Why is homosexuality illegal in Singapore?
By taking advantage of regional instability and a power struggle within the Malaysian Sultanate, the British government colonised Singapore in 1819.
British control of the island included the introduction of the British legal system, which – at that time – included laws against sex between men.
Singapore became independent in 1965, but the colonial legal system remain in place.
Following a review of the Penal Code in 1938, the laws that policed sexual activity were documented within Section 377A of Singapore’s Penal Code. The laws meant that anal sex and oral sex were prohibited for everyone – heterosexual or homosexual. In 2007, amendments to the law specifically legalised anal sex and oral sex for heterosexual sexual encounters, but they remained criminalised for man-on-man sexual encounters. Sex between women isn’t covered by Section 377A and doesn’t appear to have ever been explicitly prohibited in Singapore law.
The punishment for sex between men is two years’ imprisonment. Prosecutions and convictions are rare, but the government has consistently resisted calls for the law to be reviewed.
Research into the archives of the British Government has shed some light on why Section 377A was enacted. A 1940 report to the British Government official responsible for the administration of Singapore reveals a direct link between the enactment of Section 377A and the colonial administration’s 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 suggests that Section 377A was designed to regulate and control prostitution rather than what was happening in private between consenting adults, but the reality of this law has been the criminalisation of gay men.
The current position
The most recent attempts to overturn Section 377A was legal action by LGBTQ activists. The case began in 2019, with the High Court of Singapore handing down its judgment in early 2020. The court rejected the claimant’s case, maintaining the criminalisation of gay men.
Previous legal challenges to overturn the ban have also failed, although recent opinion polls have indicated that there is growing support for LGBTQ equality.
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”.
Meet the gay activist who dares to dream of equality in Singapore
Singapore DJ and music producer Johnson Ong – who performs as DJ Big Kid – is one of the activists who mounted the recent 377A challenge in the High Court of Singapore. As part of his campaign for equality, Johnson released a music video in support of his dance single, I Dare You To Dream.
The song was written and performed by American vocalist Audrey Callahan, with music production and arrangement by DJ Big Kid. The single has been released under independent music label, Queen House Music.
Directed by Singaporean director Samuel Nai, the music video tells three stories of brave LGBTQ Singaporeans who live their authentic lives despite facing obstacles and discrimination in a city state that stigmatises and marginalises people who are LGBTQ.
“These stories in the video are depictions of lived experiences of LGBTQ Singaporeans, not imagined ones…” explained DJ Bid Kid. “I wanted to tell these stories because the lives of LGBTQ Singaporeans are real and they must be acknowledged and given the legitimacy they deserve.”
“We are human beings with our own struggles and relationship difficulties, with hopes and dreams of love and family, just like everyone else…” added DJ Big Kid. “The first story in particular is very personal to me, because it is a situation I myself experienced in a previous physically abusive same-sex relationship.”
We caught up with Johnson Ong to talk about his music and his fight for equality.
What was the trigger-point that led you to personally challenge Singapore’s anti-LGBTQ laws?
It was right after the Indian Supreme Court judgement which decriminalised homosexuality that my childhood friend and human rights lawyer, Eugene Thuraisingam and I discussed the possibility of challenging Singapore’s anti-gay law, Penal Code S377A. Singapore’s ambassador-at-large, Professor Tommy Koh, had also urged the LGBTQ community to mount a legal challenge, so I decided to go ahead.
What sort of support have you received from Singapore’s LGBTQ community for your legal challenge?
I was very moved by the outpouring of support. I received numerous messages from my various social channels, with many sharing words of encouragement and their personal stories. Some even offered financial assistance, however, the legal team from Eugene Thuraisingam LLP took this cause up pro bono, so no financial assistance was needed or received.
What do you hope that people feel when they’re dancing to I Dare You To Dream?
I would like this song and music video to send the message to LGBTQ people that they should feel brave and empowered to live their dream, for many it’s merely to live authentic lives, without internalised shame. I also want people to know they are worthy and valued much more than what society often tells them, because this affects our ability to make the right decisions in matters of relationships, family and career – all the aspects of life that define who we are as a person.
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.
Stamford Raffles – the man behind Britain’s colonisation of the island – 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.
Public displays of affection are not common – Singapore is a socially conservative country – but LGBTQ visitors are unlikely to run into any issues.
The annual LGBTQ Pride celebrations are called Pink Dot. The event is generally held in June. Due to restrictions by the authorities, this is an event designed for local people and visitors to Singapore are not encouraged to attend.