Parliamentary debate on Section 377A, part 6: Indranee Rajah

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

Source: Parliamentary Reports

22 October 2007, 6:33 pm, in Parliament

Ms Indranee Rajah (Tanjong Pagar): Mr Deputy Speaker, Sir, I rise to speak in support of the amendments in the Bill. Before I go on to my main points, may I just address some of the points that have been raised by Mr Chiam See Tong as well as by Mr Siew Kum Hong.

[snip]

I turn now to the comments made by Mr Siew Kum Hong, both in respect of his Petition and section 377A itself. I think I can have some sympathy with the concerns that the gay community or the homosexuals in Singapore have, but I would like to address some specific legal points made by Mr Siew. The entire basis on which the Petition rests is that it is a violation of Article 12(1) of the Constitution which provides that all persons are equal before the law and are entitled to the equal protection of the law. But actually, the submission that has been made by Mr Siew is not quite correct in its interpretation and taken out of context. What Article 12(1) really means, by way of an illustration, would be this. If somebody is charged with theft, for example, you cannot say that, ” I will prosecute you if you are a homosexual, but I would not prosecute you if you are a heterosexual.” That would be an unequal and discriminatory application of the law. So that is what it means when you say that all persons are equal before the law. We do not look at your sexual orientation in determining whether or not you should be prosecuted or you should be charged.

Article 12(1) of the Constitution and the provisions on equal protection do not mean that the same law applies to every group. An example of this is section 376A on sexual penetration of a minor under 16, irrespective of consent. Because, for someone above 16, you look at consent and you see whether or not that person consented, and then it is fine. But in the case of a minor under 16, there is no consent. The minor may well say, “But the law says that all persons are equal before the law. I am under 16. I give my consent. You should treat me equally as an adult.” But we do not argue with that. And why do we not argue with that? We do not argue with that because we recognise that minors are a special group and have to be treated differently and they require certain protection.

Of course, that comes to the issue of whether or not you should treat homosexuals differently. I would come to that in a moment, but I just want to address another legal submission made by Mr Siew which is that we can have a departure from Article 12(1) if there is a rational nexus or legitimate purpose for the statute in question. Then, he went on to say that the purpose in question for the amendments in the Penal Code is that Singapore is a safe and secure society and there is no rational nexus between the keeping of section 377A to this stated purpose.

The first thing I would say is that that purpose was a purpose stated in the public consultation paper of the proposed Penal Code amendments. It does not come from a statute and it is not part of legislation. It is very obviously a summary of the purpose of the amendments. But if you want to take that sort of argument, then what about the distribution of pornographic material? You could, if you want to take the same argument, say that distribution of pornographic material has nothing to do with a safe and secure society as it is not a threat to persons and property. But all of us accept that distribution of pornographic materials is something that should be regarded as an offence. So in exactly the same way, it is the broader concept of what we regard to be a safe and secure society. When we look at the safety and security of Singapore, we also look at the question of public morals, public decency and public order.

Mr Siew also talked about public morality as being the wrong touchstone. I think he said that public morality has been cited as the basis for legislation to enforce slavery, discrimination against racial and religious minorities, discrimination against women, etc. But in a way, that exactly proves the point. At the time when they had slavery, there were laws in place which reflected the public morality of that time. If you had been in America at that time when they had slaves and you had said to somebody, “You should not have slaves because slavery is wrong”, nobody there, at that time, would have agreed with you because the society was such that that was the correct thing at that time. And that is precisely the point because societies do evolve. Clearly, we have evolved to a stage where we now regard slavery as wrong. We certainly regard discrimination on racial and religious grounds as wrong. But in some places, that is still regarded as correct, which just brings us back to the point that in each case, it is a question of what society is prepared to accept.

I come to what is Singapore prepared to accept. I do not think we want to have a situation where we demonise homosexuals. We certainly do not want to regard them as anything less than Singaporeans. But the point is: what does our society want for itself? Societal rules are not purely a matter of free choice. A murderer could say he is free to kill but society disagrees. Murder is a crime. The right to free speech, for example, does not extend to vilifying another race or religion. And once you have different groups that live in a society, you have to accept that there will be some restrictions on behaviour, and particularly so in Singapore, where we have a small land area and a population of diverse races, religions and beliefs. If we have a difference of views then, what do we do?

