Singaporeans Failing at Sex Education?

The island republic’s ministry of education rebuilds its sex education programs

Singapore has tiptoed into the emotive issue of sexual education in schools with an announcement that the Ministry of Education intends to screen and train educators to teach an updated program in its local schools.

With typical Singaporean thoroughness, the new programs are aimed at students beginning at the age of 11, in Primary 5, a year younger than before, and extending all the way to junior college, teaching youth how to navigate and handle relationships on new media networks, how to protect themselves from unsafe sex and how to say “no” to pre-marital sex, according to the ministry’s website.

One of the problems is that a rapidly diminishing number of young Singaporeans want to say “no,” and they are endangering themselves by their lack of knowledge about contraception and its consequences. The government estimates that each year about 2,000 teenagers under the age of 19 become pregnant.

Some, according to a study by the ministry of education, abort their pregnancies while others go on to give birth and become teenage mothers. “Both groups suffer negative consequences, either from the trauma of abortion or as a single young mother, for which they are ill-equipped,” according to the study.

According to Singapore Planned Parenthood, a privately funded organization, the numbers of youth becoming sexually active has skyrocketed from only 3.4 per cent of those between the ages of 12 and 21 in a1999 survey, to 46.1 per cent of those between the ages of 16 and 20 - the closest corresponding age group – in 2010. In 1999, 77 per cent of respondents said they were against premarital sex, even if the couple were in love. Now, 73 per cent say it is acceptable. About a third of respondents between 16 and 20 years old said they had agreed to sex after meeting someone for the first time. A third also said they had had sex with someone they met online.

Planned Parenthood says more sex education is needed, particularly on the subject of contraception. The percentage of Singaporeans who said they used the withdrawal method to prevent pregnancy has doubled since 1999, with 21.3 percent saying they used withdrawal in 2010 instead of contraceptives.

Planned Parenthood Vice-President Edward Ong told the Straits Times the survey results 'reflect the failure of contraception education in Singapore. The withdrawal method is not a contraception method at all. In fact, it is a situation where things are out of control,' he said.

The most commonly used contraceptive measure remains condoms, according to the Planned Parenthood study, which was quoted in the Straits Times. In the 1999 and 2010 surveys, 23.5per cent and 41 per cent of respondents respectively said that they had used condoms.

The announcement that the education ministry was updating and changing its sexuality education curriculum kicked off a flap on the ministry’s Facebook page over a requirement that teachers overseeing the program must “practice values in line with the curriculum.”

One of those values was abstinence from sex before marriage. Commented the popular blogger mrbrown: "So the teachers who teach this course must practice abstinence before marriage too? Would the basic requirement be virginity? Eunuchs or married teachers only?"

Another tweeted: "So do they change teachers after they lose their virginity? And shame them during morning assembly?"

The ministry hastily backed away. Acknowledging the "funny jibes" and saying: "Let us take this opportunity to redress the issue. When we said the teachers must have 'mainstream values', they must know what these values are, and have the life experience, maturity and wholesome values to impart these values and provide sound advice to their students. "So no, we'll not be prying into teachers' personal lives (phew!)."

Nonetheless, Liew Wei Li, the director of the Student Development Curriculum, identified the values as “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.” She also emphasized that the ministry would promote abstinence as “the best option,” one that 73 percent of students have already objected to.

Unfortunately, encouraging abstinence doesn’t appear to work, which according to the curriculum the ministry appears to recognize.

“Abstinence only is not supported by the extensive body of scientific research on what works to protect young people from HIV/AIDS, sexually transmitted infections (STIs), and unplanned pregnancy,” reported a comprehensive study by the AIDS Policy Research Center & Center for AIDS Prevention Studies at the University of California, San Francisco. “An assessment of the peer-reviewed, published research reveals no evidence that abstinence only programs delay sexual initiation or reduce STIs or pregnancy. By contrast, credible research clearly demonstrates that some comprehensive sex education, or “abstinence-plus,” programs can achieve positive behavioral changes among young people and reduce STIs, and that these programs do not encourage young people to initiate sexual activity earlier or have more sexual partners.

As elsewhere across the world, how to teach sexuality leaves big questions, with the young far ahead of their parents on subjects such as homosexuality and gay marriage. The Singaporean government reviewed its penal code in 2007, legalizing oral and anal sex was for heterosexuals -- and for lesbians only. However, the government left in place section 377A, which dealt with “gross indecency between consenting men.”

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, in the final debate over the issue, told Singapore’s parliament that "Singapore is basically a conservative society...The family is the basic building block of this society. And by family in Singapore we mean one man, one woman, marrying, having children and bringing up children within that framework of a stable family unit."

That may leave Singapore’s well-vetted sexuality education teachers with a quandary. Although homosexual congress between consenting adult males remains outlawed, the story in the streets is considerably different. A gay rights organization called Pink Dot drew more than 15,000 people to a local park a week ago to celebrate different sexual orientations. It is hard to believe, given near universal access to the Internet and a vast sexual cornucopia, that the country’s young aren’t going to notice.

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