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Repealing Section 377A will ensure a ‘secular common space’, says local human rights group Maruah

SINGAPORE — Repealing the law criminalising sex between men ensures a “secular common space” for all, said Singapore human rights group Maruah on Monday (Sept 24), adding that the Government should not rely on polls to determine its policy towards that law.

Repealing Section 377A will ensure a ‘secular common space’, says local human rights group Maruah

Human rights group Maruah issued a statement to say that the decision to retain Section 377A is "outstandingly backward".

SINGAPORE — Repealing the law criminalising sex between men ensures a "secular common space" for all, said Singapore human rights group Maruah on Monday (Sept 24), adding that the Government should not rely on polls to determine its policy towards that law.

In a statement, the group's president Braema Mathi said that "many calls" for the retention of Section 377A of the Penal Code "are motivated by genuine religious belief".

While religious groups have a right to voice their views on gender identity and sexual orientation issues, this right "should not be exercised in a way that infringes on the human rights of others, and denies the rightful equal status before the law that every person ought to enjoy", she added.

"Maruah is of the view that repealing Section 377A will affirm and uphold the secular common space in society," said Ms Braema.

Earlier this month, spurred by India's recent ruling to repeal a similar law, and comments by veteran diplomat and international lawyer Tommy Koh to the gay community here to challenge the law here, disc jockey Johnson Ong, 43, filed the latest court challenge against Section 377A. The pre-trial conference is set to be heard in the High Court on Tuesday.

In response, religious groups stepped up calls for the law to be retained last week, with the Catholic Archbishop of Singapore, the National Council of Churches of Singapore, and the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association (Pergas) arguing that repealing Section 377A will weaken societal values and key institutions such as marriage.

Supporting the repeal of the law, Maruah also took issue with Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam's comments that "depending on the legislation, public opinion can be relevant", and he had noted that the "majority" are opposed to any change to Section 377A.

Commenting on the Indian court ruling previously, Mr Shanmugam said that Singapore is "deeply split" on the issue, adding that while the majority opposed a repeal, a "growing minority" want it to be abolished, with the Government stuck in the middle.

Ms Braema said that the group is thus concerned that the Government might rely on polls — such as the one conducted by independent market research company Ipsos Public Affairs earlier this year — to determine its policy on the law.

The online survey of 750 Singaporeans and permanent residents found that more than half of the people in Singapore support Section 377A, Ms Braema said: "Assuming that polls of this nature accurately capture public opinion on the issue, where a law like Section 377A profoundly affects the lives and human rights of LGBTQ (lesbians, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer) people, pointing to a poll to rationalise that a majority in society is not ready to accept a change in the law is unacceptable."

She added that negative attitudes towards the LGBTQ people "can hardly be expected to change when various government policies make it very difficult for misconceptions about them to be dispelled".

LATEST CHALLENGE AGAINST 377A

• On Sept 10, DJ Johnson Ong, 43, filed the latest court challenge against Section 377A.

• Mr Ong said he was inspired by the Indian Supreme Court ruling on a similar law. He also wanted to take up Professor Tommy Koh's challenge to the gay community here to file a class-action suit. Last week, Prof Koh announced on Facebook that he had signed a petition calling for a repeal of the law.

• Mr Ong's lawyers will argue that Section 377A "violates human dignity" and that sexual orientation "is unchangeable or suppressible at unacceptable personal cost".

• They will adduce expert evidence which includes proof that same-gender sexual orientation (including identity, behaviour, and attraction) and variations in gender identity and gender expression are "a part of the normal spectrum of human diversity and do not constitute a mental disorder".

• If established that sexual orientation is unchangeable or suppressible, they will argue that the criminalising of consensual sex is a violation of human dignity and breaches Article 9(1) of the Constitution, which states: "No one shall be deprived of life and personal liberty save in accordance with law."

• The lawyers will also argue that there have been many changes and legal developments around the world since the October 2014 challenge in Singapore was struck down.

• A pre-trial conference has been set on Sept 25, Tuesday.

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