TOC Exclusive: Otto Fong’s Open Letter

0

Theonlinecitizen has obtained a copy of the original blog entry by Raffles Institution teacher, Otto Fong. It also includes comments which were originally posted by readers of his article.

The original posting on his own blog has since been taken down.

AN OPEN LETTER FROM OTTO FONG

I am Otto Fong. I have been teaching Science in Raffles Institution for the last eight years.

Being a teacher has been the most rewarding part of my professional life thus far. My students continue to amaze me daily with their wit, maturity, independent thinking and leadership. It is very fulfilling that I am a part of an institution that moulds the future generation of Singapore's leaders.

Leaders are people who can rise above the tide of popular opinion, people who are guided by the conviction of rightness and justice and in being so guided, lead others towards that right path.

Recent events leading to my action

Recent events have made me decide to write this open letter. In April this year, Minister Mentor Mr Lee Kuan Yew – one of the school's greatest alumni – called homosexuality a "genetic variation", questioning the validity of criminalising gay sex. In July, MP Baey Yam Keng expressed support for the repeal of Section 377A of the penal code (which criminalises gay sex acts). In August, Malaysian columnist and ordained pastor Oyoung Wenfeng released his inspiring new Mandarin book "Tong Gen Sheng", encouraging gay men and women to come out of the closet.

A few evenings later, I attended a forum organised by People Like Us on gay teachers and students. A few brave twenty-something guys asked, "Why has there been so little guidance available to me as a gay teenager?" It was a question that I had asked myself often, growing up.

When I became a teacher in 1999, I looked back on the good guidance my own teachers gave me as a template, and tried to be a better teacher to my students. Besides teaching them Science, I spent considerable effort in imparting good social values: give up your seats to the needy, save the handicapped parking lot for those in wheelchairs and their caretakers, respect people regardless of profession or social status.

How hate is perpetuated

Yet, in the eight years I have taught, I have done little for that small group of students who are gay. When the religious group Focus on the Family masqueraded as sex guidance counselors and gave a talk full of misinformation about homosexuality to our students, I was furious but kept my mouth shut.

When my niece returned from school saying, "Gays are disgusting!" I knew she learnt that hatred from a classmate, who had in turn absorbed that hatred from a parent. I knew that this hatred has been perpetrated for generations. But hatred grew out of fear, and hatred, as a line in a movie goes, "leads to the Dark Side." This is the same environment of hatred I grew up in, as a gay teenager and student.

Until Section 377A* is repealed, there will be precious little the Ministry of Education can do to help these students. As a teacher, I am bound by my professional duty to follow the directives of my superiors.

While these events helped crystallize my decision to come out of the closet, my motivation remains deeply personal.

My family and I

As far back as primary six, I have been aware of my attraction towards classmates of the same sex. For those who argued about nurturing factors of the family, my brother and sister grew up under the same parents and remained heterosexuals despite growing up with me in close proximity.

As a teenager, I was very quick to sense society's aversion towards the 'sissies' in my classes. I worked hard to distance myself from them. While I was successful in modifying my outward behavior, my sexual orientation remained unchanged. My denial gnawed at me, and the suppression of my true self resulted in self-destructive behavior during my overseas university years.

Fortunately, my American fraternity mates were supportive. I began to see a counselor who helped me accept myself for who and what I am.

Returning to Singapore, I came out to my family. My father, mother, brother and sister, out of love for their son and brother, walked the long road to acceptance. It was not easy for them, but they loved me before I came out, and they love me after. When I finally settled down with my longtime companion (we have been together for more than nine years), my entire family made sure my nieces and nephews included us in their lives. I loved my family too much to keep them in the dark, to deny them the chance to really know me. And they loved me too much to let some old prejudice tear our family apart.

I kept my sexual orientation a secret at work, and only a handful of my colleagues knew about me.

I don't want to be a bonsai tree

Not counting my childhood, I have spent more than twenty years in the professional closet. I am nearing my fourth decade on Earth. While I have had some successes in life, I am not content to be just average. As I have often told my students, "Why be average when you can be your best?"

Do you know what a bonsai tree is? A bonsai tree is an imitation of a real tree. It is kept in a small pot with limited nutrients, trimmed constantly to fit someone else's whim. It looks like a real tree, except it can't do many things a real tree can. It cannot provide shelter, it cannot find food on its own; its life and death are totally reliant on its owner. It is the plant version of the 3-inch Chinese bound foot for women: useless and painful.

Being in the closet, pretending to be straight, trimming our true selves to suit the whims and expectations of others, is just like being a human bonsai tree. By staying in the closet, we cannot even hope to be average, much less above and beyond average.

