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1 Nov 2010

Singapore gay group highlights poor gay rights record ahead of UN review

Pioneer gay group People Like Us and other civil society groups in Singapore have submitted reports on the country's human rights track record ahead of Singapore's first review by the UN as part of a periodic review of all UN member states.

This is the first time Singapore’s human rights record will come under scrutiny by the United Nations as a part of the Universal Periodic Review of all UN member nations. The mechanism, which started in April 2008, involves a review of the human rights records of all 192 UN Member States once every four years with the objective of improving the human rights situation in all countries and address human rights violations wherever they occur. 128 reviews have been completed to date.

United Nations - Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights. More about the Universal Periodic Review. The review covers the five categories of human rights – civil, political, social, cultural and economic.

Gay advocacy group People Like Us is among eight civil society groups which has submitted a joint report collated by MARUAH, the Singapore Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism. Many of the reports were released at a media conference on Sunday, one day before the deadline for their submission to the UN's Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. 

In the 10-page joint report which covers a wide range of issues such as media regulations, preventive detention without trial and the death penalty, gay-related issues were mentioned twice under Registration of societies and Discrimination against homosexuals:

13. Registration of societies. Any association of 10 or more persons must be registered under the Societies Act, failing which it becomes an unlawful assembly, membership of which is a criminal offence. The Registrar of Societies has some discretion on whether to refuse registration. There are at least two publicly documented instances where this discretion was exercised, in an arbitrary and unconstitutional manner, to deny the registration applications of the gay rights group People Like Us in 1997 and 2004. 

19. Discrimination against homosexuals. Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalises private consensual sex between adult men. However, the same acts by an opposite-sex heterosexual couple are legal. Section 377A is therefore discriminatory and violates Articles 7 and 12 of the UDHR, as well as Article 12(1) of the Singapore Constitution. Despite the Government’s public promise not to “proactively” enforce Section 377A, as at the time of writing of this submission, there is at least one active prosecution under Section 377A before the courts.

From the joint report by Coalition Of Singapore NGOs (COSINGO).

Aside from PLU, the other groups are Association of Women for Action & Research (AWARE), Challenged People's Alliance and Network (CAN!), Deaf and Hard of Hearing Federation, Humanitarian Organization for Migration Economics, MARUAH (Working Group for an ASEAN Human Rights Mechanism, Singapore), Singaporeans for Democracy, and Transient Workers Count Too.

Singapore will be reviewed in May 2011. Following the review, an “outcome report” will provide a summary of the actual discussion and recommendations made by States to the country under review, as well as the responses by the reviewed State. Although the report is not legally binding, it will form the basis of future reviews.

UPR 2011 submission by People Like Us

People Like Us has also sent a separate submission to the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UN OHCHR). The five-page paper focusses on six priority areas where the human rights of LGBT persons are compromised: criminal law, censorship, freedom of association, the sex notation on the national identity card, discrimination in employment and the lack of legal recognition for same-sex relationships.

Excerpted from the report: 

Legislation and administrative policies

Issue: Criminal law

Section 377A of the Penal Code says: "Any male person who, in public or private, commits, or abets the commission of, or procures or attempts to procure the commission by any male person of, any act of gross indecency with another male person, shall be punished with imprisonment for a term which may extend to 2 years." This criminalises sexual contact between two male persons even if they are consenting adults and even intimacy occurs in private. It impacts and is intended to impact gay men. There is no equivalent law criminalising sexual contact between two women, nor any legislation of similar nature criminalising sexual contact between persons of opposite sex. In its discriminatory effect, this is a violation of UDHR Article 7. For its invasion of privacy, this is a violation of UDHR Article 12. 

In 2007, a Parliamentary Petition was laid before the legislature, in accordance with legislative rules, to repeal Section 377A. The government and its majority in parliament rejected the appeal. By that act, the government refreshed the validity of this section of the Penal Code. 

During the parliamentary debate surrounding the abovementioned Petition, the Prime Minister said "we do not proactively enforce section 377A", though what is meant by "pro-actively enforce" has not been spelled out. 

Whilst, during the four years under review, 2006 - 2009, there has been no known prosecution of consenting adults engaged in private sexual relations under Section 377A, men caught in intimate situations with each other in public places, e.g. secluded parks and shopping centre toilets, have been prosecuted under this law. 

Those prosecutorial decisions are themselves discriminatory because opposite-sex couples caught in similar situations would not face the same law. In fact, there has been no known case in the four years under review, of opposite-sex couples charged at all. It is unclear whether this is due to enforcement agencies ignoring instances of opposite-sex couples engaged in intimacy in public spaces, or whether it is media that is ignoring these prosecutions in their reporting. There was however one case in January 2009 of an opposite-sex couple who stripped and paraded nude down a busy street, with the clear intention of

attracting attention. They were charged under a different law from Section 377A (which couldn't have applied to them since they were an opposite-sex couple) and only fined the maximum fine of S$2,000 each in April 2009. 

By comparison, men caught in intimate situations behind bushes or behind a locked toilet door have faced Section 377A, which does not give the judge the option of fining them since the law mandates a prison term of up to two years. Hence the prosecutorial decision to use Section 377A instead of other gender-neutral laws compels a discriminatory judicial outcome. 

