Respecting Our Gay Youths in the Revised Sexuality Education Programme

In an episode of Channel NewsAsia’s Talking Point which aired on 11 July 2012, titled, “Should we promote safe sex along with abstinence?”, Madeline, a mother of two children who is also an educator, phoned in to ask about the revised sexuality education curriculum. She asked, “Homosexuality was not mentioned, so I was wondering will it be included in the new curriculum?”

Liew Wei Li, Director of Student Development Curriculum, had responded that, “We actually teach what homosexuality is as well as the provisions in the law about homosexuality. But more important(ly) than that, we actually get the teachers to teach about gender roles and identity, which I think is very important because students, when they go through puberty, they go through this identity crisis, and they need to find themselves, so it’s a bigger topic rather than just homosexuality itself, and that is relevant to everyone. So, it’s not just sexual orientation. And, in fact, we do teach that they should respect everyone regardless of their sexual orientation, because we want relationships, then, to form, good sound relationships, based on friendships, based on love, based on respect.

She had also further questioned that, “What if my teenagers were to go to school and ask the teacher, “Is it ok if, you know, if I (am) going into these homosexual activities?”

Mohana Eswaran, Head of Department of Pupil Development of RegentSecondary School, responded by saying that, “This is a kind of question that the students will not present in the classroom, so it’s a one-on-one. So, in such a situation, we have to understand where the student’s coming from. Is it seeking knowledge, or is it that the child is already into such… a relationship? And if it is the case, I will probably escalate it up to the counsellor, who is more proficient and professional in dealing with such situations. (These are trained qualified counsellors) that every school has.”

Significant Milestone in Sexuality (and Homosexuality) Education in Singapore Schools

It is a significant milestone for the history of gay people in Singapore that the MOE had taken a more balanced and informed stance towards the education of homosexuality in Singapore.

It is important to look at the development of sexuality education over the years to appreciate the progression in thinking, from one that had prevented our gay youths from being able to access accurate information from a trusted authority to the evolution to today’s stance, where the MOE has recognised a need to provide an informed perspective to our gay youths, so as to educate them on how they can protect themselves and ensure that their health is well-protected.

In 2002, when the MOE released The Growing Years Series for Upper Secondary pupils, to enhance the teaching of sexuality education for “middle adolescents” at the Upper Secondary level, it said that “the Upper Secondary Series promotes sexual abstinence as the best decision young adolescents can make for themselves. It focuses on the importance of and strategies for building healthy relationships with the opposite sex without engaging in pre-marital sexual activity.

In 2009, MOE had said in a media release that it “has examined AWARE’s “Comprehensive Sexuality Education: Basic Instructor Guide”… (and assessed that) in some other aspects, the Guide does not conform to MOE’s guidelines. In particular, some suggested responses in the instructor guide are explicit and inappropriate, and convey messages which could promote homosexuality or suggest approval of pre-marital sex.

MOE had also said in another media release that, “In MOE’s sexuality education programme, homosexuality is covered in one lesson in the lower secondary package. The lesson seeks to inform students of the definition of “homosexual”, and that homosexual acts are illegal under Singapore law. It does not promote homosexuality, but follows social norms of mainstream society.

Thus the MOE had, in the past, framed sexuality education from a solely abstinence approach, and one directed towards “building healthy relationships with the opposite sex without engaging in pre-marital sexual activity,” whilst refraining from providing adequate information for our gay youths.

This is in contrast to the decidedly different stance in the current approach that the MOE has taken.

On the MOE’s website currently, it states that, “Children need to acquire the knowledge, values and habits which will allow them to develop healthy and responsible relationships as they grow up. While parents play the primary role in their children’s sexuality education, schools have a complementary role to play in providing students with objective and reliable information on sexuality as part of a holistic education.

It also further adds that, “Teenage pregnancies and the rates of STIs/HIV indicate that some youths are sexually active and are having unprotected sex.” Thus the MOE recognises the need for more effective preventive educational tools.

In a letter to a query by AWARE, Singapore’s leading gender equality advocacy group, the MOE had stated that, “While abstinence is promoted as the best option for teens, MOE recognises that, beyond knowing how to say no, students need to be taught about the consequences of contracting sexually transmitted infections (STIs/HIV) and teenage pregnancies, and how to prevent them.”

