Discourse on sex / sexuality: the Singapore context

On July 4, 2012, AsiaOne News ran an online article entitled “Social media drives MOE to revise sex education”.

In the past few days, news of sex education in Singapore had hit the international scene, crossing both geographical and virtual boundaries. Having only read some about this happening, I can share here that I remain ambivalent on the choice and use of words between “sex education” rather than “sexuality education”, the distinction of which might seem inconsequential but shows a general attitude and level of discomfort with the subject, AsiaOne indicating greater comfort in managing the topic than Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE), the very institution responsible for the education policy planning and general dissemination of knowledge of the subject to promising young individuals upon whose shoulders Singapore will need to depend upon for its future.

In today’s world of the Internet savvy where information is literally at one’s fingertips, and where search retrieval results act as general classifications, associations and even branding of identity, what is perhaps more important than a false sense of modesty is the accessibility and availability of information retrieved.

A google search and retrieve (dated 10 June 2012) for the terms “sex education” and “sexuality education” renders 661,000,000 hits in under 20s to the former and about 45,700,000 hits in about half a minute to the latter.

On the perspective of branding by association, the term “sexuality education” in contrast to the more direct “sex education”, carries ambivalent connotations. While the term is used by UNESCO under its efforts on improving prevention on HIV/AIDS, it at the same time appears in retrieved searches that tend towards the ultra-conservative in political views. From The Huffington Post, for example, a news article entitled “Abstinence-Only Sex Education Bill in Utah Prohibits Teaching Contraception” (posted Feb 2012) appears close in searches retrieved with Singapore’s MOE pages. Utah is one of USA’s most religiously homogeneous state, with approximately 60% of the population reportedly belonging to the Mormon Church that greatly influences their culture and daily life. Other closely associated results retrieved with the search terms “sexuality education” include videos, one of which is a cartoon version of “sexuality education” from Belgium targeted at children aged 6.

At MOE’s website under “Education > Programmes > Social and Emotional Learning > Sexuality Education > Scope and Teaching Approach of Sexuality Education in Schools”, readers will find find in the opening paragraphs (retrieved Tuesday, 10 July 2012, 22:40 hrs):

Sexuality Education

Scope and Teaching Approach of Sexuality Education in Schools

Abstinence before marriage is the best course of action for teenagers. Sexuality Education teaches students the possible consequences of sexual activity and that pre-marital sex is not desirable as there are inherent risks.

To reduce the incidence of STIs/HIV and teenage pregnancies among our young, a practical approach is adopted. Sexuality Education teaches students facts about contraception, repercussions of casual sex, and the prevention of diseases from a health perspective. This is in addition to teaching teenagers about building healthy relationships and how to say “no” to sexual advances.

Sexuality Education teaches students what homosexuality is, and the current legal provisions concerning homosexual acts in Singapore.

Both teachers and MOE-approved external speakers should respect that they are in a position of trust with respect to students and ensure that schools are not used as arenas for advocacy on controversial issues.

A quick discourse analysis of the text uncovers the Singapore governmental institution’s underlying sense of Victorian values and lack of ease with the subject of sex education. The opening paragraph that outlines the “scope and teaching approach” of sex education in Singapore schools raises a few questions due to inconsistencies in conceptual definitions (defining “secular” vs. “mainstream” values in multicultural, multi-religious Singapore) and logical fallacies, one of which is faulty correlation that the discourse tries to equate facts (how STIs are spread) with social values (preferred abstinence from pre-marital sex).

One wonders what kind of cat and mouse game teachers and students would play during class on the topic of sex education, or on whom the blinkers will lay when “abstinence before marriage” (a material act of individual choice) is considered “the best course of action for teenagers” (a social value hegemonically advocated in this discourse) that is also “a practical approach” (begs the question, from whose perspective and for which party concerned – the teachers, the parents or the teenagers?). Even the Roman Catholic Church in their long history of struggle and balance of politics and power, where abstinence, the result of which was a purposeful lack of heirs that dissolved assets in their division amongst many, was deemed a necessary measure of wealth building, power retention and consolidation for the institution and regime of the Church, has had trouble keeping their ordained leaders chaste.

The discourse also postulates that “pre-marital sex is not desirable as there are inherent risks”, where the information gap is filled in with text from the following paragraph referring to incidences of STIs (sexually transmitted infections) and HIV.

There are two implicit assumptions in the above statement that needs addressing. The first is that the discourse is selectively exclusive and does not seem to acknowledge / recognize East and Central Asia’s polygamous relations from which the immigrant history of Singapore shares its roots, from China’s dynastic concubines to Islam’s permission of polygamous marriages. The second assumption concerns a false attribution, that getting married is made equivalent to having a single sex partner for the rest of one’s life and therefore less risk of STI/HIV transmission. The latter ideology is unhelpful in that it undermines the very consciousness raising efforts of HIV awareness for example, where it is not necessarily promiscuity that leads to contraction of HIV. The idea of monogamy after marriage is likewise reification of what is essentially a legal agreement between two parties, where no amount of signature on paper can force loyalty of the heart on either partner in the deal. Breaking monogamy in marriage and being unfaithful is a social taboo that is often not discussed in a collectivist culture such as Singapore without some form of social stigma. As such, it remains a preferred notion that many would recognize as difficult to adhere to given the polygamous history of many Asian cultures and given too, the greater mobility in traveling in today’s context of global work spaces. Even if one were to recognize socio-cultural perspectives to evolve to center its activities around the modern nuclear family unit, the fact remains that the nuclear family unit epitomizes a part of most developed countries’ ideal social fabric, and as such should remain so, in the realm of the philosophical and abstract, not to be taken as a mean measure upon which “practical approach” policies are built.