This is in addition to the threat of arrest and prosecution that this law creates even for adult consensual relations in private. 

Issue: Censorship

 The Media Development Authority Act, the Films Act and the Broadcasting Act empower the Media Development Authority (MDA) to ban, classify and, through licensing, restrict the content of various media. The MDA effectuates these powers through conditions attached to licences that it issues, and through published "guidelines" which include prohibitions and restrictions on material with LGBT characters and themes. 

For example, film classification guidelines2 say: "Films should not promote or normalise a homosexual lifestyle. However, nonexploitative and non-explicit depictions of sexual activity between two persons of the same gender may be considered for R21." 

Free-to-air television guidelines3 say: "Information, themes or subplots on lifestyles such as homosexuality, lesbianism, bisexualism, transsexualism, transvestism . . . should be treated with utmost caution. Their treatment should not in any way promote, justify or glamorise such lifestyles. Explicit depictions of the above should not be broadcast." 

In practice, these guidelines are treated as binding rather than as advisory and are interpreted in risk-averse ways, with films and television programs containing LGBT themes and characters censored or restricted even when no sex is involved, either by the MDA itself or by producers and editors required to abide by the MDA's licence conditions. 

With few exceptions (mostly films that are rated R21 and accessible only to those aged 21 and older in selected cinemas) anything that depicts LGBT characters in normal or positive light, or any speech that advocates for their dignity and rights are routinely cut out or barred (violation of UDHR Article 19). What is left is depiction that tends to be stereotypical and/or negative, and is generally, if subtly degrading. The result of this skewed depiction is a perpetuation of prejudice and stigma upon which discrimination by public and private actors is grounded. This censorship policy also means that LGBT persons are deprived of positive role models in the media, which reinforces low self-esteem throughout their adult lives, in turn rendering them accepting of discrimination and rights abuses. 

Taking its cue from legislation and censorship policies, the Education Ministry (MOE) established "guidelines" for sexuality education4 that say: "MOE does not condone promiscuity, sexual experimentation by teenagers or promote homosexuality. MOE teaches students what homosexuality is, and that homosexual acts are illegal." 

A tone of disapproval and exclusion is adopted. Not only does it damage the psycho-social health of LGBT teenagers and thereby fail their educational needs (violation of UDHR Article 26(2)), it provides justification for prejudice, intolerance and marginalisation in the minds of their heterosexual peers. 

Taken together, the censorship and education policies create attitudes and conditions that violate the "economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality" (vide UDHR Article 22) by government bodies and private citizens.

Issue: Barriers to association

The Societies Act gives discretionary power to the Registrar of Societies to approve or disapprove a society (defined as any group with ten or more persons), with appeals against his decision directed to the minister in charge. The Societies Act does not require the Registrar or the minister to give reasons for whatever decision they make.

Section 14 of this Act defines any unregistered society as an "unlawful society" whose leaders and members are liable to criminal prosecution.

On two separate occasions, People Like Us was denied registration by the Registrar of Societies. The reason given by the Registrar on both occasions was that it would be "contrary to the national interest" to legally register the group (violation of UDHR Article 20(1)). How LGBT interests could be contrary to the national interest was not explained. 

People Like Us, and by this precedent, all LGBT advocacy groups, operate under an ever present threat of arrest and prosecution (violation of UDHR Article 20(1) ). Even without such clampdowns, the lack of legal status means an inability to raise funds in any organised way, and denial of access to mainstream media wary of giving legitimacy to illegal groups (violation of UDHR Article 19) 

Issue: Sex notation on identity card

The National Registration Act requires each citizen to be issued with an identity card and to have recorded such details as the Commissioner of National Registration requires. This includes one's sex. 

The administrative practice is that a transgendered person shall have his sex at birth recorded on the identity card even when the person clearly identifies with and presents as someone of the opposite gender. The "sex" entry on the identity card, and by extension the passport, is not changed unless the individual can prove that he or she has undergone the full scope of sex-reassignment surgery. For the majority of transgendered persons, this is neither affordable, practicable, nor something they might want. The result is a life lived in limbo, with a contradiction between the documented sex and their lived gender. Consequently, the state issued identity card becomes an instrument by the state and others to inflict social humiliation against them (violation of UDHR Article 5).

Issue: Discrimination in employment 

There is no legislation against discriminatory practices in employment. The state-perpetuated prejudice against LGBT persons manifests in discrimination against LGBT employees by many organisations in the private sector, at both at hiring and promotion points (violation of UDHR Article 23 (1), (2) and (3) ). This is particularly serious for male-to-female transgendered persons which few organisations would consider hiring in the first place. 

Without anti-discrimination or equal opportunity legislation, affected persons have no recourse. 

Former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong in 2003 declared that the public sector should no longer discriminate against gay persons, but as far as is known, this announcement has not been codified in any way. In any case, it is not clear if transgendered persons are included or excluded from this pronouncement. 