The MOE also wants to emphasise that on the importance of a, “holistic approach… which includes the emotional, social, intellectual and ethical aspects, in addition to the physical aspect of sexuality. The child is always the focus of Sexuality Education, which is anchored on the values of love, respect and responsibility. This approach and emphasis of Sexuality Education has remained unchanged.”

In addition, in the revised sexuality education that will be introduced in schools from 2013, the programme will “now be introduced at Primary 5, or age 11, (instead of the current 13)”. It will also increase the student’s awareness and knowledge of the “modes of protection against infection, specifically abstinence and the correct use of condoms.

Indeed, the MOE has taken a more convincing stance towards developing a more well-rounded and holistic sexuality education for our youths. This new evolved stance is definitely one that is welcomed by gay individuals who would have hoped that the education system would have prepared them, when they were younger, for what they would later on encounter in life, as well as by informed educators who understand the importance of holistic sexuality education, as evidenced by research.

Indeed, the American Psychological Association (APA) had also stated that for young people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual, “The opportunity for students to learn is diminished when they do not feel safe or supported at school. In addition to assault and harassment, gay, lesbian and bisexual students experience high rates of emotional distress, suicide attempts and substance abuse. These factors hinder their emotional and social development, as well as their ability to succeed in school. It is our responsibility to provide accurate and factual information. We believe this publication will be a valuable tool to help educators, administrators and others concerned with caring for America’s students.”

It had also stated that, “Support in the family, at school, and in the broader society helps to reduce risk and encourage healthy development. Youth need caring and support, appropriately high expectations, and the encouragement to participate actively with peers. Lesbian, gay, and bisexual youth who do well despite stress—like all adolescents who do well despite stress—tend to be those who are socially competent, who have good problem-solving skills, who have a sense of autonomy and purpose, and who look forward to the future.”

Growing Wealth of Data that Highlight Urgency of Holistic Sexuality Education to Our Youths and Gay Youths

A look at the STI statistics will show a steady climb in the number of new STI infections among our youths. “For those below 20, the rate (of increases in STI notification rates) is especially alarming, having more than doubled from 61 per 100,000 population in 2000 to 133 in 2008.

In a study conducted by the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health of the National University of Singapore (NUS), it was found that most teenagers in Singapore, “did not know how to use a condom properly.” Also, “Of those who said they used a condom, 42 per cent did not apply it correctly and experienced it slipping out during sex. Another 32 per cent said they experienced condoms breaking during sex. In the report, associate professor Wong Mee Lian, who was in charge of the study, said this is the reason why a sizable number of teenagers who use condoms are nevertheless infected with STDs. She added that 24 per cent of teenagers who used condoms contacted STDs, and the figure for those who do not use condoms is 57 per cent.

In a survey conducted by Fridae.com, a LGBTQ social networking site, it was also found that among men who have sex with men (in Singapore), between 40% to 65% of gay men do not use condoms when engaging in sexual intercourse. The same presentation also shows an increase in the number of STI infections among men who have sex with men over the years.

On top of that, in a survey by Oogachaga, a a counselling and personal development organisation for LGBTQ, with LGBTQ individuals in Singapore, it was found that, “60.2% of the respondents indicated they have had experiences with sexual orientation and/or gender identity-based abuse and discrimination.Individuals who have encountered these forms of abuse and discrimination are also more likely to present with behavioural issues and suicidal ideation.

These statistics clearly show that it is thus of utmost importance for the education of homosexuality to be incorporated within sexuality education in the school curriculum, to protect the overall physical, emotional and psychological health and well-being of our gay youths. 

Acknowledgement of the Protecting of Basic Human Rights of Gay Individuals by Top Government Leaders in Singapore

It is also important to also look at sexuality education, and the progression towards a more balanced approach, as part of a larger societal perspective of the development of equal rights in Singapore.

In 2003, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong had said, in an interview with Times Magazine, that for the issue of homosexuality, “So let it evolve, and in time the population will understand that some people are born that way. We are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me,” he said. He was also quoted as saying that gays will now be allowed to serve in “sensitive positions” in the civil service.”

