Singapore: Activists challenge anti-gay law after India ruling

(Reuters) – Singapore’s top court on Wednesday heard the first legal challenges to its colonial-era anti-gay law, since similar legislation was scrapped in India last year, an issue that divides the socially-conservative city-state.

Three activists are arguing that Section 377A, a rarely-used [anti-gay law] was unconstitutional. The law does not apply to lesbians.

Previous efforts to repeal the law in 2014 failed, but activists have been emboldened by the landmark Indian ruling, polls suggesting attitudes towards homosexuals are changing, and a perceived softening in tone from establishment figures.

“Homosexual males are not lesser Singaporeans. They…deserve the same respect and legal protection under the Constitution. Section 377A…violates those fundamental constitutional protections,” Brian Choong, one of the three, said in a written submission seen by Reuters.

Wednesday’s hearings, the first of a number to be heard over the coming weeks, were not open to the public. The Attorney-General’s Chambers, acting as defendant, did not respond to a request for comment.

India scrapped its [anti-gay law] in September 2018, a landmark judgment that prompted celebrations across India, and elsewhere in South Asia, where activists hoped to push for similar reform.

[Homosexuality] is criminalised in about 70 countries globally, according to ILGA.

Singapore Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, has previously said that Singapore society “is not that liberal on these matters”.

However, following the Indian decision, a prominent Singaporean diplomat called for challenges to the legislation, while law minister, K. Shanmugam, said a “growing minority” wanted it repealed, and that Singapore’s laws should keep pace with societal change.

Recent surveys show there is growing acceptance of homosexuality. In a poll released in May by Singapore think-tank Institute of Policy Studies, opposition to gay marriage fell to 60%, down from 74% in 2013.

In his submission filed by his lawyers, Choong also argues that recently declassified documents from the UK National Archives show that that original purpose of the law was to stamp out male prostitution, and it should therefore not apply more broadly to all male homosexuals.

The ruling will be watched closely in neighbouring Malaysia, where [homosexuality] is also a crime, and led to the conviction of prominent politician, Anwar Ibrahim, who is now broadly seen as the country’s prime minister-in-waiting.

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