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The Strange Career of Gross Indecency: Race, Sex, and Law in Colonial Singapore

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  06 November 2019

Abstract

In 1938, the British enacted Section 377A of the Straits Settlements Penal Code, criminalizing male same-sex acts in Singapore. Although the law was neither the first nor only attempt to regulate same-sex activity, it represented a stark intensification in sexual policing. Yet, the reasons for the introduction of Section 377A remain elusive. New sources, including recently declassified documents, reveal that Section 377A intersected with the colonial state's wider project of social control. In the early 1930s, intensified policing of female prostitution inadvertently magnified the visibility of male prostitution in Singapore, just as homosexuality was emerging as a distinct conceptual category. Meanwhile, scandals about sexual liaisons between European officials and Asians men threatened British legitimacy. This “discovery” of homosexuality led the British to introduce Section 377A. As British troops arrived in Singapore in the late 1930s in response to Japanese expansionism in the Far East, concerns about blackmail, military discipline, and the colonial color line governed the enforcement of Section 377A. Between 1938 and 1941, the British disproportionately used Section 377A to punish Asian male prostitutes whom they thought had seduced European men. Secondarily, the British used the provision to deter European soldiers, sailors, and non-officials from exposing themselves to extortion. Seen in this light, Section 377A served as a response to changing configurations of race, class, and sexuality in colonial Singapore.

Type
Original Article
Copyright
Copyright © the American Society for Legal History, Inc. 2019

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Footnotes

The author thanks George Chauncey, Rohit De, and Mary Lui for their advice and comments. He is also grateful to Kai Yan Chan for his translation services and Robbie Short for his support throughout the review process. Finally, he is indebted to Gautham Rao and the three anonymous reviewers for their feedback.

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82. “Tongxingai,” 同性愛 [Homosexual Love], Nanyang siang pau 南洋商報, August 17, 1938, 29.

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88. See, for example, Aldrich, Colonialism and Homosexuality, 194–97; and Butcher, The British in Malaya, 1880–1941: The Social History of a European Community in Colonial South-East Asia, 194.

89. Item 5 Prosecutions: The Malayan “Sexual Perversion” Cases, CO850/171/1, TNA.

90. Letter to W. G. A. Ormsby-Gore, March 24, 1938, CO850/123/4. To preserve the privacy of individuals accused of same-sex activity, I have used their first and last initials instead of their full names in both the main text and footnotes. My hope is to exercise ethical sensitivity while ensuring that future historians can track down my sources without difficulty.

91. Statement of Mr. D. W. Macintosh, Assistant Superintendent of Police, Straits Settlements, January 24, 1938, CO/850/123/4, TNA. Emphasis added.

92. H. G. to the High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States, March 6, 1938, CO850/123/2, TNA. Emphasis added.

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94. H. G. to the High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States, March 6, 1938, CO850/123/2, TNA.

95. Penal Code (Amendment) Ordinance, no 12 of 1938, CO273/646/2, TNA.

96. Other scholars have previously noted the racialized character of prosecutions under Section 377A. See Radics, George, “Decolonizing Singapore's Sex Laws: Tracing Section 377a of Singapore's Penal Code,” Columbia Human Rights Reviw 45 (2013): 76Google Scholar; and Radics, George, “Singapore: A ‘Fine’ City: British Colonial Sentencing Policies and Its Lasting Effects on the Singaporean Corporal State,” Santa Clara Journal of International Law 12 (2014): 76Google Scholar.

97. See, by way of comparison to the Pacific Northwest, Shah, Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality and the Law in the American West, 67.

98. These figures are based on press reports and should be regarded with caution. Some cases might not have been reported in the press, and police and court records are not readily available.

99. “European Acquitted on Indecency Charge,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, March 28, 1941, 9; and “European's Alledged Act of Indecency,” The Straits Times, March 27, 1941, 12.

100. “Officer of Military Police Charged,” The Straits Times, April 16, 1941, 12; “Acquittal Ordered in Police Court Case,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, April 17, 1941, 9; “Indecency Charge Dropped,” Malaya Tribune, July 30, 1941, 3; and Rex v. Captain D.M., Malayan Law Journal 77 (1946).

101. “Soldier Conviceted on Indecency Charge,” The Straits Times, March 7, 1939, 14; and “Soldier Accused of Indecency,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, March 3, 1939, 9.

102. “Gross Indecency Charge,” The Straits Times, June 5, 1939, 12; and “Warning to Seamen by Judge,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, June 6, 1939, 9.