I felt that in order to reach my fullest potential as a useful human being, I must first fully accept myself, and face the world honestly. I have lived long enough to know that what I am is not a disease, an aberration or a mental illness.

Hate is not a religious value

Many people have cited many 'reasons' for hating homosexuals, just as many people tried to justify their views that the Earth was flat, that the darker skinned should always be inferior, and that women should subjugate their lives to men. The teachings of the world's great religious traditions offer many words of wisdom, but the interpretations of their human followers are not infallible. As Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount (yes, a personal Bible was given to me by a great lady and I honored her by reading the book), we must love our neighbors as ourselves. It is a simple teaching, but one that's rarely followed by those who seek to oppress people different from themselves. The path to enlightenment always faces stubborn resistance. As Mahatma Gandhi said, "First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you..."

There are some people who are using homosexuality to advance their personal ambitions vis a vis religion. They claim that the homosexual 'agenda' is to make the whole world gay and threaten the stability of the family. Yet, let us examine the evidence: Denmark, Norway and Sweden, the first countries to legalise gay marriage, are more stable than ever – their population has not been converted by gays and their heterosexual divorce rates have even decreased since gays have been afforded legal rights. (William N. Eskridge, Jr and Darren R. Spedale, Oxford University Press, 2006).

The only agenda gay people have is to be able to live with the same rights and dignity as our heterosexual brothers and sisters. Our very vocal opponents are the ones actively preying on innocent people, recruiting them to their cause by spreading fear and misinformation. I hope thinking people will quickly see that it is this small group of vocal objectionists who have a more dangerous agenda, that their fight with gay people has nothing to do with what's right or wrong, but is merely a litmus test of their political influence. For peace and prosperity to continue, Singapore must always uphold secularism, where each different segment of the population respects the beliefs and rights of the others.

Can a country with no natural resources afford to drive away its own citizens?

There is a very pragmatic reason that you should support the rights and dignity of gay Singaporeans: in this globally-competitive era, Singapore needs her gay sons and daughters, just as we need our Singaporean Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, immigrants, men and women, old folks and young. Most importantly, we need those gay sons and daughters because those gay sons and daughters are Singaporean Muslims, Buddhists, Christians, Hindus, immigrants, men and women, old folks and young. Can a country without natural resources continue to flourish when it starts to drive away its own children?

As I said before, leaders are people who are guided by the conviction of rightness and justice and in being so guided, lead others towards that right path.

I am still a teacher. My main purpose and joy is to teach our youngest citizens, the same ones who will be the leaders of our nation tomorrow. But, I feel I am shortchanging both society and myself by staying in the closet. I must be true to myself. If my colleagues and students, both gay and straight, see that being true to one's own self has great value, perhaps we can produce a new generation who is truly courageous. A new generation of young people who are proud to be themselves, no matter what difference they have from their classmates. Then I will have succeeded in providing them a better education than I had the opportunity to receive during my years in school.

So here's what I am, and I am a friend in need at the moment

So here it is: I, Otto Fong, have always been and always will be a gay man. When you ask about my spouse, I will say he is a man. I am as proud being gay as you are proud being straight. I am not, as some people like to label gays, a pedophile, a child molester, a pervert or sexual deviant. I did not choose to be gay, just like heterosexuals did not choose to be straight. I am not going to hell (not for being gay anyway).

I am not going back in the closet. When you ask me who I am, I will answer: I am a son, a brother, a long-time companion, an uncle, a teacher, a classmate, a colleague, a part of your community, a HDB dweller, a Singaporean. And I am also gay.

I would like to enjoy the respect that all other Singaporeans enjoy. I will not let the closet bind my feet, because I am made to sprint. I am not interested in being a bonsai tree, my DNA is programmed to climb higher. My heart aspires to reach my fullest potential as a human being.

I hope, dear friends and colleagues, that you look back and remember what I am, and see that I am not someone you fear. I am essentially the same person – flawed, imperfect, but brought up properly by two loving parents to lead a productive, beneficial and meaningful life. My friends and family love me for who I am, and I hope you can too. I come out to you with as much hope and trepidation as when I first come out to my mother and father. Your support and understanding are very important to me at this moment.

Thank you, may you prosper in health and soul.

Yours sincerely,

Otto Fong

8th Sept 2007

 

Comments:

christao17 said...

Yeah, Otto! Tawn and I are so proud of you! You'll certainly face resistence, ignorance, and hostility - but you'll be pleasantly surprised with how much more support, affection, and appreciation you receive. Best regards!

September 8, 2007 8:47 AM

Bong said...

GO SIR!

