Workers’ Party (WP) Chairman Sylvia Lim told a packed audience of over 80 people at the WP Headquarters yesterday that her party will not be canvassing for the de-criminalisation of gay sex in Singapore.
Ms Lim, who is also a Non-Constituency Member of Parliament (NCMP), was speaking at a public forum organised by the WP to discuss the Singapore Government’s proposed amendments to the Penal Code — the primary criminal legislation that defines crimes like defamation, criminal breach of trust and rape, and their respective punishments. It was the WP’s first public forum this year and part of a series of events to mark the 50th anniversary of Singapore’s oldest political party in this November. The event featured presentations from several speakers.
Ms Lim kicked off the discussion by lamenting about the lack of attention paid to legal issues in Singapore by the media and the public. As a result, when the issue of crime was discussed, the “right wing school” often seemed to dominate the debates. She expressed concern about the sharp increases in prison terms for some offences. For example, if the amendments were approved by Parliament, the punishment for assaulting an MP would increase from 7 years to 20 years, and the penalty for being part of an unlawful assembly (itself a contentious matter) is to increase from 6 months to 2 years. Ms Lim felt that these new sentencing guidelines might further increase Singapore’s prison population, which was already the second-highest in Asia (as a percentage of the total population). This, she said, would not bode well for efforts to create an inclusive society.
Lawyer and TODAY columnist Thomas Koshy noted that while the proposed amendments included lifting of some immunity for husbands who rape their wives, it didn’t go far enough to cover all instances of marital rape. Party member Firuz Khan contrasted the process of enacting legislation in Singapore and the UK. He pointed out that in the UK, there were two Houses of Parliament, many non-government organisations (NGOs) and a diverse media to scrutinise bills before they were passed. This is not the case in Singapore, where the media tends to favour the Government’s position on proposed legislation and there is little organised action by NGOs to push issues. Marriage counsellor Anthony Yeo, who was the last to speak, encouraged ordinary citizens and NGOs to submit their views on the Penal Code, instead of depending on the Opposition to voice its disagreement.
WP reveals its position on homosexual issues
The issue of decriminalising gay sex gave rise to a heated debate during part of the question-and-answer session following the panel presentations. Two gay lobbyists in the audience questioned the apparent bias against gays in Singapore, arguing that it went against the Constitution, which guarantees equal rights to all Singaporeans. They wondered if the WP would be their representatives to speak up in Parliament for the gay community. The gay community was understandably upset that the proposed Penal Code amendments did not revoke Section 377A, which states that:
“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.”
Ms Lim revealed that the issue of decriminalisation of gay sex had been discussed by the Party leadership. She said that while there was some “sympathy for the gay position”, there was no agreement among the Party’s leaders on moving this issue forward as a party agenda. Therefore, the WP would not be pushing that in Parliament. The WP chairman gave no indication that this position would change in the future. She did observe, however, that the gay lobby in Singapore was already very vocal and more than capable of pushing this issue on their own.
The WP’s stand of homosexuality may have surprised, or even disappointed, some who were hoping for Singapore’s largest opposition party to advance a more liberal agenda against the People’s Action Party (PAP) Government, which has been criticised by many as being out of step with the times on several issues, particularly with regards to political freedom and social mores.
In recent years, the WP has sought to distance itself from the confrontational politics practiced by the likes of its former chief J.B. Jeyaratnam and the SDP’s Dr Chee Soon Juan, in order to win the support of a broader spectrum of the Singapore electorate. Its position on not campaigning for gay rights is therefore unsurprising.
While a recent Singapore Polytechnic student-led survey of 800 teens aged 15 to 19 years revealed that half of them found homosexuality “acceptable”, a similar survey conducted by the Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports (MCYS) six years ago found that a much higher 71 per cent of young Singaporeans found homosexuality unacceptable. The young people covered in the MCYS survey would now make up the 21 to 25 year age group. It is widely believed that resistance to expanding the space for homosexuals is even higher among the middle-aged and older Singaporeans, who make up the bulk of eligible voters (63 per cent).
Even if one were to set aside moral arguments, this stance by the WP is certainly a sound political move which will put it in a good position to reach its target voters, namely Singaporeans who want an alternative but credible voice in Parliament to check and balance the ruling party.