Baey Yam Keng (马炎庆) is a politician from the People's Action Party (PAP). He has served as Senior Parliamentary Secretary in the Ministry for Transport since his promotion in May 2018. He has also been a Member of Parliament (MP) for Tampines GRC for Tampines North since May 2011.
First PAP MP to attend LGBT forum
Baey Yam Keng was the first PAP MP to accept an invitation to an LGBT rights forum. Organised by theatre company W!ld Rice in conjunction with Happy Endings: Asian Boys Vol 3, a gay play that was staged in July 2007 at the Drama Centre theatre in the National Library building, the forum on Section 377A of the Penal Code attracted some 250 people on Sunday evening, 15 July 2007. It was held in the foyer of the Drama Centre.
Baey formed part of a 5-member panel convened to discuss whether homosexual sex should remain criminalised. The other members of the panel were Nominated Member of Parliament, Siew Kum Hong, gay activist Alex Au, Fridae CEO Dr Stuart Koe and Reverend Dr Yap Kim Hao. Baey for the first time publicly voiced his support for the law to be repealed. "Personally, I think that the whip should be lifted for a very open debate and open expression of opinion by the MPs. And if that is so, I would vote for a repeal of the act. From my understanding of my parliamentary colleagues, my guess is that I will be the minority."
Baey drew an analogy between homosexual sex and drinking or smoking. "There should be a distinction between what the Government wants to discourage, and what it wants to criminalise," he explained. "The Government can make it more difficult to access drinking and smoking, but you are still allowed to drink and smoke. So, you can discourage homosexual sex without criminalising it."
However, Baey emphasised that he did not think this issue would be decided through public consensus. "From what I understand of how the Government works, I don't think the Government will make a decision based on a survey...The Government would want to make its own stand and position on issues like this," he said. Changing the law would require "some progressive thinking and also people who are able to influence the Cabinet's thinking."
Parliamentary debate on Section 377A
The section that has attracted the most number of opinions, most heated public debate, with two online petitions and one Public Petition to Parliament is, in fact, one that has been retained - section 377A which probably has become the most known piece of legislation in recent Singapore history.
Let us look at this issue in a hypothetical scenario. Singapore was never a British colony and we did not inherit section 377A. Today's debate then becomes one of justifying the introduction of a new piece of legislation which states that, "It is an offence for any male person, who in public or private, commits an act of gross indecency with another male person.".
The rationale will be that since Singapore is a generally conservative society, we should single out and criminalise all sexual activities between two men while accepting that the same activity of anal and oral sex between a heterosexual couple and sexual activity between two women need not be offences.
By doing so, we will be aligning our law with most countries in Africa and Middle East. In this hypothetical scenario, perhaps some countries like India, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Malaysia will also introduce similar Acts, as what their current position is. Other former British colonies which have since repealed the 19th century law, such as Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong, will most likely not think it is necessary to now criminalise man-to-man sex.
While almost all western countries do not have similar laws, we will argue that it is not relevant for us to take reference from them. However, we are also choosing not to benchmark Singapore against countries like China, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, South Korea and the Philippines which do not have laws that criminalise male homosexual activity.
According to various points raised by the public, by not criminalising gay sex, it will lead to an increase in homosexual activity, both in public and private. There will also be more male paedophiles eyeing young boys, blatant public solicitation and more AIDS patients.
We also know that there are already laws and there will be stronger laws against prostitution, sexual abuse, exploitation of minors and public indecency. Maybe that is why we will propose that section 377A need not and will not be proactively enforced.
Can the Senior Minister of State give examples of situations where specific enforcement of only section 377A may be needed? Yesterday, he mentioned previous convictions under section 377A, but it seems to me that they could also have been prosecuted under other sections. With no proactive enforcement, should anyone be a good citizen and report private gay sexual activities to the police or will they be simply ignored? Will there be ramifications of this legislation? If someone rents his apartment to a gay couple, will he be charged as an abetting accomplice to a crime under section V of the Penal Code? Besides valid immigration and employment papers, should landlords now ask for confirmation of their tenant's sexual orientation?
