Gay sex: is time finally up for Singapore’s Section 377A?

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It is a law famously and stubbornly resistant to change. One that has outlived not only the British colonialists who drafted it, but the British empire itself. A law that survived the birth of an independent nation and a new millennium; a law rooted in the 19th century that still causes arguments well into the 21st.

Yet after 80-plus years on the statute books, gay rights campaigners hope time could finally be up for Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code.

The law, which criminalises sexual acts between men, is to face three legal challenges starting from this week, in cases likely to polarise opinion in the city state.

Singapore is one of the few remaining former British colonies still clinging to the archaic rule, which came into force in 1938 after being adapted from a 19th-century Indian penal code (abandoned by India last year). And while the city state no longer enforces the law, gay rights campaigners argue that its symbolism is socially corrosive, that it encourages discrimination and undermines the principle of equality.

Amid new research suggesting younger Singaporeans’ attitudes to gay rights are liberalising, the cases filed by Roy Tan, a former organiser of the Pink Dot gay rally, disc jockey Johnson Ong Ming, and Bryan Choong, a former leader of the non-profit organisation Oogachaga, will be seen by many as a litmus test for the government.

The authorities have long resisted growing calls to abandon the law altogether, quashing previous challenges on the grounds that it has become part of the country’s societal framework. On two separate occasions, Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has suggested he was “prepared to live with [the law] until social attitudes change” and that it would be better to “let the situation evolve gradually”.

But the campaigners will have taken heart from novel arguments against Section 377A by former chief justice Chan Sek Keong, who described it as both outdated and unconstitutional in a 72-page report published in the Singapore Academy of Law Journal last month.