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Sunday October 12, 2014
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Surekha A. Yadav

Born and bred in Singapore, Surekha A. Yadav is a freelance journalist in Southeast Asia.

OCTOBER 12 — Every school boy, growing up, has that vivid memory of the one afternoon all the girls in his class were taken away for a super-secret talk that he was not invited to. Only for these girls to return later in various degrees of horror, shock or embarrassment — slinking back into place each clutching a bag of “gifts” that they would never ever, no matter how much they begged — show to the boys in their class.

So boys, let me put you out of your misery, here’s what happened that afternoon I was 10 years old and in Primary 5: We were ushered away to a room and made to watch a video on the inner workings of the female body which primarily centred on the shedding of the uterine lining and the need to equip ourselves with feminine hygiene products.

This experience, we were told, was going to be our new “best friend.” For most of our lives, she would visit once a month and stick around for a few days. Of course many of us had already heard of this mythical “period” from our mothers, aunts or know-it-all older sisters but it was still a harrowing experience.

Singapore may be First World but when it comes to sex education in schools, things are pretty backwards. — Reuters picSingapore may be First World but when it comes to sex education in schools, things are pretty backwards. — Reuters picThen we were given a box of the previously mentioned hygiene products and packed off never to be engaged with again on the realities of our sexual health save for the academic, albeit giggle-filled, modules in biology class.
For me, nobody in school ever spoke to me about sexual reproductive health again until 15 years later as an adult doing my Masters in New York City. Not a single person mentioned how a condom worked, the option of a diaphragm or the dangers of the “withdrawal” method — it was simply not discussed.

It’s pretty backwards. But I am not so young and I had simply assumed things had changed. I don’t think it is the purview of the school to encourage or discourage students to have sex — but it is certainly their mandate to empower with knowledge.

So, I was shocked this past week to discover how backwards things are.

A very articulate letter written by a 17-year-old student from Hwa Chong Institution student on the shockingly patriarchal, outdated and thinly veiled Christian agenda of her schools’ “relationship education” session has gone viral. 

Agatha Tan penned an open letter to her principal after attending a workshop held by Focus on the Family. Outlining the literature she had been given — which included gems such as “No means Yes” and reducing the female gender to “gals” that need attention. She cleverly pointed out that using outdated and frankly offensive material that labelled all women as needy and all men as testosterone on feet who “don’t want a girlfriend that questions their opinions” was perhaps not a suitable basis for a discussion on relationships in our modern society.

Tan’s letter brings to light much more than Singapore’s innate prudishness. The crude caricatures of clinging, vacillating women and lust-fuelled, wolf-eyed men brings out a deeper issue. Why is it that an openly Christian organisation (www.focusonthefamily.com) was permitted to conduct such a workshops within the secular Singapore school system?  

This level of influence challenges the idea of a secular state. Nowhere else is a person more vulnerable to conditioning that at school which is perhaps why groups with social agendas are so keen to gain access. This is a dangerous precedent and one we need to keep in check. And this isn’t the first time such an attempt has unfolded.

In 2009, the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE) Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme, held in schools, throughout the island, became the target of criticism. A faith-based group of women alleged that AWARE’s CSE programme in schools was promoting homosexuality and lesbianism. AWARE had been open in its commitment to a liberal and robust approach: criticising the focus on abstinence in sex education as “judgmental” and “biased.”

Shortly after the fiasco, AWARE ceased offering its programme.

The entire episode highlights the excessive influence wielded by a group that represents only a small percentage of Singapore’s population — close to 20 per cent of Singaporeans identify as Christian and less than half this number again would identify as members of hard line evangelical movements. 

Yet somehow, despite their absolute numbers this minority has time and time again taken it upon itself to speak and act on behalf of the so-called moral majority. The even more recent Penguin-gate saga is another example of this very narrow base of values seeming to influence the secular civil space.

The Internet is rife with theories as to why this happens: That conservative churches on account of being organised, funded and attended by the educated, wealthy and well-connected wield a disproportionate influence on our state.

And if this is true, one has to ask what is being done to mitigate this influence and strike a balance between the wishes of this vocal minority and the true majority.  Because while I suspect many Singaporeans are conservative in their beliefs I don’t think they believe abstinence and “gals” who say no but mean yes is the relationship guidance children should be getting from schools.

* This is the personal opinion of the writer.

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