Half-truths and innuendos have sunk a worthy programme
In a move that was half-anticipated, the Ministry of Education (MOE) announced in a terse statement on 6th May 2009 that it was suspending the Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme conducted by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) after receiving some complaints from the public that the programme was “promoting homosexuality”.
This marked a reversal of MOE’s stance just days earlier defending the CSE and maintaining that “it adhered to guidelines to respect the values of different religious groups” despite some Christian groups raising heckles about it. Strangely enough, AWARE had said that it had received only positive feedback from participants about the programme. MOE itself did not receive any complaints until after the recent high-profile leadership tussle in AWARE saw the CSE thrust into the spotlight by a Christian-dominated faction. It now appears that the highly conservative MOE has decided to err on the side of caution, probably in an effort to defuse the issue before it escalated further.
That is highly regrettable. The mere mention of homosexuality has lamentably inflamed matters and obscured the reason why the CSE was adopted in the first place, which was as a response to the growing number of youths afflicted by sexually-transmitted diseases. Such a trend had implied that, among other things, it was possible that MOE’s existing sex-education programme was not doing as good a job as it should.
The CSE laudably tried to fill some of the gaps in MOE’s programme by providing youths with a more comprehensive outlook on the subject. AWARE worked on the premise that the best way to address the problem was to empower youths with proper knowledge about sex and sexuality rather than to deny that pre-marital or same-sex intercourse does take place by shaming youths about its “wrongness”. The ‘shaming’ method has been shown to be rather counter-productive because it discourages youths from opening up and talking about sex-related issues to the adults who might be best-placed to help them.
In its statement of 6th May MOE asserted that the CSE “convey[ed] messages which could promote homosexuality or suggest approval of pre-marital sex”. That seems questionable: such a programme would not have been approved by MOE in the first place. The programme, which is over a year-old, would also surely have triggered alarm bells a long time ago.
Furthermore, one trainer involved in the CSE programme has pointed out that the objectionable content circulating on the Internet that was supposedly from the trainers’ handbook – statements like “anal sex can be healthy” and “homosexuality is perfectly normal” – were taken out of context1. Trainers were instructed never to say that such behaviour is “morally ok” and the CSE focused on the health aspects of sexual behaviour rather than attempt to tackle moral issues. Obviously this meant that the programme did not condemn homosexuality or pre-marital sex, but it would be patently absurd to imply that it was “promoting” such behaviour either.
MOE’s flip-flopping has set back efforts to improve sex-education in Singapore. Undoubtedly the ministry wanted to avoid confronting a vocal group of rejectionists, but it could have tried harder to make a case for the CSE with the wider public rather than allow that group’s simplistic and histrionic arguments to carry the day without reply. The likely outcome of this sad episode is that it will leave more youths vulnerable to the fallout from making uninformed choices about sex.