Anal and oral sex will no longer be a criminal offence in Singapore but this will only apply to consenting heterosexual adults while sexual acts between men will remain a crime, the government said on Wednesday.
A relic of British colonial rule, Section 377 - which criminalises sexual acts 'against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals' and provides for life imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment and a fine - will be repealed while Section 377A, which criminalises "gross indecency" between males whether in public or in private and prescribes up to two years' imprisonment, will be left as is.
Britain, Hong Kong and Australia have since repealed laws prohibiting sex between men in 1967, 1991 and 1997 (in the state of Tasmania, the last Australian state to do so) respectively.
An "explanatory note" issued by MHA to official newsrooms after office hours on Tuesday, which was obtained by Fridae, read: "The law on sexual offences deals with sexual relationships and embodies what society considers acceptable or unacceptable behaviour.
"When it comes to homosexual acts, the issue is whether Singaporeans are ready to change laws to bring them in line with heterosexual acts. Singapore remains, by and large, a conservative society. Many do not tolerate homosexuality, and consider such acts abhorrent and deviant. Many religious groups also do not condone homosexual acts. This is why the Government is neither encouraging nor endorsing a homosexual lifestyle and presenting it as part of the mainstream way of life."
The news has enraged the local gay community. Miak, who is an active member of several gay groups, said: "What is the argument for the decriminalising of non-vaginal sex between heterosexuals but not for homosexuals? Is it about how conservative Singapore society is, and how some people find homosexual sex deviant, offensive, repugnant? I think that the same people might also find non-vaginal - meaning oral/anal sex which will soon be legalised - deviant, offensive and repugnant too!"
"The law hasn't been used to prosecute in recent times - so what is the point of retaining it? To maintain a facade of moral standards?"
While welcoming the repeal of Section 377, gay and lesbian advocacy group People Like Us (PLU) said that the "assurance" that it "will not be proactive in enforcing the section against adult males engaging in consensual sex with each other in private" is inadequate as it cannot be relied upon legally.
In a statement issued on Wednesday to call on the government to repeal both Section 377 and 377A, PLU said: "The retention of s.377A, even if not enforced, will signal to many that homophobia is justifiable and acceptable and has the support of the State.
"If the government aims for an open, inclusive society, it should be doing all it can to overturn prejudice and discrimination, rather than give people reason to remain closed-minded through retaining s.377A for symbolic purposes."
Subhas Anandan, president of the Association of Criminal Lawyers in Singapore, questioned the rationale for not repealing Section 377A in a Channelnewsasia interview: "If you are a homosexual or a lesbian, I think you can get into trouble. We are talking about an inclusive society and being more broad-minded. Why do we want to keep these people away, out of the circle? I think we should be more broad-minded, more sympathetic and allow these people to be included in our society."
Other proposed amendments include new laws to combat child prostitution, sex tourism, strengthened prosecution of credit card fraud and the extension of several offences to the electronic media including the Internet as well as a clarification of the definition of an unlawful assembly. In total, the proposed changes would add 19 new ones, affect 19 existing offences, and review penalties, and will now be open to public feedback for a month via reach.gov.sg.