September 1999

CNA special assignment: sex education, part 1




"No man has ever died from not having sex," the young woman told an assembly of a few hundred schoolboys. I thought that was one of the more telling scenes from Channel News Asia's program on sex education in Singapore, aired on 27 August 1999.

It was a small milestone for Singapore television, that they got brave enough to do a half-hour documentary on this subject, and personally, I thought the resulting program was quite creditable. It was even a pleasant surprise to me that they devoted about 5 minutes to homosexuality. That made it a first of sorts for a locally produced program.

There are two parts to this essay. Part I contains my general thoughts about some issues raised by the program. I won't detail everything that the program covered -- it'd be too tedious. Part II contains more specific and more critical commentary on the homosexuality segment.

* * * * * * * * * *

That there is a need for better sex education in Singapore is undeniable. Actually, I'm sure a lot of people deny it nonetheless. There's a feeling that "I did all right without anyone ever giving me sex education and I'm a father of four, so why raise the issue now?" Others feel that sex education merely leads to promiscuity. As if sex and promiscuity are somehow bad and contagious.

In truth, Singaporeans are extremely stuffed up about sex. And very ignorant too.

Dr Paul Tan, Council Member, Singapore Planned Parenthood Association (SPPA):
"We are a very literate population. All of us are quite highly educated, but in terms of human sexuality, we are illiterate. We [the SPPA] are amazed at some of the questions that are asked of us. It just shows a general ignorance on the subject, I mean, girls asking questions as, 'If I have sex in a standing up position, I will not get pregnant.' I mean, it looks such a ridiculous sort of question to be asking, but to them, it's true. They sincerely believe that if they have sex in the standing position, there is this backflow of seminal fluid, so they won't get pregnant, and they in turn will pass this 'information' to their friends and everybody believes this is one form of contraception."

Dr Lim Su Min, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist:
"They ask their friends, they get rubbish answers, they ask their teachers, they get scolded. They go home and ask their parents, they get scolded. Opportunities and avenues for sex information are difficult to come by."

Some kids get information from the internet. The only girl interviewed by Channel News Asia (all the other students interviewed were boys) said,

Xu Shimin, 14, Yio Chu Kang Secondary School:
"My friends taught me what websites to go and I went in and I learnt a lot than the textbook that they teach us.

Interviewer: "What kind of websites do you go to?"

"About abortion, about casual sex, yes."

* * * * * * * * * *

When and where

The program interviewed a few teachers. With one exception -- and he was the only male educator interviewed -- the rest gave the impression of being reluctant to deal with the subject, and if at all they had to, they took a very conservative stance. One department head made it clear that the subject was low priority, and meant only for the 16-17 year-olds of Secondary 4 and 5:

Dorothy Tan, Department Head, St Gabriel's Secondary School:
"It's a very small part of our program. We only stress on that when they come to Sec 4 and 5, because we have so many other programs on, that's why, so we can't have so much emphasis on this, and on top of that, ours is a mainly boy's school, so I don't think there is a great urgency here. I think the parents should take a more active role than the school, because our main aim is academic, it's the bottom line, so sexuality, just sex alone, is not the main thing."

Channel News Asia's interviewer asked her whether she would consider sex education for the younger boys.

Dorothy Tan:
"I won't because it might awaken something that is really not necessary. As far as the younger boys are concerned, I don't think a high percentage of them are 'awake' as to this… many of them are still very innocent, so if you push this to them, actually it may not be a good thing."

On the other hand, professional counsellors felt that younger kids also needed sex education.

Anthony Yeo, a professional counsellor [1]:
[I am] "concerned about children who do not know anything and they allow strangers to fondle them, or they allow even their own parents to do that to them …. when that shouldn't be happening and they have to appreciate that some things should not happen..... I think we can educate them, protect themselves."

John Vasavan, the President of the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association, concurred. He spoke about children in Primary 6, who would be about 12 years old. 

John Vasavan, President, SPPA:
"Some of them … mature in age … Primary 6 … they would want to be engaging in some petting and even, we've even known of cases in which kids … everyone got involved in sexual intercourse.... We realise that they are not given the right information."

The Ministry of Education has included two chapters on sex education in the science and moral education syllabi. But what do the teachers do with them? Do they teach them as sex education or something else?

Clement Chua, 16, St Gabriel's Secondary School:
"Whatever we do every year is almost repetitive, form Sec 1 to Sec 4… we just take the worksheets as some wastepaper. We don't actually benefit from any of the programs, especially the weekly ones where they give us worksheets to do, you know, things like love, loyalty, trust friendship, that kind of very small stuff that should have been done in primary school, I guess."

