Roundabout language on homosexuality only sounds suspicious

The above is a segment of a TV production that was broadcast on ChannelNews Asia on Tuesday, 9 July 2012. The “Talking Point” episode was entitled, “Should we promote safe sex along with abstinence?” This segment however is about homosexuality.

The three participants speaking are a curriculum director from the Ministry of Education, a pupil development specialist from a secondary school and a student. It begins with someone calling in with a question.

Coloured boxes contain my comments.

Here’s a transcript:

Presenter: Madeline (spelling?) is joining us, who I understand is a teacher as well. Madeline, hello?

Madeline: Hi,

Presenter: Hi, as an educator, Madeline, what do you believe?

Madeline: Erm, my question is because earlier I saw this ah 2013 curriculum, so homosexuality was not mention, so I was wondering, er, were it be included in the new curriculum?

She’s a teacher? Her standard of spoken English makes me worry about the state of our schools.

Presenter: Okay, Madeline, I must ask you, are you involved in teaching sexuality education?

Madeline: No.

Presenter: No, okay. Now let’s address your point to, er,  Wei Li maybe. Wei Li, will homosexuality be included in the 2013 curriculum? Madeline, stay with us, we’ll going to get your question answered right now.

Liew Wei Li, Director, Student Development Curriculum, Ministry of Education: Yes, we actually teach what homosexuality is, as well as the provisions in the law about homosexuality.

Straight off the bat, she nails in the fact that the law criminalises homosexuality. This strongly suggests that the curriculum will require the same opening from all teachers.

Wei Li, continuing: But More important than that, we actually er gather 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, er, identity crisis, and they need to find themselves. So it’s a bigger topic rather than just homosexuality itself, and that, that is relevant to everyone.

Seriously? Do most students go through identity crises? And the stress on gender roles is precisely what education should not be about. To valorise gender roles is to demand conformity with heterosexist and patriarchal structures, which intrinsically devalues non-heterosexual and transgendered people. And women generally.

Wei Li, continuing: So its not just sexual orientation. And in fact we that do teach, er, that they should respect everyone regardless of their sexual orientation. Because er, er, we want relationshoips then to form good sound relationships based on friendships, based on love, based on respect. Yah, that’s why . .

Presenter: Madeline, does that answer your question as to whether or not this will be included?

Madeline: Erm, right. Er, can I ask one more question?

Presenter: Yes, go ahead, quickly.

Madeline: Er, yes.  Okay. The other thing is because I have teenagers chirren at home, what if my teeangers were to go to school and ask the teacher erm, is it okay, er, you know,  if I, er, is going into this homosexually, er, activities?

Presenter: Okay, thanks Madeline. Maybe I’ll ask Mohana that point. Mohana, I would imagine that if somebody brought this up, came up to their teacher and asked this, it might be on a one-on-one situation perhaps? Er, how would the teacher deal with this?

Mohana Eswaran, Head of Department, Pupil Development, Regent Secondary School: Okay, I mean, er, this is the kind of question that the student would not present in a classroom, so it’s a one-on-one. So, er, in such a situation, you know, 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, you know, a relationship? And if it’s the case, then I would probably escalate it up to the counsellor who is more er proficient and professional in dealing with such situations. So do we . . .

Presenter: Just to clarify with our parents, these are trained qualified counsellors that every school has . .

Mohana: Every school has.

Presenter: Mm, hm . . .

Another presenter: And it looks like you have something to add. . .

Melissa Tsang, Student:  I, I’m not so sure about what you mean by giving the child help if the child comes to you and erm, and ask about homosexuality. Whether or not he or she wants to know more about homosexuality or, or if he or she identifies as, as gay, lesbian, bi, or transgender. How are you going to help this child? What, what kind of counselling are you going to give to this child? Are you going to give this child support, or, or are you going to, or are you going, are you going to portray homosexuality or transgenderism, erm,  in the light of deviancy, ya, because you say that you are going to educate children, children and teenagers about the legal provisions in Singapore about homosexuality, but you have to note that in Singapore the legal provisions about homosexuality is to criminalise homosexuality and to wrap, to wrap it simply as just homosexual acts — it’s an act of gross in, indecency …

She knows more, and has a clearer mind than the Ministry official.

Presenter: Yes, you’re referring to certain aspects of the Penal Code, I do understand. Wei Li …

Melissa: Which I feel is not fair.

Presenter: … what do you say to that, I mean, a young person might not want to feel that when they take this step of asking for advice that they would get a response that would be in line perhaps with what they feel is a negative impression.

Wei Li: We understand that this is quite sensitive. So, we actually give you full information about the, the legal provisions about the homosexual acts. So we don’t criminalise er homosexuality at all.

