unconstitutional,” The Strait Times, October 30, 2014, accessed July 6, 2015, http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/courts-crime/why-court-of-appeal-rejected-arguments-that-section-377a-was-unconstitutional.
 Lawrence v. Texas, 539 U.S. 558 (2003). https://www.law.cornell.edu/supct/html/02-102.ZS.html (accessed July 7, 2015).
 Velasquez, Tony, “Keeping it straight: PM says Singapore not ready for gay marriage,” ABS CBN News, June 27, 2015, accessed July 5, 2015, http://www.abs-cbnnews.com/focus/06/27/15/keeping-it-straight-pm-says-singapore-not-ready-gay-marriage.
Photo Credit: Flickr User Leong Him Woh
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