Parliamentary debate on Section 377A, part 16: Charles Chong

Editor’s note: Only the parts of his speech that touch on 377A are archived here

Source: Parliamentary Reports

23 October 2007, 4:55 pm, in Parliament

Mr Charles Chong (Pasir Ris-Punggol): Sir, another provision that has generated much controversy is section 377A.  Much has already been said on this section, and I am not sure if I can add anything that has not already been said.  I shudder at the thought of adding more of it because of the passion that has been shown in this House.  But I think I would be remiss as a legislator if I merely hid behind the views of the “conservative majority” and maintain the status quo, which of course would be the least inconvenient thing to do if you were not gay.

Sir, I am not convinced that there would be drastic consequences in our society if we do not repeal section 377A, as the section has been in the Penal Code since the Code was adopted in, I think, 1871.  Neither am I convinced that we will all rapidly slip down the slippery road if we were to repeal section 377A, as suggested by some Members.  The slippery road argument has less of an impact on me these days, as I have heard that sort of arguments used many times before.

Some years ago, a senior politician (who shall remain unnamed) argued his case as eloquently and as convincingly as some of our NMPs did yesterday, in retaining an archaic regulation.  The removal of such a regulation, it was said, would have led to conflicts, fights and murders, if it were to be abolished.  Well, we have abolished that archaic regulation and permitted bar-top dancing for some years already, and the world has not come to an end yet.

Sir, if the experts and MM and PM are indeed correct (and some of our MPs wrong) that some of us are indeed born with different sexual orientations, then it would be quite wrong for us to criminalise and persecute those that are born different from us, regardless of how conservative a society we claim to be, especially if their actions do not cause harm to third parties.

Sir, we also claim to be a secular and inclusive society.  We should therefore respect the private space of those who are born different from us as much as we expect them to respect our common space.  Therefore, if we do retain section 377A, which is most likely the case, as the Prime Minister has said so already, then we should exclude criminalising acts done in private between consenting adults of full capacity. Enforcing section 377A for acts done in private would be onerous if we do not have the equivalent of religious vigilantes that some of our neighbouring countries have to spy on what takes place in the bedrooms and hotel rooms.

Is it really the business of Government to regulate acts between consenting adults born with different sexual orientations in the privacy of their bedrooms?

Sir, if we have intended the retention of section 377A in the Penal Code as an expression of our conservative values, rather than to be proactively enforced, as some have suggested, then I think we have come out short even in this respect.  The section criminalises act of gross indecency in public and in private only if it is engaged between men.  Surely, the Minister must acknowledge that women are as capable as men of committing such acts.  Is section 377A therefore, as it stands, a correct statement of our values and principles? Or are there no lesbians in Singapore?

Sir, it would simply not be realistic to expect the majority of Singaporeans to ever reach a position of being pro-homosexuality or where they would actively seek to repeal section 377A as a matter of priority.  Even if heterosexual Singaporeans are apathetic towards homosexuality, it would be much easier just to maintain the status quo than to take steps to modify or even expunge section 377A from the Penal Code.

Having said all this, section 377A is useful in one regard as it is currently an offence for a man to “procure or attempt to procure the commission” of an act of gross indecency with another man.  This gives some protection to men who are subject to unwanted sexual advances of other men and should continue to be an offence whether these advances are made in public or in private.  The section should however be extended to protect women who face the same sort of harassment from other women.

This is a rare case of the Penal Code providing more protection to men than it does to women. It is unfair and may even be unconstitutional that women do not, in this respect, currently have the same sort of protection that men have under the law.

So, ultimately, my question, as asked by the other Members, is: if we did not have section 377A in the Penal Code today, would we think it fit and proper to enact a provision in exactly the same terms?  Would we not be seen as being narrow-minded, perhaps even bigoted in our philosophy towards people who are born different and engage in practices not approved by the majority, even if no harm is done to others?

If we would not, then I think we should show leadership and convince the majority to do what is fair, just and representative of the age in which we live. And that it does not make sense to have a law we do not intend to proactively enforce and that intimate relations with the consenting adults in the privacy of one’s bedroom are not the business of the Government.

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