There she goes again — opening an answer by spotlighting the law. And this disingenuous attempt to say “we don’t criminalise homosexuality at all” is squirming around, trying to have it both ways. The substantive fact is that having such a law on the books grotesquely changes the climate and legitimises a cascade of discriminatory actions and policies.

Presenter: Is that the starting point? Because if it is the starting point,

Wei Li: yes…

Present:  …like Melissa says,

Wei Li: Oh no, no. That’s why I tell you that it is er, actually, er,  in the larger area of gender and roles and sexual identity and, er, the terms, what they mean, and the various terms . . . because some of the students are actually ignorant of the terms, so we have to start from some of the basics. I think where Melissa comes from is, er, she is an older teen, whereas, er, when we start from Secondary One and Two, er they really are exploring their own roles. I have a crush on somebody of my own sex; is that, am I homosexual? And we have to address things like this for their mental and social well-being.

She never quite gets around to answering the question about the curriculum framing the issue as deviancy. In fact, you see an attempt to change the focus, to use roundabout language.

Presenter: Mm hm

Wei Li: And no counsellor will want to make a child feel bad. The idea is er you would want them to be, er, to have the full information and also to have the the ability to have that social and mental well-being , er, so they er they are helped through the various decisions that they make. Er. It is not from, er, point of view that is one-sided.

The issue is: what is the stance? How are students helped? The mention of “social and mental well-being” raises more questions. Do teachers and counsellors adopt the view that being gay, bi or transgender is not consistent with well-being? And therefore in the interest of well-being, students must be urged to hate their true selves and try to act straight? Why is it so hard to come right out and say it’s OK to be gay, and that that is the fundamental message?

* * * * *

On a slightly related note, here’s the latest from Frank Ocean, the rapper and singer whom I mentioned in the earlier post The Ministry of Education and the abstinence from intelligence. The song’s called Bad religion. And it’s beautiful.

(if the above video link doesn’t work, try

24 Responses to “Roundabout language on homosexuality only sounds suspicious”

  1. 1 Education? 12 July 2012 at 07:08

    Wei Lee is well trained by PAP,they are of the same mold,I wouldn’t be surprised if Liew Wei Li, Director, Student Development Curriculum, Ministry of Education is related to some PAP big names.

  2. 2 ricardo 12 July 2012 at 10:09

    Mr. Au, the language isn’t suspicious or roundabout at all! Consider ..

    Mohana, “.. escalate it up .. ”

    The student who TRUSTS the teacher sufficiently to bring up this sensitive issue will surely appreciate this.

    Liew, “.. the starting point is .. full information about the legal provisions .. ” which immediately segues into, ” so we don’t criminalise homosexuality at all.”

    Perfect example of Doublethink. The Ministries of Truth & Love will be proud.

  3. 3 Anon 5s7t 12 July 2012 at 10:12

    I saw the programme and was quite shocked. The student in the programme is really conveying the state of things out there and the authorities are simply ignoring certain issues. As a parent of a young son, I want to give my child full information and guide him to make his own choices. And seriously, abstinence does not work in this day and age.

  4. 4 SN 12 July 2012 at 11:59

    “She’s a teacher? Her standard of spoken English makes me worry about the state of our schools.”

    Sorry for going off-topic.

    I was struck by the same thought, but the generous side of me is hoping that she might just be a superb second-language teacher or something.

  5. 5 Duh 12 July 2012 at 13:30

    Mr Au, representatives of the MOE are not wrong in pointing out the legal status of homosexuality in Singapore. In fact, as an educator, the provision of accurate information is a duty. I am not for the criminalisation of homosexuality but it is the Ministry of Law we need to have amend this Code and not MOE. MOE is simply representing the stance of the nation’s laws in education. It would be odd if MOL says one thing and MOE contradicts it with another. I would agree that Wei Li could had made clear personal and official statements on this matter (i.e., personally I don’t agree with this but alas, this is the legal status of it at the moment).

    • 6 Poker Player 12 July 2012 at 15:25

      I can only smile when you complete the story in a roomful or smart mischievous young people. What’s the rest of the story?

      The law is there but we won’t prosecute.

      The kids are going to have a blast.

  6. 8 Rabbit 12 July 2012 at 15:55

    As usual, having officials the like of speaking in PAP tongue is to be expected from the talk show. Mostly, they will sound too patronizing and over careful use of words tend to confuse and complicate a simple question that was made.

    What happened behind closed door during counseling? No one can guess whether there will be a shown of respect, intimidation through use of penal code or other unflattering adjectives to get their message across to a gay boy. Will there be a fundamentalist person presence among the counselors to give wrong opinion to a child too? The intended school curriculum was made clear from her – student must know their gender role to prevent identity crisis. It very much sound like a choice can be made with the help from school. Students are not naturally borned to know their identity – male or female. This very much in line with certain Christian group who think gay is an option, a choice and gay people are confused.

