Parliamentary debate on Section 377A, part 3: Christopher de Souza

Editor’s note: Only the parts of the speech touching on Sections 377A are archived here.

Source: Parliamentary Reports

22 October 2007, 4:53 pm, in Parliament

Mr Christopher de Souza (Holland-Bukit Timah): The retention of section 377A is a non-amendment. Yet, its retention has attracted the most press. Some argue to repeal it and provide reasons to support their position. Others say repeal because the law is archaic, not abreast with the times, displays Singapore to be inflexible.

I do not agree with this position and provide a number of arguments in support of retaining section 377A and, in so doing, record my support for the Bill.

Consequences of repealing section 377A

The first argument is a basic one. It involves the possible consequences of appealing section 377A. A repeal of section 377A will not merely remove an offence. It is much more significant than that. Because of the concept of negative liberty, the removal of section 377A puts homosexual lifestyle on par with heterosexual lifestyle. It is to accord both lifestyles a sense of parity.

As a result, homosexual lifestyle no longer remains private but travels into spheres traditionally reserved for heterosexual couples. The point I make is this. It is a misconception to argue for the repeal of section 377A on the ground that “what goes on behind closed doors will not affect us, so no point criminalising it”. It is also a misconception to argue that “what is private, will stay private” and therefore there is no harm repealing section 377A. Such arguments are incorrect.

The truth of the matter is that if we do repeal section 377A, what is in private will not remain private. There are far-reaching consequences. If it is repealed, arguments can be made that rights accorded to heterosexual couples must be accorded to homosexual couples. This has happened in many jurisdictions – the United States, UK, Canada, Denmark, Netherlands, to name a few. In Singapore, we have had recent calls by lobby groups advocating the trumping of minority interests over wider society’s preferences and priorities. This argument is attractive. But, really, what are the consequences? What if section 377A is repealed? Surely, the answer to this must be weighed in the balance. So, let us consider the consequences of repealing section 377A.

Marriage

One major consequence is the effect that such an appeal may have on the institution of marriage. Take Massachusetts, for example. In the case of Goodridge v the Department of Public Health, the US

Massachusetts court ruled that a law denying marriage licences to same-sex couples was unconstitutional. The court disagreed with the argument that child-rearing was best performed under the care of a heterosexual couple.

It is the same situation in the United Kingdom, except that gay marriages are termed same-sex civil partnerships. In fact, the law in the UK is entrenched in the Civil Partnerships Act of 2004. Under that Act, a civil partnership is defined as a relationship between two people of the same sex which is formed when they register as civil partners of each other. Perhaps, some supporting the repeal of section 377A may say, “Well, that does not matter. That marriage relationship can still be private. It does not pervade common space.” Unfortunately, that is incorrect. There has been recent judicial opinion in the United Kingdom that the Civil Partnership Act 2004 grants the same-sex couples the same legal recognition that the law grants to opposite-sex couples. It allows them a formal status with virtually identical legal consequences to those of marriage. Incidentally, the United Kingdom is the jurisdiction with which Singapore law has the most intimate relationship. What happens there could happen here, if section 377A is repealed.

So, this is not a private matter between two consenting male adults. It is a public matter, the effects of which will be felt by all in the wider community.

Adoption

Adoption by same-sex couples may be the second consequence of a repeal of section 377A. Is this far-fetched? No. The UCLA School of Law reported in March 2007 that, to date, 10 states in the US allow same-sex partners to adopt children as couples. About the same number either implicitly or explicitly state that sexual orientation cannot legally prevent homosexual persons from adopting. The same 2007 report from Williams Institute, UCLA, states that gay and lesbian parents are raising 4% of all adopted children in the United States. Is this just a US phenomenon? No. The International Journal of Law, Policy and the Family stated in a 2002 report that the Danes have since removed the prohibition on same-sex couples adopting, while the Netherlands has expressly legislated to permit such adoptions. This has forced societies to accept what some academics called the modern family in its many variations. Do we want our family-centric culture and the traditional definition of family to be threatened? They will be, if section 377A is repealed. This is not just a private matter.

