Bills to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code, decriminalising sex between men, as well as to amend the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage against legal challenges, were read today (Nov. 28) for the second time in Parliament.
Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli gave the opening speech during the debate, expounding on the government's long standing position of marriage and family, its approach towards the Bills, and its approach to manage diversity in Singapore.
In his speech, Masagos said that the constitutional amendment should not prevent future governments from amending the legal definition of marriage by simple majority in Parliament, should they choose to do so.
Government policies and laws support institution of marriage and family
Masagos started off by emphasising the strong support the People's Action Party (PAP) government has given to the institution of marriage and the family, through its policies and legislation.
For example, one of the first laws enacted by the PAP government was the landmark Women's Charter 1961, which protected the rights of women by legalising only monogamous marriages between a man and a woman.
The Administration of Muslim Law Act enacted in 1966 also provided for the practice of Muslim law to regulate marriages between Muslims, including those between a Muslim man and woman.
Masagos shared that there is currently strong consensus in society that marriage is between a man and woman and that children should be born and raised within such families.
"This is the view taken by many Singaporeans, whether religious or not. It is also the view the Government believes in," he added.
The minister highlighted that "family is the foundation on which our society is built and sustained", and the country cannot thrive without "strong families".
The government's policies thus reflect and reinforce three basic tenets about marriage and family. Masagos said,
"We encourage parenthood within marriage;
We do not support same-sex family formation; and
We maintain our policy against planned and deliberate single parenthood, including using assisted reproduction techniques or surrogacy."
Additionally, the government's policies also support individuals to get married and have children within marriage.
Some examples of these are public housing subsidies and priority access for married couples, as well as financial benefits like the Baby Bonus Cash Gift which favours married couples.
In schools, education is based on marriage as between a man and woman, and such a family as the basic unit of society. Similarly, in media, higher age ratings apply for media content which depict non-traditional family units.
Beyond just policies and legislation, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) has also been actively promoting, educating and emphasising the importance of families through public outreach programmes.
"These efforts reflect the Government’s deep and abiding commitment to the institution of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, and to the formation of families within marriage," Masagos said.
Why repeal now?
Addressing the risk that existing laws and policies on marriage might be ruled unconstitutional, Masagos shared that the government is thus proactively safeguarding the institution of marriage and its related legislations from being challenged in court.
"This will allow the Government to continue to make laws and policies, which depend on heterosexual marriage as its foundation," Masagos added.
Masagos further expounded on the various reasons behind the government choosing to intervene on this issue now.
He asked rhetorically:
"Why repeal? Why even amend the Constitution? Perhaps we should leave things as they are, let the Courts decide when there is a challenge. Why do this now, when there are other issues of concern, such as the cost of living? That might be politically expedient."
Firstly, using other issues of concern such as the rising cost of living as a reason for inaction "might be politically expedient but it would not be the right or responsible thing to do".
Secondly, there is "significant risk" to the current laws being struck down, making the amendment of the Constitution necessary.
Lastly, the government has the mandate and responsibility to govern, and to put forward what they believe to be best for Singapore and its citizens.
"This includes making changes in a calibrated and careful manner that may not please everyone," Masagos said.
Introducing this Bill is what a "responsible" government would do, he added, instead of leaving the courts to grapple "with controversial social issues".
Will not enshrine the definition of marriage in the Constitution
Prior to this, the government has engaged a wide range of stakeholders, such as religious leaders, grassroot leaders, union leaders, LGBT groups, social sector professionals, youth groups and members of public.
Singaporeans have "generally understood" the need to respect and accommodate each other's views, and have supported the government's approach thus far.
Gay people appreciate the repeal of Section 377A, but had some reservations about the implications of the Constitutional amendments.
However, some people have also expressed the wish for the government to do more than currently proposed to protect the definition of marriage, such as by enshrining it in the Constitution.
Masagos acknowledged that these calls come "from a sincere belief in the sanctity of marriage and reflect a genuine worry" that in the future, the institution of marriage might include same-sex ones.
In response, he shared that the government "has to govern with principle".
Elevating marriage to the same level as fundamental rights in the Constitution "would not be appropriate" as the Constitution deals with sovereignty and the system of governance.
Masagos pointed out that there are numerous important laws and principles that are not in the Constitution, but are in Acts of Parliament, such as National Service in the Enlistment Act, Corruption in the Prevention of Corruption Act, Zero-tolerance to drugs in the Misuse of Drugs Act, and Home ownership in the HDB Act.
Thus, the definition of marriage is and will remain in the Women’s Charter, and Interpretation Act, and Administration of Muslim Law Act, he said.
More crucially, the minister noted that the Constitutional amendment should not prevent future governments from amending the legal definition of marriage by simple majority in Parliament, should they choose to do so.
"This Government will not use our current super-majority in Parliament to tie the hands of the future generations."
Masagos also highlighted that the definition of marriage should not be determined by the courts.
Previously, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has stated that he has no intention to change the definition of marriage, or the policies that rely on this definition. Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has made similar sentiments, should the PAP win the next election.
Whether the definition of marriage in Singapore will be that of between a man and woman, will ultimately depend on the consensus made by society, which could be subject to change in the future.
"So long as society strongly supports the current definition of marriage, no Government will change the definition. If society’s support erodes, no amount of legislation or constitutional entrenchment can prevent change."
Singapore's unique position as a secular state
Masagos noted how the Bill reflects Singapore's unique approach as a secular state, but a multi-religious and multi-racial society.
In Singapore, such diverse groups have been able to coexist peacefully by learning to understand each other, and graciously accommodate one another.
"Some may wish to maximise their own positions," Masagos said. This, he added, will unsettle others and cause resistance, which would not bode well for the society.
"It is therefore important that certain groups do not push beyond what is acceptable to our society," he emphasised, and reminded people of their common identity as Singaporeans.
Masagos also mentioned Singapore's religious leaders, and expressed his gratitude that they understand the context of the country's diverse society, and trust the government to treat all faiths impartially, and that its laws and policies do not favour one religion over the other.
He continued that this approach works as the government "is fair and considers all perspectives", both from the religious and non-religious.
"As we see in other societies, it is very easy to yield to sectarian or tribalist views. Even if you do not win, you will be popular with them. But we need to guard against this."
In light of our diverse society, the government will also "protect all from scorn or harm", including homosexuals.
Homosexuals have a place in Singapore society, Masagos reiterated, as well as access to education, employment, and healthcare services, among others.
On marriage and family though, majority of Singaporeans wish to retain the current norms, a view that the government agrees with.
In the conclusion of his speech, Masagos once again highlighted that the government's pro-family values and position are not due to a "majoritarian or a religious approach", but one that is shared in common as Singaporeans, and something the government stands for.
Community leaders whom the government has engaged on this issue support this stance, and will play a critical role in maintaining social cohesion and rallying support for family values.
"Such is the system that ensures the safety, survival and success of Singapore. No one group can have everything they want, all the time. The preferences of other Singaporeans matter too. As PM has said, we are seeking a political accommodation that balances different legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans."
Top photo from MCI / YouTube and Pink Dot SG / FB