Singapore’s anti-gay laws continue to disadvantage LGBTQ people
A same-sex couple in Singapore have been unsuccessful in their court action seeking a custody order for their child. The custody order was a step required to obtain a student pass for the child. The student pass would have given residency rights to the six-year-old child – the biological son of one of the parents. The child was conceived via surrogacy.
According to reporting by The Straits Times, the court, while acknowledging that the British man and his Singaporean partner loved their child, made clear that family law should not be used to solve immigration problems.
The father of the child has been in a relationship with his Singaporean partner since 2003 and registered their civil partnership in Scotland in July 2011. Both men work in Singapore.
The couple had applied for permanent residency, a long-term visit pass and a student pass for the child at various points, but have been unsuccessful despite appeals.
The boy, who has been brought up in Singapore with the couple since 2013, has British citizenship. However, as he is on a short-term visit pass, he has to leave and re-enter Singapore every three months.
The child is enrolled to enter an international school next year when he turns seven, but the latest application for a student pass initiated by the school was rejected by Singapore’s immigration authorities in October.
The father of the child then applied for a custody order, as he believed this would help him secure a student pass for the child.
District Judge Loi, declining the father’s application, said the court’s powers to grant custody orders should be exercised judiciously and in cases where there is a genuine need to ensure the welfare of the child. “No such genuine need arises in this case,” she said. The father was not genuinely seeking an order for sole custody, care and control of the child, said District Judge Loi, as he already has actual custody and care and control.
The judge noted that the boy lives in a spacious and secure home, has a supportive social and family ecosystem, and is very close to his two cousins, the daughters of the Singaporean partner’s sister.
“There is no doubt that father and his partner both love the child dearly and are deeply anxious about securing the child’s future in Singapore,” said District Judge Loi. “By this application, they seek to arm themselves with a piece of paper, a consent order of court, to present to the ICA in the hope that the child’s chances of obtaining a student pass would be increased and prospects of remaining and studying in Singapore improved.”
Surrogacy is not permitted in Singapore, but the law recognises the gestational mother as the child’s legal parent – which in this case could be presumed to be the surrogate. The father had claimed that a custody order was needed to take over the surrogate mother’s parental rights, entitlements and obligations over the child, vesting the parental rights in the father.
District Judge Loi, however, clarified that a custody order is not a means of transferring “parental rights” from surrogate to father. She also said she had “serious doubts” about whether the surrogate is the legal mother, since both the egg donor was unknown and the child’s birth certificate only stated “Mrs. Not Known”.
“Singapore does not have any legislation for couples such as the father and his partner who have undergone commercial surrogacy to formally apply for ‘parenting orders’, including a declaration of the child’s legitimacy,” said the judge. “Indeed, it is not inconceivable that there are many foreigners, whether married or not, who would very much want their children, whether legitimate or not, to live and study in Singapore. Crucially, whether or not ICA grants a student pass is a matter within the jurisdiction of the ICA and not the courts.”
The legal position for queer families in Singapore is becoming increasingly unclear. In a landmark case last year, the High Court approved a gay Singaporean’s bid to adopt his biological son, whom he fathered in the United States through a surrogate. The three-judge appeal court made clear that its decision was based “on the particular facts of the case and should not be taken as an endorsement of what the appellant and his partner set out to do”.
Fighting for change
LGBTQ activists in Singapore have launched a legal challenge to try and overturn the country’s laws that make gay sex illegal.
As a former colony of Britain, Singapore inherited its anti-gay laws from the Victorian era, but has consistently refused to make any steps towards equality for LGBTQ people.
The specific provisions of Singapore’s Penal Code are referred to as Section 377A. This provision describes consensual sex between two men as an act of “gross indecency” and is punishable by imprisonment for up to two years. Prosecutions under Section 377A are rare, but the local LGBTQ community has been advocating for many years for the law to be removed.
