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2 Oct 2008

Singapore TV tries to be relevant

For the first time in almost 10 years, the controversial subject of gay sexuality education in Singapore schools was discussed in a talk show on Tuesday night. Columnist and veteran gay activist Alex Au compares the past and present, and sees a "positive difference".

Singapore broadcasters are closely watched by the government for the shows that they air. From time to time, they are fined for transgressions of the government-mandated Code of Practice. The most common breach relates to gay-affirmative content, which, according to state policy, is "against the public interest".

In April this year, Mediacorp, Singapore's free-to-air broadcaster, was fined S$15,000 (US$10,000) for airing an episode of an American reality show that featured a gay couple and their adopted son renovating their home. With American shows steadily mainstreaming gay characters, this is becoming an ever bigger headache for Mediacorp's buyers.

The other line that broadcasters know they should not cross is to criticise government policy in any area.

So it was indeed a rare, and maybe risky, event to see Mediacorp's Channel NewsAsia do a half-hour episode in its BlogTV talk series on the subject of gay sexuality education in Singapore schools. Or rather, on the lack of it.

BlogTV is a series that tries to pick up on topics that interest the blogging generation. Mediacorp is struggling to stay relevant to the digital generation amid falling viewership for many of its channels. Remaining as staid as the state censors demand may increasingly be untenable.

All wrong in the schools

The programme is hosted by Phin Wong (middle pic) and Flying Dutchman.
Featured on the show were two educators: Otto Fong, a former physics teacher in a top boys' school who came out oh-so-publicly on his blog last year, and George Bishop, the head of the Department of Psychology, National University of Singapore. And two teenaged girls: Shraddha Ramsundar, 15, and Kohila Priyia, 18.

Professor Bishop outlined the essentials of a good education package: It must provide gay teens with good role models (of gay people); it must "deal with issues of empowerment and identity, and help people to develop their sense of identity". But most importantly, it must be respectful of differences, and to convey the message that "sexual expression does have a variety of ways in which it manifests itself, and to not be judgemental about that."

Fong, recalling his experience while growing up and discovering himself to be gay, bemoaned the lack of information available to gay teens.

However, Kohila felt that it's not the person who's gay who should get the information about homosexuality, but the people around him. Her comment underlined the increasingly accepted notion in Singapore that homosexual orientation per se is not the problem, but ignorance and prejudice is.

The Ministry of Education has reportedly put in place a program to provide schools with trained fulltime counsellors who have to do a 2-day course on "managing gender identity issues".

Both Prof Bishop and transgender activist Leona Lo, who spoke to the show via an online link, wondered about the quality of the guidance and the content in sex education courses delivered to students. Leona asked: "What exactly are they going to teach? Are they going to guide the students, help them navigate this difficult time or are they expecting them to conform to social expectations?"

Prof Bishop spoke of gay-bashing sermons. "There have been workshops, often organised by conservative religious groups where, essentially, they proceed to demonise gays," he said. "And if that's the direction where they're going, then I'd rather they not do it."

Young Shraddha thought that there would be credibility gap so long as the speakers are straight. "If you're straight and you're talking to me about homosexuality, I won't trust you, because you're straight," she said. "I mean, how would you know?

"If we have a live example, l mean, literally a gay men ... telling us about their life experiences and what they go through in life, probably we will be able to see it from their point of view."

As a former teacher of teenaged boys, Otto felt that dealing with safer sex practices must be an essential part of sex education for gay boys. The reality is that with the internet, access to sex is so easy nowadays.

But "how do you deal with safe gay sex in school in the Singapore environment?" the host asked. "We've got laws in place."

"The problem is that we can't," said Otto. We have to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code (which criminalises gross indecency between 2 males), in order "to get rid of the stigma." Unfortunately, the Education Ministry commands that since gay sex is an illegal act, it "should not be discussed at all in schools."

The other host of the show hammered this point home. "What's taught in sex education? Don't do it. Everything is abstinence. Don't do it."

Prof Bishop brought out the well-known fact that studies have shown that comprehensive sex education that includes, not just abstinence, but fidelity and safer sex, is far more effective, results-wise.

Overall, the discussion highlighted what needed to be done. But it didn't quite deal with why the Ministry's policy was the way it is and how to effect change. How to overcome resistance among politicians and bureaucrats to a more enlightened education?

Progress, from a long perspective

Nevertheless, even having such a talk show represented progress. Whether or not Mediacorp will get rapped on its knuckles for airing it, we shall wait and see.

The last time Mediacorp addressed the same question - of gay sexuality education - was nine years ago, in a 5-minute segment of a show touching on sex education generally.

In that 1999 production, a gay teen was trotted out, complete with a pseudonym and silhouetted face. The voice-over introduced him as someone "confused" about his sexuality. The very first quote from him that was used had him saying, "I have unprotected sex..." which did a wonderful job of cementing stereotypes of gay people being promiscuous and spreading Aids.

Authority figures were then paraded out, nearly all of whom tried to sound sympathetic while denying the possibility of being gay. The then-President of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association (SPPA), which ran a sexuality hotline - 23 percent of the calls received related to homosexuality, the program said - told viewers: "Our stand is young people can have a liking for their own gender, or sex. That doesn't necessarily mean that they are homosexuals."

An obstetrician and gynaecologist averred, "The place for family life education is in the home, it's not necessarily a school curriculum subject."

To close the 5-minute segment, the voice-over suggested that the gay teen was on his way to recovery: He "has voluntarily sought counselling from the SPPA. He is trying to sort out his feelings for a girl who's expressed affections for him."

That was Mediacorp, 1999.

Activism with the aim of changing social attitudes is a marathon. It is easy to be depressed when despite enormous effort, one sees little improvement. Half the problem is because as humans, the present is simply more present than the past; we too easily forget how things have been.

But once in a while, we get a chance to compare past and present, and we see the progress we have made. Of course, we are still nowhere near our goal, but the positive difference is enough to reaffirm our faith.

Alex Au has been a gay activist for over 10 years and is the co-founder of gay advocacy group People Like Us. He is also the author of the well-known Yawning Bread web site.

CNA's Blog TV: Am I Gay? (Part 1 of 3)

CNA's Blog TV: Am I Gay? (Part 2 of 3)

CNA's Blog TV: Am I Gay? (Part 3 of 3)



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