Exactly a decade ago, when I was still considered ‘the young’, I remember having talks on sexually transmitted diseases during Monday morning assemblies and the immature giggling during Biology lessons on the reproductive system. However, at that point, it never really occurred to me that it was actually the efforts of the Ministry of Education (MOE), the school or the teachers in educating us about sexuality at a young age, since it was so well integrated into the curriculum. In fact, it was so well integrated that I never gave it a second thought.
Fast forward ten years later, I learnt that sexuality education is actually one out of the six Social and Emotional Learning Programmes offered by the MOE for schools. According to the MOE website, this aspect of the programme aims to help students make responsible choices on matters involving sexuality. It is taught in the context of values which our mainstream society believes – the importance of the heterosexual married family as the basic unit of society, and respect for the values and beliefs of the different ethnic and religious communities on sexuality issues. (“Overview of MOE’s Sexuality Education in Schools”, 2010)
As I mentioned, sexuality education is incorporated in formal curriculum in schools through the subjects of Science, Health Education and Civics and Moral Education, albeit in varying degrees. Health education focuses on the emotional and psychological health in lower primary, with physical health coming in during upper primary. Civics and Moral Education imparts values of respect, responsibility, integrity, care, resilience and harmony all the way from lower primary through upper secondary. Finally, sexuality education related topics in Science range from upper primary to the junior college level, focusing on areas related to sexual reproduction in human beings and genetics. In a subconscious level, I was probably aware of the practical knowledge being imparted to me through these subjects.
However, what I did not know was that there were also avenues to impart sexuality education outside of the curriculum. Co-Curricular Programmes like The Growing Years (GY) Programme addresses the subject of human sexuality from a holistic perspective, involving the cognitive, emotional, social, physical and moral aspects of sexuality, while the Breaking Down Barriers (BDB) Programme focuses on Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) or Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) education. The school themselves can also engage external providers, who will complement MOE’s sexuality education programmes. To ensure the fidelity of these providers, periodic audits are instituted to check on the fidelity of sexuality education programmes in schools as well as their compliance with guidelines on the engagement of external providers (Scope and Teaching Approach of Sexuality Education in Schools, 2010).
Another thing that I did not know back then was that since parents are seen to be ultimately responsible for their children’s moral development, they can “opt their children out of the entire school sexuality education programme or just for individual topics, talks or workshops if they so decide” (Roles of Stakeholders, 2010). The onus will then be on the parent to educate their children themselves, without the input of teachers.
Obviously, this system of sexuality education would not have endured the times if it did not have some benefits.
According to an article in The Straits Times in May last year, “the number of teenagers contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections has increased over the past several years”, said Singapore’s Education Minister Ng Eng Hen. The almost threefold increase in numbers from the year 2002 to 2008 highlights the need for sexuality education programmes that help students make responsible choices on matters involving sexuality. Students are also taught contraception to protect them against diseases and unwanted pregnancy, and also to understand the repercussions and how to prevent them from a health perspective. This is in addition to teaching teenagers how to say no to sex and promoting abstinence as still the best option for teens (Policies on Sexuality Education, 2010).
Also, youths who are exposed to sexuality education at a young age would probably find it less foreign, therefore in turn less intriguing, and would probably not resort to blind experimentation. In researching for this essay, I stumbled onto the blog of a mother who talks about being open with her son, Jaymes, about the “birds and the bees”. Now, not only is he nonchalant to sexy pictures, he is unembarrassed by bed scenes on television while his mother is around and has promised that he would not have sex before he turns 18. We must be careful to not generalize Jayme’s positive outcome as the reaction that most, if not all, youths would have if they get exposed to sexuality at a young age, but if his story is anything to go by, youths should be exposed to sexuality education at an early age so that they will be better informed of their options and thus not do anything reckless.
However, with all such education programmes that cater to youths from different social and religious backgrounds, there will be some limitations.
Some of the key guiding principles of sexuality education are that it is premised on the importance of the heterosexual married family as the basic unit of society and that the teaching of facts is integrated with the teaching of values, which reflect that of the mainstream society. This is limiting as it effectively alienates the individuals who might be outside the mainstream society, either as homosexuals or confused of their sexual orientation. When they receive the sexuality education based on heteronormative values, they may look upon themselves as deviant and falling short of society’s norms, thus fostering negative self worth. This goes against the aims of sexuality education to “inculcate positive values and attitudes of sexuality so that pupils develop a respect for themselves and others as sexual beings” (MOE’s Framework for Sexuality Education, 2010).
