Written by Ng E-Jay
27 May 2009

I read with absolute shock and dismay Mr Steven Tan’s ST forum (online) letter “Useful programme except for condom excerpt” published on 20 May, in which the writer criticized the school educational programme Breaking Down Barriers conducted by the Health Promotion Board (HPB) for teaching students how to use a condom.

While Mr Tan praised the programme for providing accurate facts about Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) and imparting useful skills such as strategies on how not to succumb to persuasion, he said that teaching students how to use a condom “gives a mixed and confusing message“, that “students are not likely to heed or remember to practise safe sex just because they have attended a lesson on condom use“, and that students are unlikely, in the heat of the moment, to “remember or follow the steps to use a condom correctly”.

He also says that teaching students how to use a condom “contradicts and compromises the good advice to avoid pre-marital sex as the only foolproof protection against STIs and AIDS“.

I cannot even begin to describe how illogical and abhorrent this viewpoint is.

Of course, we would all prefer youngsters to avoid pre-marital sex until marriage and remain faithful to a single partner. But the reality is that such issues cannot be avoided. In fact, there is growing acceptance that abstinence-only programmes are ineffective in reducing the number of teenage pregnancies and STIs, and this has prompted the Ministry of Education to change the way sex education programmes are being conducted in schools since 2007 (see here).

Mr Stevan Tan is suggesting that instead of empowering students and youngsters with adequate knowledge so that they can make better decisions and protect themselves, we should instead disempower them by deliberately withholding crucial information from them such as how to use condoms properly.

At the outset, Mr Tan already makes the assumption that lessons on condom use will be ineffective. But rather than suggesting ways of improving sex education programmes so as to better deliver the message of prudence and responsibility to students, Mr Tan is suggesting that we teach students less, that we present abstinence as the only choice available.

In other words, instead of arming students with facts and choices, Mr Tan is suggesting that we disarm them and treat them like robots or automatons for whom free will is irrelevant and the power of choice and responsibility is denied.

If youngsters are denied information from schools and educators, they will seek it from far less reliable source such as from friends and from the internet. Is this the outcome that Mr Tan desires?

Mr Steven Tan thinks that teaching students how to use a condom will promote promiscuity. In reality, it is such regressive attitudes towards sex espoused by Mr Tan that make it more likely for students to make bad choices and hurt themselves through ignorance.

In her ST letter (online) “Why teaching youth about condoms is important“, published on 25 May, Ms Jolene Tan Siyu writes:

The claim that teaching condom use “confuses” young people is the same argument that persuaded Uganda to abandon its strategy of encouraging condom use in favour of “abstinence-only” education. After the change in strategy in 2001, HIV infection rates shot up. About 130,000 new infections were identified in 2005, in comparison to 70,000 in 2002.

It is medieval attitudes towards sex and sexuality, rather than tolerance of alternative lifestyles, that ultimately have the potential to undermine the social fabric.

This kind of medievalism was seen also in Dr Thio Su Mien’s ST letter “Gay activists a key constituency of Aware“, published on 18 May, in which she labelled homosexuals and lesbians as “sexually challenged“.

The same bigotry and intolerance was seen again in Mr Tan Keng Soon’s ST letter (online) “‘Sexually challenged’ isn’t an offensive term referring to gays“, published on 26 May, in which the author said that “it is possible that some people are born with homosexual inclinations but that does not make them normal … They are in the same category as people born mentally retarded or blind or deaf or mute“.

Mr Tan Keng Soon’s vile diatribe against homosexuals is not only offensive — in a civilized society it should be considered on the same level as racial fanaticism or religious intolerance. I wonder why ST allowed such a repulsive and vulgar letter to be published, even if only online.

Clearly in our society today, there are those who regard fellow human beings as less than human simply because they are different.

In this fast-paced digital age, it is a royal shame that such bigotry is sometimes allowed to go unchecked.

It is time to stop nit-picking on AWARE’s CSE programme or endlessly trying to crucify those who are merely trying their best to educate our young to be responsible and arm them with all relevant facts. Besides delivering good sexuality education in schools, we should also promote a greater sense of compassion and regard for our fellow human beings, including the ability to tolerate differences amongst our fellow men and treat them as our equals whilst holding on to our private values.


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  1. “Of course, we would all prefer youngsters to avoid pre-marital sex until marriage and remain faithful to a single partner.”

    Well, I would even consider the statement above archaic, coming from the point of view that there is nothing inherently wrong with teenagers being sexually active. Non-promiscuity is good only for the prevention of STDs etc, and should not be directly related to morality. The act of linking sex to marriage is ridiculous, as is the entire concept of pre-marital sex.

    But I come from a much more liberal country, and this is all IMHO :)

  2. The portion of the essay dealing with homosexuals is certainly accurate; there are many who still regard gay men and woman as second-class citizens – or worse. This issue forms the essence of my recently released biographical novel, Broken Saint. It is based on my forty-year friendship with a gay man, and chronicles his internal and external struggles as he battles for acceptance. It provides a clear picture of the repercussions of social rejection. You can learn more about the book at http://www.eloquentbooks.com/BrokenSaint.html.

    Mark Zamen, author

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