“Activism, any form of activism, is socially divisive,” an educator recently confidently declared to his students in Singapore. “It goes against the very grain of what we stand for. We are community builders. We don’t divide community.”
Leonard Tan, vice principal of St Joseph’s Institution (SJI), an elite independent all-boys Catholic high school in Singapore, made the comment while addressing his students after news broke that the school had withdrawn an invitation for a representative of the Inter-University LGBT Network to speak at a hosted TEDxYouth event.
SJI students had initially invited Rachel Yeo, research and advocacy director of the LGBT group, to present at the independently organized TED event.
Yeo, a fourth-year student at the local Nanyang Technological University, told local media that she had planned to draw on her experience in LGBT advocacy to talk about ways to “champion your causes, and have conversations with people that don’t stand on the same side as you in a way that is constructive and civilized.”
In a press statement issued on July 20—the day of the TEDxYouth event—the Inter-University LGBT Network said that “due to [Ministry of Education] regulations, [Yeo] would not be permitted to speak at the event.” The regulations in question were not specified.
A ministry spokesperson later told the local media that they were “neither involved in nor informed about SJI’s deliberations on the TEDxYouth@SJI programme and selection of speakers” and that the school has “full authority” to make such decisions on their own.”
Despite numerous testimonials from the LGBT community, the Singapore government has claimed at the United Nations that “members of the LGBT community are… not discriminated against in schools or the workplace.”
Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, whose own nephew participated in a photo project on Singapore’s LGBT community this year with his partner, sees himself as maintaining a delicate balance between the LGBT community and their allies, and a vocal group of religious conservatives.
While Section 377A of the Singapore Penal Code states that sex between men is illegal, effectively criminalizing gay men, the government has stated that the law will not be actively enforced.
“My personal view [on 377A] is that if I don’t have a problem — this is an uneasy compromise — I’m prepared to live with it until social attitudes change,” Lee told the BBC in a television interview in 2017.
Tan’s comments highlight the conservative position Singaporean schools often take towards both political activity and controversial issues such as LGBT equality and discrimination. It’s a stance that’s in particularly stark contrast with this year’s LGBT Pink Dot rights rally held on July 21. For the first time in Pink Dot’s 10-year history, ambassadors made explicit demands for progress.
“We are ready for schools to support all our children equally, with accurate sex education, and to equip teachers to handle bullying in schools,” said radio deejay Mark Richmond, one of the Pink Dot ambassadors. “We want our children to be brought up in healthy, affirming school environments, regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Other declarations included calls to end the censorship of positive portrayals of LGBT people. Under government regulations, references to or portrayals of the LGBT community are considered “mature content,” and broadcasters are told that they “should not in any way promote, justify or glamorize such lifestyles.”
In 2016, comments made by then-US President Barack Obama on LGBT rights on the talk show Ellen were edited out when broadcast in Singapore. The coming-of-age film Love, Simon about a gay teenager was rated R21 in Singapore, which means only people aged 21 and above were able to see it in cinemas.
Still others have called for the repeal of S377A, a law that makes sex between men illegal, effectively criminalizing gay men. LGBT activists have long argued that the retention of the law, even without active enforcement, lays the foundation for the discrimination and marginalization of the LGBT community.
In 2007, an effort to petition for the repeal of the law failed and constitutional challenges against the law were dismissed by the courts in 2014.
This year, Pink Dot volunteers also stood in formation during the event’s traditional light up exercise—where participants hold up pink lights for an aerial photograph—to create the words “WE ARE READY”, a pointed message to a government that has said Singapore is “not ready” for LGBT equality.
In 2015, the prime minister told a group of journalists that Singaporean society “is basically a conservative one”, and that he did not think Singapore was ready for same-sex marriage. “There is space for the gay community, but they should not push the agenda too hard because if they (do), there will be a very strong pushback,” said Lee.
Pink Dot’s activities would likely fall under Tan’s classification of “socially divisive.” In his comments to students, leaked online in the form of an audio recording and a transcript, he held up the French priest Saint John-Baptiste de La Salle as an example to follow.
“Saint John de La Salle didn’t go and campaign against the French government or you know the Parisian bureaucracy and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got to do something.’ No. He got a few teachers and he started his own school to deliver what he believed was best.”