As an ex-student from RI, your sexuality was never in doubt. Although you have never taught me, you came across to me as a very cheerful, artistically inclined teacher 🙂 I remember how you tried to teach us how to draw cartoons with your workshops.

Now that you have decided to open up, I can only wish you all the best in your struggle against societal views. I don’t know if this is the right media to open up to, or if the timing is right, or if you have taken precautionary steps beforehand to protect yourself, but one thing that is undeniable is your concern for youths. A simple question of “why has there been so little guidance available to me as a gay teenager?” contributed to this courageous move, by appealing to your “teacherish”/personal instincts to come clean. That is a mark of a great teacher 🙂

Bless you

-Lim Bing Li (class of 2005)

September 9, 2007 5:01 AM

Jock said...

Hi Otto,

Firstly, I want to let you know that I admire and respect your decision to come out to your friends and especially to the people you work with. I am sure you have thought this through and have the support of your partner, family and your friends.

I will never understand your motivations for choosing a public media like this to reveal such personal insights about yourself and how it can help you be a better teacher and colleague.

What it will only do is provoke a knee jerk reaction from your school, the school's board and the parents of the students who are paying high tuitions fees to pay your salary. Unfortunately, the group that will stand to lose most are your students, whom you have been an inspiring and admirable teacher, guide, mentor and friends to.

I truly believe that it is time for a change. But I don't believe that RI, MOE or Singapore is ready to contemplate having a male gay teacher, especially in an all boys school. I may be wrong, but I foresee that in the knee jerk reaction, you will be asked to leave the school. The students, that you so hope to provide guidance to with this announcement will then be deprived of that guidance by such a forward looking teacher like you.

I do sincerely hope that your actions will lead to a positive change in your students, your school and Singapore.

September 9, 2007 6:27 AM

1029 said...

=)

a great read, and great to know. like it or not, i have so many gay friends who are teachers that i have lost count. you made the right decision, and it is time. if not, you wouldn't have done it.

all the best.

September 9, 2007 8:42 AM

' [ gAnNie ] said...

Dear Mr Fong, regardless of your sexuality, you'll still always be one of our greatest ever teachers.

We believe that your decision to announce this in public media like a blog is not an uncalculated one. Right now we are feeling afraid for you for the potential backlash that you will get. The world isn’t perfect; we have learnt that through our experiences and what you have taught us. The backlash will be great, people being people, gossip will spread like wildfire.

RI’s motto reads “Auspicium Melioris Aevi”. Hope of a better age. Its ironic in a sense that the direction this school is taking may not be relating to this ideal you are strongly advocating. Even right now as this is being typed, people we know, students you might like, are already having an adverse reaction to this. On msn people are reacting. This is life, Headmaster may know, but whatever his stand is, diplomatic or not, do not worry. You are more than justified in being unique and being a special person. Live in that glory, have self belief.

We as leaders under you for two years have seen how you set the foundation for us and pushed us forward. Where we are now, especially in our cca leadership has come from you. We strongly believe that your teaching is too valuable to be compromised because of sexual orientation. RI cant lose this gem. We hope they don’t.

Life in 1E and 2E would have been extremly boring and uneventful if not for your being our FT and we greatly appreciate what you've done for us in our lower sec years.

To us, you were definitely more of a teacher than any other teachers we ever had; especially in light of your post. Hence, we thank you for everything and my family supports you in every way too.

Again, this is not a letter in which Si Yuan and Eugene are following the crowd to write letters to you. This is a sincere encouragement to the ideals in which you push for, however faint and unrealistic they seem at the present moment. Eugene “I being a Christian, I know that my religion does not condone this, but I tell you that Christianity is not a religion of rules and strict restrictions. It is one of love and acceptance.” Keep that in mind.

We being your students who have looked up to you so much, admittedly are shocked, but are certain that our respect for you will never change. To end this, we only have to say, expect the worst, its life, but hope for the best, and know that amongst the group of people behind you. Family, partner, friends, you have Yeo Si Yuan and Eugene Gan as well.

We wish you the best!

Yours sincerely

Yeo Si Yuan (Asst. Monitor 0'5, Monitor '06), Eugene Gan (Treasurer '05,'06)

September 9, 2007 8:49 AM

Ng Yi-Sheng said...

Thanks, Otto. I've read both your comic books - "Sir Fong" and "Sir Fong 2", so I know about your love of teaching and I can see how brave a step this is. I wish you the best of luck in school, and I only wish my own gay teachers had been as open as you.

September 9, 2007 12:30 PM

skinnylatte said...

I applaud you. Your decision, whatever the implications, makes a difference.

Adrianna
http://www.popagandhi.com

September 9, 2007 1:39 PM

Kevin said...

