Sex ed after repeal: MPs, advocacy groups want comprehensive, evidence-based info on LGBTQ issues

Sexuality education falls under MOE’s Character and Citizenship Education syllabus, which was refreshed in 2021. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE – Sex education in national schools has moved in and out of the spotlight over the years each time there was concern that what is taught may not have kept up with the reality of students’ experiences.

The debate in Parliament on repealing Section 377A of the Penal Code criminalising gay sex in November saw several MPs raise the issue once more.

Nominated MP Tan Yia Swam urged the Ministry of Education (MOE) to review sex education to ensure it is based on science and facts and to clearly state controversial opinions and trends.

She said this would be a guide for parents to use in their own conversations at home with their growing children.

She also called on parents – who like her may have grown up without any knowledge of terms surrounding lesbian, gay, bisexual, transexual and queer (LGBTQ) issues – to take the initiative to find out.

She said: “Let us educate ourselves: What is hetero, homo, pan or asexual? What is trans or cisgender? What is sexual orientation versus gender identity? Only then are we equipped to guide our children as they grow and explore.”

Dr Tan, a surgeon, told The Sunday Times that the modern world inundates adults and children alike with complex images and information regarding sex and sexuality.

She said: “We are bombarded by social media, entertainment with images depicting half nudity, heavy makeup, sexual content, swear words and foul language.

“I cannot wrap my children up and pretend none of these exists. Better for us to acknowledge these, and place things in context.”

Other MPs such as Janet Ang, Mohd Fahmi Aliman, Henry Kwek, Mark Chay and Lim Biow Chuan also asked a slew of questions on sexuality education in public and private schools and the madrasahs, and the norms in international schools.

In response to Dr Tan, Minister for Social and Family Development Masagos Zulkifli said Singapore’s education policies and curriculum remain anchored on Singapore’s prevailing family values and social norms, which most Singaporeans want to uphold. These include the family as the cornerstone of the social fabric, and marriage being between a man and a woman, he said.

He noted the sexuality education curriculum in MOE schools respects the primary role of parents and reflects the national posture on the heterosexual family as the basic unit of society.

“The curriculum remains secular and based on research and evidence. It is focused on age appropriateness and the developmental needs of the child when touching on topics such as homosexuality,” he said.

What does sex ed in schools look like now?

His words echoed MOE’s position, which was stated earlier in the year.

MOE’s website says its sexuality education curriculum covers four main areas: physical changes during sexual maturity, sexual attitudes and feelings towards self and others, sexual norms and behaviour, and the legal, cultural and societal implications and values and moral systems related to sexuality.

Sexuality education, or sex ed, falls under MOE’s Character and Citizenship Education syllabus, which was refreshed in 2021.

The new syllabus states that students in lower secondary – 13- and 14-year-olds – will learn to make wise, responsible and informed decisions on sexuality matters based on accurate, current, and age-appropriate knowledge on human sexuality.

It says: “For example, students learn about consequences of pornography and teenage sexual activity. They are taught the importance of respecting boundaries of self and others in relationships.”

Upper secondary students – usually aged 15, 16 and 17 – learn the importance of respect for self and others, both online and offline, and how they can respect personal boundaries for healthy relationships and safety.

The syllabus also says students learn about the influence and impact of new media on relationships and sexuality.

The syllabus document, which is on MOE’s website, does not explicitly mention LGBT issues, but the website does say elsewhere that sex ed teaches students what homosexuality is and the importance of mutual understanding, respect and empathy for everyone.

Students ST spoke to said the sex ed they received in school mainly focused on how abstinence, or refraining from sexual contact, was the best practice.

Secondary 3 student Shiva Sayshathri Sivasubramaniam, 15, said: “The classes are meant to be about sexuality but I feel the main agenda is to teach us not do ‘it’.”

He said he has had lessons touching on relationships between boys and girls, about sexual assault, and that underage sex is illegal. He also learnt about sexually transmitted infections and diseases, he said.

He said: “I haven’t learnt anything about LGBTQ, intersex or asexual relationships and sexuality. There’s no mention of any LGBTQIA topics in our classes.”

Recent junior college graduate Elijah Wong, 19, said the classes he received from upper primary to the end of JC lacked depth, and any engagement with LGBTQ issues was mostly superficial.

