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Singapore Government

Minister Masagos' Closing Speech for 2R of Constitutional (Amendment) Bill, 29 November 2022

Minister Masagos' Closing Speech for 2R of Constitutional (Amendment) Bill, 29 November 2022

1. I thank Members for putting forth their perspectives and reasoning on this very important debate. In this House, members have reflected the complexity of the issue and the diversity of our stakeholders. Something a Court process will not achieve.

2. Members have shown why Parliament, rather than the Courts, is the right forum to debate difficult social issues. 

The Repeal and Constitutional Amendment are Necessary

3. We have explained clearly why we must act without delay. Inaction will leave open the significant legal risk that the Court will, at some point in the future, rule s377A unconstitutional. Parliament has a duty to act.

Keeping Singapore United

4. Let me turn to what we all need to do, to keep Singapore united after we have debated and then voted on these Bills. Many Members touched on this in your speeches.

a. Some have voiced the concern of Singapore going down a slippery slope after the repeal. 

b. Some touched on support for families with single parents. 

c. Others asked about the posture in educational institutions and expressed concerns on religious freedom. 

Addressing Points raised in the Debate

5. Mr Alex Yam, Mr Sharael and Mr Abdul Samad have asked for assurance that the repeal would not result in a change in social norms. Mr Derrick Goh asked about the use of surveys and engagements. 

a. It is indeed the intention of the Government that there should not be a change in social norms following the repeal. This is precisely what Article 156 is intended to achieve. I explained in my speech yesterday, the many different practices and policies that support society’s notion of children within a marriage between a man and a woman. 

b. On surveys, while they can help facilitate conversations and potentially reduce discrimination, we recognise that a single or a series of questions would not fully capture such a complex and emotive matter. It also depends on the survey’s sampling method, whether it is representative, and when it was conducted. We have engaged extensively on this matter. There are ongoing efforts to facilitate conversations and civil dialogue.

6. Mr Pritam Singh, Mr Mark Chay and Mr Louis Ng said there should be support for other families such as single unwed parents. My opening speech explained our approach. We make a distinction between incentives and support. Benefits intended to support a child’s development and caregiving are given to children of single unwed parents and of married parents equally. These include healthcare and education subsidies, the Government’s First Step grant and co-matching of the Child Development Account, as well as the Government-Paid Maternity Leave to unwed working mothers to care for their infant. 

7. Let me now turn to educational institutions. 

8. Ms Janet Ang and Mr Fahmi have asked about sexuality education in public and private schools, and the madrasahs. Dr Tan Yia Swam said students should be taught based on evidence. Mr Henry Kwek commented that school leaders should take a clear objective stance. Mr Mark Chay asked how we prepare students to be more understanding and empathetic. Mr Lim Biow Chuan also asked about international schools that compel staff or students to participate in gay community projects even if they do not subscribe to the same lifestyle. 

a. I explained in my opening speech that our education policies and curriculum remain anchored on Singapore's prevailing family values and social norms, which most Singaporeans want to uphold. These include the family as the cornerstone of our social fabric, and marriage between a man and a woman. 

b. In our schools, all students learn and practise values such as mutual understanding, respect, and empathy for everyone. They will also understand that issues can have multiple perspectives, and are taught to listen to each other’s points of view, understand the perspective of others, and learn to interact and engage respectfully with each other, even if their views differ.

c. The Sexuality Education Curriculum in MOE schools respects the primary role of parents and reflects the national posture on the heterosexual family as the basic unit of society. The curriculum remains secular and based on research and evidence. It is focused on age appropriateness and the developmental needs of the child when touching on topics such as homosexuality. 

d. In madrasahs, sexuality education is part of their education curriculum and included in specially curated programmes. Madrasahs are also equipped with trained asatizah and teachers to address sexuality issues. Counsellors are available should students need further advice and support. MUIS is in regular consultation and collaboration with the madrasahs to further enhance the sexuality education curriculum for students. Teachers will also be equipped and updated on the current discourse on the matter, to advise and guide students on matters related to sexuality, according to the teachings and traditions of the religion.

e. For international schools, MOE does not regulate the curriculum.  That said, as the schools operate in Singapore, they should respect our social norms and values. They must also be careful not to cross the line into advocacy on issues in Singapore that could be socially divisive, such as how sexual orientation, are handled in laws and public policy. These are matters for Singaporeans to discuss and decide. 

