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Section 377A repeal a matter of 'doing what is right', not about political costs: DPM Lawrence Wong

SINGAPORE — The decision to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises sex between men is a matter of “doing what is right”, rather than a question of whether it involves a political cost, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.

DPM Lawrence Wong (second from right) and Mr Edwin Tong at the interview with CNA.

DPM Lawrence Wong (second from right) and Mr Edwin Tong at the interview with CNA.

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  • Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said that most Singaporeans would accept that it is right to decriminalise sexual relationships between consenting male adults in private
  • At the same time, there is a need to retain and uphold what most Singaporeans want, which is current family and social norms
  • While not everyone will be happy with this proposal, he said that the Government has to make a judgement and do what it believes is right for the wider good of the country

SINGAPORE — The decision to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code that criminalises sex between men is a matter of “doing what is right”, rather than a question of whether it involves a political cost, said Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong.

The repeal, which Mr Wong described in an interview with CNA on Monday (Aug 22) as “limited and controlled”, will achieve a new balance that reflects societal attitudes while preserving unity.

Mr Wong, who is also the leader of Singapore's fourth generation of political leaders, was speaking a day after Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong made the landmark announcement on the repeal in his National Day Rally speech.

Mr Lee had also said that at the same time, the Constitution will be amended to protect the definition of marriage — as that between a man and a woman — from being challenged in the courts.

On Monday, Mr Wong, who is also Finance Minister, was asked by CNA whether the decision to repeal Section 377A will come at a political price for the Government and the People’s Action Party.

“That's not how we look at the issue. I've been in public service long enough to know that in government, you can't please everyone all the time,” he said.

“You have to focus on doing what is right,” added Mr Wong, who was being interviewed alongside Mr Edwin Tong, the Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law.

Mr Wong said that the Government is limiting change to what it believes most Singaporeans would accept — which is to decriminalise sexual relationships between consenting male adults in private.

“I believe that (the repeal) is the right thing to do, and that most Singaporeans will understand and support such a move," he added.

“At the same time, we are retaining and upholding what most Singaporeans want, which is to uphold our current family and social norms.”

While he is aware that not everyone will be happy with this proposal, Mr Wong said that the Government has to make a judgement and do what it believes is right for the wider good of the country.

“In a society like ours, where there are diverse and sometimes opposing views, it is not possible for any single group to have everything that they want,” he said.

“We have to learn to compromise to arrive at solutions which most people are comfortable with, and can live harmoniously together.”

This, he said, is the “Singapore way” of dealing with sensitive issues — a method it has used in the past to keep the country’s social fabric intact — and it will continue to be so for other sensitive issues in the future.

WHY NO REFERENDUM WAS CALLED

When asked why a referendum — which refers to a vote by the electorate on a political issue — was not called before making the decision to repeal Section 377A, Mr Wong stated that the bar for a referendum is set very high.

He pointed out that Singapore’s Constitution states that a referendum is required only when sovereignty is at stake.

“Repealing 377A is very far from reaching this bar, because we are repealing a law which the courts have already said we cannot enforce,” said Mr Wong.

He added that Singapore has only had a referendum once — for the 1962 merger with Malaya.

In any case, he said that a referendum may have the opposite effect of solving issues by deepening societal divisions instead, such as in the case of Brexit.

LIFTING OF PARTY WHIP

The PAP does not intend to lift the party whip when the repeal is debated in Parliament, Mr Wong said.

The Alliance of Pentecostal and Charismatic Churches of Singapore, which represents more than 80 churches here, had called for the whip to be lifted so that Members of Parliament (MP) may "fully express the views of all Singaporeans" according to the feedback they receive.

The party whip is a position currently held by Senior Minister of State for Health as well for Communications and Information Janil Puthucheary, whose role is to ensure party members vote according to the party line.

The ruling party may occasionally lift the whip and allow MPs to vote according to their conscience.

Mr Wong said that the reason the whip will not be lifted is that it is a matter of public policy since the courts have already stated the law will not be enforced.

“And at the same time, even as we were to repeal this law, we are making sure that we are putting in place measures to make sure that it will not trigger further societal changes,” said Mr Wong.

“So from that point of view, this is really a matter of public policy and we do not intend to lift the whip when this matter is debated in Parliament.”

The whip was first lifted in 1969, when Parliament voted to legalise abortion and passed the Abortion Bill.

When it was put to a vote, 10 MPs voted against it, while 32 voted for the law. One MP abstained while 15 MPs — including then-Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew — were absent for the vote.

The whip has been lifted at least five times since then.

One notable example was the 2017 debate on the public dispute between PM Lee and his two younger siblings over their father’s house on 38 Oxley Road.

Click here for the latest news and reports on Section 377A.

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