Mr Wong added he was taught that abstinence is the best practice, but this was at odds with what most teenagers and young adults were already doing.

He said: “We probably learn more online than from these classes and hence it somewhat defeats the purpose of having the lessons in the first place.

“You can only expect the youth to turn to online sources for further education and to answer their questions that remain unanswered.”

Is this enough?

Ms Tan Joo Hymn, project director for women’s rights group Aware’s Birds & Bees programme, said the traditionally heteronormative perspective from which the MOE syllabus was designed might be at odds with the spectrum of sexual orientation which occurs in reality.

She said: “For example, the traditional message of ‘abstinence until marriage’ does not really make sense if we consider that gay marriage is not allowed in Singapore – it would seem to condemn gay people to a life of celibacy, which is unfair and unrealistic.”

She added that safe, consensual sex regardless of sexual orientation should be a matter of public health, and that the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware) has observed that many young people in Singapore enter adulthood without having received effective education on this in school.

Ms Tan said: “LGBTQ students need comprehensive sexuality education as much – if not more – than straight and cisgender students, that is, education that covers consent, respect, bodily autonomy, healthy sexual relationships, contraception, as well as affirming, science-based information about gender and sexual orientation.”

She added the need is especially urgent with the repeal of S377A, as Aware anticipates a rise in LGBTQ individuals coming out in schools as well as an anti-gay backlash.

Ms Tan added that schools should explicitly teach students to interrogate the discrimination that LGBTQ persons face in society, and articulate ways to counter that discrimination, by debunking homophobic myths for example.

Mr Alexander Teh, a youth counsellor at non-profit LGBTQ support group Oogachaga, said that it is unclear what evidence supports including “traditional values” in sexuality education.

He added that international evidence shows that when youth sexuality education is comprehensive and evidence-based, it is more likely to produce positive outcomes in adolescence and adulthood.

He said: “This may include understanding that one’s sexual orientation and gender identity cannot be ‘changed’ through external factors.”

He added that many sexually active gay, bisexual and other men who have sex with men being counselled at Oogachaga report that they do not learn about sexual health practices that are relevant to them in school.

He said: “Many remember being told during class that homosexuality is illegal.”

Mr Teh added that lesbian, bisexual and queer young women, as well as transgender youth also report feeling marginalised and ignored during their school sexuality lessons.

He said: “All this unfortunately has the effect of discouraging these youths from prioritising their own sexual health practices, and coupled with the prevalence of homophobia, biphobia and transphobia in wider society, can often lead to internalised shame about themselves and their behaviours.”

But non-traditional experiences or narratives about sex may not be given the time of day in classrooms, as teachers who are nominated as sex ed teachers tend to be heterosexual.

MOE has previously said sexuality education teachers have to be professional and not impose their personal views and beliefs on their students, or advance the interest of any advocacy, political or religious group in school.

A gay teacher who only wanted to be known as Darren said his manager advised him that being openly gay meant he may not be able to teach sexuality education.

Darren, who taught science in a secondary school for five years before moving to MOE headquarters in 2019, said: “She mentioned that they may not want to choose a teacher like (me) because I do not conform to the typical heteronormative narrative that they may want to look for.”

Parents have voiced concerns that an openly gay teacher teaching sex education may be at odds with their families’ values and religious beliefs.

Engineer Muhd Kamil Isyak, 57, said he would be concerned if his child – a girl in junior college – had a gay teacher, and would not want him or her teaching sex ed.

He said: “I am concerned about the promotion of their values and ideas – which are against the teachings of Islam.”

He added that teachers are role models, and is concerned that a gay teacher may try to push an agenda on children that he feels is harmful.

NMP Tan, a mother of two boys, the older of whom is starting upper primary next year, said it is up to parents to educate themselves so that they may guide their children, regardless of their personal stances on LGBT issues.

She said: “Don’t choose to remain ignorant – just learn, and see how you can reconcile what you learn with what you believe. It may not be an easy journey, but I believe it is my duty as a mother and as a doctor to know these.”

She added: “Take the time needed to talk through these, even with conflicts in your religious belief, your cultural upbringing or your family values. Always choose kindness, always choose love.”

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