[Interviewer's question inaudible]

"As in love? Love your parents, love your friends as brothers, that kind of thing, not relationships with the opposite sex or whatever, so it's primary schoolish."

This suggests that teachers avoid talking about sex even when they have to do the sex education portion. How pathetic can you get?

To justify avoidance of this subject, teachers fall back on the excuse that the subject is properly for the family, and that the aim of schooling is primarily academic. You might have noted that Dorothy Tan made these two points in the quote above. Both are highly debatable.

Dr Lim Su Min, Obstetrician and Gynaecologist:
"The place for family life education is in the home, it's not necessarily a school curriculum subject, which you go an get exams and get 3 A's and whatever. But until we have a platform, a program in the school to provide sex education, so that the young children who grow up becomes sex educators of their children when they are parents, until we get that into the system, we would not be able to have the homes as the place for family life education."

I would go further than Lim Su Min. I contest that we should even kowtow to the axiom that sex education ought to be in the home. And I strongly disagree that schooling must be primarily academic. For a kid, the school is the second biggest part of his life. While the family is the biggest, there are no external standards set for quality in family life. Society cannot ensure that the kids get quality upbringing from their families. After all, any tom, dick and mary can become fathers and mothers. The school is the main place where quality standards can be made to apply, where quality information can be made available to children. It is a dereliction of societal responsibility to say that schooling scope should be narrowly confined to the academic. For the sake of many children, school must be the place to make up for the deficiencies of home. Isn't that why many countries' schools have programs for nutrition; why vaccination is often delivered through schools?

Sex is a big (and very engrossing) part of teenagers' lives. To deny any overlap between this big part and the other big part of their lives -- school -- flies against common sense and the best interests of our children.

Next, to use euphemisms like "family life education" is a little laughable. It simply reinforces the shadowiness of sex. By keeping sex unspeakable, by insisting that the family is the appropriate place -- implying that the school is too public a place to discuss something as intimate (read: embarrassing) as sex -- is to continue to keep the issue illicit and thus a breeding ground for ignorance.

* * * * * * * * * *


It struck me, watching the program that teachers and students had vastly opposite ideas of the needed approach to the subject. The teachers' idea of sex education was didactic and instructive: "This is right! That is wrong!" The subtext was: sex is bad. If you want to be good, don't do it.

The teenagers had different ideas. For them, the approach ought to be experiential and discussive. While there are biological facts to be familiarised with, the subject revolves around issues to be debated and values challenged. The starting premise should be: There Isn't Any One Right Answer. Listen to the boys speak:

Jonathan Pua, 18, St Gabriel's Secondary School:
"It shouldn't be so scientific and strictly limiting …"

Ian Chan, 14, St Joseph's Institution:
"The curriculum is designed in a way that the students and the teachers must be very open. You can't be like afraid to talk about the issue."

Kenny Choong, 14, St Joseph's Institution:
"As you grow up, you learn that you are wrong. I mean, you tell everyone that you know this, and then everyone says you're wrong, and then you find out that you're wrong, and then you get totally embarrassed lor…"

Interviewer: "[inaudible] … misconceptions…."

Kenny Choong,:
"So far nothing yet lah."

Interviewer: "Then how do you know you were wrong?"

Kenny Choong:
"I mean, I know everything." [Friends around him laugh].

Nigel Na, 14, St Joseph's Institution:
"I think also, subjects on morality are quite popular because once you get down to the physical side, there's not much more you can say about it, but everyone has a different moral, so, you know, as things go, different people will give you different answers to different questions. Usually, it will go like, um, we start off with the physical side of things and someone will say, but is it right, and someone will say of course it is and he will be contradicted, then discussion will go on. It's quite refreshing to hear views like that."

Kenny Choong, 14, St Joseph's Institution:
"… we can't really take one person's view as everything, we must have more exposure to it, I think it's part and parcel of childhood that you actually find out on your own lah … I mean, as you gradually realise what is right, what is there, that's not … while our parents are overprotective, they don't want you to know things … they themselves are shy to talk about it sometimes, and they don't want you to know some stuff and get you imagining all over about it."

Justin Wee, 16, St Joseph's Institution:
"There's nothing wrong with such things, it's just that whether you'll be able to think for yourself and see whether what you are doing is right, you know, that's the thing. If it's too much red tape, it's also not very good. So you must be a bit more open and be able to … not just be so within your shell… not so contained within your shell, you see, you must go out and explore and if you're intelligent enough, you'll be able to differentiate, it's no harm at all, you see."

