The government will repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code and decriminalise sex between men.
This was announced by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in his address to the nation at this year's National Day Rally on Sunday (Aug. 21).
In his speech, PM Lee noted that by and large, Singapore is a traditional society with conservative social values.
"We have upheld and reinforced the importance of families through many national policies, and we will continue to do so," he said.
However, he added that like every human society, Singapore also has gay people in its midst.
PM Lee said: "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."
He elaborated that Singapore needs 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.
Originally introduced in the 1930s
Section 377A of the Penal Code is a "major issue" for gay Singaporeans, he said.
PM Lee explained that it was originally introduced in the 1930s by the British colonial government and reflected "moral attitudes" and "social norms" that prevailed back then.
Many countries that used to have laws against sex between men have since repealed them.
"They include several Asian countries. But so far, not Singapore," he said.
Last debated in 2007
In 2007, Singapore's parliament debated whether or not to repeal 377A.
Back then, members of parliament expressed "strong views" on both sides.
PM Lee said he joined in the debate to "advise restraint and caution".
He shared: "I acknowledged that what consenting adults do in private is their personal affair, and the government should not intervene."
However, back then, he also stressed that not everyone was equally accepting of homosexuality.
As a result, the government decided to leave 377A in the books, but not actively enforce it.
"We stopped short of repealing the law. It would have been too divisive to force the issue then," he said.
PM Lee added that it was better to live with this "untidy compromise" and it was a practical way to accommodate evolving societal attitudes and norms in Singapore. He added:
"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."
Shift in attitudes
PM Lee said that attitudes have shifted appreciably.
He highlighted that while Singapore remains a "broadly conservative society", gay people are now "better accepted" in Singapore, especially among younger Singaporeans.
PM Lee said: "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."
He added that from the national point of view, private sexual behaviour between consenting adults does not raise any law-and-order issues.
"Significant risk" that 377A will be struck down in future court challenge
PM Lee noted several unsuccessful legal challenges against 377A, seeking to declare it unconstitutional.
Following the most recent judgement, PM Lee said Minister for Law K Shanmugam and the Attorney General have advised that there is a "significant risk" of 377A being struck down on the grounds that it breaches the Equal Protection provision in the Constitution, in a future court challenge.
"We have to take that advice seriously. It would be unwise to ignore that risk, and do nothing," he said.
Thus, PM Lee said he believes that repealing 377A is the "right thing to do", and something that most Singaporeans will now accept.
He also said that it will bring the law into line with current social mores, and hopes that it will "provide some relief" to gay Singaporeans.
Definition of marriage will be protected by amending Constitution
In his speech, PM Lee assured Singaporeans that the government will maintain its current family-oriented approach and the prevailing norms and values of Singapore society, even with the repeal of 377A.
Under the law, only marriages between one man and one woman are recognised in Singapore. He said many national policies rely upon this definition of marriage, including public housing, education and adoption rules.
He stressed that the government has no intention of changing the definition of marriage, nor these policies.
The government will also protect the definition of marriage from being challenged constitutionally in the courts, he said, adding:
"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 repeal section 377A in a controlled and carefully considered way," said PM Lee.
Top image from Pink Dot SG's Facebook page.