Friday, April 30, 2010

Singapore Sex Education: It's not just about sex

In the past couple of days, it is reported the Education Ministry (MOE) has granted six organisations the permit to provide sexuality education to schools. Four of those have Christian affiliations. These affiliations include that of Cornerstone Community Church and Focus on the Family.

What makes public school sexuality education a contentious issue is not sex itself, but rather that of religious stakeholderism’s relationship with the state. The Singaporean government is less concerned with sexuality education itself than its dealings with various groups that have potential political influence. In other words, the concern over sexuality education in Singapore belies the governance of religion in a secular state.

It is here where I would slightly overemphasise and overestimate the role of religion in Singapore.

As religions provide a set of rules and regulations for moral conduct, with the aim to create moral, social and ultimately cultural and political homogeneity within socio-religious and/or geographical boundaries, sexual behaviour and its regulation are seen as important items on the menu of morality.

For instance, as marriage is a cultural ritual sanctified by religion and has meaningful socio-religious symbolism inscribed upon it, pre-marital sex would be seen to be disruptive and challenging the religious order. With a legal and social history moulded in the image of religious doctrine, we derive fear and guilt from the act of pre-marital sex.

Singapore is undoubtedly multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-valued, but as we navigate our way through the pleasant sugar-coated rhetoric, we see the imbalances and stratification of culture, religion and values. While each culture, religion and set of values has a stake in society, the political process and governance, each speak with a different voice and each voice is held by the state with different levels of importance.

In my opinion, I have this impression that the secular state of Singapore fears religiosity (maybe religionism to some extent). The secular-by-definition government is the worrisome landlord whose tenants are so (potentially) troublingly diverse. This is a secular state that appears to me to listen a lot more attentively to those with faith than those who are faithless or have no religious affiliation. History shows that those with a religious affiliation have one more reason to be better organised and to commit unrest, or to an extent, violence.

Another speculative view pertains to demography. There is a more than proportionate representation of Christians in Parliament, and in the upper social strata of Singaporean society. When you are in the upper social stratum in a society like Singapore, you have a slightly higher stake in the political and economic order, both of which are intimately intertwined.

Just like the legitimate fear of the People’s Action Party ascending to stake a claim in defining “democracy” in Singapore, there is the fear of the batch of fairly well-educated middle-to-upper class ethnic Chinese Singaporeans of Christian faith ascending to stake a claim in defining “diversity”, “multi-culturalism”, “multi-religious” in this island nation.

Like in the domain of Singapore politics, wherein other voices (are made to) appear to be less significant, less important or simply irrelevant, I fear that in the socio-cultural domain of Singaporean society, amidst all the rhetoric and narrative of “diversity”, people of non-middle-to-upper class, non-Christian, non-Chinese, non-receivers of higher education, may have a lesser voice. It may not even involve high-handed holier-than-thou bigotry, but plain simple taken-for-grantedness on the part of the politically and socio-economically privileged Singaporeans that the worldview and moral doctrine they hold and subscribe to, has universal application, or in less extremist allegory, is the “natural order of things”.

When all these are taken-for-granted, “demographic outsiders” who want to engage in socio-political dialogue have to do so according to the terms and conditions of the privileged. And some concerns might be lost in articulation along the way, or seen as less than legitimate.

The regulation of sex is a function of the regulation of morality, which in turn is a function of ideological control. And if we take religious ideology into consideration, the regulation of sex serves to facilitate the regulation of morality, which serves to facilitate the maintenance of a religious and ideological order. All you have to ask yourself is, “Whose order are we striving to maintain?”

Take for example the act of masturbation. What is masturbation in an acultural ahistorical social vacuum? Masturbation, as defined in terms of its function, serves to provide gratification for the individual. In its form, it mostly involves acts by the individual stimulating his or her erogenous bodily zones.

Social and cultural norms and ritualistic practices, which inform religious norms and vice versa, place judgement on the act of masturbation. Norms enter the domain of the act of masturbation and colour it with meanings, claiming, conquering and defining its functions in the terms according to a desired social/religious order.

In history, the regulation of desire is always social. In the economic domain, the postponement of desire and leisure is a rationalised choice in the industrial period. In the socio-religious domain, individual desire is assessed to be at odds with religious doctrine, which is often masked as the “greater good”, a narrative that enables individuals to (re)rationalise and reprioritise their individualistic decisions.