With a punishment by up to two years of imprisonment, we are deeming that such activities are of similar severity as causing death by negligent act in section 304A(b), and wrongfully confining any person for three or more days in section 345, and assault or use of criminal force to a person with intent to outrage modesty in section 354(1).
Our justification will also be supported by various surveys, including a NTU study published in September 2007 which saw that 68.6% of respondents in Singapore were negative towards sex between two men or two women. However, it is also interesting to note that some countries choose not to reflect such social non-acceptance in legislation.
Based on the Pew Global Attitudes Project in 2003, 93% in Indonesia and 84% in Vietnam say that homosexuality should not be accepted by society, but these countries have no equivalent of section 377A.
I assume most Singaporeans do not have many gay acquaintances. We are likely to gather our knowledge and form our opinions of the homosexual world from media reports. I believe certain stereotypes of homosexuals in people's minds will include effeminate men, like Boy George, men who prey on young boys, eg, Christopher Neil, flamboyant men who seem to lead decadent lifestyles, like Elton John, and AIDS patients, like Paddy Chew.
I do know quite a number of homosexual men and women. However, the majority, if not all of them, do not fall into any of those abovementioned stereotype categories. Well, they include some very talented and creative people - a common impression of gays which many have said is totally unfounded. These are the directors, actors, hairstylists and designers. But I also know many gay men who are just your average men on the street, making a living as lawyers, lecturers, engineers, accountants, bankers, teachers and civil servants.
I know they have different sexual practices from me, and I have treated them just as any other person. Now, I am reminded that perhaps I should see them as criminals who should spend time behind bars. Perhaps, the thousands of audience who paid as much as $400 to watch Sir Ian McKellen, better known as Gandalf in Lord of the Rings, playing King Lear, in July, might think twice now as he is an openly gay man and hence should object to allowing a criminal on the stage of our Esplanade.
There are negative and positive steps a country can do to discourage and encourage certain behaviours. For example, we do not want to condone smoking and drinking. These acts are not criminal under the law, although we have made tobacco and alcohol less accessible and a lot more expensive. We want to promote marriage and procreation. Hence, singles do not enjoy certain tax and housing benefits, but they are not jailed.
We may be utterly surprised, disappointed, embarrassed, disgusted and angry with our friends, our colleagues and our relatives if we find out they are gay. I will be saddened if my son is gay, because I realise I will not have any grandchildren by him. I may choose to disown him, but now we are saying that he should be jailed.
Sir, I will now continue my speech in Mandarin.
(In Mandarin): [For vernacular speech, please refer to Appendix A *.] As the Chinese saying goes, 不孝有三，無後為大 (Bu Xiao You San, Wu Hou Wei Da) which means, "There are three unfilial acts, the greatest is not to have a son." This is an important concept in a traditional and oriental society like ours. Parents are hoping that their sons will have wives and their daughters will be married, and the children also understand that it is an obligation for them to get married and have children. Nevertheless many people choose to marry late, not to get married, or not to have children, and for some it remains solely a personal choice. There are many reasons, but one reason is that they are homosexuals.
I have some homosexual friends and most of them do not want to make public the fact about their sexual inclination, because Singapore is after all a more conservative society. They will only confide with their close friends, colleagues and siblings. More often than not, parents are the last to know. Especially for those who are male homosexuals, the gays, they will not be able to have children and they do not know how to live up to their parents' expectations. A friend of mine did not have the courage to tell his parents. And only after his father had passed away that he disclosed his secret at his father's coffin. Even now the mother does not know about it.
When parents find out that their children do not like the opposite sex, their immediate reaction is that of shock, sadness, shame, anger or remorse, and they try to find out what has gone wrong - why their children had become homosexuals. Some of the parents chose to run away from reality and one of my friend's mother had gone to the temple to pray, she came back with a charm mixed with water, with the hope that after drinking it, it will cure the son. They do not know what to do and some of them even chase their son out of the house, but if they were to take time to think it through calmly, I do not believe that they will charge their son in court and send him to prison for two years.