Spousal rights

Another consequence, if section 377A is repealed, is the effect it will have on spousal rights. Same-sex partners may be statutorily entitled to benefits because of their new-found spousal status. This is already the position in some states in the US. Where Massachusetts is concerned, the Goodrich decision now permits same-sex spouses to take advantage of statutes allowing an employee to include his or her spouse in the health insurance coverage. How will we cope in Singapore, where traditional definitions of family and marriage had been the bedrock of the HDB policies? How would it affect the laws of intestacy? Would we then change the definitions of spouse under, say, the CPF Act or Income Tax Act? These are far-reaching consequences.

Education

The last consequence of a repeal of section 377A is its effect on how we may have to educate our children. It flows that with changes in how marriage, the family nucleus and spousal rights are defined, there will be pressure to change our curricula in our schools. Do we want to see our children being taught that homosexuality is an acceptable lifestyle choice? This is something that we should all think carefully about.

In the light of these consequences, I ask that we do not treat these calls for the repeal of section 377A lightly. It is a misconception to think that repealing section 377A is simply the repealing of an outdated and obsolete offence. Instead, such a repeal would have far-reaching consequences.

Harm

Some say that the retention of section 377A does not shield society from harm. I do not think that line of argument is defensible in light of the possible consequences the repeal may bring.

Lack of enforcement

The lack of enforcement is another argument put forward by those advocating a repeal. Whether section 377A is enforced or not is the decision of the Executive. In fact, the Ministry has just confirmed in the Second Reading of the Bill that it has been enforced in certain circumstances. By retaining section 377A, the consequences listed above can be prevented. In any event, enforcement cannot be construed as the sole litmus test for an effective law. The effectiveness of section 377A is seen in what it prevents beyond the act criminalised. For example, to attempt suicide is an offence in Singapore. Yet, how many are prosecuted for it? I dare say a negligible percentage of those who do attempt to commit suicide. Yet, the offence remains on the books even after this amendment because it conveys the message that we do not want people taking their own lives. Will that message become weaker if the offence is taken off the books? Of course, it will. That is why we cannot only be fixated with enforcement.

Scientific arguments that homosexuality is genetic

In recent years, by comparing identical twins to fraternal twins, scientists have attempted to prove a genetic basis for homosexuality. However, such studies are now called into question because the scientists drew their subjects from non-representative samples. Indeed, the earlier twin studies were criticised as being “ascertainment-biased”, in that homosexuals with gay siblings were more likely to volunteer for studies. Later twin studies have been drawn from broader, more representative samples. In a recent large-scale study by two universities, ie, Yale and Columbia, researchers concluded that “We find no support for genetic influences on same-sex preferences net of social structural constraints.”

However, even if we take the argument that homosexuality is genetic at its best – I do not agree with it – but even if we take that argument at its best case, does that merit a repeal of section of 377A? It does not. Natural predispositions should not translate into exceptions from the law. Genetic or natural predispositions do not translate in removal of related offences. For example, it is a known fact that some members of our society suffer from a medical condition known as kleptomania. However, this does not merit repealing all the offences in the Penal Code relating to theft.

The open letter

I have read the open letter to the Prime Minister seeking the repeal of section 377A. Several points are worth highlighting.

Firstly, the letter states: “a gay man should have exactly the same rights as a straight man or woman,” and “Singapore will be woefully out-of-step with the rest of the world should it retain this legislation.” I have just read the Petition which was put on the seat, and it seems that the Petition takes the same position. It seems from these words that the letter seeks not just a repeal but an unreserved embracing of the homosexual lifestyle, ie, marriage, adoption, spousal rights and so on.

Secondly, the letter seems to adopt the position that section 377A should be repealed even if “those who disapprove of gay people outnumber those who support them.”

Thirdly, the letter claims that section 377A contravenes Singapore’s Constitution. Any analysis of the relevant Article, ie, Article 12, must come with a study of the authoritative judgment in Ong Ah Chuan. To my mind, this case will not support the letter’s position.

For these reasons, I support the Government’s retention of section 377A.

[rest of speech snipped]

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