July 06, 2012

Five Questions on the MOE’s revised SEd programme

Singapore’s Ministry of Education recently revealed its new sexuality education programme, now called SEd. (Read more about it on: Today Online, MOE’s press release, MOE’s SEd minisite)

The abstinence-first message was not surprising. The continued insistence on couching the abstinence-first message in majority/minority, mainstream/fringe terms was, especially after 15 000 people showed up in Hong Lim Park this past weekend to express support for ‘the freedom to love’. Even after removing Pink Dot from the fray, it’s a little hard to continue accepting the Ministry’s insistence that the only ‘majority’ that counts is the one that they view through their policymakers’ prisms, with no consultation, data, any form of scientific inquiry or poll.

Little else seemed new, but for the introduction of ‘new’ elements such as the dangers of social networking. The rest of it may be summed up as such: say no to sex until marriage. No surprises there.

Otherwise, the SEd component that raised the most eyebrows was the rather odd new declaration that “only specially selected teachers whose values align with the ministry’s values on sexuality education may teach the Growing Years programme” (link). This was quickly interpreted by the hordes of trolling ‘netizens’ (and I say troll in the most endearing way possible) to be: only virgins may teach sexuality education, if unmarried. If married, only those who practised abstinence until marriage can be selected to teach the programme.

If this was already true and in practice prior to news of the revision, which I suspect it well may be (given the Ministry’s dogged pursuit of ‘mainstream values’), the fact that they saw it necessary to spell this out unequivocally points at a worrying sign: the Ministry is moving to align itself on what it is not, rather than what it is. In other words: it never, ever wants to find itself in the unenviable position that it was caught in at AWARE-gate in 2009 (chronology, Economist article).

That isn’t surprising either.

I’m afraid all this means for our nation is we now have a Ministry of Education that is cowering in fear from (1) unknown, invisible conservative forces who make their demands for mainstream, abstinence-only sexuality education through some unseen magic, but who are definitively in the majority (2) unknown, invisible liberal forces whose demands for comprehensive sexuality education must be quelled, as they are in the minority.

How much longer before the cookie crumbles?

The Ministry has limited options. One, continue to sweep everything under the carpet and stick its metaphorical fingers into its metaphorical ears, and tell itself it’ll all be okay. Two, take a side. No matter which side it is, it will be ugly. Three, have the moral gumption to look beyond the limited prism of its Guidance Branch and talk to its own teachers in the field about what’s going on out there. Word on the street is the teachers (especially the younger teachers) have their hands tied: every so often, a young gay kid (usually depressed) comes to them seeking help, and there is nothing they can do to help them in a professional capacity because they’re not in the right department, qualified to speak on the matter, or allowed to step over the line where they can acknowledge their gayness and tell them it’ll be okay. It’s not like these teachers don’t know how to handle the matter — they have gay friends, or are gay themselves, not that they’d ever say so, because they can’t.

Abstinence has not worked anywhere. What makes the Ministry think it can make it work here?

Through this announcement, the Ministry hopes to avoid fire from all sides, but instead barrels itself further into an unenviable position. By hardly making a stand, it will never be conservative enough for our conservatives, and never progressive enough for those of us who would like to see change.

Until the Ministry can elucidate further on the following points, this project is doomed: what is the long list of mainstream values? It keeps referring to mainstream values, but keeps us guessing. It’s clear what sort of stand the Ministry of Education wants to take on this matter. Why won’t they come out and say so? That their long list of mainstream values revolve around heterosexuality and abstinence? By being vague about the very thing that is meant to be the cornerstone of their programme, they’re not doing themselves any favours. What are these mainstream values and by what measure are the specially selected teachers… selected for these values?

I will watch this story unfold with much anxiety, with just five questions:

  1. What exactly are the mainstream values that the Ministry requires its teachers to have, and on what basis and characteristics are these teachers selected? Who makes the final decision to select them in every school?

  2. How are the (at least ten) ‘specially-selected and MOE-trained teachers’ selected and trained? Parents in particular will appreciate having the contents of the special training curriculum shared with them, such that they may be kept aware of the latest developments in their students’ knowledge of sexuality education.

  3. Who are the 12 external vendors which have been approved for this year, and in what way will they provide supplementary programmes? Parents ought to be kept aware of the types of activities that are available, and be clearly informed if and when these vendors have any direct or indirect religious affiliations.

  4. How are ‘fringe cases’ handled? As with any other form of education, certain students may require special attention and education. Are these specially-trained teachers equipped to provide access to a further set of comprehensive sexuality education information and materials on demand, or provide access to educators who can?

  5. How will the specially-trained teachers in each school be assessed? Who will they report to, at school and at the Ministry? What are the KPIs?