If there was any breath of fresh air in the news last week, it was the attitude of Alvin Tan Jye Yee. In a week dominated by Deputy Prime Minister Yeo Chee Hean trying drearily to spin his arm-twisting of the Catholic archbishop into a friendly chat, and the tabling of a data privacy bill before parliament that completely exempted government agencies from its scope, it was wonderful to see a young man stand up against convention.
As most readers will know by now, the law student at the National University of Singapore (NUS) had uploaded onto his blog sexually explicit photos and videos of himself and his girlfriend Vivian Lee (some however have said she is not his steady girlfriend, but this is not a material point). When he posted on an online forum a link to his blog, he became the sensation of the week.
All sorts of self-important people wagged their fingers and weighed in, warning about him being exposed (no pun intended) to prosecution for this and that. The only thing that may save Alvin is that he was in his home country Malaysia when the controversy erupted, making it unclear whether the uploading had been done within Singapore or Malaysian jurisdiction.
The sorriest spectacle, however, is that of NUS now trying to hang him. The university has served him notice of a Board of Discipline inquiry, scheduled for 31 October 2012, for possible “offensive behaviour”, as can be seen from this formal statement given by NUS to the media:
All NUS students are expected to conduct themselves in a responsible manner and should not be associated with offensive behaviour. Any student found in breach of the University’s Code of Student Conduct will be disciplined.
The University does not condone posting of offensive content online by any member of the NUS community. The student concerned is with the NUS Faculty of Law and he is on an ASEAN Undergraduate Scholarship. He is currently on Leave of Absence and is not receiving scholarship funds. The student concerned has been served a notice of Board of Discipline (BOD) inquiry. The BOD will look into the matter and take appropriate disciplinary actions. The student concerned has also been advised to take down the offensive posts.
NUS adopts a rigorous process in the selection of scholarship recipients and scholars are selected based on their academic achievements and personal accomplishments. The University takes a serious view of the conduct of the student concerned. However, this is not a reflection of all our scholars, most of whom are accomplished students making a meaningful contribution to the NUS community.
I think Alvin is single-handedly making a meaningful contribution and not just to the NUS community. He is demonstrating spunk and courage. By challenging musty conventions of behaviour, he is broadening people’s horizons. He is refusing to be boxed in — the very quality that has been essential for any kind of human progress. By punishing him and what he represents, NUS does Singapore and the world no favours.
Alvin and Vivian released a new video on YouTube on 17 October 2012, in which they said: “What do we have to apologise for? For hurting your soft sensitive feelings? For what? For I don’t know, breaching some moral code that you hold dearly to yourself but I don’t necessarily hold them myself? So we will not make a public apology,” he said.
Indeed, NUS should stop trying to impose its notion of shame on others.
See also this interview they did:
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Alvin’s story reminded me of a similar story from fifteen years ago. It’s one of the earliest articles on Yawning Bread, first written in 1997, but polished in 2004.
It’s about a teenager who proudly declared on his personal webpage that he was gay. His school was upset, accusing him of damaging the school’s reputation.
I hope today we would call such a reaction ridiculous. How can a school pretend that none of its students is gay? How can a school think that its reputation would be sullied the moment one of its boys come out as gay? What right has the school to punish someone for simply announcing his sexual orientation?
The same thing is happening with Alvin and NUS. What does Alvin being nude or sexual have to do with NUS? What right does NUS have to write such controls into its code?
Here is the story from 1997:
Jovan and his school
The homepage in question belonged to a 16-year-old named Jovan. The untypical thing about his page was that he declared on it that he was gay. You have to remember this was 1996, the early days of the internet in Singapore, and when being gay was still unspeakable. Moreover, he even had his photograph on it. Not many gay Singaporeans even today, would do something like that.
But in other ways, his homepage was quite typical. Like so many teenagers proud of their schools or colleges, Jovan said on his homepage that he was a student at St Andrew’s Secondary School.
This conjunction of “gay” and “St Andrew’s” was the spark and fuel for the events that followed.
After the O-level examinations, the students were told they could come back to the school on 30 Nov 1996 to collect their School Leaving Certificates and testimonials.
In Jovan’s case, however, the school telephoned his mother a few days prior to that, informing her of their objections to his homepage, adding that the Singapore Broadcasting Authority (SBA) — the body then in charge of censoring the internet — had been informed and they were going to “take action” against her son. There was also some mention about a legal suit for defamation.
Sensible people like you and I will wonder what grounds the school would have for even thinking they were defamed, but this story isn’t about sensible people. This story is about people whose ideas about right, wrong and morality they have never seriously questioned in their lives. It’s about the total inability to think rationally once anything “gay” comes into the picture. It’s about the electric storms in people’s brains as the word “gay” sets off a chain reaction of sex, sin, sodomy, perversion, contagion and damnation. To them the idea of homosexuality is so abominable that (a) there is no need to acquaint oneself with any facts about the subject and (b) one can take unrestrained action to combat it.
To come back to the tale, the mother had not known about Jovan’s homepage, though she had known he was gay. Still, the phone call and the school’s threat of public ignominy sent her ballistic. Jovan immediately took down his homepage.
So, by Nov 30, when Jovan went to his school to collect his papers, the homepage had already been removed, but the teacher in charge still withheld his papers. The reason given to him was that the principal was still on leave, and they had to consult her before letting him out of purgatory.
Like most stubborn 16 year-olds. Jovan refused to go back to collect his documents even when the principal had returned from leave. His father went in his stead. Mother was still ballistic. Fathers will understand the feeling.
The documents were given to his father in a sealed envelope, which according to Jovan, was unusual, as the other boys had got theirs unsealed. On stepping out of the principal’s office, the father opened the envelope, and saw that the testimonial read “… poor conduct; very inconsistent and poor performance…”
Now he went ballistic and turned back to confront the Principal. On the spot she prepared another testimonial, this time saying, “quiet and well-behaved boy.” So much for the value of such credentials called School Testimonials.
By now, the son’s homepage was no longer the issue. In the parents’ eyes, as in most ordinary sensible folks’, the outrageous stance of the school was.
Mother wrote a complaint to the Ministry of Education.
Jovan went further. He contacted the New Paper, and that’s how the story appeared on 21 December 1996.
The New Paper contacted the SBA for their side of the story, and their response was that — forgive the bureaucratese here — they acted on public complaints and referred cases to the relevant agencies. In this case, they “advised the school to take it up directly with the student.”
But was it the SBA who first noticed Jovan’s homepage and reported it to his school? The SBA protested their innocence: they did not monitor personal homepages on the internet.
From what I had heard about the inner workings of the SBA, that was almost surely true. They never had anywhere near the necessary resources to monitor homepages, nor much inclination to do so.
To this day, it’s still a mystery how the school first came to know of Jovan’s homepage.
The newspaper also asked the school for a comment. St Andrew’s said they were “just being cautious, so we could call the boy back to talk to him, or for counselling”.
Excrement of male cattle! The family didn’t perceive the phone call as concerned advice, but more like an ultimatum — remove your homepage from the net or I’ll hold your papers to ransom.
And the tired bit about counselling? We hear it all the time from people who don’t know the first thing about homosexuality. How many times do we have to say it? That homosexual orientation isn’t a behavioural perversion; it’s a pretty normal form of sexuality. There’s nothing to counsel.
Two months on, the family had received no response from the Ministry of Education about their complaint. Nor had the SBA contacted them.
But the last word should belong to Jovan, who told the New Paper, “All I wanted to do was to make a statement that I’m proud of who and what I am.”