Debate on Section 377A repeal: MPs raise concerns on 'cancel culture, increased activism'
SINGAPORE — Regardless of whether Singaporeans support the repeal or retention of Section 377A of the Penal Code, they should not subscribe to a culture of “canceling” each other for not sharing the same views, said several Members of Parliament (MPs) of the People’s Action Party (PAP) during a debate on the repeal of the law on Monday (Nov 28).
- Parliament debated the repeal of Section 377A and a second related Bill on amending the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman
- During the debate, several PAP MPs noted there are strong views for and against the repeal of 377a and the amendment to the constitution
- Others said residents have told them of their fears of being bullied or discriminated against by those who do not share their views on the repeal
- Some MPs and NMPs said schools can play a part in helping create safe spaces for having conversations on LGBTQ+ topics
SINGAPORE — Regardless of whether Singaporeans support the repeal or retention of Section 377A of the Penal Code, they should not subscribe to a culture of “canceling” each other for not sharing the same views, said several Members of Parliament (MPs) of the People’s Action Party (PAP) during a debate in the House on Monday (Nov 28).
Others also suggested that schools can play a part in having safe conversations about topics related to the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ+) community.
These were among some of the points put across by the PAP MPs during the approximately six-hour-long debate on a Bill to repeal the law that criminalises sex between men that saw a total of 25 MPs from both sides of the House rising to speak, including political office holders Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister of State (Social and Family Development and Home Affairs) Sun Xueling, Senior Parliamentary Secretary (Transport and Sustainability and the Environment) Baey Yam Keng and Parliamentary Secretary (Health and Law) Rahayu Mahzam.
The debate, which will continue on Tuesday, is also dealing with a second related Bill on amending the Constitution to protect the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman.
Also voicing their views were three Nominated Members of the Parliament (NMPs) and Non-constituency MP Hazel Poa of the Progress Singapore Party (PSP).
Ms Poa said her party supports the repeal, but called for a national referendum to define marriage, rather than to leave its definition to Parliament.
During the debate, Workers’ Party chief Pritam Singh said he was lifting the party whip to allow his MPs to express their differing views on the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code.
Mr Singh reiterated that his party does not have a consensus view on the matter.
With the WP’s whip lifted, MP for Aljunied Group Representation Constituency (GRC) Sylvia Lim and Mr Singh himself have expressed their support for the repeal while those opposing the Bill include Mr Dennis Tan, MP for Hougang.
PAP previously announced that it was not lifting the whip for this issue, though Mr Murali Pillai of the Bukit Batok Single Member Constituency (SMC) pointed out on Monday that this did not prevent him and his fellow party members from speaking their views.
Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam, who opened the debate on Monday, described Section 377A as a law that “humiliates and hurts gay people”. And while the law — which he said is at risk of being struck down by the courts — is not enforced, he said it is a reminder that private, consensual sex between men is a crime.
Minister for Family and Social Development Masagos Zulkifli later added that the Government will continue to promote marriage as a union between a man and a woman, through policies and social programmes.
TACKLING CANCEL CULTURE
A common concern raised by the 16 PAP MPs during the debate, before it was adjourned to Tuesday, was whether the repeal of Section 377A could lead to a rise in cancel culture.
Cancel culture refers to the phenomenon of people using online tools such as online petitions, hashtags or public social media posts to undermine or harm the reputation or livelihood of individuals and organisations that are often seen as influential and powerful.
Mr Sharael Taha, an MP of Pasir Ris-Punggol Group Representation Constituency (GRC), noted there are strong views for and against the repeal of 377a and the amendment to the constitution.
“There are concerns that there would be increased activism on both ends of the spectrum, which can potentially be aggressive and more importantly, divisive to our society,” he said.
Sharing a similar sentiment, Ms Joan Pereira (Tanjong Pagar GRC) said that she and her colleagues have come across voices “who do not come from a place of love” and instead seek to “stir hatred and misunderstanding within our society”.
Such views, she said, can come from any quarter of society, and their ultimate aim is to push Singapore to an extreme corner of the spectrum, without consideration as to whether this would be good for the country.
