This is an excerpt from Chapter 13, “Nanyang Family,” of my book Imagining Gay Paradise, explaining three key anti-LGBT laws used in Singapore to regulate LGBT expression:
For the British, Singapore had never posed the issues of velvet-handed semi-colonization that Siam had. The colonizers did not have to gently tutor in Singapore; they could directly impose their own ideas about civilization and their own laws. As a result, a legal bias against homosexuality had been imported, and even when the colonizers left, the laws remained in place, like cargo that had been intended for trans-shipment but had gotten stuck in one of Singapore’s warehouses.
A trinity of criminal laws closely regulated sexuality between males.
The fiercest was the sodomy law that had emerged from a Victorian imagination focused on theories of degeneracy. In British India, Section 377 of the penal code said: “Whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman, or animal, shall be punished with imprisonment for life, or with imprisonment which may extend to ten years.” British Singapore adopted the exact words and the same numbering, Section 377. The only change added by the money-minded British in Singapore was: “and shall also be liable to fine.”
As a legal term, “sodomy” meant any kind of penetration of the mouth or the anus by a man’s penis, so Section 377 turned both oral and anal sex into crimes. It also did not matter whether the two people involved were both men or were one man and one woman. Using any part of the body other than a vagina was “against the order of nature” because it might not lead to reproduction. One irony: lesbianism did not seem to be covered since sex between women seemed to involve only vaginas.
It never really mattered whether the state enforced the sodomy law. Indeed, most acts of sodomy occurred in private between adults, and so could never be detected by the police. Instead, the law mostly enforced what could and could not be talked about publicly: “good” heterosexuals did not advertise the oral and anal sex they had; they openly referred in advertising, movies and other types of public speech only to reproductive sex, if they mentioned sex at all. For men who engaged in sex with men, all open speech about their desires became stigmatized and chilled since discussion of it in any positive way meant they were promoting a crime. Sodomy laws were restraints on speech as much as, perhaps more than, they were on actions.
What the sodomy law itself did not forbid about male-male sexual behavior, other criminal laws regulated. The sodomy law, for example, said nothing about the caressing and hugging or dancing together that two male lovers might enjoy, just as two heterosexual lovers would. But a section added to the colony’s penal code much later did, Section 377A. Such acts of affection among men were “gross indecencies” to be punished wherever they might occur — in public or private. A man — and Section 377A applied only to men — could be sentenced to two years in prison for kissing or caressing another man. Whereas Section 377 had been imposed in Singapore in the nineteenth century at the height of British colonialism, Section 377A had been added only in 1938, that pivotal year in which the then declining colonial powers were being confronted by the rise of the new Nazi concept of manhood. Walter Spies was about to be prosecuted in Bali while at the other end of the arc of Southeast Asia Phibun was starting to promote his own stricter notions of body and gender in Siam.
What was a “gross indecency” was left vague. The courts termed it as whatever a “right-thinking person” might consider to be “gross indecency.” As late as 1995, a Singapore appeals court would define it in this circular way: “What amounts to a grossly indecent act must depend on whether in the circumstances and the customs and morals of our time it would be considered grossly indecent by any right-thinking member of the public.” Section 377A was a law based on what others considered offensive, not what kinds of behavior might actually harm others.
A final Singaporean law completed the trinity. Section 354 of the penal code outlawed any “outrage of modesty” of another person accomplished through “criminal force.” As with the “gross indecency” law, outraging someone’s modesty could be punished by two years in prison. Also, as with the sodomy law, a fine could be levied. But, differently from the other two, Section 354 also permitted the old British punishment of strapping the man to a metal frame, exposing his buttocks, and then caning him with a piece of rattan.
While the law’s wording about “criminal force” seemed to suggest that physical coercion had to be involved for anyone’s modesty to be outraged, in fact, as the law came to be interpreted, one man merely suggesting an interest in another — perhaps through a question or a light touch — could result in a Section 354 charge.
It was, in other words, a perfect method for entrapment by the Singaporean police.
Copyright 2012 Hong Kong University Press