Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong of Singapore said on Sunday that the government would repeal the country’s colonial-era law criminalizing sex between men, a step long sought by gay rights advocates, but that it would propose a constitutional amendment defining marriage as between a man and a woman.
Reversing his opposition to decriminalizing gay sex, Mr. Lee said he believed that the conservative nation was willing to accept the idea of sex between consenting men and revoke the law, known as Section 377A. The law has not been enforced for 15 years but gay rights advocates had long sought to overturn it, arguing that it stigmatizes gay men and promotes discrimination. The law, enacted in 1938 during British rule, does not apply to women.
“The government will repeal Section 377A and decriminalize sex between men,” Mr. Lee said in his televised National Day Rally speech, an annual policy address. “I believe this is the right thing to do and something that Singaporeans will accept.”
Delivering versions of his speech in Malay, Mandarin and English, the prime minister said he would propose a constitutional amendment defining marriage as only between one man and one woman.
“Let me reassure everyone that in handling the issue, the government will continue to uphold families as the basic building blocks of society,” he said. “We will keep our policies on family and marriage unchanged and maintain the prevailing norms and social values of our society.”
Mr. Lee asserted that he was tackling the issue carefully, and he portrayed his proposal as a compromise between competing interests.
“Every group must accept that it cannot get everything it wants because it is simply not possible,” he said. “And we must maintain the mutual respect and trust that we have painstakingly built up over the years and stay united as one people.”
Singapore’s gay community has fought for years to repeal the law, including challenging it in the courts.
Singapore is famously known as a “nanny state” and the government often interferes in even small aspects of people’s personal lives, going so far as to organize social events to help young people find prospective mates. It also still metes out harsh punishments for offenses that are increasingly decriminalized in the West, including possession of small amounts of drugs.
Singapore is the smallest nation in Southeast Asia by size but has outsize influence as a major shipping and commercial center. Its population of 5.7 million is a mix of Chinese, Indians, and Malay Muslims, who are largely traditional in their values. Southeast Asia as a whole is a conservative region and has been slow to recognize L.G.B.T.Q. rights; none of its 11 countries allow same-sex marriage.
A statement signed by more than a dozen L.G.B.T.Q. community groups in Singapore expressed relief about the repeal, but concern over a constitutional amendment.
“We urge the government not to heed recent calls from religious conservatives to enshrine the definition of marriage into the Constitution,” the groups said. “Such a decision will undermine the secular character of our Constitution, codify further discrimination into supreme law and tie the hands of future Parliaments.”
Mr. Lee said the government had no intention of changing the definition of marriage, which underlies numerous government policies. “Many national policies rely on this definition of marriage, including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards,” he said.
“We will therefore protect the definition of marriage from being challenged constitutionally in the courts,” he said. “We have to amend the Constitution to protect it, and we will do so.”
Those advocating rights for gay people have long argued that 377A, even if it is not enforced, perpetuates discrimination at all levels of society, including in schools, workplaces, health care and the media.
Mr. Lee acknowledged that a court ruling in a case brought by three gay men challenging the law this year had put pressure on the government to act.
The Court of Appeal, the nation’s highest court, declined to overturn Section 377A in February, ruling that the three men did not have legal standing because the government had pledged not to enforce the law.
The court said it was Parliament’s responsibility to decide the issue, noting that the high court was “not a front-runner for social change or an architect of social policy.” The court also pointed out in its 152-page decision that 377A might violate Singapore’s basic right to equality because it only applies to men.
Parliament voted in 2007 to repeal the original colonial-era Section 377, which prohibited oral and anal sex between consenting adults. But it left Section 377A, which carries a prison sentence of up to two years for a man who engages in “any act of gross indecency” with another man.
A similar law imposed by British colonial rulers in India — and known there as 377 — was struck down by the Indian Supreme Court in 2018, inspiring activists to challenge the law in Singapore and other former British colonies.
Mr. Lee, who has been prime minister since 2004, has long said that Singapore was too conservative and unprepared for the changes that repealing the law would bring.
In 2007, he gave a lengthy speech arguing that Singapore should retain the law because it was a conservative society based on the traditional family and should remain so. At the same time, he said, homosexuals should have a place in society and were entitled to their private lives.
He pledged then that Singapore would not “proactively enforce” the law, saying it was best to maintain the status quo and “accept the legal untidiness and the ambiguity.”
“We should strive to maintain a balance: to uphold a stable society with traditional heterosexual family values, but with space for homosexuals to live their lives and to contribute to the society,” he said at the time.
Since the court ruling in February, gay rights advocates have stepped up their efforts to win repeal of the law.
At this year’s annual Pink Dot pride rally in June, participants highlighted how the law’s presence in the penal code encouraged discrimination against members of the L.G.B.T.Q. community in their daily lives.
At the rally, speakers talked of the bullying and taunting they have endured, and many attendees shared photos of themselves holding signs with insulting names they had been called. At the end, attendees held up lights to spell out “Repeal 377A” in giant letters.
“To me, repealing 377A is the first step to reclaiming what it means to be normal,” Remy Choo, one of the lawyers who brought the case to the Court of Appeal, told the crowd. “Discrimination is legally sanctioned, in a country that professes the right of every citizen to equal protection before the law.”
In recent weeks, cabinet ministers have been consulting religious and community leaders and gay rights advocates on the best way to decriminalize gay sex while leaving intact the law that defines marriage as being between a man and a woman.
K. Shanmugam, who serves as both minister of law and minister of home affairs, told reporters last month that there was little support among the many groups consulted by the government for locking up men who have sex with other men.
“Gay sex should not be criminalized,” he said. “At the same time, most do not want any decriminalization to cause other major changes. In particular, most people that we have spoken with want the current position on marriage to be retained.”
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