I have a friend who is the only child in the family. His mother still could not fully accept the fact that her son does not have any interest in the opposite sex. She was more worried that her son may be sentenced to jail being a homosexual. However, she is the person that knows him best, she knows that her son is very filial and obedient; he is a law-abiding citizen and a successful professional. Also, she has known the "boyfriend" of her son for many years and knows they do not have a promiscuous lifestyle.
As parents, we are often the best judges of our children's character. Having a different sexual orientation from the others does not mean that they have committed a heinous crime and therefore should be criminalised.
Back in English
Back to my hypothetical scenario, we will also say that we introduce section 377A as a symbol that the society is conservative and that we do not want to go down a slippery slope to see public display of affection between men, the fight for gay rights and gay marriages. For seven years, I have lived in London, a city that legalised consensual homosexual sex 40 years ago in 1967. I am hence surprised to recollect my time there and I have not ever seen any such behaviour or intimacy between two men in public whilst I was there. Perhaps I have not been to the right places, but I have not indeed seen anyone before my eyes.
Perhaps we are afraid that the slope will be more slippery in Singapore. After all, we have a track record of taking a more progressive stance in some areas, such as stem cell research and digital rights, leading the way, so to speak.
We take into account the change of times and lifestyles. For example, section 376E on sexual grooming of minors is farsighted nip in the bud. Times have changed and our attitudes towards different crimes and their punishments have evolved as well.
Should the law reflect the general or popular opinion or should it set up a framework to steer the way of thinking and behaviour of its citizens, residents and visitors? It is clear that we have chosen to take the former approach in this case.
I do recognise that in today's situation, there is already an existing Act, and the debate is whether it should be retained or repealed and not whether we should introduce a new Act. We have inherited section 377A from the British.
It is easier and, as the Senior Minister of State said, more practical to maintain the status quo than to change it. Because of the extensive and, some may say, polarised debate, we may not be ready to repeal the Act now.
However, whether the perceived majority holding the status quo view has enough knowledge and understanding of the subject matter to make an informed opinion, is another question. I suspect a significant segment of our society does not really care and some are just uncomfortable with this topic and choose the convenient way to stick with the status quo without knowing what the Act exactly is and does.
Last week, a resident came to my meet-the-people session and said that she is happy that the Government is retaining section 377A. I asked her, "Do you know what section 377A is about?" She said, "I don't know."
I am happy to note that both the proposition and the opposition have spoken publicly and rationally. Hopefully, the Government will provide the environment to encourage the continuation of such dialogue so that the society at large can achieve a better understanding of the matter. I want to especially encourage voices from institutions, like the Law Society, so that this discussion will not be driven to periphery. Hopefully, the discussion will be ongoing and not just during the next review of the Penal Code. Hopefully, the review will happen earlier rather than another 23 years later. Hopefully, we will move with and not play catching up with the pace of change around the world that is affecting people's lives.
Sir, with that, I support the Bill.
Response to HPB's FAQs on sexuality
- See also: HPB's 'FAQs on Sexuality' saga
In late January 2014, the Health Promotion Board’s (HPB) posted a FAQ section on sexuality on its website which stated that homosexual and heterosexual relationships were not too different. The published information drew polarised reactions from the public, including petitions both for and against the board’s move after it went viral. In response to the controversy, Baey said that he was “a bit surprised” when he saw the post. “It’s a bit bold of them to take this approach”, he added. While he found some of the answers objective and explained in a clinical way, Baey felt there were some that were too simplistic and may lead to people making judgements that were not as well informed.