Yet, anecdotal reports surface repeatedly of gay teachers being shunted out of classrooms into dead-end administrative jobs, or have their contracts terminated. Typically, no reason is given and therefore it is not possible to determine if their sexual orientation was the factor in the decision, but the pattern over several cases and the lack of other discernible reasons in each case lend weight to suspicion that discrimination is at work. 

Issue: Inequality resulting from lack of legal recognition for same-sex relationships 

Neither the law nor the state recognises same-sex relationships. Even marriages contracted in other jurisdictions between same-sex partners are specifically derecognised in Singapore under Section 12(1) of the Women's Charter, which says: "A marriage solemnized in Singapore or elsewhere between persons who, at the date of the marriage, are not respectively male and female shall be void." 

Consequently, many benefits and rights enjoyed by married opposite-sex couples are denied to same-sex couples because the latter do not have the route to marriage open to them. 

These include employee benefits whose scope extend to spouses, medical visitation and next-of-kin rights, rights to purchase subsidised public housing from the Housing and Development Board and tax allowances for married couples. This is a violation of UDHR Article 7. 

Click here to read full report.

Reader's Comments

1. 2010-11-02 03:06  
Good for them. Singapore's is very much a first-world country, but she's still seen internationally as having a poor human rights record - and not just in terms of how it treats its gay population.

When people live under what's little more than a benign police state, where citizens are 'allowed' to do certain things, but 'refused' true freedom of thought and expression, and where people, including gay men and women, are *expected* to behave in A Certain Way - or else - it's not surprising that many locals resent the singaporean government, and how society operates there, which is the main reason why the UN, and other interested parties, welcome these kind of reports.

After all, the voices of dissent and disagreement, from those who object to how a society and a government works, are very important to consider, and not just those who think everything is fine, and 'right' as it is.

So, good luck to Singapore's dissenting and complaining groups with these reports, whether they're gay-, human rights- or civil rights-related. It's little consolation to them, I'm sure, to know that pretty much most other countries also disagree with how Singapore's government treats and polices her people, with true Orwellian overtones that trample over most (Western) notions of civil, personal and citizen rights, but it should be Some...
Comment #2 was deleted by its author on 2010-11-02 05:15
3. 2010-11-02 05:14  
Yes, good luck to every organisation in Singapore that challenges these flagrant abuses of human rights. The saddest result of this 'benevolent police state' is that people become conditioned through narrow education and material comforts not to complain about something rather more fundamental - the recognition and acceptance by society of who they are. Worse, alot of these 'don't make a fuss' people are from the LBGT community itself. It's perhaps understandable when the Singapore government and media tries to indoctrinate so many young LBGTs to feel they don't have a right to a decent life, but these armchair critics should think again. PLU, Fridae and others keep up the good work, you are a credit to us all.
4. 2010-11-02 10:50  
I wish my PLU friends in Singapore to enjoy more freedom and success in getting gay act as a legal act between concenting adults.
I avoid visitting your country only because it has an anti gay government.
Singapore is always proud of being more modern and provides higher life quality then it's Muslim nighbours. As for gay rights, it has nothing to be proud of as it is the same there and in Singapore.
Be strong an don't give up.
Comment edited on 2010-11-02 10:55:40
5. 2010-11-02 19:35  
I think a few more issues could have been brought up:
1) Inadequate subsidies for HIV treatment
2) Censorship of gay pride/party such as Nation Party
3) Lack of Comprehensive Sexuality Education in schools which is necessary to reduce social homophobia
4) Gays' problems/opportunities in the military
5) Lack of laws against hate crimes
6) Gay sauna One Seven's complaint that it had been harassed
6. 2010-11-03 15:57  
I don't understand what PLU stands for? more sex in parks? blowjobs in public toilets? more porn?

Kentucky just elected a gay mayor but I don't think anyone would elect Alex on his current platform
7. 2010-11-04 01:27  
Is this website brave enough to lead the world forward to champion and release by every country, politcians, leaders, statesman, industry and celebrities (the latter, if we have to read about them again) and make the global community realise that being "gay" is not a choice. There are many fine people in the world and private lives are not a tabloid or boardroom issue. Thank You
8. 2010-11-04 20:18  
Equal rights for trolls!

Ps. what are human rights?
9. 2010-11-04 23:39  
To sisters and brothers in Singapore:

Mongolia was reviewed under the Universal Periodic Review just 2 days ago in Geneva. We had submitted a comprehensive report as well, and conducted advocacy throughout this year and half of the last year. The result: 7 countries strongly recommended that the Mongolia's Government ensures equality and non-discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity. We are still euphoric as the Government representatives agreed to review laws, investigate homophobic and transphobic crimes against us, and to ensure equality for us!

Tomorrow Mongolia is also being reviewed under the Convention against Torture, for which we also documented cases and submitted a report detailing inconsistencies between the criminal laws of Mongolia and the CAT (all our submissions can be found at http://lgbtcentre.mn/en/reports/reports.html).

So, we are ready to share tips and best practices in advocacy with Singaporean LGBT organisations!

Good luck and best wishes,
the LGBT Centre of Mongolia.
Comment edited on 2010-11-04 23:40:15

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