Gay pride raring to break out in Singapore

Opposition official puts his career on the line by coming out of the closet, defying a conservative establishment that wants to maintain status quo

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 03 July, 2013, 2:17am


The conservative city state of Singapore convicted men for homosexual behaviour as recently as seven years ago, and the British colonial-era law it used is still on the books.

The government shows no interest in making a change - the prime minister's advice has been to just let things be.

But opposition official Vincent Wijeysingha (pictured) is not taking that advice. On his Facebook page last week, he became the first Singaporean politician to come out of the closet, and he wants the law to be scrapped.

He said on Monday that although the government resists decriminalising homosexuality, "society will eventually overtake it on this question".

"I am entirely convinced the law will eventually be repealed," said Wijeysingha, treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party.

The decades-old law makes "gross indecency" between men punishable by up to two years in prison. It has not been enforced in recent years, but 185 men were convicted under the law between 1997 and 2006.

Complaints of discrimination based on sexual orientation have become less common in Singapore. But until a decade ago, government policies barred gays from "sensitive positions" in the civil service and imposed strict censorship on gay-related content in movies and TV shows.

While gay rights have grown around the world, the United Nations says about 75 countries continue to criminalise homosexual behaviour; in a few of them, it is punishable by death.

Singapore's High Court in April rejected a bid by a gay couple to scrap the city state's law, ruling that parliament should be responsible for any changes.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said earlier this year that these were "not issues that we can settle one way or the other, and it's really best for us just to leave them be, and just agree to disagree".

Gay rights activists say this is unacceptable to a growing number of people in the economic powerhouse of about 5 million. They noted that Saturday's Pink Dot gay advocacy rally drew more than 20,000 people to a Singaporean park, the best showing yet for the event, which has been held every year since 2009.

The rally played a role in Wijeysingha's announcement. He had spoken at forums on gay issues, and friends had known he is gay, but he confirmed it publicly on his Facebook page by saying "yes, I am going to Pink Dot … and yes, I am gay".

"It's the first time he has said it so explicitly in public," said Siew Kum Hong, a lawyer and political commentator. "To that extent, it does show that Singapore society is opening up more, since he obviously does not think that it is fatal to his electoral chances."

Baey Yam Keng, a lawmaker from the ruling People's Action Party, said although he was unsure how most Singaporeans felt about homosexuality, "the time will come for parliament to open up another debate" on decriminalising it. "There is a lot of stigma still associated with homosexuality in Singapore," Baey said.

"Even though more people showed up at this year's Pink Dot event, including straight people, it's hard to say if homosexuality is widely acceptable yet in Singapore. But it is important for stakeholders and the government to be open and have continuous engagement regarding this issue."

Baey commended Wijeysingha for being open about his sexuality, saying "it must have taken a lot of courage to do what he did".

Wijeysingha said the best response he had received was from young people who had told him he had given them courage. But he said he would work on more than gay rights.

"My value system is one of equal rights to all," he said. "Human rights are indivisible."