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Blog | 15 Sep 2022

Singapore Repeals Section 377a, but the LGBT+ Community Still Face an Uphill Struggle for Full Equality in the Lion City  

This opinion piece forms part of our IMPACTxAsia blog series

Singapore Repeals Section 377a, but the LGBT+ Community Still Face an Uphill Struggle for Full Equality in the Lion City  

Singapore Repeals Section 377a, but the LGBT+ Community Still Face an Uphill Struggle for Full Equality in the Lion City  

Marking a landmark moment for LGBT+ campaigners in Singapore, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong gave an address on Sunday, 21 August 2022 during the National Day rally to confirm the decision to repeal the colonial-era law – Section 377A – which criminalised sex between consenting male adults. The archaic law had not been enforced for decades; in fact, back in February of 2022, the Court of Appeal in Singapore ruled that the law could not be used to prosecute men for having sex. Nevertheless, the decision marks a change in attitudes toward the LGBT+ community in this traditionally minded city as well as a positive first step towards equality for Singaporeans who have been campaigning for this change in the law for many years. We commend the activists and campaign groups who have been and continue to tirelessly fight for equality in Singapore. This historic decision for Singapore follows a similar ruling in India in September 2018 to overturn Section 377a, as well as the decision in Taiwan in 2019 to legalise gay marriage, the Sapporo court ruling in Japan that the government’s failure to recognise same-sex marriage is unconstitutional and the beginnings of a positive decision in Thailand for same-sex unions earlier this year. All of these moves signal tentative steps across the Asia region towards equality and acceptance both in society and under the protection of governments.  

However, marriage equality campaigners in Singapore were left disheartened when the Prime Minister went on to state that the Constitution would be altered to protect the definition of marriage as being between a man and a woman, in a move to placate conservative and religious groups in the city-state. While the repeal of 377a opens the door for equality minded companies to offer further protections and position themselves as advocates for equality in Singapore, the bar on gay marriage will hinder companies wishing to apply for visas for same-sex couples. Not currently out of the question in Singapore, they are ruled on a case-by-case basis.  In partnership with civil society, multinationals and large corporations operating out of Singapore play a vital role in the call equality for the LGBT+ community. The Coqual (formerly Center for Talent Innovation) Out In The World Infographic illustrates the three ways organisations can use their influence in market to affect change for their LGBT+ employees and the wider community.  

  • When in Rome: Adhere to the norms of the jurisdiction 

  • Embassy: Implement and enforce protective policies and LGBT+ supportive measures on the corporate campus   

  • Advocate: Support local LGBT+ activism and lobby local legislators to enact protective laws 

  

The business case for organisations to be visible supporters of LGBT+ as well as wider inclusion is strong. In order to attract and retain the best global talent, particularly in a multicultural and international city such as Singapore, companies must offer policies and benefits that compete with their counterparts in other countries. This includes LGBT+ and rainbow family friendly perks, as well as of course, say disability or gender inclusion measures. The call for companies to make substantial commitments to social justice issues will only increase as Gen Z continue to enter the workforce, and organisations should make note and be prepared for this.  

 

The nuances of markets across the Asia region are notable of course, and MNCs in Singapore who have subscribed to the ‘Advocate’ position as referenced earlier faced government warnings in 2016 for openly sponsoring and supporting rallies such as Singapore Pride. However, the ‘Embassy’ model still leaves organisations with many options: 

1.Non-discrimination statement: Such a document proves commitment that the organisation will not discriminate on the basis of age, mental/ physical ability, gender, gender identity or expression, national origin, race and sexual orientation or other differences. 

2. The role of senior management: Senior management should take the lead in creating a safe culture, for example, by being visible allies, coaching LGBT and other minority talent, or being sponsors of LGBT networks within their companies. 

3. Recognising all relationships: It is likely every company has employees who are in committed long-term relationships but are not legally married; or whose union may not be recognised in Singapore, be it LGBT employees, or heterosexual couples who choose not to formalise their relationship. 

This precludes them from being able to access benefits such as health or life insurance coverage for their partner and so on, which is something many look for. It should be possible, what with providers like Eden Health stepping into the field, an improvement on this front should be expected. 

The report suggests company policies to include “non-traditional” family models, and usage of inclusive language, such as where the term “partner” is used instead of “spouse”. 

To ensure the system isn’t abused, the HR team can mandate documents such as an affidavit from a lawyer including a statement of affirmation of the individuals in the relationship. 

Such a policy can help extend company benefits to partners, with the employee being required to inform the company when there are changes to the relationship. 

4. Inclusive conversations: Monday morning conversations often start with: “How was your weekend?” 

The report identified while it is common practice for employees to talk about their boyfriend, girlfriend, or spouse, some companies discourage LGBT employees from talking about their partner. This might be a sign of sexual orientation discrimination

It is therefore helpful for bosses to start conversations about relationships with nouns/pronouns that are not gender specific. For example, “you and your partner” is more inclusive than “you and your wife.” 

5. Stop derogatory remarks: The study cited a recent survey that found the most common forms of abuse or discrimination faced by LGBTQ individuals are homophobic jokes and derogatory names, be it in English, Chinese, Malay, Tamil or other local dialects. 

From a management perspective, bosses must make it clear that derogatory remarks against any group of individuals are not only inappropriate but are also directly opposed to the values and rules of the organisation. 

Managers can encourage employees to stand up or speak out against such behaviour in public and private settings, such as at the office pantry, or over watercooler conversations. 

(Source: Singapore Management Universty)

 

Community Business offers a wealth of resources for organisations wishing to begin or enhance their inclusion efforts, both in Singapore and around the region. Find out more about our bespoke Consulting and Training offerings, as well as our upcoming LGBT+ Inclusion Index in Hong Kong and Singapore and Regional Survey for companies operating outside these markets.  

 

About the Author: Emily Moss, Head of Social Impact, Community Business