SINGAPORE - Where there are valid medical grounds, schools can exercise flexibility and work out practical arrangements for students diagnosed with gender dysphoria and undergoing hormone therapy if they face difficulties with certain school rules, Education Minister Lawrence Wong told Parliament on Monday (Feb 1).
In putting in place such arrangements, schools consult and work closely with different stakeholders, including the relevant medical professionals, the students concerned and their parents, he added.
"We have a duty of care to every student," Mr Wong said. "For students with gender dysphoria, our main focus is continuing to provide them with a conducive learning environment and to support their overall well-being. Recognising that the issues are complex, and that there are diverse opinions among students and their parents, we strive to deal with these situations sensitively and with compassion."
"One particularly difficult issue is with school rules," he added, noting that they are in place to help students cultivate self-discipline and a sense of responsibility, but that students with gender dysphoria and undergoing hormone therapy could face difficulties with certain rules.
He was responding to a question from Ms He Ting Ru (Sengkang GRC), who asked about the MOE's policies and guidelines on students with gender dysphoria, and the level of autonomy that schools have in setting policies on these issues, following the case of an 18-year-old transgender student that was in the news over issues she faced at her school.
Mr Wong said that as each student's situation is unique, the matter of what alternative arrangements are put in place have to be dealt with individually.
"Our guiding principles are to treat these students with dignity and respect, and to provide as much support as we can to help them," he said.
He also reiterated that decisions on medical treatment, including the use of hormone replacement therapy, ultimately rest with medical professionals, the persons with gender dysphoria and their family. Parental consent is required before any hormonal treatment can start for those aged below 21.
"Such medical decisions are beyond the purview of MOE or any educational institution," said Mr Wong, adding that MOE's focus is on the school environment and the students involved.
"Schools are a common space for all students, regardless of their backgrounds and circumstances," he said.
In January, an 18-year-old transgender student who had been diagnosed with gender dysphoria claimed that MOE had intervened in her hormone treatment even though she said she had parental consent to seek treatment and an agreement with her doctor that she could start hormone therapy when she turned 18. Gender dysphoria refers to the psychological distress that results from this mismatch between one's sense of self and one's body.
The student, who identifies as a "male-to-female" transgender girl and is in the second year of pre-university education, also said she and her father met the school management last October. She said she was told she would have to cut her hair and wear the boy's uniform or she would not be allowed to return.
MOE has said it had not interfered with the student's hormone treatment, and that MOE and schools work closely with and respect the advice given by healthcare professionals. It also said that medical treatment was a matter for the family to decide on.
MOE and the Institute of Mental Health also said the school is committed to providing support the student needs to graduate, including via home-based learning, though the agencies did not comment on the school's policy on haircuts and uniforms in this case.
Speaking on Monday, Mr Wong also said he recognises how strongly some people feel about the issue, which has sparked substantial debate online.
"We welcome continued dialogue and feedback, and will strive to provide a supportive environment in schools to support our students holistically," he said.
"Issues of gender identity have become bitterly contested sources of division in the culture wars in some Western countries and societies. We should not import these culture wars into Singapore, or allow issues of gender identity to divide our society," he added.
In response to Ms He's query on whether the MOE will consider presenting a public report on matters related to gender dysphoria to Parliament on a regular basis, Mr Wong said MOE has found that family members, especially parents, are "very uncomfortable" with a public airing of their situation in such cases.
Their requests for privacy should be respected, and the Government should avoid putting out information that will compromise any student or family confidentiality, he added.
"Let us give the students and their families time and space to resolve matters among themselves, in consultation with their doctors and counsellors," he said.
In response to questions from Ms He and Mr Leon Perera (Aljunied GRC), Minister of State for Education Sun Xueling said that MOE takes a serious view of any form of bullying, including cyber and gender-based bullying. "All schools send a clear message to students that bullying is not acceptable and has no place in our schools," she said.