In 2007, the government had debated on repealing 377A, the archaic law against gay sex. The Ministry of Affairs had then issued an explanatory note which said that, “When it comes to homosexual acts, the issue is whether Singaporeans are ready to change laws to bring them in line with heterosexual acts. Singapore remains, by and large, a conservative society. Many do not tolerate homosexuality, and consider such acts abhorrent and deviant. Many religious groups also do not condone homosexual acts. This is why the Government is neither encouraging nor endorsing a homosexual lifestyle and presenting it as part of the mainstream way of life.”

Prime Minister Lee had also added in his parliamentary speech that, “There are gay bars and clubs. They exist. We know where they are. Everybody knows where they are. They do not have to go underground. We do not harass gays. The Government does not act as moral policemen. And we do not proactively enforce section 377A on them.

Law Minister K Shanmugam had also said in 2009 that, “We have the law. We say it won’t be enforced. Is it totally clear? We, sometimes in these things, have to accept a bit of messiness. And the way the society is going, we don’t think it’s fair for us to prosecute people who say that they are homosexual.

A video was also made by local celebrities in 2007 to support the repeal of 377A:

In his book, “Hard Truths“, Minister Mentor Lee Kuan Yew had explained that 377A wasn’t repealed because, “during the debate on whether the ban against homosexuality should remain in the law books, Christian groups made their disapproval of any lifting of the ban clear.

Mr Lee had also expressed that, “Homosexuality will eventually be accepted. It’s already accepted in China. It’s a matter of time before it’s accepted here.” Mr Lee had then gone on further to share how he thinks that homosexuality is, “not a lifestyle. You can read the books you want, all the articles. There’s a genetic difference, so it’s not a matter of choice. They are born that way and that’s that. So if two men or two women are that way, just leave them alone… Vivian Balakrishnan says it’s not decisively proven. Well, I believe it is. There’s enough evidence that some people are that way and just leave them be.”

Indeed, the APA had stated that even though, “Many think that nature and nurture both play complex roles; most people experience little or no sense of choice about their sexual orientation.

It should also be noted that there are clear health risks associated with the retention of the archaic law. In an article by Action for AIDS, it was found that “The ability of the AIDS Control Program to reduce HIV transmission in MSM is significantly weakened by anti-homosexual laws (and that) former British colonies that have repealed anti-homosexual laws are more successful than Singapore in reducing HIV transmission in MSM and general population.”

The APA had also stated that, “The prejudice and discrimination that people who identify as lesbian, gay, or bisexual regularly experience have been shown to have negative psychological effects… On an individual level, such prejudice and discrimination may also have negative consequences, especially if lesbian, gay, and bisexual people attempt to conceal or deny their sexual orientation. Although many lesbians and gay men learn to cope with the social stigma against homosexuality, this pattern of prejudice can have serious negative effects on health and well-being. Individuals and groups may have the impact of stigma reduced or worsened by other characteristics, such as race, ethnicity, religion, or disability. Some lesbian, gay, and bisexual people may face less of a stigma. For others, race, sex, religion, disability, or other characteristics may exacerbate the negative impact of prejudice and discrimination.”

It has also clearly stated that, “Research has found no inherent association between any of these sexual orientations and psychopathology.”

Providing Holistic Sexuality Education – The Right Way to Go for Our Youths

The MOE needs to be applauded for its move towards providing our youths accurate information and facts to help them be able to make an informed and balanced decision. Our youths, and gay youths in this particular case, do need to be able to grow healthily in an environment that is supportive towards helping them to understand their sexuality, so that they are able to understand how they can make decisions that they can comfortably acknowledge and live with – be it whether they realise that they could be gay, or if it was a period of questioning.

It is, of course important, that the MOE follows through on their current progressive stance, and that they are able to identify a pool of teachers who are able to educate our youths from an impersonal but approachable point of view. It is also important that, in the actual teaching that is conducted to our youths, that our gay or questioning youths do feel that the MOE has indeed developed a curriculum that is able to meet their needs and which can support them in their understanding of themselves. I would be very interested to hear from our gay youths what their experiences were like, after attending this revised curriculum.