Mr Otto, as a fairly straight person, I must admit it's hard to realize the social prejudice faced by someone in the gay community in Singapore.

Aside from your clear documentation of local events, it's neat that you've share your cross-cultural experience as well, so we know how social support structures could be improved.

Finally, I find it quite appropriate that you've shared this on your blog, and I do hope more readers / bloggers are encouraged to bear a more open mind and a supportive heart.

--
Kevin Lim
http://theory.isthereason.com

September 9, 2007 3:07 PM

kohfamey said...

Hi Mr Fong. I'm Jie Kai, and I worked with you in a play about 7 years ago, back when I was in RI. This is a very brave decision you are taking. I wish you all the best.

September 9, 2007 5:39 PM

Randuwa said...

Otto,

Your words and your act of integrity is being discovered all around the world. I am also a teacher, 23 years in the elementary school level here in the United States. For the past 13, I have had the privilege of working for a school district where my being gay was no more important than my wearing a green shirt to school! I know it's not so easy in Singapore. You have all my well wishes.

randy
randuwa.blogspot.com

September 9, 2007 5:54 PM

Sivasothi said...

Dude, what a powerful letter! It was also inspiring to read your student's comments. You sound like an insightful and dedicated teacher, well done.

All the best.

September 9, 2007 7:02 PM

numbernine said...

Hi,

As an old boy I've always found that RI, in spite of its ambivalent attitudes towards unconventional sexuality, has always been a more tolerant place than many would expect. A teacher who taught my year was transgendered. A student from my year was gay. He came out of the closet after he left school but many of us suspected he was gay anyhow. (Later on, the aforementioned student became the subject of controversy when he was dismissed from his post of relief teacher with no explanation given.)

I was also involved (only a bit part) in a drama production which tackled the topic of homosexuality. It won the drama feste, even though admittedly the rest of the script was quite ordinary, so I think the judges were applauding its courage.

I bring all these up because the RI that I studied in did give a fair bit of leeway to homosexuals / transgendered people. I don't want it to be easy for other people to say "RI is supposed to be like ___" (insert euphemism for "intolerant").

Because the RI that was so much a part of my youth and growing up was not like that.

September 9, 2007 7:24 PM

Monkey said...

I really applaud you. I have so many gay friends who are as you said, in a professional closet and I think you've a great leap forward. This letter was superbly well written and expressed so much love and if nothing else, I can tell you are a great teacher just from reading these words. Indeed, who is there to give students the objective perception of other sexualities in our school systems! We need more like you 🙂

September 9, 2007 7:30 PM

Colin said...

Well done, Otto. I wish you courage and all the best in the tough days ahead. Thank you for standing up and to be counted.

September 9, 2007 7:37 PM

Lucian said...

This is my personal opinion (insert standard disclaimer).

MOE should fire you.

Only if they're willing to fire all heterosexual teachers working in schools which have students of the opposite sex.

Thanks for being courageous. We could definitely have a litle more openness and straight (pardon the pun) talk.

September 9, 2007 7:53 PM

loupgarou said...

you are so brave in homophobic singapore..(ok lah,.. only the extremist xtian sects are homophobes)

September 9, 2007 8:13 PM

Saltwetfish said...

Great courage, well done!

September 9, 2007 8:42 PM

Miak said...

we stand with you.

truth, love and courage will stand all trials and tribulations, and there are no greater values to teach the next generation but these

September 9, 2007 8:51 PM

d8nnis said...

You share the same name as my BF!

I'm proud of you coming out, doing the things you believe in.

I live overseas, not because of prejudice, as you get those everywhere in the world (except SFO, AMS and SYD) but also of better opportunities.

I do not think it's a Singapore issue. We should not have an arguement based on religion. We should also not base our arguement on the pink dollar.

We should leave Politics, Religion and Capitalism out of the picture.

Why should equality be debated on those? We should just have equality regardless, Period.

September 9, 2007 9:15 PM

Eileena said...

Wonderful! I remember you from Oyoung's "Tong Gen Sheng" launch, glad that you took the big step to come out. Take care and keep well!

September 9, 2007 10:31 PM

Sandy said...

I am so glad the hear that the law may be repealed in Singapore in the near future. I am looking forward to a world where everyone is accepted for who they are everywhere. No prejudices or bigotry. My best to you.

September 9, 2007 10:44 PM

guapochino said...

We are so proud of you! Way to go! I think you have just shown the way. We're proud to stand behind you and give you our full support!

September 9, 2007 10:54 PM

jeff said...

Wow! this is definitely great!! and wishes more people will have some time to read it.

Bravo Otto, you are fantastic, brave and motivated.