In recent months, campus discussion regarding freedom of expression at Yale-NUS has been focused on Singaporean laws limiting free speech. But on Wednesday when, Singapore’s highest court upheld a law — Section 377A — criminalizing sex between men, questions arose regarding whether students at Yale-NUS are free to explore their sexual orientation.
The verdict to uphold 377A comes after two separate appeals by three gay men in Singapore who claim that the law violates their human rights. Though the law has been in effect since 1938, sources say the law is not enforced in Singapore, including at Yale-NUS. More than a dozen Singaporean students and Yale-NUS professors interviewed — as well as members of the Yale community in New Haven – said the law is not an accurate representation of Singapore’s tolerance towards its gay population.
“[Section 377A] is definitely not enforced on campus,” said Sherlyn Goh Xue Tin NUS ’17, a founder of Yale-NUS’s diversity alliance, The G Spot. She added that while some Singaporeans are frustrated that the law was upheld, others would be more upset if it was repealed.
Most students interviewed said they were not shocked by Wednesday’s verdict, but added that it will not drastically change social culture in Singapore.
Abdul Hamid NUS ’17, a founder of The G Spot, said the recent verdict did not come as a surprise because it is consistent with the Singaporean government’s long-term position on gay sex.
The verdict is not a step back for Singapore, but rather, a reflection that Singapore is maintaining the status quo, Zong Xuan Tan ’18 said.
Goh added that the recent ruling had not generated much student attention on Yale-NUS’s campus. She said she had not heard friends talking about it.
Still, some Yale-NUS professors have expressed disappointment in the ruling.
“I stand in solidarity and sadness with all my friends in Singapore who will be affected by yesterday’s Supreme Court ruling,” Yale-NUS professor Bernard Bate said in a Thursday email to the News. “But that ruling has no bearing on what I teach at Yale-NUS College. The entire student body of Yale-NUS College has been substantively grappling with issues of gender and sexuality this week.”
While the court challenge to Section 377A was unsuccessful, Yale-NUS spokesperson Fiona Soh, in a statement, said the college has been encouraged by the open debate and lively discussions both in the classrooms and on campus.
Yale-NUS President Pericles Lewis declined to comment.
University President Peter Salovey said Yale-NUS stands behind its LGBT population.
“I have been pleased to see the support that Yale-NUS College provides its gay and lesbian students,” Salovey said. “Through student groups like [The G Spot], classes that address issues of sexuality, and extracurricular panels on gay and transgender rights, Yale-NUS College has demonstrated that it is a welcoming and supportive environment for students and faculty regardless of their sexual orientation. I understand that there has been much debate about Section 377A in Singapore and that there have been moves towards greater equality for gays and lesbians — I hope there will be further progress in the coming months and years.”
Some professors at the Singaporean college have tried to work the recent debate on Section 377A into the Yale-NUS curriculum. Yale-NUS Professor Jessica Hanser, who teaches a course called “Comparative Social Inquiry,” said she plans to talk about same-sex marriage within her class’s ongoing discussion on the institution of family.
Yale-NUS professor Bernard Bate said in the course “Modern Social Thought,” students have been reading and discussing Michael Foucault’s “History of Sexuality, Volume I,” to add to a college-wide discussion about same-sex relationships.
Christopher Miller, professor of African American Studies and French, has been outspoken about his opposition of Yale-NUS since the college’s inception in 2009. In a 2011 opinion piece for the News, Miller expressed concerns for gay faculty members who may choose to teach in Singapore despite the risk of being arrested.
“I am a gay faculty member,” Miller wrote. “The advent of Yale-NUS thus places me in a uniquely compromised position … The irrefutable fact is that any LGBT faculty who choose to participate in the program will be forced to fear arrest because of who they are. The likelihood of actual incarceration is not the issue: The problem is the law itself.”
Miller said “the bosses and apologists” of Yale-NUS would not express opposition to Section 377A considering that the college itself is run in collaboration with and funded by the Singaporean government. Miller said only if members of the Yale-NUS community spoke up in protest would the status quo change.
But George Chauncey, professor of history and American Studies, said when he visited Singapore, the gay activists he met there were not worried about being arrested. Chauncey said the law is met with significant opposition within the country, and that supporters of expanded gay rights are working hard to challenge the country’s social climate.
Chauncey added that academic freedom at Yale-NUS would not be hindered by the law, just as academics at Yale were not affected as a result of Supreme Court rulings like Bowers v. Hardwick, which in 1986 upheld the constitutionality of a Georgia sodomy law criminalizing gay oral and anal sex.
“I don’t expect this decision to impede the development of LGBT studies at Yale-NUS any more than the 1986 Supreme Court decision here, which upheld the constitutionality of sodomy laws, impeded LGBT studies or academic freedom at Yale,” Chauncey said.
Those who grew up in Singapore said the country is unfairly subjected to American judgement regarding its freedom of expression laws, and these laws should be considered in the context of Singapore’s geography and political and religious history.
Zheng Xiang Toh ’17 said the news surrounding Section 377A fits into a decades-old debate about gay rights in Singapore, adding that there has been a tremendous backlash against the law far exceeding advocacy campaigns for any other cause.
“With regards to gay sex, I think this is a private matter, and I think existing laws are too harsh — the government, by agreeing not to strictly enforce the law, seems to agree in principle,” Zheng said in a Thursday email to the News. “But I think on a practical level, legalizing gay sex is seen as overly controversial, and it is not a wise political move.”