Full text of PM Lee’s comments on repealing 377A at National Day Rally 2022

An excerpt of PM Lee’s English speech on Sunday (Aug. 21).

Mothership | August 21, 2022, 11:52 PM

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At National Day Rally 2022, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke about repealing section 377A of the Penal Code.

He also said the government will amend the Constitution to protect the current definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, so that it cannot be challenged in the courts.

The full text of his comments on the topic is reproduced here.

Even as we navigate through an uncertain and troubled world, we have to deal with domestic issues.

One of the delicate tasks of this government — of any government — is to update our laws and practices from time to time to reflect evolving social values and norms.

For example, at last year's rally, I announced that we would allow nurses in our public hospitals to wear tudung with their uniforms if they wished to do so.

It was a decision many years in the making. A generation ago, the move was difficult to imagine and would certainly have been extremely contentious.

But we waited patiently for understanding and confidence to strengthen between our races and religions, and we finally moved only when we judged the time ripe, after preparing the ground and explaining carefully our reasons, and the scope of the change we were making.

I'm very glad this cautious move has gone well and Singaporeans have accepted it in the right spirit.

But that is not the only sensitive issue we need to resolve.

Another concerns the treatment of gay people in our society under the law.

Singapore a “traditional society with conservative social values”

By and large, Singapore is a traditional society with conservative social values.

We believe that marriage should be between a man and a woman. Children should be born and raised within such families. The traditional family should form the basic building block of our society.

Most Singaporeans would like to keep our society like this. This is the government‘s position too.

We have upheld and reinforced the importance of families through many national policies and we will continue to do so.

However, like every human society, we also have gay people in our midst. They are our fellow Singaporeans. They are our colleagues, our friends, our family members.

They too want to live their own lives, participate in our community, and contribute fully to Singapore.

And we need to find the right way to reconcile and accommodate both the traditional mores of our society, and the aspiration of gay Singaporeans to be respected and accepted.

377A "a major issue" for gay Singaporeans

A major issue for gay Singaporeans is section 377A of the Penal Code which makes sex between men a criminal offence.

It was originally introduced in the 1930s by the British colonial government. It reflected moral attitudes and social norms that prevailed back then.

But over the decades, homosexuality has become better understood, scientifically and medically.

In many societies, including Singapore, gay people have become more accepted for who they are instead of being shunned and stigmatised.

Many countries that used to have laws against sex between men have since repealed them, and they include several Asian countries, but so far not Singapore.

Parliamentary debate on repeal in 2007

Parliament last debated whether or not to repeal section 377A in 2007.

MPs expressed strong views on both sides. I joined in the debate to advise restraint and caution.

I acknowledged that what consenting adults do in private is their personal affair, and the government should not intervene.

But I pointed out that not everyone was equally accepting of homosexuality. Quite a few had considerable reservations, particularly within certain religious groups, including the Muslims, the Catholics, and many Protestants denominations.

The government decided then that we would leave 377A on our books, but not actively enforce it. We stopped short of repealing the law.

It would have been too divisive to force the issue then. It was better for us to live with this untidy compromise, and it was a practical way to accommodate evolving societal attitudes and norms in Singapore.

The compromise didn't satisfy every group, but by and large, it has enabled all of us to get along. And so we have lived with this sensitive issue, without it monopolising our national agenda or dividing our society.

Attitudes have shifted over past 15 years

Now, 15 years later, attitudes have shifted appreciably.

While we remain a broadly conservative society, gay people are now better accepted in Singapore, especially among younger Singaporeans.

It's timely to ask ourselves again the fundamental question: Should sex between men in private be a criminal offence?

Singaporeans still have differing views on whether homosexuality is right or wrong. But most people accept that a person’s sexual orientation and behaviour is a private and personal matter, and that sex between men should not be a criminal offence.

Even among those who want to retain 377A, most don't want to see it actively enforced, and criminal penalties applied.

From the national point of view, private sexual behaviour between consenting adults does not raise any law and order issue. There is no justification to prosecute people for it, nor to make it a crime.

Furthermore, we've seen several court challenges to 377A seeking to declare the law unconstitutional. None have succeeded so far.

However, following the most recent judgement in the Court of Appeal, the Minister for Law and the Attorney-General have advised that in a future court challenge, there is a significant risk of 377A being struck down on the grounds that it breaches the equal protection provision in the Constitution.