The St Joseph's boys' responses may be the positive outcome of their Deputy Principal's approach:

Brother Michael Broughton, Deputy Principal, St Joseph's Institution:
"If you treat sexuality purely as something biological, then it's only biological. It doesn't affect your choices, your moral decision-making. So I think our idea, our plan, aim … it will be to emphasize that sex is something more than simply biological, since it touches on so many important parts of human living. Our sexuality cannot be escaped."

You might also have noticed that some of the St Joseph's boys who were interviewed were 14 year-olds. That would be Secondary 2. Compare this to St Gabriel's, where Dorothy Tan would not consider sex education until they were 16 or 17. She said, as I quoted earlier, "it might awaken something that is really not necessary… if you push this to them, actually it may not be a good thing [2]."

This is what I mean by some adults taking the view that just the mere mention of sex will lead to young people jumping up and doing it. They ignore the fact that sex is visible everywhere in modern media, and that just because teachers are tight-lipped and parents frigid about it doesn't mean the kids haven't had a thought about it yet.

Brother Michael Broughton, Deputy Principal, St Joseph's Institution:
"… as much as I wish that [i.e. abstinence among the boys], I also realise that many will not. Many will experiment long before marriage, and I have to make sure then that they are covered, and they are informed, you know, and that will be the kind of protection, that they understand the ramifications of what happens…. but sometimes you've got to desensationalise it, because sex is so sensationalised and for boys, sex is equal orgasm, is equal immediately, you know, that it's a fun thing, a happy past-time. That is what they receive from the media, you know, and you've got to propose to them that there are other views and that there's a more serious view of sex. Sex is not a fun thing you do in your spare time. Sex is all about living, you attitude towards women and you commitment to relationships, and your acceptance of yourself as you are."

So what exactly did St Gabriel's do for their 16 year-olds (after having done nothing for the 14 year-olds)? They invited a speaker from the Family Life Society. I am told this is a very Catholic group, and extremely homophobic too, in other words, stuffed up about sex. Giving a talk about sex. The title of their talk was "The Celebration of Life", as you'd notice, more euphemism.

The Channel New Asia program included a few shots of the speaker, a young woman, speaking to a few hundred boys in the school auditorium. That's when she said, "No man has ever died from not having sex," and somehow I knew what the overall thrust of the talk was.

In another snippet of the event, she said to the boys, "We're not here to talk about safe sex. There's no such thing as safe sex."

Heaven help us!

Jonathan Pua, 18, St Gabriel's Secondary School:
"The mood today and the main themes that were highlighted by the speaker were negative-toned, I mean, they tell you all the really bad things about sex, about … they don't really give you a good view of sexuality as a whole. It sort of scares you on the subject, that … I mean, one wrong move and that's it. You're gonna ruin who knows how many lives .… maybe they should also focus not only on the bad things but … well, we should know about the bad things, there's also many good things on the subject…"

Channel News Asia interviewed the co-ordinator of the Family Life Society's talks.

John Ooi, Family Life Co-ordinator:
"Students have been exposed to many messages, and some of these messages suggest that it's all right to do whatever you fell like doing. Sometimes, they don't think too much about the consequences of these messages they accept and so they are not so receptive to the message of love, friendship, chastity that we share. I guess there are a whole host of difficulties in trying to get our message across. It's not an easy message to share."

The big problem with the "how" is that these missionaries of chastity cannot but be didactic. Yet, the reality of the present day is that no teenager is going to accept such an approach any more in sex or in any subject. And a good thing too, for the sake of Singapore's future. It is amazing to me that the missionaries can't see how out of touch with reality they are. Not just on sex, but on their prescriptive approach. People nowadays want the freedom to think for themselves, not to be told what is Right or Wrong. I don't even know whether they realise they were made to look silly, when their young woman speaker asked the boys what was intended as a rhetorical question, only to get laughter:

The young woman from the Family Life Society, speaking to an auditorium of boys:
"You know about Annabel Chong [3] ? Would you want to be the next person to sleep with her?"

She pushes the microphone to one 16 year-old. He says, with a huge smile, "It all depends…"

Entire auditorium bursts out laughing.

Channel News Asia tried their hand at adversarial journalism. They asked Dorothy Tan of St Gabriel's, the Department Head who brought in the Family Life Society talk, if one session like that was not too little, too late.

Dorothy Tan, St Gabriel's Secondary School:
"It is a lot already because we take the students out of the class for the whole day."

With that, another thought flashed through my mind about the 'how'. How can one do sex education by giving a public talk to a few hundred boys at a time? It can only be a monologue, a top-down edict, like God giving Moses the Ten Commandments.