“For example, this point about the differences between same-sex and heterosexual relationships, I felt that the answer lacked another dimension, which is about the Asian values of family,” he explained. He elaborated that some social norms, such as how same-sex couples were not able to get married in Singapore, could have been reflected in the answers. “I think the HPB tried to take a neutral stance. But (by) being neutral, it would not have included certain social norms or mainstream values that are still quite prevalent in our society, so I think that is what irks some quarters of society.”
- See also: NLB saga
"Thank you, Minister Yaacob for instructing NLB not to pulp ‘And Tango Makes Three’ and ‘The White Swan Express’, and to place them in the adult section of our libraries. Glad that you have also asked NLB to review the process by which they deal with such books.
Ultimately, parents must be the ones to decide what books their children read, and what values their children should have. The government can provide the access and choices, but the responsibility cannot be outsourced to the government."
Response to ban of same-sex kiss in Les Miserables
- See also: Singapore gay censorship
On Friday, 25 November 2016, at the Heroes Seminar, a week-long conference organised by Ngee Ann Polytechnic as part of its Character and Citizenship Education programme which allowed students to engage in discussion with different thought-leaders in various sectors, Baey was asked by a student about the government’s decision to ban a same-sex kiss in the Singapore staging of Les Miserables and whether the move was considered to be inclusive,. Baey replied that today’s youth may be more open to LGBT rights but he believed one’s stance on homosexuality changed with age and having children. He saw the older generation as more traditional and might face a difficult task of explaining a sudden same-sex kiss in a play to their children.
“People are in the silent majority mostly. Views are not heard and the government can’t make a call because only extreme views are heard,” he explained. “We hope there will be more conversations about it though so we can accept that there are differences in views and realise that authorities need to make a call. It’s not an easy balance to strike.” He reiterated that the voice of the “silent majority” is important for the government to make a judgment call. “The government will move at a pace that society can accept,” he added.
In a later webcast with the Heroes Seminar, Baey said that he appreciated the question and praised youths for submitting difficult questions. “This tells us that young people have a view of these things. Perhaps they may not agree with certain positions taken by the authority or society at large, but… it means that our young people are thinking people,” he said. “I hope (the youths) will take this (forum) to be more informed and also make better informed decisions. In a diverse world like Singapore, we can learn to live with differences but at the same time, celebrate diversity and find common ground for us to come together.”
"An online article was shared highlighting the above para. I would like to elaborate my views which may not have been fully reported or understood. Views in the society on LGBT and various social issues are diverse, which is not necessarily a bad thing. What is important is our mind-set towards accepting differences. The government has to make policies based on public interest. Sometimes it is a position catering to the majority view, sometimes it is a judgement call. Policies can steer the public to a certain aspiration / desired outcome, or policies can be made based on what the society at large is comfortable is. On LGBT, Prime Minister has said during the Section 377A parliamentary debate in 2007, “we live and let live”.
Comparing the lead up to the debate nine years ago and today, there have been similar opposing views expressed in public. When I referred to them as ‘extreme views’, I do not mean that they are ‘extremist’. They are on the two extreme ends of the whole spectrum of society. Hence, I am interested to know how the majority, who has been mostly silent, feel. There have been surveys and studies on people’s attitudes towards LGBT. I do not know if there is one which is definitive or conclusive. However, I believe that a snapshot of the Singapore society today, would tell us that younger Singaporeans are generally more open-minded compared to the older members who hold more traditional views. As to the point on “one’s stance on homosexuality changes with … having children", I was responding specifically to the question asked on banning a same-sex kiss in the Singapore staging of Les Miserables, that a parent might feel uncomfortable explaining to a child when asked why two men were kissing. I know I can speak for fellow parents, that we are typically ill prepared to discuss matters of a sexual nature, even pertaining to mainstream lifestyles.
Yes, one’s views would sometimes change too based on our life stage. These include notions of what is fun and danger, social norms, moral values and personal conviction. PM has said “it is better to let the situation evolve gradually”. I am sure that my children’s generation will be more accepting of different sexual orientations, just like my generation is more liberal minded compared to my parents’."
