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COMMENT: Protecting Singapore’s LGBT begins with repealing Section 377A

By Remy Choo Zheng Xi

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The 2016 Pink Dot event in support of the LGBT community held at the Speakers’ Corner on 4 June. (Photo: Yahoo Singapore/Vernon Lee)

When I worked on the Constitutional challenge to repeal Section 377A two years ago, one of the news stories we came across was of a young man who had reported many years before a same sex sexual assault to the police. He was shocked when he ended up being investigated for an offence under S377A. Less than a year later, he received a stern warning for it.

Separately, in the course of our legal research, our team came across a case of a failed gay relationship, where one partner sued the other for the return of monies he had advanced. In his defence, the other party responded that the debt was unenforceable by reason of the illegality of the relationship.

Fortunately, the defence was rejected, but no heterosexual couple would ever face this issue in Court. It made me wonder how many gay men and women in similar situations may have shied away from pursuing their full legal rights against a former same sex partner for fear of the stigma of having the intimate details of a failed gay relationship being mentioned in Court.

For the Constitutional challenge, one of the affidavits we tendered in Court was sworn by Prof Roy Chan, a senior doctor active in HIV prevention with the NGO Action for Aids. He attested to how stigmatisation and criminalisation faced by the LGBT community were hampering efforts to raise awareness of HIV prevention.

Recently, I read the news of a male teacher who was blackmailed to the amount of $197,000 by a man he had a brief sexual encounter with before he mustered the courage to tell the authorities.

Recalling these cases tempered my enthusiasm when I read the statement by Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam on Tuesday (14 June) that all Singaporeans will be protected regardless of race, religion or sexual orientation. The minister was responding to the mass shooting in Orlando on Sunday (12 June), which saw 50 people killed, most of whom were from the gay community.

Don’t get me wrong, his statement was important and brave. But while the physical protection Shanmugam spoke of is important, such protection is the bare minimum that has to be accorded to all Singaporeans.

We need to ask a more fundamental question: how can we speak, with a straight face, of the equal protection of the law guaranteed under Article 12 of our Constitution when members of an entire community among us continue to be considered criminals?

In the words of Attorney-General V K Rajah, when he was a judge in the Court of Appeal, “the continued existence of S377A in our statute books causes (gay men) to be unapprehended felons in the privacy of their homes”. Having the statute “affects the lives of a not insignificant portion of our community in a very real and intimate way”.

Protecting the LGBT community means creating an environment where sexuality doesn’t have to be hidden for fear of stigma, of blackmail, of stunted career advancements. If Singapore wants to be serious about protecting the LGBT community, we need to decriminalise the community and repeal S377A.

That’s the least we can do.

Remy Choo Zheng Xi is a lawyer with Peter Low LLC. The views expressed are his own.