Singapore’s Prime Minister recently declared the state’s intention to scrap a colonial law criminalising sex between men. LGBTQI+ activists who have been campaigning for years celebrated the law’s imminent repeal, but the mood was dampened by a second announcement: the government intends to change the constitution to define marriage as being strictly between a man and a woman. Once the barrier of criminalisation is overcome, the recognition of equal marriage will become the new frontier in the struggles of Singapore’s active and visible LGBTQI+ rights movement.

In a surprise move, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong, recently used his annual national day rally speech to announce a decision to scrap a law that punishes sex between men. The law, like many others around the world a relic of British colonial rule, has been the target of fierce criticism from Singapore’s LGBTQI+ rights campaigners, who have spent years advocating for its repeal. With this change, Singapore becomes the latest Asian country to take a step forward in challenging discrimination against LGBTQI+ people.

A colonial legacy of restriction

Singapore is among the numerous former British colonies that have inherited homophobic laws punishing same-sex activity. Section 377 of its 1871 Penal Code prohibited ‘carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animal’. The old Criminal Code also banned anal and oral sex between two individuals regardless of the sex of the people involved.

Section 377A was introduced by the British colonial government in 1938 and specifically targeted gay men. It forbids men from committing ‘gross acts of indecency’ in public or private. The law leaves scope for broad interpretation, with potential for a two-year jail sentence.

Singapore won independence in 1965 but retained its colonial-era Penal Code. In 2007 most of section 377 was removed and new provisions were added, but section 377A was kept in place. This meant that anal and oral sex became legal – except between men.

Although the restrictive law has long rarely been enforced, it has still taken its toll. It has legitimised discrimination against LGBTQI+ people, affecting people’s daily lives. A moratorium on arrests introduced by the Public Prosecutor in 2007 provided some relief, but as long as the law remained on the books, the policy of lenience could always be reversed.

Activists take to the courts

In 2010, Tan Eng Hong was one of two men arrested and charged under section 377A. Tan pled guilty to a lesser offence but mounted a legal case challenging the constitutionality of the Penal Code.

After he lost his case at the High Court in 2013, Tan elevated his lawsuit to the Court of Appeal along with that of Lim Meng Suang and Kenneth Chee Mun-Leon, a gay couple who had also brought a legal challenge against the Code in 2012 and lost in the High Court.

Their argument focused on the legality of section 377A in relation to the constitution’s articles 9 – which concerns personal liberty – and 12, which provides for equal protection before the law. In October 2014, the Court of Appeal ruled against them, upholding the ban.

Two further legal challenges were brought in 2018, by Johnson Ong Ming and Bryan Choong Chee Hong, former head of LBGTQI+ rights organisation Oogachaga. They were again thwarted: in February 2022, the Court of Appeal ruled that section 377A didn’t breach constitutional rights since it wasn’t being enforced. But some progress was made, as the court also ruled that the law could not be used to prosecute gay men for having sex.

This was not the victory the activists were hoping for, but at least it formalised the 2007 moratorium. The court also stated that it was parliament’s responsibility to decide the issue.

Court challenges, even when unsuccessful, have helped build pressure.

A hard-won victory

Legal action was just one of the tactics campaigners used to keep up the pressure for change. Added impetus came in 2018 when India’s Supreme Court ordered the repeal of section 377 of the 1860 Indian Penal Code, which criminalised gay sex, following a legal action brought by civil society.

Inspired, activists in Singapore circulated the Ready4Repeal petition, which gathered more than 50,000 signatures. Civil society groups also mobilised to encourage people to take part in a government survey conducted in March 2022 to measure public opinion of section 377A and broader LGBTQI+ issues. The survey received over 30,000 responses, far more than typically received by government polls.

Campaigners have also held numerous public events to assert visibility and make demands. They have organised townhall discussions and fundraising galas, but by far the most popular event is the annual Pink Dot rally. Attendees gather to show their support for an open, inclusive country where people have the freedom to love who they choose.

Starting with a turnout of 2,500 in 2009, the event has grown rapidly over the years: by 2015, close to 30,000 were taking part. At this year’s event, the first since before the pandemic, participants spoke about the impact of the Penal Code on their lives and described the bullying they face because of their sexuality.