    She said gay student must know the provision of law S377A (criminalizing homosexuality) and was quick to add (to our confusion) that they don’t criminalize homosexual. Wei Li unintelligent flip-flop is an insult to educators, the rest of her speeches were just as irrelevant to kill airtime. Singapore need a huge revamp beyond just sexual curriculum, the teachers need to have their intelligence examined too, at least to understand some of those penal codes before they try to act smart.

    • 9 flyingbobo 15 July 2012 at 00:06

      Ur comments are really convoluted. Ill hope to discuss the points i could discern.

      There are good reasons for civil servants to be careful with their words. Ultimately they are agents of their employer and can pass on liability to and bind their employers – the government.

      Director SDC is in a difficult position. the law criminalises homosexual acts, representing parliaments intention to discourage such acts. Regardless of her personal views, her position cannot be antithetical to this. She can either 1) avoid discussing whether counsellors would dissuade homosexual acts or 2) state that counsellors would discourage being a homosexual and engaging in such acts or 3)that all relevant information would be given for students to make sense of their sexuality (so neutral position on sexuality) but discourage male students from engaging in homosexual acts and maintain neutrality on lesbian acts (since 377A only applies to males). Any one of these possible alternatives would not satisfy many of the commentators on this page. I think its unreasonable to call her unintelligent. No civil servant, however brilliant, could have answered that question without stepping on a few toes. I recognised, only as i am reviewing several prior posts now, that this is an extension of Duh’s point. The real issue u people have is with 377A, not with Director SDC. U that have to re examine ur criticism “before u act smart”.

      • 10 flyingbobo 15 July 2012 at 00:23

        Alex suggests that melissa knows more and has a clearer mind. I think this is misconceived. It is, as i have shown, impossible to come up with a straight forward answer that doesnt either discourage homosexuality or gay acts. Director SDC’s answer should not be taken as an indication of ignorance or failure to understand or deal with the question. In any case, Melissa wouldn’t, in fact can’t, fare any better in the directors shoes.

      • 11 Poker Player 15 July 2012 at 11:02

        “I think its unreasonable to call her unintelligent. No civil servant, however brilliant, could have answered that question without stepping on a few toes. ”

        Dilemma. Unintelligent comments come from unintelligent sources. These unintelligent comments impact lives. What discourages unintelligent comments is the unpleasantness of being called unintelligent. A salutary effect of calling “DIrector SDC” unintelligent is that this mechanism still imposes costs on making unintelligent comments – albeit indirectly.

        And most importantly, she is not a captured NATO/USAF pilot forced to mouth propaganda – him we can excuse.

  7. 12 Ian 12 July 2012 at 22:03

    If gender roles is a set of social and behavioural norm. How can the majority get an identity crisis due to confusion over their gender roles? Hearing her talk about gender roles and identity crisis gives even more reasons to start proper education on sexuality, gender identity and get rid of this gender role bravo sierra as well as S377A, the oxymoronic unenforced law.

    P.S. Don’t flame me, for i am asking this question in peace. I just want to know how do you connect MSM to homosexuality?(rational point of view please, not those ‘gays have sex with men’.)


  8. 13 Shu 12 July 2012 at 22:42

    Slightly puzzled over your choice of transcription – Verbatim transcription of ‘er’s’ and ‘uh’s’ and ‘chirren’, while adds a lot of flavour, does it contribute more to the discussion?

    A hem-haw question begets a roundabout answer. Someone needed to ask the panelists directly, “So if I asked a teacher, ‘I think I’m gay. Is that wrong? What can I do?’ what that teacher’s response would be in lieu of the new curriculum.

    While the gradual permitting of the topic of homosexuality is heartening, I think it’s still an uphill struggle for any student to discuss or explore the issue when the classroom climate still engages in “ah gua” name-calling. If Singapore were to move ahead in this aspect of rights, it has to begin from the basic de-stigmatisation of “ah gua’s”, butches and dykes, etc. at the individual student’s level. Too often a slur is thrown around, further affirming the wrongness of homosexuality.

    Also, that Madeline person sounds like a math teacher I had. Teach maths England so powderful for what?

    • 14 yawningbread 12 July 2012 at 23:31

      There are different ways of transcribing, which may be quite valid. I chose a standard that if an actors read it back, it would approach – be faithful to – what was actually said.

  9. 15 Jack 13 July 2012 at 07:21

    I like your way of transcribing for it actually reveal wayang,thanks

  10. 16 The 13 July 2012 at 13:14

    The teacher on the phone and those on the panel should take lessons from the student on sex and sexuality education.

