Pritam Singh: WP to lift party whip for debate & vote on 377A repeal

The Leader of the Opposition said that there was a risk of parliament's democratic value being diluted if the views of Singaporeans were not adequately aired.

Matthias Ang | Fiona Tan | November 28, 2022, 03:49 PM

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The Workers' Party (WP) will lift the party whip for its Members of Parliament (MPs) on the debate regarding the repeal of Section 377A, Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh said in Parliament on Dec. 28.

It is the first time since the 2011 General Election that WP has lifted the whip.

According to Singh, the WP MPs in their individual capacities had different views on the repeal of the anti-gay law.

"In normal circumstances, I would not lift the whip for parliamentary debates given the party political structure that overlays elected MPs in this house," the WP chief said.

"However, 377A is unique in that it is conceived through a religious lens by many in Singapore, in addition to being a matter of conscience for a no less significant number."

Risk of parliament's democracy value being "diluted" if views are not adequately aired

Singh further noted that the People's Action Party (PAP) had announced that it was not lifting the whip for this debate.

He said:

"Given the varied public opinion on the impending repeal of Section 377A, there is a risk that the democratic value of parliament could be diluted if the views of Singaporeans on this subject are not adequately ventilated in the house."

As for the WP, not lifting the whip will deny the party's MPs who are not in favour of the repeal from voting freely, he added.

It will also deny them the opportunity to represent Singaporeans who see this issue as a matter of "deep" religious belief and conscience.

"So I've decided to lift the whip for the WP MPs," Singh said.

WP MPs have been asked to reflect on their position and how society can move forward as a whole

The WP leader said that in doing so, he had asked all of the MPs who will speak to reflect on their position and to envision a set of principles or perspectives from which society as a whole — with its different views — can move forward.

"We know Singapore is divided on 377A. How can we mitigate this and contribute to lowering temperatures and ensuring Singapore is a home for everyone?" Singh pointed out.

He highlighted two WP MPs not present for the debate, Faisal Manap and Louis Chua, on account of being Covid-19 positive.

Faisal, Singh said, disagreed with the repeal of 377A as a matter of religion and conscience, while Chua agreed with the repeal.

Had the WP openly supported the repeal of 377A, it would not have been good for Singapore politics

Singh recalled that back in 2019, in a speech to the National University of Singapore's political association, he had already highlighted that the WP's position on 377A is similar to Singapore as a whole — varied and diverse, with no consensus.

Singh also cited his 2019 statement about how the LGBT community should not be exploited for political points.

"At that time, I believed there was more to consider than deciding which was the ‘right’ side in this matter, particularly in a society which generally eschews hosting open and frank conversations on difficult matters in the public realm," said Singh in Parliament.

"Against this political culture and backdrop, the Workers’ Party neither took up the cause of LGBTQ+ rights, nor stood against it."

Singh said he still believed had the WP openly supported a repeal of 377A, it would not have been good for politics in Singapore.

"More crucially, it would have not served the interests of the LGBTQ+ community. On issues of great social division and contending values, we do not need politicians to be seen as siding with particular groups."

Supports bills to repeal 377A and amend the Constitution

Pritam said he personally believes that the repeal of 377A does not in any way signal Singapore's hostility towards the family unit or religious freedom.

Stressing that family will always be at the core of Singapore's social norms, he claimed that defending the Singaporean family would also mean doing more to protect its different forms, such as families with single-, widowed and divorced mothers and fathers.

Repealing 377A will neither signal that Singapore society is becoming more liberal nor permissive, but will make room for Singaporeans to not be discriminated against due to their sexual orientation.

Addressing the two camps on repealing 377A, he said those who oppose are free to maintain their religious beliefs about homosexuality but should not interfere with what is legal in Singapore public sphere, at the same time, those who are supportive should not interfere with the private beliefs of those who are religious.

Noting that other "unorthodox" sex acts, besides sex between men, were decriminalized in 2007, Pritam said the decision to keep 377A, which singles out and criminalises sex between men in private, is unjust and unequal to the LGBTQ+ community.

With regards to managing the tensions of 377A, he said there were never any good options for the government which would please everybody.

However, to remain the status quo indefinitely would only spotlight the issue further, particularly as social mores - globally, regionally and locally continue a steady shift towards greater acceptance and accommodation of LGBTQ+ individual, Pritam said.

Pritam added that the decision to protect marriage from constitutional challenge as a balancing exercise to ensure that society doesn’t fray over the decision to repeal 377A.

Made three suggestions on how to approach subject

Pritam said: “I hope Singaporeans who are against the repeal of 377A approach this issue, in spite of their personal beliefs and religious convictions – which I and my colleagues respect, and I suggest everyone in this house respect – through this lens of compromise and accommodation.”

"In repealing 377A, religious Singaporeans are not asked to endorse homosexuality, but to instead honour the equality of all Singaporeans in the eyes of the law, that no consenting adults should be regarded as criminals because of what they do in private."

However, he noted that 377A is socially divisive in nature, and thus raised three suggestions "that could help in keeping things from boiling over".

Pritam reiterated that there is a distinction between public and private perspectives, saying that no one group should impose their private position as a public expectation on everyone else.

Next, he reassured those who are religious that they can continue holding on to their views that are reflective of their religious norms and values, adding that there is no basis for them to feel "cancelled", provided their views are not set as an expectation for all society.

"There must be a secular approach to politics and governance even as we celebrate and protect the freedom of religion in Singapore."

Lastly, Pritam said Singaporeans should welcome conversation and even vigorous debate on the matter, but urged them be thoughtful and empathetic when sharing their views or beliefs.

Top image via MCI's YouTube channel.