Focusing entirely on the most widely debated issue which PM Lee Hsien Loong himself recognised, he gave parliamentarians a brief lecture on the gay practices of ancient Greece and (the) Romans, and touched on the gay rights developments in the US and Europe as well as President George Bush's efforts in pushing for constitutional amendments defining marriage as being between one man and one woman in the US.
PM Lee urged Parliament to consider the "growing scientific evidence that sexual orientation is something which is substantially inborn" and for society not to make it "harder than it already is" for gays and lesbians.
He acknowledged that gay bars and clubs exist in Singapore and "they don't have to go underground."
"We don't harass gays. The Government does not act as moral policeman. And we don't proactively enforce Section 377A on them."
PM Lee said that the current legal position to not enforce the law is a "practical arrangement that has evolved out of our historical circumstances" that "reflects the social norms and attitudes."
"It's better to accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity. It works; don't disturb it."
Under the legislation, a man caught committing an act of "gross indecency" with another man could be jailed for up to two years.
Acknowledging and quoting from the open letter, PM Lee said: "There is a small percentage of people, both male and female, who have homosexual orientations and they include people 'who are often responsible, invaluable and highly respected contributing members of society.'"
"And it is true. They include people who are responsible, invaluable, highly respected contributing members of society. And I would add that among them are some of our friends, our relatives, our colleagues, our brothers and sisters, or some of our children.
"They too must have a place in this society and they too are entitled to their private lives. We shouldn't make it harder than it already is for them to grow up and to live in a society where they are different from most Singaporeans."
PM Lee added that although he does not want gays to leave the country, he said he does not see gays as a minority group as in the case of racial and religious minority groups and reiterated that gays "should not set the tone for Singapore society."
While acknowledging MP Hri Kumar's views that the not to be enforced laws are "not legally neat and tidy," PM Lee said that Section 337A has become a symbolic issue that neither groups could come to a consensus.
He singled out Prof Thio Li-Ann as one of those who are convinced "passionately so, that homosexuality is an abomination."
Citing the counter-petition that opposes the repeal, he said that himself and other members of the house have received many e-mails and letters that are "very well written, all following a certain model answer style. So it's a very well organised campaign."
Recognising that it is a minority who feel strongly about the issue one way or the other, he said: "Many people are not that seized with this issue. And speaking candidly, I think the people who are very seized with this issue are a minority. And (for) the majority of Singaporeans, well, it is something which they are aware of, but it's not at the top of their consciousness - including I would say, among them, a significant number of gays themselves."
"Also I would say amongst the Chinese-speaking community in Singapore. Chinese-speaking Singaporeans, they are not as strongly engaged either for removing 377A or against removing 377A for the majority of Singaporeans, the attitude is a pragmatic one - we live and let live."
Over two days, 16 MPs spoke the issue.
MP Lim Biow Chuan, who spoke after the PM, disagreed that gays are born that way.
Supporting the retention, he said,, "With the greatest respect to the prime minister, I must state that I do not think there is conclusive evidence that homosexual behaviour is inborn."
"The jury is out on this issue and different scientists would have different views on the matter."
Other MPs including Ong Kian Min and Dr Muhammad Faishal said that residents in their wards have expressed their discomfort and unease about how the issue might evolve and hope for the government to stand by their decision to retain the laws.
MP Baey Kam Keng, who had said that he supports the repeal in a public forum some months ago, highlighted that despite the phrase 'conservative majority' being bandied around frequently, many Singaporeans are ignorant about homosexuality.
He cited one constituent who told him that she supports the government's decision to retain the law but when queried, she confessed that she did not know what the law was for.
He added that many Singaporeans are also likely to have negative stereotypes of gay men as they have been often depicted in the media as preying on young boys.
He hopes for more dialogue to spur greater understanding of what being gay means so that Singaporeans can better reach an informed opinion on whether gay sex should be criminalised.
MP Charles Chong, who spoke immediately after PM Lee, in a surprise move urged the Government to show leadership on Section 377A and said he would be "remiss as a legislator if (he) merely hid behind the views of the conservative majority and maintain the status quo."
He argued that if some people are born with a different sexual orientation, then "it would be quite wrong of us to criminalise and to persecute those that are born different from us regardless of how conservative a society we claim to be."
