(Bloomberg) -- Singapore repealed a controversial legal ban on sex between men while also amending the constitution to ensure only parliament has the right to define marriage that is currently that between a man and a woman.
The government in moving to finally strike the law from its books is seeking to control a divisive issue in Singapore’s multicultural society through a balance between members of the LGBTQ community advocating for greater acceptance and the conservative groups pushing back. The repeal may also help the city-state attract top foreign talent at a time it wants to bolster its status as a regional financial hub.
The repeal of a colonial-era law criminalizing sex between men known as Section 377A was introduced in parliament last month after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong earlier announced the initiative amid changing sentiments among the population over the issue. The ruling People’s Action Party controls a super-majority in parliament, ensuring the legislation was passed into law on Tuesday.
“This is a deeply felt and sensitive issue, and could easily have become a very divisive one,” Lee said in a Facebook post after the vote. “But we have not allowed it to divide us.”
The city-state is one of the latest countries to weigh LGBTQ rights after India’s Supreme Court recently agreed to examine a petition that seeks legal recognition of same-sex marriage. In a symbolic step forward last month, Tokyo opened for applications a system to register such partnerships.
The same day Singapore changed the laws, the US Senate passed legislation to enshrine federal protection for same-sex marriages with a bipartisan vote that demonstrates the massive cultural shift in the US on the issue.
Singapore’s government in contrast has said most of its citizens still want to maintain “the current family and social norms, where marriage is between a man and a woman, and children are brought up in such a family structure.” Parliament passed a constitutional amendment to make clear that it would be the legislature’s perogative to define marriage so that it can’t be challenged in courts. The government has said most Singaporeans
With the changes, parliament now has the power to make laws to define and safeguard Singapore’s institution of marriage. The amendment also protects government policies based on the definition of marriage that include public housing rules or financial benefits for married couples.
The ruling People’s Action Party did not lift the whip when lawmakers voted, and the repeal sailed through parliament 93-3. Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong has said the government wanted to ensure a “very limited, careful and controlled repeal of Section 377A” while some religious groups had asked for the party whip to be lifted to lawmakers so they could vote according to their conscience.
While LGBTQ groups welcomed the repeal when it was announced, they have raised concern about the constitutional amendment. Over the years, activists mounted a series of unsuccessful lawsuits against the ban on sex between men, which carries a maximum jail term of two years.
“The time has come for us to remove Section 377A,” Law Minister K Shanmugam told parliament on Monday during the two-day debate. “It humiliates and hurts gay people. Most gay people do not cause harm to others, they just want to live peacefully and quietly and be accepted as part of society the same as any other Singaporean.”
(Updates with context, quotes throughout)
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