Metro Weekly

Singapore court refuses to overturn anti-sodomy law

Court of Appeal deems law outlawing same-sex relations "unenforceable" but keeps it on the books.

An interior view of the Singapore Court of Appeal inside the Old Supreme Court Building – Photo: Jacklee

In a ruling given on Monday, February 28, a Singapore law deeming sex between men to be a crime was called “unenforceable” by the country’s Court of Appeal, but the court refused to repeal the law itself, meaning sexual relations between men will maintain its illegal status in Singapore for the forseeable future.

The court added that the decision to remove the law will be up to the country’s Parliament.

Singapore — a small island country just off the southern tip of Malaysia — has been criticized for several years by local LGBTQ activists for their discriminatory laws. While Singapore’s Parliament repealed similar anti-LGBTQ legislation that criminalized oral and anal sex in 2007, the specific law that bans any sexual act between men (known as Section 377A) has been upheld.

A remnant of British Imperial rule, Section 377A was first implemented in Singapore in 1938 when the country was still a colony of Britain. Those found in violation of the law can be imprisoned for up to two years.

Though the Court of Appeals, explaining its refusal to repeal the law, stated that Section 377A does not pose any “real or credible threat” to gay men in the country as it isn’t enforced, the court noted that it could become enforceable if the attorney general’s office declares it will enforce the law.

This strangely worded ruling has left the three men who brought the lawsuit before the Court of Appeal disappointed and concerned.

One of those three men, a retired doctor named Roy Tan, told the South China Morning Post that Section 377A keeping its place within Singapore’s laws “is a huge signpost to society that gay men are still criminals, even though they may not be prosecuted.”

Pink Dot SG, a Singapore based non-profit organization dedicated to advocating for LGBTQ rights, joined in Tan’s disappointment, releasing their own statement about the Court of Appeal decision.

“Today’s ruling is frustrating for those who were hoping for some real change,” a spokesperson for Pink Dot SG Clement Tan said in the statement. “Despite acknowledging that gay men should be able to live freely in Singapore, without harassment or interference, the court still hesitated to strike it down. It now falls on Parliament to deal the final blow to Section 377A.”

“Pink Dot SG urges Singapore’s leaders to act urgently and decisively to repeal this redundant law,” he added.

This movement to overturn Section 377A represents the latest fight for LGBTQ rights in Asia. And while Singapore could be at a turning point in its stance towards LGBTQ people, the country generally lags behind its Asian neighbors on the issue.

For example, The People’s Republic of China has made tremendous strides in supporting its LGTBQ citizens, including legalizing same-sex marriage in 2017 and opening clinic to help transgender minors in November 2021; Taiwan legalized same-sex marriage in 2019; India decriminalized homosexuality in 2018, but the south Asian country has yet to legally permit same-sex marriage. 

With a vibrant and ever-growing LGBTQ community, the Singapore Parliament is certain to feel some pressure to repeal Section 377A, but urging elected officials isn’t the only strategy for activists. For Tan and those who support his cause, the struggle will continue in the courtroom as he plans to, once again, attack Section 377A on legal grounds.

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