It would also be important to ensure that teachers and counsellors are provided adequate training to provide the youth the right support that he would need. As Melissa Tsang, a student, had questioned on Talking Point, “What kind of counselling are you going to give this child? Are you going (give this child) support or are you going to portray homosexuality or transgenderism in the light of deviancy?’ Tsang also pointed out that as homosexual acts are criminalized in Singapore, so teachers cannot inform students of the legal situation without making the student think that homosexuality is criminal.

Liew Wei Li from the Ministry of Education (had) responded: ‘We understand this is quite sensitive, so we actually give you full information about the legal provisions about the homosexual acts. So we don’t criminalize homosexuality at all. (We have to address things like this for their mental and social well-being.) No counsellor will want to make a child feel bad. You want them to have the full information, (and also to have the ability to have that social and mental well-being, so that they are helped through the various decisions that they make. It is not from a point of view that it’s one-sided .”

Indeed, the APA had also stated that, “To date, there has been no scientifically adequate research to show that therapy aimed at changing sexual orientation (sometimes called reparative or conversion therapy) is safe or effective. Furthermore, it seems likely that the promotion of change therapies reinforces stereotypes and contributes to a negative climate for lesbian, gay, and bisexual persons. This appears to be especially likely for lesbian, gay, and bisexual individuals who grow up in more conservative religious settings. Helpful responses of a therapist treating an individual who is troubled about her or his same-sex attractions include helping that person actively cope with social prejudices against homosexuality, successfully resolve issues associated with and resulting from internal conflicts, and actively lead a happy and satisfying life.

In sum, the revisions in approach and programme can only bode well for our educational system, as well as for the overall psychosocial welfare and development of our youths and Singaporeans, when the strongest authority – MOE – in our youth’s lives decide to take a more responsible stance towards their education, based on an evidence-informed perspective that respects our youths’ rights as individuals. This revision can also be seen as part of the overhaul of our educational system towards observing a values-based approach. Mr Heng Swee Keat, Minister for Education, had said at the MOE ExCEL Fest 2012 Awards Ceremony, that, “Nurturing the whole child’ reflects our focus on holistic education, to enable our children to be ready for the future. At the heart of it, education is about developing the whole person. Beyond academic development, we want to help our children acquire sound values and develop character.”

I would like to congratulate the Minister Heng Swee Keat and Minister of State for Health Dr Amy Khor, Chair of the National HIV/AIDS Policy Committee. The ministries that they head have understood the importance of respecting the rights of our youths towards ensuring that their educational meets are met – not only in the academic fields, but also in the area of psychosocial development. Perhaps their roles as parents have also shown them the importance of providing our children a holistic education, as most parents would want and understand.

I hope to continue to see more good work being done from our ministers and the ministries.

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15 thoughts on “Respecting Our Gay Youths in the Revised Sexuality Education Programme

  1. Hi Roy,

    It’s been more than a month since this Talking Point episode was aired and I have to say my impressions of it were less than positive – definitely not as positive as how you’ve chosen to interpret it in this commentary. Maybe there is something to viewing the new MOE guidelines as a tiny, infinitesimal step forward, but nevertheless a step forward. However, I cannot simply ignore how the more unpleasant aspects of this interview represent more of a step backwards in how MOE deals with gay youths – or at best, a strict business as usual maintenance of status quo.

    Fact: when Melissa Tsang challenged Liew Wei Li to clearly define how exactly the counsellor would “help” a student who comes in with questions on homosexuality, the response was not forthcoming. She avoided it completely by emphasising “we give the student ALL the information”. What was more damning was she chose to highlight one of the pieces of information was, “that homosexuality is illegal in Singapore”. When it was quickly pointed out to her that telling a student he is criminal is not exactly “helpful”, that was when she backtracked and repeated her line that this is “not just about sexual orientation”, it’s about “the ability to have that social and mental well-being, so that they are helped through the various decisions that they make. It is not from a point of view that it’s one-sided “. How balanced this counselling is remains to be seen, but I have no high hopes from Liew Wei Li’s contradictory answers.

    Reading between the lines, I’d say that MOE’s new guidelines do not address gay youth’s problems with sexual orientation. Rather, they obfuscate the issue with problems of puberty, growing up, and forming relationships based on mutual trust and respect. In other words, they will play down the gay youth’s problem as a non-problem. How helpful is that? Do you really call this an advance in sexuality education policy?

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