Is Singapore's stance on homosexuality changing?

By Mariko Oi
BBC News, Singapore

media captionMariko Oi reports on attitudes to homosexuality in Singapore

Section 377 of the Penal Code may not mean much to people in the UK today, but the law which criminalises homosexual acts is a British legacy still found in many former colonies in the Far East. However, it is now being challenged in Singapore.

It is Monday night and the club is jam-packed. It is clear who the crowd is waiting for: drag queen and stand-up comedian Kumar.

The audience cheer as he appears in an emerald-green evening gown and a blonde wig. Kumar wastes no time before cracking his trademark sexually-explicit jokes.

"Girls, you don't need to have sex with Ang mo [Caucasian] men any more. Local boys are good enough in bed. I've tried them out for you," he laughs.

But strictly speaking he could be jailed for admitting this, because sex between men is a criminal act in Singapore.

Under the law, a man caught committing an act of "gross indecency" with another man could be jailed for up to two years.

It was introduced by British colonial authorities as part of broader legislation which also banned sexual acts such as anal and oral sex.

Similar prohibitions also remain in section 377 of the Penal Codes of Malaysia, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

'Conservative society'

Singapore's parliament repealed most of them in 2007, except for one.

image captionElement describes itself as a lifestyle magazine

"It left behind section 377A so today only same-sex relations between men are singled out for criminalisation," says assistant professor Lynette Chua from the Centre for Asian Legal Studies at the National University of Singapore.

The speech made in 2007 by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong sums up the reason.

"Singapore is basically a conservative society," he said. "The family is the basic building block of this society. And by family in Singapore we mean one man, one woman, marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit."

The Ministry of Home Affairs said that in 2007 the "majority of Singaporeans still took a conservative approach to this issue".

"On issues of moral values with consequences to the wider society... the policies of the government must reflect the mainstream values and social norms of Singapore society, while recognising that these may shift over time," it said in an emailed statement.

Authorities "would not take a proactive approach towards enforcing section 377A", the ministry said, but did not confirm when the last such prosecution took place. A man was charged under 377A in 2010 for engaging in oral sex with another man in a public restroom, but he later pleaded guilty to a different charge of committing an obscene act in public.

Nonetheless, there are calls for change. Couple Gary Lim and Kenneth Chee have been seeking to have the law declared unconstitutional. The High Court recently ruled against them but they have decided to appeal.

It is in this climate that a new gay magazine has been launched this month by Hiro Mizuhara and Noel Ng.

"We are nervous but Element Magazine is not a gay rights magazine. It is a lifestyle magazine that takes care of Asian gay men," they say.

"What we want to do is for the magazine to be out there for the community, especially young gay men who may think that being gay is wrong because of what they read in mainstream media," says Hiro.

"We also try to balance entertainment and education in Element Magazine, so instead of just fashion and grooming, we cover issues like HIV or how to come out."

'Freedom to love'

But not only is sex between men illegal, there are also censorship guidelines in Singapore which ban media outlets from promoting homosexual acts.

"Exactly what is prohibited is grey but the familiar line is that you are not supposed to portray homosexuality in a positive or normal way," says Ms Chua from the National University of Singapore.

"So is an interview of a celebrity who is in a same-sex relationship considered the promotion of homosexuality? Apparently yes, because the broadcaster has been fined before."

image captionHiro Mizuhara (left) and Noel Ng hope their magazine will provide information and support

Hiro and Noel consulted lawyers and were told that the rule only applies to broadcast and print media, not online. So Element Magazine is published in digital form.

But for Hiro, who holds a Chinese passport with permanent residency in Japan, and Noel, who is not gay himself, why choose Singapore to launch the magazine?

"It is more for human rights and we are doing it for the freedom to love," Noel explains.

Drag queen Kumar, who has been pushing boundaries for more than 20 years, said things were very hard when he started performing in 1992.

"I had to go on stage and be heckled and be called names, but I wanted to show that there are drag queens who wanted to be respected."

Today, he is enormously popular and his audience are truly from across the board.

Even the law against homosexuality, he says, gives him an extra kick. "I like this undercurrent lifestyle. We secretly go out for a gay night at a bar and we have a sign saying 'private function'," he laughs.

"Our government never said we cannot be gay. They are just worried about conservatives."

Senior pastor Lawrence Khong of the Faith Community Baptist Church is one vocal advocate against any change in the law.

image captionKumar has been performing for over 20 years, and is now widely popular in Singapore

In his statement when former prime minister Goh Chok Tong was at his church in January, he said that "the repeal of similar laws have led to negative social changes, especially the breakdown of the family as a basic building block and foundation of the society".

"It takes away the rights of parents over what their children are taught in schools, especially sex education.

"It attacks religious freedom and eventually denies free speech to those who, because of their moral convictions, uphold a different view from that championed by increasingly aggressive homosexual activists," he added.

The Faith Community Baptist Church said it could not comment to the BBC, citing an order by the Attorney-General's Chambers.

In recent years, Singapore's gay community has gained a greater voice in society while the government has continued to turn a blind eye.

But while people's views on homosexuality may have softened, getting the law to follow suit is proven to be much tougher.

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