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Singapore’s Half-Hearted Concession to LGBT Rights May Make Real Change More Difficult

4 minute read

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced Sunday that Singapore would repeal a law that criminalizes sex between men—but it wasn’t all good news for LGBT rights.

Lee said in a National Day speech that the tightly governed city-state would abolish the law because it was “the right thing to do.” However, he also promised to step up protections for marriage as the union of a woman and a man.

“We need to find the right way to reconcile and accommodate both the traditional mores of our society, and the aspiration of gay Singaporeans to be respected and accepted,” he said.

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Home affairs minister Kasiviswanathan Shanmugam told the Straits Times Monday that the Southeast Asian city-state’s constitution will be amended to give the legislature the right to define marriage. The move is expected to stave off challenges to heteronormative marriage laws on constitutional grounds.

LGBT activists say the change will deal a major blow to equality. “Such a decision will undermine the secular character of our Constitution, codify further discrimination into supreme law, and tie the hands of future Parliaments,” more than 20 LGBTQ rights groups said in a joint statement.

A television screen (R) seen through the window of a residential apartment, shows a live broadcast of Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong delivering his National Day Rally speech in Singapore on August 21, 2022.ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Asia’s conservative backlash

To be sure, the repeal of law 377A—which made gay sex punishable by up to two years in prison—is being welcomed. Leow Yangfa, executive director of the Singaporean LGBTQ community organization Oogachaga, tells TIME that the move “sends an important signal, from the government, that we are taking the first step towards equality and progress for the LGBTQ community.”

SAFE, an organization of parents, family members, and friends of LGBTQ people, said the move was “the start of healing for many families.”

But the proposed constitutional amendment is dampening the mood. “We believe that it is not only a blow to the gay community, but Singapore as a whole,” Clement Tan, a spokesperson for the nonprofit Pink Dot SG, tells TIME.

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Singapore now joins other places in Asia that are caught between satisfying conservative electorates and wanting to appear progressive. Taiwan made waves when it approved same-sex unions in 2019, but its LGBT community faced an immediate backlash and endures continuing discrimination. The Taiwanese law also imposes restrictions not faced by straight couples.

Thailand took a small step towards marriage equality in June, when lawmakers granted initial approval to legalizing same-sex unions. But activists say that legislative hurdles remain and that the country does not live up to its LGBT-friendly image.

Activists have pushed to improve LGBT rights in Japan. But in June, a court in the country’s third-most populous city ruled that freedom of marriage in the constitution referred only to male-female unions, and that Japan’s ban on same-sex marriage was therefore constitutional.

Supporters attend the annual "Pink Dot" event in a public show of support for the LGBT community at Hong Lim Park in Singapore on June 18, 2022.ROSLAN RAHMAN/AFP via Getty Images

Continued discrimination

Although an Ipsos study published in June found that 45% of Singaporeans are more accepting of same-sex relationships than they were three years ago, the same study also showed that 44% were in favor of the continued criminalization of sexual relations between men. SAFE also says that “institutionalized discrimination against LGBTQ people exists in public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards and film classification.”

Religious groups have reacted badly to the repeal of of 377A. The National Council of Churches of Singapore said the move weakened legislation’s role as a “moral signifier.” The organization wants the government to guarantee the freedom of churches to preach against gay sex.

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Singapore warned against “a slippery road of no return, weakening the fabric of a strong society, which is founded on the bedrock of holistic families and marriages.”

Read More: Being LGBT and Catholic in the Philippines

Tan, of Pink Dot, says that there may now be a backlash against the LGBT community, and expects the conversation to get heated in the coming weeks as the issue gets discussed in parliament.

The 377A law “has taken a heavy toll on many LGBTQ people,” he says. “However, its repeal does not mean that discrimination against LGBTQ people will immediately go away. There is a lot of work to be done to change misconceptions and foster understanding towards the community.”

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Write to Amy Gunia at amy.gunia@time.com