  11. 17 LT 14 July 2012 at 22:29

    I read your transcripts twice before I can fully understand what Wei Li is trying to say and indeed in that roundabout way, she who spoke the most actually does not answer the question at all. Back to square one, I would say, if I am the student.

    I watched the video and I have to say, Alex, you did a great job in transcribing, it is true to the Er and erms and if I were to watch the program live, I would’ve been equally bewildered by Wei Li’s contradicting statements.

    She is obviously discriminating and yet affirms in the next sentence that the view is not one sided. Huh??!!

    The presenter should have caught that.

  12. 18 Anon D2p9 17 July 2012 at 18:30

    Wei Li is just trying to keep her job.

  13. 19 Tyn 20 July 2012 at 21:42

    It’s sad when self censorship and government censorship turns perfectly coherent and perhaps even moral people into a mess of unintelligible answers.

  14. 20 Tyn 20 July 2012 at 21:46

    One answer a teacher or official could have used is that their duty to care for and educate a student meant that they would counsel him to address whatever problems he/she was facing, and to understand how they viewed their sexuality. Why the need to bring the law into it? A crutch perhaps, for people who have no opinion? Or worse, negative opinions?

  15. 21 Tyn 20 July 2012 at 21:47

    I mean, to understand if he/she was being bullied, or troubled etc, and needed information and comfort

  16. 22 whyigiveup 23 July 2012 at 17:14

    There’s one other part of the interview that made me snort into my kopi.

    “Presenter: Just to clarify with our parents, these are trained qualified counsellors that every school has . .

    Mohana: Every school has.

    Presenter: Mm, hm . . .”

    Mohana’s manner could not have been more smug. She made it sound as though just placing a “trained qualified counsellor” in every school was a staggering achievement, unheard of in the history of the universe. Indeed if MOE is that proud of its seemingly ubiquitous counsellors, why is it that they were conspicuously ABSENT in this interview? An interview above-all, that logically should give some focus on the counsellors who are going to deliver the new programme. The closest we have to a counsellor here, is a pupil development specialist – who correct me if I am wrong – is not the same as a counsellor. Perhaps even MOE is unsure of how its counsellors would perform on national television – that would suggest a disconnect between MOE’s thought leadership and what’s happening on the ground in schools. It would not be the first time. Remember the AWARE Saga of 2009 and how the sexuality education programme was dragged into focus? How MOE was strait-jacketed into halting the programme for its “undesirable” elements?

    This interview really made me cringe with shame (the smart kid aside). If any foreign social / school counsellor saw it, what would they think of our counselling programme? The mental well being of our kids? The whole rigmarole calls into question the mental health of the 3 “experts”. All the “errrs” and “erms”, unceasing evasive non-answers demonstrate an astonishing ignorance or at best intellectual cowardice at the highest levels of our education system.

    As you pointed out rightly, the one shining moment was Melissa Tsang’s sharp queries that exposed the glaring inconsistencies, and brought some sanity back to the discussion.

    Oh and the presenter’s “Mm, hm…” trailing off delicately left noone in doubt that he’s unconvinced of Mohana’s claims. ANY journalist worth his salt would have pursued this matter doggedly to dig out the truth. Instead, all we had was a turn to another topic. This is what passes for Singaporean journalist integrity.

  17. 23 Glenda 28 July 2012 at 05:10

    I have to wonder how the counselors are trained. Have Eswaran and Liew research much in to sex education and sexual orientation? Gender studies is one thing. Sexuality is another. Sexual orientation is another. Also, homosexual acts and homosexuality is not the same.

  18. 24 Sean 28 August 2012 at 17:40

    I am glad the student was there, to offer her very contemporary, and frankly, the most pertinent opinions on the issue, being of closest age to those who will be affected by sex education. Her stance is clear, as it stands the counsel can go either one of two ways: support, or condemnation. There is no grey area that hints at’ yes, technically it is illegal, but you can strive to be a sexual guerrilla and build up your confidence and convictions as a person from there’. Actually I think if a teenager were to ask me for my opinion, that would be my reply – think of yourselves in a similar light to the suffragettes, rosa parks, unafraid to fight against something that is archaic and irrelevant to our culture. Of course, that would never be the stance of any ministry official.

    Also, the bringing in of gender roles further confuses the issue of sex – I always thought that such notions of identity were already rather cemented in our culture through adolescence, whether that may be a good or bad thing. Homosexuality has nothing to do with it – there are gay boys who play rugby, and there are straight boys who like to cross dress. If gender roles have to be brought into the picture, the only way they can help is by dispelling any stereotypes of what gay people might be. Unless, of course, they are going to openly discuss how the sexual dynamic of passive and active should not be defined by gender, and girls should never subjugate themselves to male whims, while men should always respect the female body. All this seems a bit too explicit and sensitive for our schools though.

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