"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."
He asked if lesbians should be criminalised as gay men are under the law and if it should be extended to protect women from the unwanted sexual advances of other women.
"Is Section 377A therefore as it stands a correct statement of our values and principles? Or are there no lesbians in Singapore?"
To illustrate how the 'slippery slope' argument does not hold, he quoted an unnamed senior politician, who argued some years ago that the removal of a regulation would lead to 'conflicts, fights and murders'.
He quipped, "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."
Major amendments to the Singapore Penal Code include the introduction of laws to curb sex tourism and child prostitution. It will be an offence to engage in commercial sex with minors under 18 years old in Singapore and in other countries (Section 376B and 376C). A current law has been expanded also make it an offence to make statements with the intention of wounding the racial or religious feelings of others over electronic media such as the Internet. (Section 298). Modelled after similar child or sexual grooming laws in Britain, US, Australia and Canada, authorities will now be able to charge an adult aged 21 who use the Internet to communicate with and meet minors with the intent to groom them for sex (Section 376E). The bills will now be sent to President S.R. Nathan to be signed into law.
What was said in Parliament on Oct 23
Member of Parliament (MP) Charles Chong:
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 are not gay.
I am not convinced that there would be drastic consequences in our society if we do not repeal 377A as the Section as been in the penal code since the code was adopted in 1871, I think. And neither am I convinced that we will all rapidly slip down the slippery road if we were to repeal 377A as suggested by some members.
The slippery road argument has less of an impact on me these days as I've heard that sort of argument 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 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.
If the experts are correct and some of our MPs wrong in their view that some people are born with a different sexual orientation, then it would be quite wrong of us to criminalise and to 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.
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 377A as it is most likely the case as the Prime Minister has said so already, then we should exclude criminalising acts done in private between two consenting adults of full capacity. Enforcing 377A for acts done in private would be erroneous if we do not have the equivalent of religious vigilantes that some our neighbouring countries have to spy on the goings-on in bedrooms and hotel rooms.
And is it really the business of Government to regulate acts between consenting adults born with different sexual orientations in the privacy of their bedrooms?
MP Baey Yam Keng:
We will also say that we introduce Section 377A as a symbol that the society is conservative and that we do not want to go down a slippery slope to see public display of affection between men, gay rights and gay marriages. For seven years, I have lived in London, a city that legalized consensual homosexual sex 40 years ago in 1967. I am hence surprised I have not ever seen such behaviour in public while I was there. Perhaps I have not been to the right places.
Perhaps we are afraid that the slope will be more slippery in Singapore. After all, we have a track record of taking a more progressive stance in some areas such as stem cell research and digital rights, leading the way, so to speak. We take into account the change of times and lifestyles.
I suspect a significant segment of our society does not really care and some are just uncomfortable with this topic and choose the convenient way to stick with status quo without knowing what the act exactly is and does.
Hopefully the government will provide the environment to encourage the continuation of such dialogue so that the society at large can achieve a better understanding of the matter. I want to especially encourage voices from institutions like the Law Society, so that the discussion will not be driven to periphery. Hopefully the discussion will be on-going and not just during the next review of the Penal Code. Hopefully the review will happen earlier rather than another 23 years later. Hopefully we will move with and not play catching up with the pace of change around the world that is affecting people's lives.
Extracts of speeches by MPs who supported the retention of Section 377A
MP Lim Biow Chuan:
With the greatest respect to the prime minister, I must state that I do not think there is conclusive evidence that homosexual behaviour is inborn. The jury is out on this issue and different scientists would have different views on the matter.
MP Dr Muhammad Faishal:
In addition to the delicious rendang and ketupat, Section 377A became a hot topic of discussion during my Hari Raya visits and gathering.
MP Ong Kian Min:
By condoning homosexuality, we are effectively initiating a shift in the definition of the family unit. Singaporeans are simply not ready to change their family values and endorse homosexuality as normal.
MP Seah Kian Peng:
I would be the first to stand up for a gay man's right to be treated as an equal under the law. Yet, I am an MP who believes that as a nation, our families are not ready to have an open acceptance of the gay lifestyle, including same-sex marriages and gay adoption of young children.
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