On its website, Singapore’s Ministry of Education says that one of the key messages of its sexuality education curriculum is: “Practise abstinence before marriage, as it is the best protection against sexually transmitted infections (STIs), human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) and unwanted pregnancies.”
Does no one there realise that even after marriage, sex carries the same risks? So why make it sound like sex is so terribly dangerous only to the unmarried? Playing up the risks in such a one-sided way raises a flag of suspicion that some other motive is at work.
No surprise then that there has been much criticism online.
The ministry’s statement was dated 20 June 2012. Link. It seems to be a tweak of an earlier statement.
Adding pungency to the mix was the mention in the same statement that teachers selected to teach the course must “possess values that are aligned with MOE values in Sexuality Education.”
Blogger mrbrown wrote: “So the teachers who teach this course must practise abstinence before marriage too? Would the basic requirement be virginity?” Others asked: How is the Ministry going to check? Is the government going to pry into teachers’ sex lives?
No, no, that’s not what we meant, protested the ministry on its Facebook page. On Wednesday, 4 July 2012, it said “we’ll not be prying into teachers’ personal lives,” and that “When we said the teachers must have ‘mainstream values’, they must know what these values are. . .” – which when you think of it, is another meaningless statement. In effect, it is saying: those who have mainstream values will know they do. Duh? Isn’t it more the case of people who are full of conceit, thinking that they represent everybody else, will assume they hold ‘mainstream’ values?
If you click on the image at left, you’ll see over 30 Facebook comments, nearly all of them taking issue with the ministry’s statement. Kirsten Han asked if these so-called ‘mainstream values “really reflect Singapore as a society?” while Edmund Khor said he could “sense religious interference in our secular education system.”
Sidhena Chen pointed out that abstinence education doesn’t work, and “makes sex out to be this forbidden fruit that will be even more sought after,” providing a link to a study that showed an increasing emphasis on abstinence education to be positively correlated with teenage pregnancy.
Bay Ming Ching wrote: “Isn’t it the duty of the school to teach students critical skills and values so they can make informed judgments by themselves instead of imparting normative standards of behaviour or ‘mainstream values’ as you call it?” thereby pointing out how nonsensical is the ministry’s own claim (in the same 20 June 2012 statement) that its program aimed “to help students make wise, informed and responsible decisions on sexuality matters”.
By now, much else has been said about the issue. I would refer you to two incisive commentaries: Five questions on the MOE’s revised SEd programme by Popagandhi, and Sexuality education in Singapore – whose values are we teaching? by Kirsten Han on Asian Correspondent.
Indeed, there is more than a grain of truth in that. For all the absurdity of the ministry pretending to represent ‘mainstream values’, or the prudishness of its approach, the truly sobering (or shocking, depending on your point of view) thought is that far greater influences are at play.
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But that’s only when it comes to sex. When it comes to attitudes towards gay and transgender people, the damage being done by the ministry is real. The key message, as I understand from unofficial sources familiar with the program, is that homosexuality is illegal. Leashed by this requirement, no teacher is allowed to say anything positive about gay people, or even stand neutral on homosexual feelings.
Unlike the probable ineffectualness of the abstinence message, negativity towards gay people imparted by state edicts will prove stickier. But why?
For the straight teenager, sex is natural to him or her. Regardless of what the ministry wants to impart, he or she will find ways to satisfy curiosity. The more ridiculously out of date the school’s message is, the more the youngster will search for other sources of information.
However, the typical straight teenager will not have the same curiosity about homosexual orientation; he has no personal stake in it. Hence, the negative attitudes imparted by the school are far less likely to be counterbalanced by other sources of information. This especially when Singapore state censors are almost hysterical about cutting out any positive portrayal of gay characters, thus reducing the availability of alternative viewpoints.
And yet, times are a-changing. Besides the fact that Pink Dot (an annual event that promotes acceptance of diverse sexualities) is a continuing success, more and more people are visibly coming out. That said, they are almost all from the West, so in that sense, we’ve still along way to go.
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This last week alone, there were two. CNN news correspondent and TV anchor Anderson Cooper agreed to let Andrew Sullivan publish on his blog The Daily Beast an email the former had written, in which Cooper said “The fact is, I’m gay, always have been, always will be, and I couldn’t be any more happy, comfortable with myself, and proud.”
As a news personality, Cooper is highly visible and his coming out will no doubt make a difference to public attitudes.
To me however, it was no big surprise. I’ve always thought he looked gay; in fact I’ve long allowed the possibility that he was out, except that I hadn’t heard about it.
And yet, however momentous, his coming out might have been trumped by another man’s. This is because Cooper is a journalist, and being well-groomed, articulate and inquisitive somehow fits the current stereotype of a gay man, whereas the other guy who made the news this week challenged preconceptions. He was Frank Ocean, a rap music artist.
Frank who? Yes, that was my reaction too. But apparently, he’s well known and has had several hits.
African-Americans remain the demographic group in the US with the most negative attitudes to homosexuality; African-American males more the females. Rap music, which is associated with youthful African-American identity, is notorious for its use of homophobic (and misogynist) references. Frank Ocean himself is a member of Odd Future, a hip-hop collective that has used the word ‘faggot’ freely in its songs and public-speak.
All this juvenile posturing sometimes obscures real talent, as in Ocean’s Novacane:
But out of the blue, Ocean posted on his tumblr on Wednesday, 4 July 2012, a remarkably touching post about his first love, casually revealing that it was with a young man he spent two summers with beginning at age nineteen. You see in those reminiscing words the timeless beauty of young love, which all of us have experienced: “And on the days we were together, time would glide. Most of the day, I’d see him, and his smile. I’d hear his conversation and his silence. . until it was time to sleep. Sleep I would often share with him.”
Yet he also alludes to the difficulty either of self-acceptance, or of being able to continue the relationship. “For the last year or 3 I’ve screamed at my creator. Screamed at the clouds in the sky. For some explanation. Mercy maybe.”
And yet, Ocean is not the first non-heterosexual in Odd Future. Their producer, Syd tha Kid, is an out lesbian. See the commentary on ThinkProgress Alyssa: Frank Ocean and the Future.
In the light of Ocean’s coming out, another song of his now takes on real poignancy. In Thinking about you, he says “my eyes don’t shed tears but boy, they bawl . . . when I’m thinkin’ ’bout you.”
“Yes, of course I remember, how could I forget? How do you feel? And though you were my first time. . .”
From what I can see on the web, Ocean’s coming out has been relatively well-received. This testifies to a sea change that may be occurring before our very eyes – a tidal shift in the attitudes of the African-American community towards homosexuality. See Obama’s gay marriage support triggers dramatic shift in attitudes among black voters. There was a seismic 54-point shift in Ohio, reported Huffington Post in Ohio’s black voters support same-sex marriage after Obama’s endorsement, poll finds.
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In the light of all this change, it is all the more absurd that our education ministry is furiously pedalling backwards, resisting the new world, and trying to (re)create a utopia only imagined by religious fundamentalists. They are confessing to a paranoid fear of the future. Far from fulfilling their mission of cultivating through our schools an informed, thinking new generation of Singaporeans, they are screaming “abstinence” – not just from sex, but from knowledge, understanding and intelligent inquiry.