103. See, for example, Wiener, Martin J., An Empire on Trial: Race, Murder, and Justice under British Rule, 1870–1935 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012)Google Scholar, Introduction.

104. Rex V. Captain D.M.

105. Yang Heng-ye, Feiyi shuoshi zhifeng huaan—xingtingwaiji 匪夷所思之風化案——刑庭外記 [A Bizzare Case Involving Public Morality—Notes from Court], Nanyang siang pau 南洋商報, March 25, 1941, 31; and “Alleged Extortion of Money from European,” The Straits Times, July 30, 1941, 11.

106. “Magistrate Imposes Maximum Sentence: Negri Sembilan Malay Who Blackmailed European,” The Straits Times, March 4, 1941, 12.

107. “Whipping and Imprisonment: Tamil Who Posed as ‘Police Informer,’” The Straits Times, March 6, 1941, 12.

108. “Alleged Extortion of Money from European,” The Straits Times, July 30, 1941, 11; and “Blackmailer Sentenced: ‘Vilest of Offences,’ Says Judge,” The Straits Times, July 31, 1940, 11.

109. “Eurasian Sentenced for Blackmailing European ‘Had a Very Bad Criminal Record,’ Says Police,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, March 5, 1941, 7.

110. “Realize I am Willing to Face Anything: Letters of Chinese to European Read During Blackmail Case,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, March 14, 1941, 7

111. “Eurasian Sentenced for Attempted Blackmailing: European Gave $1000 Monthly under Threats,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, March 5, 1941, 7.

112. “Magistrate Imposes Maximum Sentence: Negri Sembilan Malay Who Blackmailed European.”

113. “Paid Out Money to Avoid Exposure: Blackmailed European Gives Evidence Against Tamil,” The Straits Times, March 4, 1941, 11.

114. “Chinese Faces Blackmail Charge at Assizes,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, June 10, 1940, 7.

115. “European's Evidence in Blackmail Case,” The Straits Times, March 1, 1941, 11.

116. “Eurasian Sentenced for Attempted Blackmailing: European Gave $1000 Monthly under Threats.”

117. “Blackmailer Sentenced: ‘Vilest of Offences,’ Says Judge.”

118. “Magistrate Imposes Maximum Sentence: Negri Sembilan Malay Who Blackmailed European.”

119. “Paid Out Money to Avoid Exposure: Blackmailed European Gives Evidence Against Tamil.”

120. See, by way of comparison to England and the United States, McLaren, Angus, Sexual Blackmail: A Modern History (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2002), 144Google Scholar.

121. “Warning to Seamen by Judge,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, June 6, 1939, 9.

122. Rickshaw drivers knew the location of sly brothels and served as an intermediary with potential clients. Warren, James Francis, Rickshaw Coolie: A People's History of Singapore, 1880–1940 (Singapore: National University of Singapore Press, 2003), 164Google Scholar. It appears that their knowledge extended to male as well as female prostitution: in a 1941 case, a rickshaw driver was charged with procuring an act of gross indecency for a British soldier. “Revolting and Disgusting Practices in Singapore,” Malaya Tribune, March 28, 1941, 3.

123. “Vice ‘Problem’ Among Singapore Troops,” Malaya Triune, April 16, 1941, 2.

124. “Officer of Military Police Charged,” The Straits Times, April 16, 1941, 12.

125. “Officer Acquitted in District Court Case,” The Straits Times, April 17, 1941, 12.

126. “Fifteen Months Imprisonment for Gunner,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, May 1, 1941, 7.

127. Other historians have discussed the link between homosexuality and the specter of espionage during the Cold War era, but the Singapore case suggests that this also was a concern in the years preceding World War II. See, for example, Johnson, David K., The Lavender Scare: The Cold War Persecution of Gays and Lesbians in the Federal Government (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2004), ch. 5Google Scholar.

128. “Soldier Arrests Indian Youth,” The Straits Times, April 10, 1941, 11.

129. “Indian Gaoled for Indecency Attempt,” Malaya Tribune, April 10, 1941, 3.

130. “Revolting and Disgusting Practices in Singapore,” Malaya Tribune, March 28, 1941, 3.

131. “‘Abominable Type of Vice’ Rife in Singapore,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, March 28, 1941, 7.

132. “Wu qingnian yaliminya moyu yingbing zuo yongxingai beibu hou pan fakulan liugeyue” 巫青年亞利敏亞墨與英兵作同性愛被捕後判罰苦籃六個月[Malay youth Ali bin Ahmad (translated) had homosexual love with British soldier: Sentenced to six months imprisonment after arrest], Nanyang siang pau 南洋商報, Nanyang siang pau 南洋商報, June 26, 1941, 1

133. “‘Abominable Type of Vice’ Rife in Singapore,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, March 28, 1941, 7; and “Officer Acquitted in District Court Case,” The Straits Times, April 17, 1941, 12.

