Gay rights: the taboo subject in Singapore’s election

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Among a record eleven parties set to contest Singapore’s election on Friday, there has been virtual silence on one of the conservative city-state’s most controversial issues, gay rights.

FILE PHOTO: Participants shield themselves from the sun under a rainbow-coloured umbrella before taking part in the forming of a giant pink dot at the Speakers’ Corner in Hong Lim Park in Singapore June 28, 2014. The annual Pink Dot Sg event promotes an acceptance of the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) community in Singapore, according to organisers. REUTERS/Edgar Su

Advocacy groups have stepped up awareness campaigns with scorecards for politicians and online rallies in recent weeks over what they see as everyday discrimination that stems from a rarely-used, colonial-era law banning sex between men.

But for some gay Singaporeans, casting their vote in the mandatory July 10 ballot will serve as a reminder that they have few political allies on one of the issues that matters most to them.

“It’s a non-topic with the parties, the choices we have,” said Victor Ong, a 44-year-old Singaporean who lives with his British husband Harry, whom he married four years ago in London, and their amber-coloured cat Whisky.

“As much as I want to make my decision based on their stance on that, there isn’t any material to work with.”

Ong’s marriage is not recognised in Singapore, meaning the couple are not eligible for some benefits like housing and tax. They also say they avoid public displays of affection due to worries about social norms shaped by the 377A law which effectively criminalises them.

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Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong has previously called the law an “uneasy compromise” as society “is not that liberal on these matters”.

There is no mention of gay rights or 377A in the manifesto of his People’s Action Party, which has ruled Singapore since independence in 1965 and is widely-expected to be returned to power, or that of any other party in the election.

Of the four main parties contesting, only the new Progress Singapore Party responded to a request for comment. A spokesman said it did not object to removing criminal punishment for homosexuals but the debate over 377A was a “proxy combat zone” for other issues like family structures and marriage.

Political analyst Loke Hoe Yeong said the issue was considered “political suicide” for parties who feel they will be punished by either conservative or liberal voters.

Yet advocacy groups do sense a growing awareness around the issue, especially after India repealed a similar law in 2018.

“That tacit acceptance of the status quo is giving way to a sense of frustration amongst the younger voters,” said Clement Tan of Pink Dot SG, which hosted an online rally last month for Singapore’s LGBT community.

An ally has also emerged in Lee Hsien Yang, the prime minister’s estranged brother and son of the city-state’s modern day founder Lee Kuan Yew, who has become an increasingly vocal critic of the government in the run up to the vote.

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“The tidal wave against discrimination on sexual orientation has swept across the world,” Lee, whose son is gay and married overseas, told Reuters.

“The British, from whom we ‘inherited’ 377A, have repealed it decades ago. A repeal merely decriminalises and ends this discrimination.”

Nearly 70 countries around the world criminalise gay sex, mainly in Africa and the Middle East.

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Another rights group Sayoni changed tack ahead of this election. With parties mum on the issue, they decided to score individual politicians on their LGBT stance by reviewing public comments they had made and ranking them from A to F.

Ong says he will vote on Friday based on “basic needs” but he hopes that the future will bring change from a younger generation more supportive of gay rights.

“We are sons and daughters of Singapore, whether we are gay or straight, and to vote, I think it should be accounted for.”

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