9. Mr Louis Ng asked how LGBT students struggling with family and mental health issues are supported. Mr Zhulkarnian also asked how teachers and educators are supported. 

a. Our schools have a system of support for students with issues concerning their well-being, including on sexuality. Teachers will listen to students objectively to facilitate support, and not discount, disregard or judge their views. They assure confidentiality but explain to students that the disclosed information has to be shared with the appropriate key school personnel to assist students in managing their concerns. Teachers also consult the School Leader and Lead School Counsellor who will further manage these cases, with the School Counsellor providing targeted support for the student’s concerns. 

b. Where required, schools, will, with parents’ consent, refer students to professionals and relevant authorities to provide counselling support and appropriate intervention. 

c. MOE’s focus is on the students’ well-being. Schools must remain a common and safe space for all students, regardless of their background. We have a duty to care to every student. For students with sexuality issues, our focus is likewise to provide them with a conducive learning environment and the necessary support to ensure their overall well-being. As sexuality issues are complex, schools work with these students and their families sensitively. 

10. Mr Zhulkarnian asked where families can seek help. Family Service Centres offer family counselling and can also assist if family relations are strained because one of them has sexuality concerns. 

11. Lastly, members Mr Christopher De Souza, Mr Zhulkarnian, Mr Fahmi, Mr Lim Biow Chuan, Mr Darryl David, Ms Janet Ang and Mr Alex Yam have spoken about religious freedom. I would like to make clear the Government’s position.  

12. First, Article 156 will provide further protection for the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. There are no plans to change this definition to include same-sex marriages. Religious leaders or any licensed solemniser for that matter, cannot solemnise a same-sex couple. This is against the law. 

13. Second, religious freedom is protected in Article 15 of the Constitution. 

a. Every person has the right to profess, propagate and practice his or her own religion, subject to public order, health and morality. Every religious group has the right to manage its own religious affairs. 

b. One can still preach on the pulpit their beliefs about homosexuality or family, even if others might disagree. But no one should incite violence or hate towards others. This is against the law and is not the society we want to become. This is regardless of whether the comments are made in public, online, or in your private space. 

c. Religious organisations, as owners of their premises at places of worship, have the discretion to refuse same-sex solemnisations or weddings to be held on their premises. There is no law which prohibits them from treating same-sex couples differently from opposite-sex couples when exercising such rights. 

d. Religious organisations may support those who are struggling or have issues with their sexuality, including through prayers and counselling, as long as consent is obtained, and criminal thresholds of harm are not crossed.

14. Third, in exercising religious freedom, we must understand that we are also members of a plural society. We must graciously accommodate those who have different values from us. Gay people are members of our society and have access to the same opportunities and social support as other Singaporeans. 

a. Social Service Agencies provide secular services to the community. Some SSAs are set up by, or affiliated to, religious organisations. All SSAs, regardless of their religious affiliations, serve all clients, including gay persons. Social service professionals are continuously trained to be sensitive to the diverse needs of their clients. 

 15. Fourth, on employment, workplace and businesses.

a. We do not tolerate discrimination at the workplace. Employees are protected against discrimination under the Tripartite Guidelines for Fair Employment practices. These Guidelines requires employers to make employment decisions based on merit and not factors irrelevant to the job. For religious organisations, understandably, the potential employee’s religion and values would be a relevant consideration for certain roles.

b. Mr Derrick Goh enquired about staff benefits offered by companies to gay couples. The Government generally does not interfere in how a private business operates. However, private businesses must respect that their own staff have a right to their personal beliefs. They also cannot cross the line into advocacy on issues in Singapore that are socially divisive, which includes issues on homosexuality. These are matters only for Singaporeans to discuss and decide. At our workplaces, employees should not feel compelled to support causes or participate in activities that do not align with their beliefs. The TGFEP is clear that an employee’s support or non-support of causes, if not relevant to job performance, cannot be used in employment decisions and performance evaluation. 

16. Lastly, we should keep the marketplace free from the polarising contestation of values. In a free and open economy, an abundance of choice, businesses can decide what events are allowed on their premises. However, while businesses make their own commercial judgement with regard to their prospective customers, they should do so in a sensitive and respectful manner. Nonetheless, I urge everyone not to use commerce as a platform to display the conviction of their beliefs. In the spirit of mutual respect, I hope businesses and prospective customers can strive to be gracious, and adopt the approach of live and let live.

Leadership 

17. Mr Speaker Sir, for complex issues such as this, we must exercise leadership to make difficult decisions that is best for our society, even if it does not satisfy everyone’s wishes. We are a secular Government. And while each of us as individuals may have our religious convictions, we take care to ensure that when we make decisions for the whole country, we apply secular, universal values and not individual religious beliefs.