We cannot seem to be able to escape from history, leaving sex and religion eternally entangled. There are those among us who reflect Victorian era morality and/or puritanical values in our approach to life and sexuality. These moral guidelines with which they align themselves are so phallocentric they make lingum-worshippers blush. There is the overemphasis on regulating penis-related activities that the sexuality of women and children (up to 14, 16, 18, or 21 depending on your legal and social norms) are made invisible. As a result, we get the “how not to do it” for males and “how not to get it” for females in most sex education syllabi. Individual gratification and sexual pleasure (and their neutral information, unless tainted by religious dogma) are denied to men through preachings of abstinence and deity-approved monogamous marriage, and denied to women through the great veil of female asexuality.

Coupled with the “sciences” of yesteryear, wherein people saw non-heterosexual behaviour as the ultimate threat to marriage and the family (I think adultery is a bigger one), we have created foolproof justifications for the discrimination of homosexuality and other sexualities. It has been foolproof for centuries, just not from this one. Because sex has an intimate relationship with religion, I believe that religion is a critical factor in the policing and judgement of sexuality.

The truth be told, that there are many truths out there. One need not to have religious affiliation to declare one’s worldview and set of values are the truth, or are derived from one true source. This is where it becomes challenging for persuasions and orientations of any kind to coexist in a limited space. Genocide is an archaic and unjustified solution in this day and age, but there remain many solutions such as conversion and democracy.

The funny thing about democracy is that 51% will have a bigger say than 49%. Majority wins. This is where ideological conversion comes in handy. Conversion need not only be a cold-calling hard-selling process, but so long as social infrastructure is put in place for a people, rendering them more receptive to the embracement of a particular ideology, the seeds are sown. These infrastructure include pop culture and ideological-centric (e.g. monotheist-centric) communication and rationalisation.

This gives the non-religious and polytheists the smaller share of the cake (yes, we like cake because it has been put on the menu by Wong Kan Seng). Most of these segments of society are co-opted into the grand narrative of “family values”, “heterosexual family as basic unit of society”, “pro-family” and “every time I continuous touch myself that way an angel dies”.

I still find it ironic that MOE wants to regulate sexuality education in a Singapore with different stakeholders. In the instance it is successful in regulating, which stakeholder will benefit more? Which stakeholder will have the larger slice of the cake?

That said, I still advocate a polycentric approach to sexuality education in Singapore. Different stakeholders get to participate, and their views get to be represented through the syllabi. At the same time, the young will be exposed to the different perspectives on sex and sexuality across religions and cultures in Singapore, along with a dose of (a more neutral) science. For example, a student will get to learn about the abstinence as a value in Catholicism which values the institution of marriage, contraception as a means of safe sex, not only from disease but from unwanted pregnancy and masturbation as a means to deal with sexual tension. These are all provided the tools necessary for the young to be prepared in the event they get into or want to get out of certain situations.

Instead of providing material that morally judges an act to be right or wrong, the material can identify the religions and cultures that deem the act to be right or wrong. This way, the young not only learn about sexuality but also the diversity of opinions of sexuality. Any way, should Singaporeans not be well acquainted with the concept diversity?

Issues and situations should be described objectively in their form, and their functions and implications openly discussed. For instance, it is no big a deal explaining what promiscuity and sexual experimentation is. But people with different persuasions and orientations, and different dogma, tend to discuss the functions and implications of these items in ways that benefits their cause and maintains the social and ideological order they so desire. And most of the time, in doing so, they irresponsibly masked their message as an objective universal piece. A polycentric approach to sexuality education will credit opinions and views to specific ideologies, such that the young who receive this information will be able to decide for themselves what fits their own worldview.

If a minor wants to have sex, I would rather he/she knows the options available to him/her: Among many other options, 1) Knowing when to say “no”, or to negotiate, 2) the use of contraceptives, 3) knowing how to derive bodily pleasure.

Why are we so concerned about the young having their sexuality or having sex? Is it because they do not know better? Is it because they do not deserve it?

If we look at history again, it is industrialisation and Victorian morality (coming from a British colony, we cannot run away from it) that help form the idea of childhood and children, and the asexuality of children. We still carry this idea to this day. As a result, and with the support of science du jour, children (and teenagers) are deemed incapable of decision-making. These get legally enshrined, which explains the cross-cultural/legal definitions of child, adult, minor, etc. As we continue to view and treat the young as how it has been socially and legally prescribed, we withhold information from them and release it to them as they age. This signals the means of social engineering we have become accustomed to.

The democratic government moves with ideology. As much as some Singaporeans will say that our government strikes fear in the citizenry, I believe the government equally fears the people. Some segments of the Singaporean population hold opposing and polarising worldviews, opinions and ideologies that it presents the ruling party with a tough job in governance and policy-making. They go not with the “majority”, but with the groups that have potentially considerable political, economic and social influence. These groups have already access to education, economy, their communities and affiliates and so on.

