Acknowledging that attitudes towards Section 377A of the Penal Code, which criminalises sex between men, are shifting, Minister for Law and Home Affairs K Shanmugam nonetheless reiterated that the majority of the country still did not want the law repealed, and that “the Singapore government cannot ignore those views”.
Calling the current situation a “messy compromise”, Shanmugam said the government had taken this path because the issue was difficult, in a wide-ranging interview with Stephen Sackur on the BBC’s interview program Hardtalk.
LGBTQ+ individuals "entitled to live peacefully without being attacked or threatened"
Sackur is known for his hard pressing style of interview, asking tough questions.
And the last time a Singaporean minister sat down with Sackur in a Hardtalk interview was in 2017, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong talked about how Singapore is navigating a wide range of international and domestic issues in uncertain times.
When pressed on 377A, Shanmugam reiterated how the law should be approached in Singapore.
He said “the position in Singapore is that people engaging in gay sex will not be prosecuted”.
Characterising 377A as an “old piece of law”, he reiterated that the Attorney General had confirmed this position, and that the Supreme Court has said that the government’s position has legal force.
While Shanmugam called the current situation a “messy compromise”, he also emphasised that “LGBTQ + individuals are entitled to live peacefully without being attacked or threatened” and that "we have in fact laws that protect the community."
Amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony act, for instance, explicitly protects members of the LGBTQ + community against violence incited by religious groups or movements.
Sackur continued to press on the issue, asking why the Singapore government was not prepared to remove 377A, and whether its continued presence encouraged “a culture of shame and homophobia.”
To this Shanmugam replied that the government had to take into account where the “main ground” of society was.
He also drew a comparison to the wider world, saying that "it's not as if others have solved the issue", citing a Supreme Court judge from the United States.
Shanmugam is likely referring to the recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling of Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health Organization
Singapore's approach, Shanmugam said, was to address the issue in parliament.
Singaporean court rulings have repeatedly stated that the repeal of 377A was beyond the court's remit, most recently by the Court of Appeals in March 2022.
Wide set of consultations to arrive at "some sort of landing"
However Shanmugam said that parliament was, as he had said earlier in the year, "relooking our laws, and our laws have to change and keep pace with the times".
The Singaporean way was to engage in "a wide set of consultations to try and arrive at some sort of landing"
Sackur asked about the IPSOS poll released earlier this month that said that Singaporeans attitudes towards 377A was changing. For the first time, support of the law fell to below 50%, and those wishing to remove it rose above 20%.
Shanmugam agreed that attitudes had been shifting, but that the IPSOS poll had suggested a larger movement than other polls he had seen.
But he also said that the government was in “deep consultations with stakeholders, including (the) LGBTQ+ community, as well as others.”
Shanmugam said that he was “in no position to answer that question with finality at this point”; and that the cabinet would collectively announce what was to be done when a decision was reached.
It is not clear at what stage these consultations are at the moment, although in March 2022, a REACH survey briefly surfaced. Within two days it had received over 30,000 responses before being taken offline after REACH said the survey had received an “overwhelming response”.
Sackur and Shanmugam also spoke briefly about media freedom in Singapore.
Sackur asked about the Foreign Interference Countermeasures Act (FICA), saying that non-governmental organisation Reporters Without Borders (RSF) had described it as a “legal monstrosity with totalitarian leanings”.
Shanmugam took issue with the standing of RSF, questioning the NGO's legitimacy.
By way of example he referred to the annual rankings of media freedom, noting that RSF had ranked Singapore 160 out of 180 states.
This would rank Singapore below places such as Myanmar, the Philippines, and South Sudan.
It should be noted that Shanmugam is referring to 2021 rankings, based on 2020’s performances. At the time Myanmar was not yet under junta rule. Since the 2021 coup several Myanmarese journalists have been killed and Myanmar’s ranking has fallen to 176.
Singapore's ranking is now 139.
Shanmugam refuted RSF's rankings, questioning whether a young BBC journalist would feel safer or freer to report from Singapore, as opposed to the countries he had named.
Edited out of the recording was why he dismissed RSF:
"I dismiss Reporters Without Borders. Completely nonsensical. We invited them in for a select committee hearing, and in the true heritage of free speech, they chickened out".
Shanmugam was referring to the occasion when the Singapore government had attempted to invite RSF to the select committee on Deliberate Online Falsehoods in 2018, but the NGO had declined to attend.
RSF has long been critical of Singapore's press freedom laws, criticising its legal framework and "out of bound markers". It recently was complained fiercely about the suspension and eventual revoking of socio-political site The Online Citizen's licence.
The pair also spoke about a range of other issues, focusing mainly on the death penalty; but also on race in Singapore, as well as geopolitics.
You can read Shanmugam's full interview with no omissions by the BBC here in a transcript provided by MHA.
Top image via K Shanmugam & Pink Dot SG Facebook