With a thinly veiled discomfort with the subject of sex education and inherent fallacies outlined in just the opening paragraphs to the scope and teaching of the subject, it is not difficult to then question how it is that MOE might expect its schools in Singapore to fulfill their pragmatic mission in teaching teenagers about “building healthy relationships” by saying “no” to sexual advances?

A study by Laurence Steinberg, distinguished University Professor and the Laura H. Carnell Professor of Psychology at Temple University, entitled “Risk Taking in Adolescence: New Perspectives from Brain and Behavioral Science,” in the April issue of the journal, Current Directions in Psychological Science (2007), discussed that a human brain takes 20 years to reach full maturation, during which time, adolescents would tend to be motivated by their socio-emotive brain system over their cognitive-control system – two different brain systems that mature on different timelines. The former enables adolescents to become more easily aroused and be more sensitive to social influence, whilst the latter that takes well into an individual’s twenties to become fully mature, is the system that helps maturing human adults to connect consequences to actions in order to make the most rational decision in any given context of situation. As such, Steinberg observed that governments will continue to spend billions of dollars on education and prevention programmes ineffectively in persuading teens to not smoke, drink, do drugs or in the case of Singapore, have pre-marital sex, if the educational interventions alone do not first recognize and subsequently address the competing brain systems in adolescents that need different maturation timelines.

From a different context, MM Lee Kuan Yew had encouraged Singaporeans to ”grow up” if we had thought our neighbours friendly. One could postulate that part of that all-rounder growing up needs to come with a comprehensive and mature education policy and strategy targeted at Singapore’s young, with the recognition that values taught to the young are values carried into the future.

In an age where Singapore’s teens would already have all access to erotica that includes the current international best seller, 50 Shades of Grey by British author E.L. James at a click of a mouse, where in a long term perspective, an ever increasing cost of living and a redefinition of quality of life that may exclude having children for many in the near future, all possible contributing factors to Singapore’s declining birthrates, one could ask if a preventive strategy to sex education with an underlying scare tactic disguised as ”health awareness” is not too myopic a strategy to adopt?

To that extent governmental institutions should collaborate and co-plan policy implementations for long term purposes in a multileveled perspective that includes considerations of how developments in ICTs (information communication technologies) influence current lifestyle and values. If anything, young Singaporeans today would be more inclined towards a ‘global’ mindset identity in addition to identifying themselves as being Singaporean. In this case, the general syllabus for sex education for the young in Singapore should perhaps be planned in complement to Singapore’s population control policies, so that social values taught to young Singaporeans today are in alignment with the country’s overall vision and mission of its population planning towards 2020 or 2050 for example. And instead of appealing to secular or social values that are no doubt important, perhaps the more striking and effective information for Singapore’s young as part of the sex education programme is some home economics on household monthly budgeting and living costs, where the very real financial costs and responsibilities to seeing to full-term an unplanned pregnancy and the resulting costs to single parenthood in teenage years could be outlined in solid mathematics in relation to quality of living, the resulting consequences that include the social perspective will follow.

Perhaps it is time for Singapore to grow up, remove its blinkers and to consciously assume a more mature perspective to the subject of sex education, where one of the more practical, overarching approaches could also be the creating and fostering of a more open and comfortable atmosphere in which the subject of sex and its related themes can be addressed with ease and without social stigma in the Singapore schools.

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Bibliography:

  • Sarah-Jayne Blakemore on The Adolescent Brain (2012) at Edge. Blakemore is a leading social neuroscientist of adolescent development. Accessed July 2012.
  • Tony Fahey and Zsolt Spéder (2004). Quality of Life in EUrope: fertility and family issues in an enlarged Europe. Accessed July 2012.
  • Mónica Silva (2001). The effectiveness of school-based sex education programs in the promotion of abstinent behavior: a meta-analysis. Oxford Journals. Medicine Health Education Research Volume 17, Issue 4, pp. 471-481.Internet resource at Oxford Journals, Health Education Research. Accessed July 2012.
  • “Abstract:

    This review presents the findings from controlled school-based sex education interventions published in the last 15 years in the US. The effects of the interventions in promoting abstinent behavior reported in 12 controlled studies were included in the meta-analysis. The results of the analysis indicated a very small overall effect of the interventions in abstinent behavior. Moderator analysis could only be pursued partially because of limited information in primary research studies. Parental participation in the program, age of the participants, virgin-status of the sample, grade level, percentage of females, scope of the implementation and year of publication of the study were associated with variations in effect sizes for abstinent behavior in univariate tests. However, only parental participation and percentage of females were significant in the weighted least-squares regression analysis. The richness of a meta-analytic approach appears limited by the quality of the primary research. Unfortunately, most of the research does not employ designs to provide conclusive evidence of program effects. Suggestions to address this limitation are provided.”