Support of transgender resident
- See also: Transgender people in Singapore
Several months ago, I did a shoutout for residents to join my IG Live Chat to share something interesting about their life, passion or experience. It was courageous of Keegan to approach me offering to talk about his journey of becoming Keegan.
Join us at 10pm tomorrow (Sunday).
- livechatwithbyk #Tampinesresident #LGBT"
In the comments section below the post, Baey clarified that Keegan had approached him several months prior, requesting to be on his Live Chat because he wanted to talk about his experience. Shortly after the session was over on Sunday night, 27 September 2020, Baey posted the one hour-long recording of it on his Instagram account. Also invited was Dr Tan E-Ching, who spoke about how parents and children could communicate better and the resources available to help with youth mental wellness.:,.
In the interview, the duo discussed the struggles that the teenager, identified only as 19-year-old Keegan (with no surname provided), was experiencing due to the procedure. Baey went on to express hope for a better future for LGBT residents in Singapore, where male gay sex was still banned and there were hardly any laws to protect the community. However, he noted: “Now, we have counselors in every school, so there are resources available, and I think counselors are well-trained to be able to give sound advice, and in Keegan’s case, refer him to the gender clinic. And there are professionals there who are able to advise him and eventually even advise his grandmother and parents to accept him for who he is. I think it’s important there’s help.” He said it would take more time for society and governance to change, though he noted the latter is bringing resources to bear. “Let us take a step at a time,” he added.
Baey’s show was watched by more than 3,000 viewers and included a discussion with Hallmark Health medical center director Dr Tan E-Ching, a former schoolmate, about improving communication between parents and children. Asked about the gay sex law, he straddled a both-sides position of acknowledging those who wanted change and those who did not. “I’m hopeful that things will change, but let us give time for policymakers also to be able to find a way to have a good conversation,” later adding that “ultimately, we don’t want the society to be divided.”
It was the first time that the 50-year-old MP had featured someone from the LGBT community on his Instagram live chats that had showcased interviews with figures from the worlds of the arts and sports since they began in May 2020. He said that he had known Keegan, who was transitioning to male, since before the hormone treatment began, as the teenager and his grandmother often attended community centre events Baey hosted. But it was Keegan who responded to Baey’s open call in June 2020 for people to share their stories about their gender transformation journeys. Keegan’s began when he was 16, starting with a trip to the school counselor. Keegan said that his family was reluctant to accept his decision but became more accepting after receiving advice from a doctor, who required their consent as Keegan was underaged. His father was helping to pay for the therapy, Keegan said. His next goal was to undergo breast removal. “As a father, I think it’s not easy for parents to come to terms with it,” Baey told him in the video. “You should really be grateful to your dad. I think that is a very strong show of support for you.”
Baey’s interview with Keegan drew mixed reactions from viewers. Some thanked Baey for taking a rare, progressive stance by leading such a discussion while others questioned whether he was trying score political points. Model Andee Chua wrote in the comments on Instagram: “Thanks Mr Baey for opening up such a platform for Keegan and for being inclusive. We need more open discussions and conversations like this. It’s not easy talking about such a sensitive and hard topic – thanks for taking the step forward to understand and listen.” On Facebook, user Jeff Law questioned Baey’s sincerity, penning: “You just lost my vote here trying to be a populist! A PR man as usual!” While Wake Up, Singapore gave Baey credit for expressing “somewhat pro-LGBT views” and showing sensitivity to the community, it pointed out that the MP can do much more,. It added: “However, as an MP and a member of the ruling party, Baey has a lot more power to push for change. Simple tokenistic gestures are not enough to alleviate the struggles of the LGBT people. They face very real issues and discrimination which call for substantive action.” Wake Up, Singapore also invited the MP to “table a motion in Parliament to repeal 377A” as well as to “interrogate the rationales behind archaic laws and policies that discriminate against LGBTQ+ people”.
This article was written by Roy Tan.