UPROAR OVER RELATIONSHIP WORKSHOP

Relationship workshop: Controversial course to end by December

Pictures of pages from a booklet which was given out at a workshop run by Focus On The Family Singapore. -- PHOTO: AGATHA TAN/FACEBOOK
Pictures of pages from a booklet which was given out at a workshop run by Focus On The Family Singapore. -- PHOTO: AGATHA TAN/FACEBOOK

300 sign petition slamming 'portrayal of gender stereotypes'

A workshop on managing relationships for junior college students, which has been under mounting criticism this week for being sexist and promoting gender stereotypes, will stop by the end of the year.

The Education Ministry, responding to queries from The Straits Times, said that the workshop, given by pro-family Christian charity Focus on the Family Singapore, would "cease its run by end-2014", without giving reasons.

The revelation came even as more than 300 people saying they were former Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) students signed a petition calling for the workshop to be cancelled there.

This comes on the heels of Hwa Chong student Agatha Tan's open letter to her principal criticising it, which has gone viral on social media.

Since 2009, the 31/2-hour workshop, which was developed with the Social Development Network, was an opt-out course for students in junior colleges which engage the charity.

Agatha, 17, a first-year student, took issue with a booklet the workshop facilitators handed out to students, which had statements like, "Even decent guys in great dating and marriage relationships struggle with a desire to visually linger on and fantasise about the female body".

The booklet portrayed girls as "emotional", "wanting security" and needing to "look attractive", while boys "needed respect" and "didn't want a girlfriend that questions their opinions and argues with their decisions all the time".

"From merely glancing through this booklet, I learnt a simple yet important lesson: That bigotry is very much alive and it was naive of me to think I could be safe from it even in school," she wrote in the letter, which has been shared more than 2,000 times since she made it public on Tuesday.

The petition was started yesterday by software engineer Irene Oh, 31, who graduated from HCI's predecessor, Hwa Chong Junior College, in 2001.

Along with a few former students, she wrote an open letter addressed to all HCI teachers and its principal, Dr Hon Chiew Weng.

"We need the assurance that our young people can be safe from such sexism," they wrote."

Ms Oh said she felt compelled to speak up because the programme "perpetuates unhealthy myths about genders and is definitely not about 'truths of love and dating' as claimed".

The Straits Times spoke to 10 HCI students who had attended the workshop. Most said they disagreed with what had been said.

Said one student, who would not give her name: "The course portrayed women as weak and needing to be protected. That is ridiculous. I think it reinforces stereotypes. Such courses are part of the reason guys misunderstand girls."

A fellow schoolmate added: "I became a little uncomfortable when (the facilitator) started stereotyping what guys and girls are like."

Other students, however, had no problems with it.

A second-year Tampines Junior College student, 18, who attended it last year, said she thought it was "quite fun and entertaining".

"I remember the speakers were a couple, and they shared their personal stories, videos and pictures of their life as a couple," she said.

HCI principal, Dr Hon, has apparently yet to address the school about the matter.

But HCI told The Straits Times that its students had been given details of the workshop, and had the choice of opting out.

Focus on the Family Singapore is an external vendor approved by the Ministry of Education (MOE) to run sexuality education workshops in schools.

In this case, however, the course was about healthy relationships, not sexuality education.

Instead, the charity had been appointed by the Ministry of Social and Family Development, MOE clarified.

Both the ministries and the school are looking into the feedback received.

Focus on the Family declined to give details on the number of schools it has worked at.

The organisation said on Tuesday that the programme aims to "help young people unravel the world of the opposite sex, uncover the truths of love and dating, and reveal what it takes to have healthy and meaningful relationships".

leepearl@sph.com.sg

ameltan@sph.com.sg