We have to take that advice seriously. It would be unwise to ignore the risk and do nothing.

For these reasons, the government will repeal section 377A and decriminalise sex between men.

I believe this is the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept.

This will bring the law into line with current social mores, and I hope, provide some relief to gay Singaporeans.

Singaporeans do not want repeal to trigger “drastic shift” in societal norms

But at the same time, most Singaporeans do not want the repeal to trigger a drastic shift in our societal norms across the board, including how we define marriage, what we teach children in schools, what's shown on free-to-air television and in cinemas, or what is generally acceptable conduct in public. In our engagements and soundings over several months, this has come through very clearly.

Among those with reservations, some feel strongly about 377A itself. But for most, their main worry is what they feel section 377A stands for, and what they fear repealing it may quickly lead to.

They also worry that this may encourage more aggressive and divisive activism on all sides.

And this is not only the concern of those with religious objections, but is shared by many non-religious people. Even many Singaporeans who support repeal want to maintain our current family and social norms.

Government will maintain family-oriented approach

The government understands these concerns.

We too do not want the repeal to trigger wholesale changes in our society. We will maintain our current family-oriented approach, and the prevailing norms and values of Singapore society.

Hence, even as we repeal 377A, we will uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage.

Under the law, only marriages between one man and one woman are recognised in Singapore. Many national policies rely upon this definition of marriage — including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards, film classification.

The government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage, nor these policies.

However, as the law stands, this definition of marriage can be challenged on constitutional grounds in the courts, just like section 377A has been challenged. And this has indeed happened elsewhere.

If one day such a challenge succeeds here, it could cause same-sex marriages to become recognised in Singapore.

And this would happen not because Parliament passed any such law, but as the result of a court judgement.

And then, even if the majority of MPs opposed same sex marriage, Parliament may not be able simply to change the law to restore the status quo ante, because to reverse the position, Parliament may have to amend the constitution, and that would require a two-thirds majority.

I do not think that for Singapore, the courts are the right forum to decide such issues.

Courts not the right forum to decide on political issues

Judges interpret and apply the law, that is what they are trained and appointed to do. To interpret the law — what does the law say; to apply the law — how does it work in this instance.

But judges and courts have neither the expertise nor the mandate to settle political questions, or to rule on social norms and values. Because these are fundamentally not legal problems, but political issues.

This has been wisely acknowledged by our own courts in their judgments dealing with such cases.

But even so, those seeking change may still try to force the pace through litigation, which is in its nature adversarial. It would highlight differences, inflame tensions and polarise society.

And I'm convinced this would be bad for Singapore. We will therefore protect the definition of marriage from being challenged constitutionally in the courts.

The legal definition is contained in the Interpretation Act and the Women’s Charter. We have to amend the Constitution to protect it, and we will do so.

This will help us to repeal section 377A in a controlled and carefully considered way.

It will limit this change to what I believe most Singaporeans will accept, which is to decriminalise sexual relations between consenting men in private.

But it will also keep what I believe most Singaporeans still want, and that is to retain the basic family structure of marriage between a man and a woman, within which we have and raise our children.

What we seek is a political accommodation. One that balances different legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans.

For some, this will be too modest a step. For others, it will be a step taken only with great reluctance, even regret. But in a society where diverse groups have strongly-held opposing views, everyone has to accept that no group can have things all their way.

If one side pushes too hard, the other side will push back even harder

If one side pushes too hard, the other side will push back even harder. And in some western societies, not few, this has resulted in culture wars, contempt for opposing views — and not just for their views, but for the opposing people, cancel culture to browbeat and shut up opponents, and bitter feuds splitting society into warring tribes.

There are some signs of similar things starting to happen here too.

I say, let us not go in this direction. All groups should exercise restraint, because that is the only way we can move forward as one nation together.

There is much more to be said on this difficult subject. I am sure what I have said tonight will set off further reactions and discussions. And we will have a full debate when we bring the legislation to Parliament.

But tonight, I wanted to set out our broad approach on this issue. We have a stable and generally harmonious society, and we will work hard to keep things like this.

I hope the new balance will enable Singapore to remain a tolerant and inclusive society for many years to come.

Top image screenshot via PMO on YouTube