Also, we need to address the question of whether the young are becoming desensitized to such sexuality education methods as, according to The Straits Times article mentioned above, the number of teenagers contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted infections is still rising, and what can be done to curb this exponential increase? More studies and research would have to be done before we can fully understand this trend and attempt to alter the programme to solve this problem.
I would think that the way forward for sexuality education in Singapore would be for the content to not only reflect a mainstream, heteronormative society’s stand, but to also encompass and tolerate all other aspects and sexual orientations present in today’s society. I use the word ‘tolerate’ because, no matter how forward thinking and Westernized, Singapore is still largely a conservative state and it will still be a long time before the mainstream society can actually accept the subcultures present in society.
For me, an ideal sexuality education model would be one that involves the current programme provided by MOE for schools, supplemented by external providers who can take a more liberated stance to sexuality education, like the Association of Women for Action and Research’s (AWARE) Comprehensive Sexuality Education (CSE) programme.
AWARE’s CSE programme chose to list homosexuality as a neutral issue in an exercise which helps young people understand all the different aspects of their sexuality. “At no point does the programme try to challenge existing values; it only helps people understand themselves better and be more aware when they make decisions. The ability to rationalize and think through their decisions is one that most parents would want their children to have” (AWARE’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education programme, 2009). Presenting teenagers with different viewpoints and options does not prevent them from making their own moral decisions – it in fact allows them to make far more informed choices, which can only be a good thing.
I did not recall having been educated in what constitutes as homosexuality when I was in secondary school, but that was a decade ago and times have now changed. As youths become increasingly aware of their sexuality through their friends, the media and the internet, if there is a lack of a formal institution to answer any questions that an impressionable youth has, he or she will probably be more likely to engage in reckless experimentation. This is where models like AWARE’s CSE programme come into play, providing children with a more comprehensive understanding of their sexuality, as well as the sexuality of those outside the mainstream sensibilities. Of course, any programme would have to take a morally neutral stand towards homosexuality, as the purpose of any programme is to educate and expose youths to sexuality in all forms, not to promote either heteronormativity or homosexuality.
Even though I feel that external providers can help create the ideal model for sexuality education, they no longer run programmes in schools due to a huge controversy last year as AWARE’s CSE programme was found to have gone beyond the guidelines set by the MOE. According to an article in The Sunday Times earlier this year, an outcry among concerned parents prompted the ministry to suspend all programmes run by external groups like AWARE in May last year and to start vetting these groups due to a leak in the instructor’s manual, focusing on the critiques of its neutral stance towards issues like homosexuality, anal sex and pre-marital sex. Taken out of context, these issues caught the attention of parents, who were otherwise quite happy to leave sexuality education to schools.
I feel that this move could only be narrow-minded. If parents were reluctant and even embarrassed to talk to their children about sexuality, homosexuality would be an even tougher topic to breach. In this way, parents would do well enough to leave it to the external providers to handle this aspect of a child’s sexuality education, which is an important part in this post-modern era, where the young now know more than the old.
Ministry of Education Singapore. (2010). Overview of MOE’s Sexuality Education in Schools. Retrieved from http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/social-emotional-learning/sexuality-education/
Ministry of Education Singapore. (2010). Scope and Teaching Approach of Sexuality Education in Schools. Retrieved from http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/social-emotional-learning/sexuality-education/scope/
Ministry of Education Singapore. (2010). Roles of Stakeholders. Retrieved from http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/social-emotional-learning/sexuality-education/stakeholder-roles/
Ministry of Education Singapore. (2010). Policies on Sexuality Education. Retrieved from http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/social-emotional-learning/sexuality-education/policies/
Ministry of Education Singapore. (2010). MOE’s Framework for Sexuality Education. Retrieved from http://www.moe.gov.sg/education/programmes/social-emotional-learning/sexuality-education/framework/
Tan. (2009, May 26). Sex education in Singapore’s schools should provide teens with objective, reliable information, Education Ministry says. The Straits Times. Retrieved from http://www.news-medical.net/news/2009/05/26/Sex-education-in-Singapores-schools-should-provide-teens-with-objective-reliable-information-Education-Ministry-says.aspx
Tan, ECL. (2007, January 10). Sex education in Singapore. http://eastcoastlife.blogspot.com/2007/01/sex-education-in-singapore.html
Tham, Irene. (2010, February 9). Aware bows out of sex education for now. The Sunday Times. Retrieved from
Yang, JY. (2009, April 9). AWARE’s Comprehensive Sexuality Education programme. Retrieved from http://www.wla.lib.wi.us/waal/newsletter/241.html#welead