Lesson of sexuality education debate

Demonstrators take part in a gay rights parade against homophobia and in support of legalizing gay marriage in La Paz on February 14, 2014.


ALONGSIDE those who upbraided the Health Promotion Board (HPB) for some aspects of its sexuality guide and those who praised its forthrightness are a number who are not het up but feel the agency should have seen the controversy coming.

After all, moral campaigners took issue in 2009 with the sexuality education programme run by the Association of Women for Action and Research, and with HPB's Breaking Down Barriers (on sex disease/HIV prevention) in 2011.

This raises a larger issue of how secular agencies should operate when a "culture war" prevails, invoking religious beliefs at times. Should public advisories and educational content be tailored in deference to vocal sections of society to avert contention? Surely not.

Pragmatic Singaporeans would agree that a health agency should not be asked to umpire a contest of ideas about sexuality. Sticking to its remit, HPB should communicate vital sex health information accurately and non-judgmentally to those in need.

It should, though, be mindful of sensitivities, and where there is ambiguity or differences of opinion, take pains to point this out, to avoid being seen as taking sides.

Sexuality education is rightly a matter for parents to decide, and they are free to opt out of the Growing Years and eTeens programmes of the Education Ministry.

However, the majority of parents value the holistic and secular approach of these programmes, run as part of the character and citizenship education curriculum.

These lay an emphasis on sexual abstinence before marriage and the focus on family as an indispensable basic unit of society, which implies "encouraging heterosexual married couples to have healthy relationships", as the HPB put it. At the same time, it would be antiquated for the authorities to wear blinkers for homosexuality when it's a fact of life.

A recent Institute of Policy Studies survey showed 78 per cent here frowned on homosexuality. In another study, done by Nanyang Technological University, some 64 per cent held such negative attitudes in 2010, a decline of 4 percentage points from 2005. Over time, society will find its own level.

Elsewhere, religio-moral assertions on sexuality have tended to hinder worthy educational efforts. In the United States, lobbying by interest groups led to sex education curbs in many states for decades. It wasn't social enlightenment that finally reversed the tide by the mid-1980s, but the advent of Aids.

Singapore, too, needs to find its own way in striking a sensible balance. It should avoid importing the "culture wars" seen elsewhere, not least since notions of sexuality clash with other values, like tolerance of diversity and social inclusiveness.

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