One group says, “I want this”. Another group says, “No, I want that.” How do we decide? We have to come down to a decision one way or another and, in most cases, we would go with the majority view, unless there is a reason to protect the minority position. So, under the Constitution, for example, there is no discrimination on the basis of race or religion. Why? Because society as a whole accepts that there should be no discrimination on the basis of race or religion. But that is not the universal principle. That is something we accept here, but there are some countries where there is institutionalised discrimination on the basis of either race or religion as part of their official policy. And for those countries, they consider it right. But in Singapore, we do not. So, in each case, we have to consider what the society regards as the correct or the right way to decide for that society, and particularly so in a State like Singapore which is a secular state. A secular state’s position should be that we go with the majority view unless there is a particular reason to uphold the minority position, and legislation has to be a reflection of the societal norms and what is acceptable to that society.

In this case, the public reaction has shown that the majority of Singaporeans do not agree with or accept homosexual behaviour. I think it will be fair to say that most Singaporeans do not want to see somebody jailed for homosexual practices, but most would definitely not want to see any public demonstration of the conduct. They may be prepared to tolerate it if it is done in private, but they do not wish to see it in public and, very importantly, they do not wish to have their children see it in public. Then, of course, the argument comes, “OK, fine, if we do not do it in public, what if we just do it in private?” And that is where the signalling concern comes in, because people are concerned about the impact that a repeal of section 377A would send.

Many Members may recall that some years back, the Senior Minister had made the statement that the civil service would not discriminate against gays. And that was a progressive statement because it indicates that the civil service would not discriminate against employing a homosexual just because he is a homosexual. That was already an advance of a public position from what we had 20 years ago. I do not think the Government would have made such a statement like that 20 years ago. That shows that we have evolved to some extent where a statement like that can be made. But immediately after that statement was made, I had a number of pastors coming to speak to me to say, “Why is the Government endorsing homosexual behaviour?” The Government was not endorsing. The Government was saying that we would not discriminate against a homosexual in terms of employment because he is a homosexual. But the immediate public perception, at least for many people, was that it is just not discrimination, it is an endorsement. And our society, obviously, has not arrived at the stage where we can just separate the two. It is not as easy as that, and people see it as an important form of public signalling. Therefore, the stance which the Government is taking is, in fact, an exact reflection of what Singapore society in general think, which is that if you really have to do it in private, the Government and the Police will not take a proactive enforcement policy but, at the same time, we do not want to send a message to everybody that this is correct, because we have to take into account the majority view. And I think that many liberal groups have, for a long time, thought that the Government was exaggerating the extent of the conservatives in Singapore, but that is not so. I appreciate Mr Siew’s point that there were many people who would have written, emailed or given support to the Petition on the Internet. But I can tell you that for every one of those, there was someone who emailed us as Members of Parliament to say, “Do not repeal. Keep it. We thank the MPs, we thank the Government for keeping this law.”

Sir, when we have a situation like that, when we have one group that feels very strongly to keep the law, and another group that feels strongly to do away with it, what do we do? We have to make a decision. And the obvious decision in such a situation is to maintain the status quo, and to recognise that somewhere along the line, the situation may evolve. It may well change, just as the position on slavery changed, just as the position on a woman being a chattel changed, thank goodness, just as many other things have changed along the way.

Actually, we think about it, that was the conclusion that the Workers’ Party arrived at. Members will recall that Ms Sylvia Lim said that the Workers’ Party had debated it for a long time, and they basically could not arrive at a consensus. And because they could not arrive at a consensus, they figured that they should let the status quo remain. And until such time when society is ready to move, the Government’s position is the correct position, which is – let things develop but, in the meantime, obviously, they have signalled that they will not actively prosecute, although that may be different if the act is done in public, and it certainly may not be the case if a minor is involved. In that way, it is a compromise of sorts, but we always have to have a compromise when we live in a society where there are diverse groups.

[snip]

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