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Ministries, HCI studying feedback on Focus on the Family Singapore workshop

SINGAPORE — The Ministry of Education (MOE) is working with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to look into the feedback received over a relationship module for junior college students, which drew public flak after a student complained that it was sexist.

SINGAPORE — The Ministry of Education (MOE) is working with the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) to look into the feedback received over a relationship module for junior college students, which drew public flak after a student complained that it was sexist.

Responding to media queries, the MOE also said today (Oct 8) the workshop is not part of its sexuality programme, which must be taught by sexuality education teachers trained by the ministry. 

The provider of the workshop, Focus on the Family Sing­apore, was appointed by the MSF. The workshop has been running since 2009 and is set to conclude by the end of the year.

An MSF spokesperson confirmed that the ministry had vetted the contents of the workshop in a way similar to the MOE’s processes for sexuality education programmes. 

Yesterday (Oct 7), Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) student Agatha Tan, who attended the workshop last Friday, shared a letter she wrote to her principal on her Facebook page, saying the programme “seemed to emphasise and enforce traditional gender roles in a relationship”.

The post, together with photos of the workshop booklet — which featured lines like “a guy can’t not want to look” — was shared widely online, and prompted HCI to say it would gather feedback from other students on the workshop. Some HCI alumni have started a petition asking the school to suspend the workshop.

(Material used in relationship workshop by Focus on the Family Singapore. Photo: Facebook/Agatha Tan)

The MSF said students are asked to fill up evaluation forms after the sessions and the final evaluation report is given to the school. “The MSF also conduct audits on the workshops. The MSF, MOE and the school will look into the student’s feedback,” the MSF spokesperson said.

The MOE also stressed that it has in place “a stringent vetting and approval process for the engagement of external providers”, if schools wish to engage them for additional sexuality education programmes. These external providers and trainers are interviewed before they are appointed, it said.

Rules on external sexuality education programmes were tightened after a furore broke out in 2009 over a programme offered by the Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), leading the MOE to suspend all external programmes. In 2010, six providers were appointed to provide sex education programmes, including Focus on the Family and three other groups affiliated to Christian organisations, drawing criticism from former AWARE president and women’s rights activist Constance Singam. 

Today, AWARE executive director Corinna Lim said it is not the first time it has heard student complaints about sexism in workshops conducted by Focus on the Family. “Encouraging students to think men can’t control their own actions and to make assumptions about what women “really mean” creates a dangerous environment in which women’s consent is neither sought nor valued, and men’s desires are prioritised over all else,” she said. 

Focus on the Family Singapore has defended the programme, saying it is “designed to be a relationship programme to help young people unravel the world of the opposite sex, uncover the truths of love and dating, and reveal what it takes to have healthy and meaningful relationships”.

Ms Singam said the workshop material suggests Focus on the Family Singapore, as well as the approving authority, is out of touch. 

Mr Jim Lim, director of relationship consultancy firm REAL Academy, felt the content could have been put across in a better manner. “If they meant it as, across the board, boys are like that (and) girls are like that, I’ll tend not to agree, because that’s quite draconian,” he said.

Mr Louie Tai, 39, a training professional and father of two, said he was shocked that education providers “still package cultural lessons this way”. However, the felt the onus was on HCI, rather than the authorities to scrutinise the content diligently. “MOE should not oversee these details, as this is in line with its strategy of allowing each school to develop a niche for themselves,” he said. “Schools have to take ownership of the content and the selection of topics.”   

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