SINGAPORE — This conservative city-state convicted men for homosexual behavior 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.
Opposition official Vincent Wijeysingha isn’t taking that advice. On his Facebook page last week, he became the first Singaporean politician to come out of the closet, and he is advocating for the law to be scrapped.
He told The Associated Press on Monday that although the government resists decriminalizing homosexuality, “society will eventually overtake it on this question.”
“I am entirely convinced the law will eventually be repealed,” said Wijeysingha (wee-jay-sing-ga), treasurer of the Singapore Democratic Party.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 actively enforced i n recent years, but 185 men were convicted under the law between 1997 and 2006, according to government data.
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.
Gay rights have grown around the world; more than a dozen countries and 13 U.S. states now allow same-sex marriage. But according to the United Nations, about 75 countries continue to criminalize homosexual behavior; 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 making 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 jus t to leave them be, and just agree to disagree.”
Gay-rights activists said that is unacceptable to a growing number of people in this Southeast Asian 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 ever for the event, which has been held every year since 2009.
“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 Act ion Party, said that although he is unsure how most Singaporeans feel about homosexuality, “the time will come for Parliament to open up another debate” on decriminalizing it.
Baey commended Wijeysingha for being open about his sexuality, saying that “it must have taken a lot of courage to do what he did.”
Wijeysingha said the best response he has received is from young people who have told him that he has given them courage by coming out. But he said he will work on more than gay rights.
“My value system is one of equal rights to all,” he said. “Human rights are indivisible. “