Yale-NUS

Yale-NUS President Tan Tai Yong earlier this month signed a petition advocating for the repeal of a section of Singapore’s penal code that criminalizes consensual sex between men.

The “Ready for Repeal” petition, which is addressed to Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs and was authored by Singaporean film director Glen Goei and legal trainee Johannes Hadi, had over 44,000 signatures from Singaporean citizens, permanent residents and expatriates as of Thursday evening. In it, the signatories ask how much longer gay Singaporeans must live as second class citizens and call for a Singapore that treats all citizens equally, respects its minorities and promotes individual choice and dignity.

A counter petition calling for Singapore to keep the section of the penal code — Section 377A — had over 107,000 signatures as of Thursday evening. The effort to keep Section 377A intact has been spearheaded by religious groups, including the Catholic Church in Singapore, the National Council of Churches of Singapore and the Singapore Islamic Scholars and Religious Teachers Association.

“I personally believe that 377A is an archaic, colonial-era law that has no relevance in modern Singapore,” Tan told the News. “The government does not want to enforce it in any case, so why keep a law that is not enforced? It is also wrong, in my view, to criminalize members of the gay community, which 377A threatens to do, even if not enforced.”

The petition comes amid renewed debate about gay rights in Singapore, sparked by the Indian Supreme Court’s landmark decision on Sept. 6 to strike down Section 377 of the Indian Penal Code which criminalized consensual gay sex. The Indian Penal Code served as a model for other British colonies’ legal systems, including that of Singapore. While Singapore’s Parliament repealed Section 377 — which criminalized “unnatural” acts of sex between members of all sexes — in 2007, it left Section 377A untouched, maintaining the ban on “acts of gross indecency” between men.

According to the petition, the Singaporean government is undertaking the first major review of the Penal Code in more than a decade. While proposed changes to the Singaporean Penal Code are expected to come to the floor in Parliament in November, Section 377A has been excluded from the scope of the review. The “Ready for Repeal” petition, complete with a list of its signatories, will be delivered to the Ministry of Home Affairs by next Friday, before the end of the three-week public consultation period for the Penal Code Review Committee.

In an email to the News, Tan said he became a lead signatory of the petition out of personal conviction. He also emphasized that he did not intend to use his position as Yale-NUS president to “add weight to the petition.”

Whatever Tan’s motivations, Cherian George, a journalism professor at Hong Kong Baptist University who is also a lead signatory of the petition, called Tan’s decision to sign the petition “a radical move in Singapore’s standards.”

“These respected and familiar individuals, who are regarded as part of the elite or the establishment, would not put their name down in any petition, let alone in something that’s been this controversial,” George said. “It’s quite uncommon to have the establishment types sign this petition.”

George said Tan’s support of the petition may encourage Singaporeans who are undecided on the issue to pay closer attention to the arguments supporting Section 377A’s repeal. Because advocacy for gay rights in Singapore has traditionally been associated only with human rights activists, George said, it has been easy for the public to dismiss the cause. Praising Tan’s decision to become a lead signatory of the petition, George said that educational leaders have “a social obligation to think deeply about societal concerns and guide the public in the right direction.”

Yale-NUS Director of Public Affairs Fiona Soh said the College does not advocate a specific political view but “encourages our community to engage in civil discourse and share their personal experiences with one another, emphasizing the need for compassion and empathy.”

Yale spokeswoman Karen Peart did not respond to requests for comment.

According to Tan, the debate over Section 377A has “polarized Singapore society,” which is still divided over the future of LGBTQ rights. A poll by independent firm Ipsos from this summer found that 55 percent of Singaporeans still support the law banning gay sex. Earlier this month, Singaporean DJ Johnson Ong Ming filed a court challenge against Section 377A on the grounds that the law violates three articles in the Constitution concerning liberty and equal protection.

The Singapore Court of Appeal upheld the constitutionality of Section 377A in 2014, arguing that the Constitution only prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, descent or place of birth — not sexual orientation and gender identity.

George said the issue of criminalizing gay sex in Singapore is particularly divisive because it symbolizes a historic battle between religious values and secular values. While 377A shows where the society stands with regard to gay rights, it also represents a bigger debate about whether “religion should take a backseat in modern Singaporean society,” George said. He added that religious conservatives are adamant about keeping 377A in the penal code because they feel that “any concession symbolizes a major loss in the religion debate.”

Yale-NUS students involved with The G Spot, the College’s gender and sexuality alliance, said they were heartened to see Tan as one of the lead signatories of the petition.

“We are very grateful to him and the other faculty members who’ve supported the petition, as well as our own photo campaign,” said Capucine Barcellona ’20, president of The G Spot, on behalf of the organization’s Executive Committee. “It means a lot to have faculty not only take the time to engage with us — which is something very special about Yale-NUS — but also lead by example in standing for something they believe in.”

The G Spot started a photo campaign publicizing supporters of the repeal and has been organizing booths around campus to collect signatures and inform the student body about Section 377A. According to Barcellona, Yale-NUS students have a “variety of viewpoints” on the issue. While some students who support the repeal effort are not yet ready to take the conversation further — and consider the question of marriage equality, for instance — many others view the repeal as just a starting point, she said.

Paul Jerusalem ’19, a student at Yale-NUS and former coordinator of The G Spot, said that while Section 377A technically only criminalizes sex between men — rather than homosexuality in general — the law has a “far-reaching impact on Singaporeans who are of minoritarian sexual orientations and gender identities.” The law’s repeal, Jerusalem added, would demonstrate that Singapore is ready to take another step toward “wrestling itself from a colonial legacy whose specters continue to haunt us today.”

Tan became president of Yale-NUS College in July 2017.

Serena Cho | serena.cho@yale.edu

Alice Park | alice.park@yale.edu

Correction, Sept. 21, 2018: A previous version of this article stated that Capucine Barcellona is a member of the class of 2021. She is, in fact, in the class of 2020. 

Correction, Nov. 21, 2020: A story has been updated to correct Barcellona’s pronouns — misstated in a previous correction — and clarify that Barcellona’s statement was made on behalf of the Executive Committee of The G Spot.