The event is entirely locally driven. It takes place at Speakers’ Corner, a public space where people can protest and hold debates. Due to government regulations that ban foreigners taking part in events at Speakers’ Corner, attendees must be either Singaporean citizens or permanent residents. While this restriction might have been expected to limit the movement’s development, instead it has helped demonstrate the strength of local support for LGBTQI+ rights.

Government regulations also restrict funding from abroad, but local businesses have increasingly stepped forward. In 2017, 120 Singaporean companies raised US$183,000 for Pink Dot. During the pandemic, sympathetic businesses turned their store fronts and facades pink in support of a virtual Pink Dot event.

Activism is never easy, particularly in contexts such as Singapore, where civic space is heavily restricted. Freedom of expression is severely limited and people can be prosecuted for protesting. In 2021, three activists were arrested after gathering outside the Ministry of Education to protest against discrimination towards LGBTQI+ people in the education system.

But even in the face of government restrictions, intimidation and censorship, civil society has pushed forward.

More change needed

Activists will be watching closely to make sure the government follows through. But once criminalisation is off the books, it will be far from the end of their activism. Singapore will continue to lag behind when it comes to LGBTQI+ rights.

There’s no legal recognition of same-sex partnerships and no plans to change this. As he announced his intention to repeal section 377A, Prime Minister Lee made clear the government’s intent to enshrine in the constitution a definition of marriage as exclusively being between a man and a woman.

Such constitutional change will make future legal challenges more difficult. The message seems clear: the government is willing to go only this far, and not a step further.

Singaporean same-sex couples cannot jointly adopt children or gain parental rights over stepchildren. They are not protected from discrimination in employment, housing or the provision and goods and services. The only anti-discrimination provision for LGBTQI+ people is the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, meant to provide general protection from threats or acts of harassment or violence.

So-called ‘conversion therapies’ – discredited practices that falsely claim to change sexual orientation or gender identity, considered akin to torture by human rights groups – are not prohibited.

LGBTQI+ media also works in a grey area. While not banning homosexuality per se, the Media Development Authority prohibits the ‘promotion or glamorization of the homosexual lifestyle’ on TV and radio and restricts LGBTQI+ content to older audiences. These limitations on expression limit the visibility of LGBTQI+ people, hamper their activism and serve to isolate young LGBTQI+ people.

The coming challenge

The government’s recent attempt to strike a middle ground to appease both those demanding rights and those resisting change is nothing new. But the cautious step forward risks alienating both.

Lee’s announcement triggered instant backlash from some religious groups; many also welcomed the plan to limit the definition of marriage. Several expressed intentions to fight any further progressive changes. Just like LGBTQI+ organisations, conservative groups also organise events and social media campaigns to promote their cause.

On the bright side, the government is showing willingness to adapt to changing times. Fifteen years after it rejected appeals to repeal section 377A, it is moving to grant some of the LGBTQI+ movement’s demands. Most importantly, it has maintained some willingness to consult with LGBTQI+ groups, suggesting it is not entirely closing the door on further progress.

Court challenges, even when unsuccessful, have helped build pressure. Lee acknowledged as much, admitting the case brought by Bryan Choong Chee Hong had pushed the government to act. Changing social attitudes have helped as well: Lee recognised that one reason for the move was the growing acceptance of LGBTQI+ people, as made clear by recent polls.

The same polls show there’s still heavy opposition to same-sex marriage; however, experience from Singapore and around the world proves attitudes can and do change.

LGBTQI+ activism will keep walking a tightrope between anti-rights backlash and restricted civic space. But it is more than ready to take on the challenge realising that change is not only possible; it’s already happening.


  • The Singaporean government should review and reform all laws and policies that discriminate against LGBTQI+ people.
  • The government should reconsider its plan to include an exclusionary definition of marriage in the constitution.
  • Singaporean rights groups should focus on seeking both legal and attitudinal changes and invest in strategies to engage with and influence ruling party politicians.

Cover photo by Pink Dot/Facebook