Individual Religious Beliefs

18. Mr Dennis Tan, Mr Gerald Giam and Mr Faisal Manap indicated they will not support the repeal because of their religious values. They do not offer any solution on how we can keep society united and cohesive, if s377A is found to be unconstitutional. Is their solution to accept a decision by the Court? What would be the implications? If so, why not vote for the repeal now? 

Referendum 

19. Ms Hazel Poa says PSP wants the definition of marriage to be decided via National Referendum rather than by Parliament. The Government has explained:

a. why we are not proposing to hold referendum on this issue, 

b. but let me explain again. 

20. Our Constitution sets a very high bar for the holding of referenda: 

a. a referendum is required when sovereignty, or 

b. the command of our Armed Forces and Police,

is at stake. 

21. We have only had one referendum in our history - On Merger with Malaysia. 

22. We should be very careful about elevating any matter to this level, saying it is equivalent to an issue on sovereignty. 

23. It is the duty of elected MPs to consult, to discuss, and to come to a decision. Even – and perhaps especially – for difficult and polarising social issues. 

24. The PSP says that we should not allow Parliament to decide, but instead let the definition of marriage be decided by national referendum. This might seem seductive, but let’s call it what it is:

a. It is an attempt to avoid taking a position, as Parliamentarians, as elected representatives of the people. 

b. Even if a referendum is held, which side will the PSP be on? Would the PSP try to bring people together, or stay silent on where it stands on heterosexual marriage as it is doing in this Debate? 

c. Also, would a referendum settle this issue once and for all? 

i. May I remind Members and the PSP what happened in the UK, with Brexit. Both sides campaigned vigorously, and bitterly. It created and entrenched polarised identities. Brexit was eventually approved, in a referendum, with the slimmest of margins. And people continued to campaign for a second referendum. 

ii. In the process, the credibility of the British Government was severely damaged. Indeed, it has yet to recover. 

iii. Despite being Government, the Tories were split on Brexit. The leadership, rather than uniting around a single position, allowed their MPs and even their Ministers to take different views. A Government unable to act, cannot govern. 

25. Let us not look for politically easy options and cite “referendum” as an easy solution. Just so that a decision does not have to be made in Parliament. In any case, even if the PSP wants a referendum, does it or does it not support the Constitutional Amendment? 

26. They seem to be against it. It then leaves the courts to decide on heterosexual marriage. I have explained why that is not ideal.  In any case, PSP seems to be against the Constitutional Amendment. I have explained why that is not good for Singapore. 

27. Governing requires us to bring people with different perspectives together, to ensure that various segments do not push for a maximalist position which would impinge on others,  and pave the way forward. We should not adopt positions just because it coincides with our own religious beliefs. Indeed, everyone in Singapore cannot expect their maximalist position to be realised because Singapore is a vastly diverse society.

28.   Singapore has progressed because everyone understands this and have been accommodating of each other. 

29.   This applies to governance. To be able to faithfully discharge our duties, as leaders we cannot make decisions that affect our fellow citizens based on personal religious beliefs. I hope we understand the principles of our religions in making decisions that affect others.  That’s what the Malay Muslim leaders we engaged were able to do after numerous engagements – they went beyond their own perspectives and assessed what is good for the community, Singapore and Singaporeans. They accepted why these changes need to be made. 

30.   I hope Members of this House can do so too and support the repeal of Section 377A together with the proposed Amendment to the Constitution.

Call for Social Cohesion

31. Let me conclude. 

32. As a society, we cannot lose sight of mutual respect when we engage with one another and must endeavour to listen to those who disagree with us. We must not destroy their social or economic standing. We should not denigrate others - this applies to all sides in every debate. We should consistently exercise responsibility, restraint and sensitivity to one another, both online and in-person.

33. The work of staying united as one Singapore, is what lies ahead for all of us, even as the debate on these two Bills concludes.

34. Mr Speaker, this debate proves that this House is indeed the right forum for issues and policies that are complex and require political judgment. It is an example of Parliament stepping up to do its duty. It is a responsible Government that has balanced the views expressed by Members and stakeholders and has shown the viable way forward. We did not deflect the matter to the Court or kick the can down the road. This is the strength of our system in Singapore when each branch - the Legislature, Executive and Judiciary, does its part to its fullest and does it well, and does what is right for Singapore and Singaporeans.

35. We have had a robust debate. With the passing of the two Bills, the repeal of section 377A and the introduction of the Constitutional Amendment, we have created space for society to deliberate on social issues within the political process, and not through a legal route which is zero-sum in nature. It is time to come together and move forward. Preserve the peace and stability that our society has fought hard for, and forge ahead. United, not divided, so that we can achieve progress as a Nation for many more years to come.

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