The government, in my opinion, is politically conservative in the sense it errs on the side of caution by aligning itself with the discourse and ideas of the groups that may be better placed to shape the social, political and economic landscape and order of Singapore.

That is not to say the government is by default morally conservative. Most democratic governments are primarily politically conservative, as they seek to win majority vote. And if it so happens the moral ideology of the majority vote borders on (morally) conservative, as they may be informed by religion and norms that maintain an order desirable to them, the government takes after this ideology. In order to retain, maintain and win support for continuity in power, the government will use the nationalist ideological narrative to enforce policy and norms, which on an unconscious level to many, echoes the moral ideology of the voting majority.

It does not help when the PAP Members of Parliament have an overrepresentation of Christians. What otherwise seems ideologically subjective is passed off as neutral, objective and natural.

Sexuality education is just a footnote in the discourse. There is always this monotheist-informed urgency and the need to “save” that infiltrate and come to characterise political decision-making and policy-making. There may or may not be a connection, but there is a coincidence when the approach to sexuality education is oriented towards protection, which appears to be a subset of a specific monotheist-centric idea of salvation.

Sex education is a proxy war of ideology. I believe the situation we have in our hands is that of the religious imperative negotiating its way into ideological dominance in a multi-valued secular democratic state whose government is a lot more fearful than the citizenry thinks.

This intangible and invisible fear manifests in a playing field, the terrain and rules of which favour the segment of the citizenry the government fears (or fears aggravating). Any ruling party of Singapore is and will be there not only because of sturdy social and political leadership, but also economic leadership. The mandate to rule will be quickly crumble when economic leadership is less than satisfactory. There is a relationship, almost symbiotic, between the state and the segment of the citizenry that has economic influence. If this is aggravated, the state’s position is affected. This could be a reality, or not.

The state needs to stand up on its own and say to everyone, “Look, no one community view is more legitimate or more important than the other,” and act like it means it. For example, it cannot continue to dismiss and aggravate the Singaporean sexual minority community just to appease religious groups. It is religion, not sexual diversity, that threatens political power, such that the ruling party seems to be interpret the constitution in way that favours the groups it fears more. This will continue to persist, regardless of whether or not PAP is in power.

Race and religion are the sacred cows given our history, and our current socio-political and cultural context. But their bubble-wrapped protection extends to policies and decision-makings that slant towards a particular direction.

While we need a government that is firm and neutral, we also need various stakeholders, religious and non-religious to step forward and speak up. We need platforms that do not discriminate against any of these stakeholders, nor deny them their representation and/or participation in the political process. In the footnote that is public school sexuality education, we need an objective presentation of facts, descriptions and explanations, and some moral advice/judgement so long as their ideological affiliations are identified.

Since the domain of public school sexuality education is a microcosm of the struggle of ideological dominance by some socio-religious communities (“this is bad” versus “this is neutral” disputes), whatever decision or action that is taken will reflect the state’s position and relationship with these communities. Only your position as a citizen and stakeholder will tell: Whether to you the government is an oppressor, a victim or a friend.

Speaking up in Singapore is not good enough. We need constant and continuous dialogue. And more importantly, we need to create many conducive platforms for dialogue. Unfortunately, there is still a lot more to be done. We need minds to be humble and reflexive, and able to understand the implications of their privileges and actions in a multi-valued society. And if the policy on public school sexuality education is anything to go by, we are not there yet. And don't look to the government to fix everything, because a government is only as mature a its people(s).

But I'm sure if we all cared enough, we can make Singapore a place of real "diversity", a diversity of persuasions, opinions and orientations where there is mutual understanding and respect, where government and people will not fear discussing issues pertaining to this diversity, and of course, where our sex education is holistic.


CelsaNajar0998 said...

Well done!........................................

sloo said...

SteveTSL says:

As u rightly pointed out, the govt has the valuable opportunity to define its stance as being multi-valued - but it capitulated to the Christian Right. Once the decision was made, the whole machinery was reined in to prevent any discourse of the matter, any debate over the issue

Just check out the ST forum - only 1 letter on sexuality ed and nothing mentioning the religious aspect that is so troubling to any. I submitted an email questioning why Cornerstone was selected when their members were reported to be harassing children outside their school last year by The New Paper)

Perhaps MOE sees its sex ed as a symbolic response (feeble and though it may be) to the growing presence of the unregulated internet here, as well as a loosening up of the media platform across all spectrums. What they don't realise is at the end, results speak for themselves. And they certainly never learnt from the past decades of conservative sex ed - the numbers of rising teen pregnancies and more visible presence of sexual communities just shows them to be preaching to the converts.

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