“Some of these could also be driven or initiated by foreign elements with an insidious agenda, given the borderless nature of social media and the internet,” she said.
Indeed, Ms Jessica Tan (East Coast GRC) said that both youths and working professionals have told her about their fears and anxieties with gay activism.
“Some have shared that while they accept their friends and family who identify as gay, they find it difficult to voice their opinions when they do not share their values and ideas, for fear of being labelled, bullied or cancelled in school or at the workplace,” said Ms Tan.
“The fear, real or perceived, is that the repeal of 377A will amplify the activism.”
However, she also added that similarly, with the debate on the repeal of Section 377A, there is heightened attention on those that identify as gay who fear being discriminated against.
Said Ms Tan: “What is clear is that this is a subject that matters to many, regardless of whether we support the repeal or retention of Section 377A. What we cannot allow is for any persons, regardless of which side they stand to be labelled, discriminated or bullied.”
Joining the debate, Minister of State for Social and Family Development Sun Xueling said that the Government is looking into policy solutions to preserve space for persons of different views to share what they think.
“But ultimately, what is important is that we maintain mutual respect when we engage with one another, and not tear each other down,” she said.
In a similar vein, Mr Darryl David (Ang Mo Kio GRC) said that it would be good to consider how education and schools can play a part nurturing open conversations so that LGBTQ+ related topics can be handled sensitively.
“Our schools must be safe places for students to engage in respectful conversations or debates with others who may hold contrary opinions,” he said.
And in instances when students themselves are exploring their own identity, he said it would be important to have trained educators to help them in this journey of discovery.
Agreeing, NMP Mark Chay also questioned if enough was being done to ensure children understand that even though some of their peers may not fit into the definition of a traditional family unit — that is, those comprising of single parent households, and LGBTQ+ Singaporeans, amongst others — they should not treated differently or derisvely.
As such, he said he encourages the Ministry of Education to facilitate “meaningful conversations” between students to help them understand each other.
He added that he would also like to see more education content on handling relationships “not just in the heterosexual sense, but in all definitions of relationships”.
‘CHANGING REALITIES OF OUR TIME’
In any case, Ms Cheryl Chan (East Coast GRC) said that society “should not be oblivious that our next generation will not have access to information that influences them about homosexuality or sensitive topics, just because it is not taught or spoke about in mainstream schools”.
Said Ms Chan: “By not having it as mainstream, we can at best differ the exposure of the young ones to a later stage when they are more mature to differentiate or make sound decisions independently.”
Be that as it may, Senior Parliamentary Secretary of the Ministry of Transport Baey Yam Keng noted that public sentiment on Section 377A has evolved over the last 15 years.
“There is a shift away from our previous views (and it is) especially more evident among the young. They feel there is injustice that there are penalties targeted specifically at sexual acts between men,” he said.
Mr Henry Kwek (Kebun Baru SMC) said most Singaporean youths want Section 377A gone, “because it suggests that some Singaporeans are less than others”.
He said their views are not solely attributed to the influx of “woke” culture from the West, but for more fundamental reasons: The past few decades have been spent “building a kinder Singapore”, where schools have taught children and youth the value of justice, empathy, and kindness.
“Naturally, our youth believes the dignity of every Singaporean matters,” he said. “Therefore, should we be surprised that our youth think that the provisions of 377A are innately discriminatory, even if they are not enforced by the government?”
Mr Murali said Singapore’s laws “reflect the changing realities of our times”, and this includes respecting the voices of all sections of society, including those of the youths and their voices on their vision and aspirations for Singapore.
“Our youths shape the future of our country,” he said.
Mr Murali then cited findings from the recent TODAY Youth Survey 2022, which found that about two-thirds of the respondents agreed that the repeal of a law criminalising gay sex represents a step towards a more inclusive society
“These are our Millenials and Gen Z-ers,” said Mr Murali. “This is a sizeable majority. We need to forge an intergenerational understanding to keep us together as a society.”