Published1 day ago
On Sunday night, groups of gay Singaporeans and their friends gathered across the island to watch history unfold on national TV.
On screen, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong declared that the country would repeal the controversial 377A law – effectively legalising homosexuality.
Many cheered, and some waved rainbow flags. But their joy was immediately tempered by uncertainty and disappointment as Mr Lee followed up with another announcement.
Since most Singaporeans do not want a “drastic shift”, he said, his government would also “protect” the definition of marriage as one between a man and a woman – effectively ruling out the possibility of marriage equality for now.
And so, even as some Singaporeans celebrate a landmark decision, a new front line has already emerged in the battle for LGBT rights.
Officials told local media they would amend the constitution so that parliament alone has the power to redefine marriage.
This puts any decision on gay marriage firmly in the hands of the government, not the courts.
Mr Lee argued in his speech that this was necessary as gay marriage is fundamentally a political issue, not a legal one.
But legal experts say it shuts off a path to recognising same-sex unions as it makes it more arduous to mount constitutional challenges. In some countries, such as the US, gay marriage had become a reality through landmark court decisions.
“One reason must be that the government needed to achieve a balance between competing interests,” Singapore constitutional law expert Suang Wijaya said.
“They want to be seen as giving something to the LGBT community, but also not give a defeat to the conservatives. They don’t want it be a ‘I win and you lose’ situation as it would result in division.”
The announcement has sparked criticism from both sides of the divide – while some in the LGBT community feel let down, conservative sections of society feel the amendment is not enough.
Recent surveys have shown there is significant opposition to gay marriage – one study found nearly half of Singapore says it’s “wrong” – but that percentage is also declining.
That change in attitude is still significant, especially for older members of the LGBT community, who see Sunday’s announcement as a bittersweet moment.
For them, it was something worth cherishing.
Just a few decades ago, LGBT rights was still a taboo topic in tightly-controlled Singapore. Police would raid underground gay clubs and gatherings, and still today TV shows and movies considered to be “promoting homosexuality” can be banned.
“It’s a very emotional moment. Hopefully this is the beginning of a journey. We have not felt very protected for a long time,” says 44-year-old content manager Jeremy Gopalan.
But for others, Sunday’s announcement amounted to a pyrrhic victory. They say the constitutional amendment on marriage will ultimately hinder progress for LGBT rights.
before today, discrimination against gay singaporeans existed because we inherited the law from the british.
today, we took the bold step of making that discrimination our own, enshrining it in our constitution.
we repealed 377a, but we did not actually move forward. pic.twitter.com/rx698ATTC1
— 🍍 __ 🙀 (@sharanvkaur) August 21, 2022
Gay marriage remains a key goal for some because many of Singapore’s policies privilege the conventional family unit.
One example is in public housing, which most Singaporeans live in. The government allows citizens to buy new flats at deeply discounted rates – but only if you are a married couple, or over 35 if you are single.
Without legal recognition of their union, same-sex couples are shut out from this option and will continue to be at a disadvantage in other aspects of Singapore life.
“The repeal of 377A should have been a joyous moment of liberation, and instead it is now merely going to be the stepping stone for discrimination against sexual minorities being enshrined more fully in law,” tweeted Singapore author Moniza Hossain.
Conservative groups however are not appeased by the move.
Protect Singapore, a group lobbying for the preservation of traditional values, said there was still a lack of “comprehensive safeguards”.
They have called for marriage to be enshrined in the constitution as solely a heterosexual union, as they fear the constitutional amendment will not do enough.
“They fear the repeal will lead to a domino effect, so they are planting a flag in the ground right now to make sure those dominoes don’t fall further,” says Terence Chong, a sociologist with ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute.
“I don’t think they would be completely happy even if this traditional definition is enshrined in the constitution. They see this repeal as giving up ground to the LGBT community, so there’s a pushback.”
LGBT groups have already pleaded with the government not to accede to the conservatives’ demand. In a joint statement, they warned it would only “codify further discrimination into supreme law”.
On Monday night a top minister rejected the idea, saying it was “not their intention” to insert the definition of marriage into the constitution.
But the battle is far from over for both camps.
LGBT activists say the 377A repeal is “the first step on a road to full equality” and they would immediately focus on fighting discrimination at home, schools, workplaces, housing and healthcare.
Opponents meanwhile have vowed to continue organising mass town halls and have urged supporters to lobby MPs.
All this could mean deeper conflict ahead. Former nominated MP Siew Kum Hong warned “we will see the temperature ratchet up” in coming months as Singapore prepares to enact both the repeal and constitutional amendment.
For example “you could see things that border on hate speech that could make life worse for LGBT people, a more intense homophobia from a smaller section of the population,” said Mr Siew, who previously advocated for 377A’s repeal in parliament.
Singapore may have hoped that in legalising homosexuality, it could close what many see as a shameful chapter in history.
But far from resolving the issue of LGBT discrimination, the country has just opened up a new era of contention.