By James Pomfret and Elaine Lies
HONG KONG/TOKYO (Reuters) – In Hong Kong’s highest court, five judges are deliberating whether to recognise same-sex marriages conducted overseas.
Their decision, expected later this year, could influence Asian financial hubs from Tokyo to Singapore to draft more inclusive laws as a drawcard for the diverse, global talent that multinational corporations from banks to technology giants are seeking to hire and retain.
“Corporates have a massive role to play. They still drive the conversation in a lot of these countries where the legislators aren’t,” said Janet Ledger, chief executive of Community Business, a not-for-profit organisation that promotes diversity and inclusion in companies across Asia.
Only Taiwan and Nepal allow same-sex unions in Asia, where largely conservative values still dominate politics and society.
Some countries, however, have recently taken inclusive steps, including India, where the Supreme Court is debating whether to allow same-sex marriage in the world’s most populous nation; South Korea, where lawmakers proposed a same-sex marriage bill in May; and Singapore, which last year scrapped a British colonial era law criminalising sex between men.
In Hong Kong, the five-year legal battle by democracy and LGBTQ rights activist Jimmy Sham for his New York marriage to be recognised at home has helped raise awareness, with a poll this year showing over 60 percent of respondents supported same-sex marriage, almost double the number in 2013.
Hong Kong will also host Asia’s first Gay Games in November, its first major LGBTQ-focused event, and if the Court of Final Appeal rules in Sham’s favour, the city would be the most advanced among its financial hub peers in terms of LGBTQ rights, activists and businesses say.
“Hong Kong has a real opportunity to take the lead here and give a clear message,” said Gigi Chao, the vice chair of listed Hong Kong property firm Cheuk Nang Holdings and a prominent gay rights advocate in Asia.
“I am confident that we will get there in the end,” Chao told Reuters.
Business groups in Hong Kong, Singapore and Japan have become increasingly vocal in making the case that Asia’s leading economies must do more to encourage diversity.
In Japan, the only Group of Seven (G7) nation without legal protection for same-sex unions, corporations are seen as a key driver for change as Tokyo aims to increase its clout as a global financial centre.
“Japan’s recognition of marriage equality would raise its profile in Asia–Pacific,” wrote the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan, whose members include over 600 companies, including nearly 100 Fortune-500 firms across 60 sectors.
“Japan cannot afford to lose talent to their global competitors,” it added in a report published in April.
A poll this year by Kyodo news agency of just over 1,500 people showed that nearly 70 percent supported same-sex marriage.
But Japan’s 126 million population remains largely conservative and many lawmakers, including members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, have opposed such unions, saying they cherish traditional family values.
“For LGBTQ people, Japan is not considered an easy location,” Moriaki Kida, the CEO and chairperson of global consulting firm EY Japan, told Reuters.
“Headquarters must wake up and instil values, purpose and then also their employee policies that are encompassing everywhere around the world,” Kida said.
POLITICS & FINANCE
LGBTQ people also face hurdles in largely conservative South Korea, which Human Rights Watch says lacks legal protections against discrimination based on sexual orientation and gender identity.
Four in 10 South Koreans support legalising same-sex marriage, according to a Gallup poll in May, but any change to the law would need to be approved by the political parties, who are closely allied with conservative religious groups.
“South Korea has always gone through a rapid change and it will continue to. The only obstacle I think is politics,” said Kiyong Shim with Seoul-based Youth LGBTQ organization Dawoom.
While corporates rarely lobby Asian governments directly on LGBTQ rights, activists say they show their support through sponsorship of LGBTQ events and Pride-themed marketing.
In Singapore, the annual Pink Dot gathering for the LGBTQ community and allies was sponsored by 91 companies, though under rules laid down by the government, foreigners can not attend the event and foreign companies can not sponsor the rally.
Foreigners can take part in the commercial Pink Fest event, which this year included a careers fair hosted by WeWork and sponsored by Dyson, Nomura and Standard Chartered Bank.
Singapore is keen to cash in on the so-called “pink dollar”, or the spending power of the LGBTQ community, and since the government scrapped the law criminalising sex between men, members of community say they feel more confident.
But alongside the decriminalisation of sex between men, the government also amended the constitution so that only parliament can decide on the definition of marriage, effectively rendering court challenges pushing for same-sex marriages futile.
While activists acknowledge that changing traditional values takes time, they say corporates are best placed to influence business-minded governments like that of Singapore.
Kathy Teo of Singapore’s first LGBTQ chamber of commerce, said society as a whole benefits from inclusivity.
“The best talent in the world are not just LGBTQ individuals but they’re also comprised of people and individuals who are actually more progressive,” said Teo, whose “Q Chamber” includes Google, IBM, P&G, and fintech firm Revolut as members.
“Who prefer to live and work in places where diversity, inclusivity and innovation can thrive, as opposed to not.”
(Additional reporting by Jessie Pang and Justin Fung in Hong Kong, Xinghui Kok in Singapore, Hyonhee Shin and Hyunsu Yim in Seoul; Editing by Miral Fahmy)