Co-authored by guest contributors Paras Ahuja and Rahul Garg.
Paras Ahuja is an undergraduate student pursuing law at the National Law University, Jodhpur. Her research interests include human rights, constitutional law and feminism.
Rahul Garg is an undergraduate student pursuing law at the National Law University, Jodhpur. His research interests include gender studies, human rights and international humanitarian law.
On 30th March, 2020, the Supreme Court of the Republic of Singapore in Ong Ming Johnson v. Attorney-General upheld the constitutional validity of Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code, 1871. Section 377A punishes any male person who commits an act of “gross indecency” with another male person, whether in public or in private. The judgement marks itself as a regressive touchpoint in Singapore’s progression towards inclusiveness and equality.
Article 14(1) (a) of the Constitution of Singapore guarantees every citizen the right to freedom of speech and expression. The petitioners in this case contended that Section 377A derogated this right by failing to recognize one’s sexual orientation to be a part of the term “expression” within Article 14. While interpreting the term “expression,” the court applied the rule of “ejusdem-generis”. The rule postulates that wherever there is an enumeration of a list of specific things followed by a generic term, the genus term (here, “expression”) should be interpreted in context of the specie term(s) (here, “speech”) and not in its widest possible construction. The court, upon application of this rule, observed that “expression” is therefore restricted only to verbal “speech” and excludes sexual identity of a person. It, therefore, held that the right to freedom of expression is encompassed within the right to freedom of speech, reducing the term “and expression” to redundancy and surplusage.
We argue that that is an erroneous application of ejusdem-generis. It is settled law that ejusdem-generis should not be applied in a way that makes the usage of the genus term redundant in a provision. This is a fundamental principle of statutory interpretation pointed out in case laws citing Sutherland. The Singaporean court’s interpretation, on the other hand, renders the term “expression” otiose and goes against the principle that legislature doesn’t use words in vain.
Additionally, the court relied on the marginal note of Article 14 [i.e. “Freedom of speech”, assembly and association] to ascertain the scope of the provision in order to buttress its holding that “expression” is subsumed within “speech”, since the marginal note mentioned only “speech”. This reliance conflicts with the Singapore Supreme Court’s former observation in the case of Ezion Holdings Ltd v Teras Cargo Transport Pte Ltd, where marginal notes were held to be non-exhaustive and imprecise and therefore, not determinative enough of the true contents of a provision.
The court, furthermore, conveniently maneuvered its way to protect Section 377A from the violation of right to life and personal liberty, enshrined under Article 9(1) of the Constitution. In refusing to include the protection of “homosexual-identity” within the scope of personal liberty, the court aligns its reasoning by saying that the right to personal liberty was not an absolute one, but was qualified. It stated that “unenumerated rights were not capable of specific protection.” However, this seems particularly faulty, as “personal liberty” by itself is an abstract right; it is a collection of rights involving several aspects of a person’s life and doesn’t guarantee any specific individual right singularly. In this context, the exclusion of “unenumerated rights” from the scope of personal liberty will leave it hollow and subject to arbitrary discretion as to its scope.
In its reasoning, the court also observed that Section 377A does not criminalise a male homosexual for his “homosexual orientation”, but only for the actus reus consisting of performance of a homosexual activity with another man. The court additionally stated that a heterosexual man would be equally liable if he were to commit a homosexual act. This distinction between criminalising the “state of homosexuality” and the conduct, that is, the “homosexual act” is farcical and theoretical. This distinction fails as it renders the manifestation of the sexual identity impractical by punishing the conduct. Identifying the flaw in such an argument, the US Supreme Court in the case of Lawrence v. Texas noted that when the act that is criminalised is so closely correlated with the “state-of-being-homosexual”, it resultantly has the effect of defining the very identity as criminal.
The court, in its subtlety, eschewed from answering the question of whether or not the sexual orientation of a person is an immutable factor. The question of immutability was deemed central by the court since the granting of the right to life and personal liberty in this case was considered to be contingent on the recognition of sexual orientation as immutable. However, frustrated with overwhelming scientific evidence from both sides in this regard, the court eventually declared this question outside the realm of legal discussion, belonging rather to the area of scientific controversy. We argue that there is no relevance of a conclusive determination on the aspect of immutability to the question of recognition of the fundamental rights. Either way, there is vacuity in the reasoning of the court as to why a chosen sexual orientation should not be entitled to the same constitutional protection in as much as an immutable sexual orientation would be, along the “born-with-it”/“it-is-my-choice” spectrum. Therefore, regardless of homosexuality falling anywhere between this immutability/choice spectrum, the larger human rights violation relates to the resultant stigma associated with criminalization. The judgment ultimately legitimises an assumed sense of normalcy which according to the court, is only heterosexuality. At the same time, it portrays homosexuality as an anomaly not protected by fundamental rights.
The judgement, therefore, observes a false understanding of various provisions and judicial tools of interpretation, seemingly to achieve a predestined holding. The bench microcosmically imposes its own ideas of heteronormativity on the Singaporean society, which is not only upsetting, but also mistaken.