Singapore: Stuck in its Colonial Past


singapore.jpg Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong is, at heart, a change-maker. When he assumed office in 2004, he initiated policies for a five-day work week and a two-month paid maternity leave. In 2006, he unveiled the Progress Package Scheme to redistribute budget surpluses in the form of cash payments to all adult Singaporeans. In 2010, he instituted electoral reforms, and in 2014, his Minister for Communications and Information, Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, announced that Singapore would become the world’s first “Smart Nation.”

Through redoubled investments in ICT and policies designed to promote access to data, the Smart Nation Platform (SNP) would allow Singaporeans to make more informed decisions pertaining to transport, health, and education. During his 2014 National Day Rally address, PM Lee further hailed use of technology as a way to crowdsource information about public safety and environmental cleanliness. Singapore’s tech people, he said, have been putting in substantial effort to create apps and “gadgets,” not only so that the country “runs better,” but to improve people’s lives. The SNP is more than anything, PM Lee has asserted, about creating a better standard of living for all Singaporeans.

Pause. Rewind.

In 2010, Mr. Tan Eng Hong was arrested under Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code. Section 377A, which was introduced under British colonial rule in 1938, states:

"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 2 years."

That is to say, Tan was arrested for having sex with another man.

Singaporean lawmakers have said that the Section 377A would not be “proactively enforced,” but as Tan’s case demonstrates, it was enforced. His lawyers succeeded in getting the charges reduced, but Tan pressed on with a constitutional challenge. In 2012, Tan Eng Hong v. Attorney-General was heard by the Court of Appeals, which did not deliver a decision on the merits of the case, but did allow the case to proceed on the grounds that it was “arguable.”

This decision prompted Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee to file their own constitutional challenge. “We are both law-abiding citizens and we’ve been in a loving relationship for 15 [now 16] years,” said Lim, “We shouldn’t be treated as criminals because of our sexual orientation.” In April 2013, the High Court ruled against Lim and Chee, upholding the law. They appealed, funding court costs through an Indiegogo campaign in which they raised US$50,000 in 18 hours.

Tan, Lim and Chee argued Section 377A violates Articles 9 and 12 of the Singapore Constitution, which guarantee “life and liberty” and equal protection under the law. This is a very similar argument to that made by former Member of Parliament Siew Kum Hong whose 2007 campaign to repeal Section 377A was blocked by then Senior Minister for Law and Home Affairs, Ho Peng Kee. According to Ho, “repealing Section 377A [would] be contentious and may send a wrong signal that the government is encouraging and endorsing the homosexual lifestyle as part of our mainstream way of life.”

But for Lim, Chee, and Tan, it’s not about mainstreaming “the homosexual lifestyle.” As Chee puts it, “It’s about being an advanced economy, but still having this archaic law.”

On October 29, the Singapore Supreme Court ruled separately on Chee and Lim’s case, Lim Meng Suang v. Attorney-General as well as Tan’s Tan Eng Hong v. Attorney-General. In a 101-page judgment, the Court decided Section 377A did not contravene the Constitution and if the law was to be repealed, that was a decision for Parliament to make. They added:

"It is important to emphasise that it follows that nothing in this judgment impacts the freedom of a person or group of persons to freely espouse as well as practise his/its values within the boundaries of the law… This freedom cannot, however, extend to an insistence by a particular group or individual that its/his values be imposed on other groups or individuals."

That the case was even heard at the Supreme Court level is a bit remarkable: If it weren’t for a High Court judge who felt Tan’s challenge “raised many constitutional issues that deserved more detailed treatment,” he would have been denied locus standi. Nevertheless, the similarities between Ho’s remarks and those from the SC suggest not much has changed in Singapore over the past seven years in terms of attitudes towards homosexuality.

Prime Minister Lee frequently peppers speeches with references to infrastructure investment and economic growth, but it’s unclear whether the former Senior Wrangler sees social progress as important to Singapore’s development. Clearly, it’s exciting to be on the cutting edge in terms of material capability; however, these advancements should not be allowed to overshadow national dialogue on controversial issues that significantly affect people’s lives, regardless of how numerous or few those lives are.

On this year’s National Day, PM Lee announced a tripartite initiative that would create a more meritocratic corporate environment, but his words ring as true for society at large:

“We need a cultural change. Because, fundamentally, it is about our values—how we value people. And Singapore must always be a place where everyone can feel proud of what they do. Where you are respected for your contributions and your character, and anyone can improve his life if he works hard. And everyone can hope for a better future.”