Previous legal challenges to overturn the ban have failed, although recent opinion polls indicated there is growing support for LGBTQ equality.
This latest legal challenge is currently being heard by the High Court of Singapore.
“I think public opinion is pretty clear across religious and age segments that homosexuality should not be a criminal offence…” said Johnson Ong Ming – one of the complainants in the legal challenge – speaking with the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
There are three separate cases on this issue, all being heard concurrently by Justice See Kee Oon of the High Court. Singapore’s Attorney General is the respondent in all three cases. As well as Johnson Ong Ming – a high-profile DJ who performs as DJ Big Kid – the other complainants are Bryan Choong Chee Hong, the former head of an LGBTQ rights charity, and Tan Seng Kee, a retired doctor. Hearings are being held in chambers and are not open to the public.
“I have full confidence in our judicial system and I am hopeful that the court will come to the right decision and overturn Section 377A…” Ong told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
The multicultural make-up of Singapore’s population of 5.6 million seems to push Singapore to being relatively socially conservative. Religion plays an important role in the day-to-day life of many people. Addressing questions of LGBTQ equality, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has said that Singapore society “is not that liberal on these matters”.
One of the primary arguments in the current legal challenge is that the provisions of Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code violates the country’s Constitution. Article 9 of the Constitution guarantees the right to life and personal liberty, and Article 12 guarantees equal protection before the law.
The complainants have presented evidence to the court that sexual orientation cannot be wilfully changed and is a product of genetic factors. The court has been hearing from medical experts before making a ruling on this question.
The court has also been presented with evidence that any form of purported therapy that is aimed at changing sexual orientation – such as reparative or conversion therapy – is neither safe or effective.
“It is absurd, irrational and discriminatory to criminalise a person on the basis of his natural, unchangeable identity and for non-harmful private acts…” said the legal team representing the complainants, speaking to The Straits Times.
One interesting insight that has emerged from the early stages of these hearings is that it’s led to the release of some British Government archives that shed some light on why anti-gay laws were included in Singapore’s Penal Code.
In their submission, lawyers for Bryan Choong Chee Hong have included a 1940 report to the British Government official responsible for the administration of Singapore – according to reporting by This Week In Asia. The argument is that there is a direct link between the enactment of Section 377A and the colonial administrations concerns about its Singapore officials extensive use of male prostitutes at that time. The 1940 report details disciplinary action taken against government officials in 1938 – the year that Section 377A came into effect.
This line of argument asserts that the intention of the law was to tackle prostitution and wasn’t intended to address what happened in private between consenting adults. On that basis, Section 377A could be struck down as being unclear and unable to be enforced.
Submissions in the case have now been completed. A date for the court to deliver its judgement has not yet been set.
We spoke with Johnson Ong Ming before the current legal challenge got under way.
How long have you lived in Singapore?
I was born and raised in Singapore, but spent a total of about eight years living in Los Angeles – I went to music school there, and worked as a music producer and DJ.
What makes Singapore a great place to live?
It’s safe, efficient, we have great food, and the people are – mostly – just lovely.
What hints or tips would you give to someone visiting Singapore?
Soak in the culture, visit the Night Safari, and Gardens By The Bay. Always have a bottle of water with you, because it gets really hot and humid. Get to know the locals. Also, try the King of Fruits, durian – it’s amazing.
What are some of the down-sides of living in Singapore?
We have a repressive government that doesn’t believe in freedom of speech or assembly.
Also, because we’re so efficient and such a utilitarian society, we follow a certain formula or mould that can sometimes stifle creativity and fun.
Singapore seems to be going backwards in terms of gay rights and equality. It’s incredible that a progressive country like Singapore is still stuck in the stone age with respect to LGBTQ rights. Obviously, some religious fanatics and our government didn’t get the memo. It’s terribly disappointing.
