During yesterday’s (August 20) National Day Rally speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced a historic move, repealing the country’s colonial-era law criminalising sex between men.
Known as Section 377A, the law was first enacted in 1938 during British rule, and does not apply to women.
This reversal is a step that’s long sought after by gay rights advocates, though same-sex marriage would remain illegal in Singapore.
Addressing the nation, he said: “We need to find the right way to reconcile and accommodate both the traditional mores of our society, and the aspiration of gay Singaporeans to be respected and accepted.”
He acknowledged that there is now a growing acceptance towards homosexuality and as attitudes shift, the laws should also change.
“I believe this is the right thing to do, and something that most Singaporeans will now accept. This will bring the law into line with current social mores, and I hope, provide some relief to gay Singaporeans,” he added.
Paving the way for equality, even in the workplace
Singapore has always been advocating for an inclusive and supportive work culture.
For instance, the government has put in place a comprehensive package of measures to support parents in their marriage and parenthood journey. Most recently, it also unveiled its ambitions to have 40 per cent of working-age persons with disabilities employed by 2030.
With the recent repeal of S377A, it’s now paving the way for greater equality in the workplace.
On the surface, LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and others) employees in many parts of the world have progressed in the workplace, but global research has shown that underneath this, many are still experiencing unseen challenges and privately held fears at work that are hindering their ability to thrive.
According to a 2021 survey of LGBTQ professionals by LinkedIn, 25 per cent of respondents say they have been intentionally denied career advancement opportunities – such as promotions and raises – because of their identity.
Meanwhile, a significant 31 per cent of respondents say they have faced blatant discrimination and microaggressions in the workplace.
The survey also revealed that more than half of LGBTQ+ employees look for companies that have clear policies in place that protect them.
This is concerning, but also explains why diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) are now high on the agenda for many companies.
DEI falls squarely within the ‘S’ bucket of Enterprise Social Governance (ESG), and has been a topic of growing focus for companies, investors, customers, regulators and other stakeholders. It began largely with a focus on gender, but has since expanded to include other forms of diversity such as race and ethnicity, and sexual orientation.
But why is this so important, and does including LGBT+ workplace diversity policies create any value for firms?
A more equal workplace culture leads to company growth
Companies should work on creating a workplace where LGBT employees can not only rise, but also feel supported, heard and understood.
For one, creating a safe environment for employees to be open about their sexual orientation helps improve employee engagement, since he would feel a sense of belonging and acceptance in the company.
Other employees would also feel a sense of engagement as they witness the company unholding the overarching principle of having integrity and embracing individual differences.
A culture of equality is also a powerful multiplier of innovation. Accenture’s 2019 research found that an innovation mindset is six times higher in the most-equal cultures than in the least-equal ones.
A separate BCG Employee Survey 2020 revealed that it also helps LGBT+ employees to feel greater psychological safety, more empowerment, and the ability to take creative risks.
In contrast, employees who experience more discrimination are less innovative, less empowered and less innovative. They are also more likely to leave their current job because of culture.
Following the individual benefits, organisational outcomes will also improve. By recruiting LGBT+ candidates, companies will open up the talent pool to more potential hires, making finding the right talent for a company easier than if they ignored a large and talent-rich demographic.
A well-managed diverse workforce will also both reduce costs and generate greater profit. According to a McKinsey report on workplace diversity, companies that employ a diverse workforce have 35 per cent higher financial returns than national averages.
This clearly illustrates the importance of diversity in the workplace, not only for a company’s culture, but also for its bottomline.
As the world becomes more accepting and understanding of the LGBT+ community, people expect businesses to do the same. Companies who work towards change to create a more acceptable and tolerant environment will gain the respect and loyalty of employees and the public at large.
While there is still a lot of work ahead, there are a rising number of companies that understand that equality is good for business.
In fact, some companies in Singapore have already publicly shown their support towards the LGBT+ community prior to the repeal of 377A.
Some declare themselves as being a LGBT-friendly company, while some have stepped up to become sponsors of Pink Dot, an annual event that has shown support of the LGBT+ community in Singapore since 2009.
For instance, homegrown online property tech firm 99.co have introduced guides on property rentals that are LGBTQ-friendly since same-sex couples do not enjoy the same housing rights as heterosexual couples.
Beyond Singapore, the 2022 edition of the Human Rights Campaign’s annual Corporate Equality Index (CEI) showed that out of 1,271 participating companies, 842 of them have a perfect score of 100.
In particular, all participating Fortune 500 companies reported an average (CEI) score of 94 per cent.
All these companies have non-discrimination policies in place regarding sexual orientation and gender identity. Moreover, 95 per cent have made public commitments to the LGBTQ community and 88 per cent have transgender-inclusive benefits.
With the repeal of 377A, more companies can now follow their footsteps and help champion workplace policies and corporate initiatives with diversity in mind.
LGBT+ laws in Singapore has progressed, but it’s also a work-in-progress
By and large, Singapore is still a traditional society with conservative social values.
PM Lee understood that there is still a risk of S377A to be struck down in a future court challenge, which is why the Constitution will be amended to protect the definition of marriage from being challenged in the courts.
He asserted that the traditional family should still form the “basic building block” of our society, therefore national policies on family and marriage – including public housing, education, adoption rules, advertising standards and film classification – will remain unchanged.
“We do not want the repeal to trigger wholesale changes in society. We will maintain our current family-oriented approach, and the prevailing norms and values of Singapore society,” he reasoned.
In some Western countries, in an effort to promote diversity, it has resulted in social divisiveness instead with culture wars, contempt for opposing views, ‘cancel culture’, and bitter feuds splitting society into different factions.
PM Lee shared that he has observed some signs of similar things starting to happen here, and warned against going in this same direction.
This is why the repeal of S377A must be done in a controlled and careful manner. After all, there’s a limit to the change in which Singaporeans will accept.
“If one side pushes too hard, the other side will push back even harder,” he cautioned. “What we seek is a political accommodation that balances different legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans.”
While some Singaporeans have voiced out this repeal does not translate into total equality for the LGBT+ community since same-sex marriages are still wrongful in the eyes of law, it is definitely a step forward towards progression.
It also shows that the government is listening and willing to come to a compromise. This may not satisfy every group, but it is definitely a pragmatic step to accommodate evolving societal attitudes and norms in Singapore.
“All groups should exercise restraint, because that is the only way we can move forward as a nation together,” he said. “I hope the new balance will enable Singapore to remain a tolerant and inclusive society for many years to come.”
Featured Image Credit: Prime Minister’s Office / Reuters