September 27, 2019 / 11:22 AM / 22 days ago

Retired doctor turns to Singapore's judiciary to scrap gay sex ban

KUALA LUMPUR (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Frustrated by inaction from lawmakers, a retired Singaporean doctor is pinning his hopes on the country’s judiciary to repeal a law that can imprison men for engaging in gay sex for up to two years.

Tan Seng Kee, 61, a prominent LGBT+ advocate also known as Roy Tan, launched a challenge in Singapore’s High Court last week to overturn the colonial-era section of the country’s penal code - known as Section 377A - that criminalizes gay sex.

Previous efforts to scrap the ban have failed with key politicians taking the view that the public still disapproves of homosexuality.

But Tan is hopeful the judiciary may follow the example of India’s Supreme Court which last year struck down its own law forbidding same-sex relations.

“Our judiciary isn’t totally insulated from judgments in other parts of the world,” said Tan, who helped organize Singapore’s first Pink Dot gay pride rally in 2009.

“They can see the trend all around the world is to get rid of these anti-gay laws,” Tan told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.

‘HOPEFUL FRENZY’

India’s landmark ruling was a victory for the global gay rights movement and followed a Hong Kong court decision which paved the way for visas for same-sex spouses.

But across Asia, socially conservative attitudes prevail.

Myanmar, Malaysia, Singapore and Brunei ban sexual relationships between men, and Indonesia has seen an increase in raids targeting LGBT+ people in recent years.

Six decades after independence, Singapore has emerged as a wealthy city state with a vibrant LGBT+ scene and some businesspeople say repealing section 377A would put the country on a more level playing field in the race for global talent.

Education, housing, jobs and the elderly will feature prominently in upcoming elections but LGBT+ rights has yet to find support among politicians, said Tan.

In June, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said that while LGBT people are welcome to work in Singapore, Section 377A would remain “for some time”, according to media reports.

Lawmakers are typically cautious about social reforms, partly due to sensitivities stemming from the ethnic and religious mix among Singapore’s 5.6 million inhabitants - a population that includes citizens, permanent residents and foreigners.

But a poll in May of more than 4,000 Singaporeans by a local think-tank found opposition to gay marriage had fallen to 60%, down from 74% in 2013.

India’s move to decriminalize gay sex last year raised hopes among activists like Tan that Singapore would soon follow suit.

“It sent us into a hopeful frenzy,” Tan said.

But a flurry of petitions by gay Singaporean men seeking to legalize gay sex have yet to sway the courts.

While jail terms are rare, Tan said Section 377A caused discrimination in the workplace, bullying in schools and can lead to mental health issues among the LGBT+ community.

A decision by Singapore’s High Court on his case is expected within two to four years, Tan said, basing his estimate on previous legal and parliamentary challenges he has been involved in since 2007.

Reporting by Michael Taylor @MickSTaylor; Editing by Tom Finn. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking, property rights, and climate change. Visit http://news.trust.org

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