The Singapore Pink Dot movement has unequivocally demonstrated most Singaporeans’ willingness to accept and legitimise the gay community. Unfortunately, there’s that small and influential faction of Singaporeans – mostly Christians and Muslims – who insist on preaching hate instead of love, going against the fundamental teachings of Allah and Jesus, that is to love all and to serve all.
It’s almost silly that we haven’t moved on from persecuting gay Singaporeans for being who they are.
What are some of your priorities for the months ahead?
Love, love, and love, and be kind to your neighbours. We live in tumultuous and precarious times but if individually we can all be better than what our worst instincts tell us, we can maybe save this world from ourselves.
Pink Dot SG
Hong Lim Park was the focus for attention of Singapore’s annual LGBTQ Pride celebrations on Saturday 29 June.
Pink Dot SG is the event that brings the community together, and this year attendees were spelling out a clear message to the country’s authorities.
Although Singapore is generally seen as a fairly progressive country, homosexuality is still illegal and LGBTQ people experience discrimination on a day-to-day basis.
Thousands of members of the LGBTQ community and their supporters used the opportunity of Pink Dot to highlight these issues, with attendees sharing photos of themselves holding up pieces of paper on which were derogatory names that had been hurled at them.
The night ended with attendees holding up pink and white lights that formed into a big display calling for the repeal of Section 377A – the section of Singapore’s penal code that criminalises homosexuality.
The Straits Times reports that Pink Dot organisers said that the Section 377A display was in response to a recent comment made by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong that Section 377A would remain “for some time”, but that it has not prevented LGBTQ people from living here, or prevented Pink Dot from taking place.
Is Singapore worth visiting for LGBTQ travellers?
Not just a hub for business and travel in the region, Singapore is a dynamic city that blends together a fascinating cultural mix with a forward-looking eye on the future.
Here’s some of the highlights that you might want to consider adding to your itinerary.
The food market is a great place to go for an affordable meal, day or night – choose from one or more of the stalls and share a table with other diners. The night market sells a lot of souvenirs, but there are a few gems and it’s great fun.
Notable temples in this neighbourhood include:
- The Buddha Tooth Relic Temple: Built in the style of the Tang Dynasty, this is an active temple but you can respectfully explore and observe.
- The Sri Mariamman Temple is a Hindu temple on the edge of Chinatown. Worshippers look to this temple for healing. It also hosts an annual fire-walking festival.
Full of traders selling gold, incense, fine fabrics, and essential oils, Little India is a busy and vibrant part of town. There’s plenty of great food options to be found here as well – tuck into a fish-head curry, or snack on some roti prata.
Sometimes it feels a little like life in Singapore revolves around shopping – numerous enormous, air-conditioned shopping malls can provide a respite from the heat and humidity as well as some retail-therapy.
There are malls around the city but it all reaches its height on Orchard Road where the shopping opportunities seem endless.
Most of the shopping malls also contain impressive food courts – if you need a pick-me-up lunch then you might be tempted by a big bowl of chilli crab.
Gardens by the Bay
Two enormous biodomes take you through a huge range of flowering plants – from cacti to roses, orchids and pitcher plants – with a centrepiece of a spectacular waterfall. These giant super-trees are one of Singapore’s must-see attractions.
One of the founders of modern Singapore, Stamford Raffles, split the developing community into villages, or kampongs, for its different ethnic groups. Kampong Glam was set aside for the local Sultan, and the Malay and Arab communities – earning it the unofficial title of the Muslim Quarter.
Restored shop-houses, often housing trendy boutique outlets, line the narrow streets or sit under the shade of palm trees. The large Sultan Mosque is a focal point for the local community.
Despite the ban on gay sex, there’s a resilient and vibrant queer community, and a handful of gay bars and saunas – Taboo, Tantric, and DYMK are among the options.
Public displays of affection are not common – Singapore is a socially conservative country – but LGBTQ visitors are unlikely to run into any issues.
We can help with flights, accommodation, tickets, and anything else that you might be interested in.