Canonized in 1900 and declared the patron saint of Christian teachers in 1950, de La Salle was an educational reformer who abandoned his family home, renounced his wealth and founded the Brothers of the Christian Schools to provide education for poor children and reform schools for delinquents, as well as training for lay teachers.
His efforts were carried out in the face of resistance from ecclesiastical authorities — de la Salle might not have lobbied the French government (which was a monarchy at the time), but his work took place in opposition to establishment interests.
The Inter-University LGBT Network declined to comment on Tan’s comments, but Yeo told Coconuts Singapore: “The only thing I’d like to say is how disturbed I was by his bit on activism… how warped it was. It’s a shame this is what the boys are being taught.”
Asia Times’ calls for comment to SJI, Tan and the Ministry of Education went unanswered at the time of publication.
Tan’s position on activism is unsurprising in a country where civil liberties like freedom of assembly are regularly suppressed and activists are often branded “recalcitrant” in the public domain, even before they’ve been convicted of any offense under draconian public order laws.
While SJI’s withdrawal of Yeo’s invitation has attracted publicity and attention, the reality is that Singaporean schools and educators have a long, controversial history in handling LGBT issues.
“Most teachers know to avoid addressing the LGBT issue positively,” says Otto Fong, who taught at an independent Singaporean school until he resigned in 2007.
“Once in school, I made a comment when students were making fun of gays, and said, ‘What’s wrong with gay people?’ A school leader told me the next day to not talk about the issue. I gather someone’s parents in that class made a phone call within 24 hours!”
Schools can also be ill-equipped to deal with LGBT youth in need of support. “In a gender and sexuality workshop run by the only full-time school counsellor attached to my school, it was impressed upon participating teachers that, should a student come to us and confess LGBT identities or relationships, it was our responsibility to report it to the school, their parents, and possibly the police,” said a teacher who taught in a government school until this year who requested anonymity.
“When I questioned that, the counsellor cited that it was criminal, referring to 377A, and argued that even outside of that LGBT individuals face higher suicide rates, which, again, is criminal, but also undesirable… Nothing I said could change her mind, or change how she would approach students in the course of her work.”
That leaves many LGBT students isolated. “It has come to our attention that schools under [the Ministry of Education] are not allowed to refer their students for counseling support at Oogachaga,” says Leow Yangfa, executive director of LGBT-friendly non-profit counseling organization Oogacahaga.
He notes that some schools encourage parents to send their LGBT children to “practitioners of conversion trauma.” “The reason I use the term ‘trauma’ instead of ‘therapy’ is because as a social worker and counsellor, it is widely recognized in my profession that such approaches are not therapeutic in nature,” he says. “It is an unethical form of practice, and has been shown to cause emotional trauma and harm.”
But there’s a slight silver lining, as the refusal to refer LGBT youth to Oogachaga “does not stop many students and youth from reaching out directly to access our hotline, email, WhatsApp and professional counseling services,” he adds.
Some parents, however, stand firmly behind Tan’s view. “Activism used in the right context build[s] awareness and hopefully bring[s] about changes. Used in extremism, it creates chaos and misunderstanding,” wrote Samuel Chin, who identified himself as the parent of an SJI student, in comments on the Facebook page of local news website The Online Citizen. “As any parent, my main concern is whether my son is of the right age to be exposed to such social [LBGT] issues.”
Tan prefaced his controversial comments with the observation that SJI students would likely graduate to “position[s] to influence”, pointing to alumni like the current head of the civil service Leo Yip, or Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean, before warning against activism. Yet some school alumni have been dismayed by his leaked comments.
“Conservatism, the clinging on to privilege, and an eagerness to please authority, right or wrong, inertia, and apathy are historically no less causes for divisiveness than activism,” says political scientist Ian Chong, another SJI alumni.
“Without activists pushing for change, Singapore could have been a colony for much longer. Without people arguing for change, bound feet would still be a thing. Workplace safety, the weekend, universal suffrage – these are all the results of activism too.”
“I spent four years in SJI [and] underwent several leadership training camps that emphasized what the school considered ‘Lasallaian values’ —obviously modelled after de La Salle,” says Suraendher Kumarr, who graduated in 2010.
“Never was I taught that activism was antithetical to community building … look at Jesus Christ! He was clearly an activist and a community builder. By the vice principal’s logic, Christ would not have been invited to speak at SJI.”