134. Emma Vickers, Queen and Country: Same-Sex Desire in the British Armed Forces, 1939-45 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013), 108-15.

135. District Courts Martial: Register, Home and Abroad, Army, 1938–1940, WO86/97, TNA.

136. Judge Advocate General's Office: General courts martial registers, abroad, 1917–1943, WO90/9, TNA.

137. Dudley Scott Cave, interview by Lyn E. Smith, July 2, 1996, Reel 2, Audio Recording, Oral History Interviews, Imperial War Museum.

138. Memo by K.W. Blackburne, May 30, 1940, CO850/171/1, TNA.

139. Item 5 Prosecutions: The Malayan “Sexual Perversion” Cases, CO850/171/1, TNA.

140. Letter to W. G. A. Ormsby-Gore, March 24, 1938, CO850/123/2, TNA.

141. Item 5 Prosecutions: The Malayan “Sexual Perversion” Cases, CO850/171/1, TNA; and T. K. Lylod to K. W. Blackburne, May 17, 1940, CO850/171/1, TNA.

142. Memo to Lord Dufferin, March 20, 1939, CO850/123/2, TNA.

143. H.G. to the High Commissioner of the Federated Malay States, March 6, 1938, CO850/123/2, TNA. Emphasis added.

144. Item 5 Prosecutions: The Malayan “Sexual Perversion” Cases, CO850/171/1, TNA.

145. Ibid.

146. Ibid.

147. As one theorist has speculated about Section 377 in colonial India, “It is unclear if, and in what form, the jurisdiction of Section 377 extended (even in theory) to European subjects.” Arondekar, For the Record, 82.

148. Annual Report on the Organization and Administration of the Straits Settlements Police and on the State of Crime, 1937, CO275/149, TNA.

149. Herbert A. McKnight, “Prostitutes in Local Cafes: A Singapore Problem,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, June 6, 1938, 7.

150. Letter from Alison Neilans to S. E. Nicoll Jones, September 24, 1940, Straits Settlements Correspondence, 3AMS/D/40/03, TWL. The Association was founded in the early nineteenth century to promote the abolition of prostitution. Like other social hygiene groups, it focused on female prostitution to the exclusion of male same-sex activity.

151. Letter from S. E. Nicoll Jones to Alison Neilans, November 29, 1940, Straits Settlements Correspondence, 3AMS/D/40/03, TWL.

152. “Allegedly Harboured ‘Wanted’ Man,” The Straits Times, April 29, 1941, 12.

153. “Prison for Indecency,” Malaya Tribune, April 2, 1941, 3.

154. “Tamil Gaoled on Indecency Charged,” Sunday Tribune (Singapore), June 22, 1941, 2.

155. “Eurasian Fined $200 for Indecency,” Malaya Tribune, April 17, 1941, 3.

156. “Indian's Appeal Allowed,” Morning Tribune, September 6, 1940, 6.

157. “Criminal Procedure Code Changes,” The Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, November 29, 1941, 5.

158. In 1913, for example, the chief justice of Bermuda declared that “any criminal case in camera [was] contrary to the principles governing the administration of justice in the British Empire,” after the governor and attorney-general proposed conducting trials for unnatural offences in camera, following several widely publicized cases. Percy Musgrave Cresswell Sheriff to George M. Bullock, January 16, 1913, CO37/252/3, TNA.

159. Lim Meng Suang and Another v. Attorney General, 1 Singapore Law Reports 26 (2015).

160. Ibid.

161. Chauncey, George, “‘What Gay Studies Taught the Court’: The Historians’ Amicus Brief in Lawrence V. Texas,” GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 10 (2004): 509–10CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and “How History Mattered: Sodomy Law and Marriage Reform in the United States,” Public Culture 20 (2008): 27–29.

162. Roy Tan, “Section 377a of the Singapore Penal Code,” The Singapore LGBT Encyclopaedia, http://the-singapore-lgbt-encyclopaedia.wikia.com/wiki/Section_377A_of_the_Singapore_Penal_Code (July 24, 2016); and P. J. Thum and Jun Zubillaga-Pow, “A Short History of Sexuality in Singapore,” The History of Singapore, podcast audio, June 3, 2016, http://thehistoryofsingapore.com/2016/06/03/279/ (last accessed October 18, 2019).