More so than academic subjects, sex education must be about young people learning to think for themselves, exploring options when confronted with issues personal and social. This demands an iterative process of sustained contact and dialogue between the young person and adults who are understanding and approachable, spread over years as the teenager passes through the many phases of adolescence.

A setting like a mass assembly in a school auditorium is completely at variance from the needed environment.

* * * * * * * * * *


I don't know if it was coincidence, but it struck me watching the program, that too many teachers trying to do sex education for boys, were female. I say 'trying' because, from what the program showed, they weren't succeeding.

Clement Chua, 16, St Gabriel's Secondary School:
"The teachers are very hush-hush and conservative about such matters … they like rush through the chapter. Some teachers, especially the older generation, they are very conservative in such matters, it's very hard to talk to them. The younger teachers find it a bit awkward especially the female teachers because we are guys…"

I think we have to recognise that men and women approach the issue of sex quite differently. I recall reading a succinct statement encapsulating that difference: "For men, sex sometimes leads to love; for women, love sometimes leads to sex."

Especially for boys whose hormones are raging, curious about this new horizon, we must always bear in mind what Brother Michael alluded to. That sex is fun. It is seen as a past-time. Of course it is. Most of them masturbate every day, if not a few times a day. Talking and joking about girls enhances camaraderie with your classmates. Getting a girlfriend increases status. Petting is a thrill not to be missed. Actually getting laid is better than winning the prize for the 100-metre dash. It's a question of fun and conquest. Crushes are the emotional roller-coasters: exhilarating, absorbing, distracting, crushing. Wonderful and hopeless at the same time. But sex is always fun.

Many women find it hard to appreciate this angle. They can see it, they can know it rationally, but they cannot instinctively empathise with the boys on it. Listen to how this female teacher puts down the boys' attitude to the subject:

Eva Chia, teacher, St Gabriel's Secondary School:
"… textbooks cover very technical things… but they ask even further, like masturbation, sexual intercourse, how it's done and all that … some are really cheeky."

We can't go around denying that women, for biological and cultural reasons, often bring a different perspective to sex. To them, sex is a more serious business and more closely tied to love. So the schoolmarms, following their female instincts, preach abstinence, and waiting for the right person, waiting for the right moment (i.e. after marriage). They try to cordon off sex as untouchable. Such a message is so unrealistic for boys that it is no wonder that the message falls flat. Hence the very critical comments made by the teenage boys to Channel News Asia.

I think the sex education program would be a lot more successful if the male teachers handled the subject. They don't have to be science teachers, after all, the relevant biological facts aren't that difficult to bone up on. What is more important is that they should be the ones able to achieve rapport with the kids, able to talk comfortably one-on-one with them, able to treat the subject with candour, light-heartedness, freedom from dogma, and a touch of their own (cheeky) boyhood.

However, Singapore's education service has a severe shortage of male teachers. Most men do not find the idea of a teaching career as interesting or fulfilling. In fact, men often find the prospect of interacting with kids quite stressful (a symptom related to the worldwide tendency for fathers to be distant).

But there is one group of men that tend to be a lot more interested in teaching -- the gay men. And there is anecdotal evidence that generally speaking, the better male teachers tend to be the gay ones. If the education service wants to succeed in recruiting more male teachers (so far, they are trying, but not succeeding), they ought to target gay men [4].

The only problem is that government policy here is apoplectic about anything gay, starting with homosexuality as an issue in sex education. This was an area Channel News Asia thought they covered in the last five minutes of the program, but I think they failed the test. See Part 2 

© Yawning Bread 



  1. Anthony Yeo has been mentioned before in 2 other Yawning Bread articles, relating to the Symposium: Homosexuality and the Church -- the report and the commentary.
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  2. Note, however, that the schoolgirl who surfed the web for information about abortion and casual sex, was 14 years old.
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  3. Annabel Chong, formerly from Singapore's premier school for girls, Raffles Girls' School, set the world record for the number of men she had sex with, within a 24-hour period. I can't remember how many men; somewhere in the hundreds. Her name has entered Singapore folklore.
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  4. Some people might think that the campaign to attract men into the teaching service should suffice to attract gay men (if they can even bear to contemplate gay teachers). If so, they know nothing. In order to attract gay men, distinct issues need to be addressed, chief among which is an assurance that they will not be discriminated against for their sexual orientation. Nowadays, gay men are increasingly open about themselves, and they certainly would not want to find themselves sacked mid-career. There may also have to be provisions for spousal benefits for their partners.
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