Singapore decriminalises same-sex activity but blocks marriage equality

On the same day that the British colonial-era ban on sex between men was lifted, Singapore introduced an amendment that blocks the legalisation of same-sex marriage.

Flag of Singapore, where a ban on same-sex activity was repealed.
Image: via Unsplash - Joshua Tsu

With a vote in parliament that took place on Tuesday, November 29, Singapore finally lifted the ban on consensual same-sex activity between men, while also passing an amendment to the constitution that effectively blocks the path toward marriage equality.

LGBTQ+ activists in Singapore have welcomed the repeal of the British colonial-era law which criminalised consensual sex between men. First announced earlier in August and passed with an overwhelming majority in the parliament, the repeal is the culmination of years of legal battles against the legislation.

Roy Tan, a doctor who had previously unsuccessfully challenged the law in court described the parliamentary decision as “the birth of a new chapter in the history of Singapore’s LGBT community” and said that he felt “grateful and privileged to have witnessed the endpoint in our 12-year-long struggle to strike down [the law].”

However, on the same day the ban was lifted, the parliament also passed an amendment to the constitution that bolsters the definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman, virtually preventing people in Singapore from mounting legal challenges that could lead to the legalisation of same-sex marriage. This means that in the future, issues like the definition of marriage, family and other related topics will only be decided by the executive or legislature.

The government defended the introduction of the amendment saying that decisions on such matters should not be left to the courts. Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam claimed the definition of marriage needed protection because, if altered, it would endanger the traditional heterosexual structure of the country and all policies based on it, such as those on housing and healthcare.

While welcoming the repeal, LGBTQ+ community members were dismayed by the introduction of the amendment. Chair of LGBTQ+ organisation Oogachaga, Bryan Choong, said that LGBTQ+ couples and families “have the right to be recognised and protected”.

However, many remain hopeful that legislatures in the future will expand the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples. Speaking about the amendment, Singaporean gay man Benjamin Xue said “I guess it is an uneasy thing to swallow right now”. He then added that the repeal of the ban on same-sex activity between consenting men could begin “opening up the doors to have that frank conversation about our queer lives in Singapore.

“The repeal takes away a lot of the shame. I think people are going to come out a lot more and young people are going to find that the future might be a bit brighter,” he concluded.

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