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Being “sensitive” enough to hide our intolerance February 10, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Singapore.
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It was all over today’s newspapers: Pastor Rony Tan of the Lighthouse Evangelism independent church was called up by the Internal Security Department for his insensitive comments about Buddhists and Taoists in videos posted on his church’s website.

Let’s not pretend that this is shocking news. I even wrote about it a couple of posts ago: religious texts, especially those of monotheistic faiths, do not lack in their praise and justification for the intolerance of other beliefs. So why would it be surprising if the religious leaders themselves expressed such opinions? Having attended some Christian services myself (Don’t ask why. Long story), where palmistry, astrology, atheism, Islam and “mystical” religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, were described as being the “worship of false idols”, “black arts of the devil”, or “sure ways to damnation”, all in the span of a single sermon, I can say that the only thing unique about Pastor Tan’s case was the fact that it was recorded and exposed to the public eye.

All this brings me to an important question: does this mean that such “insensitive” comments should be censored out of sermons? In his apology, Pastor Tan himself stated that he would not make such comments again. The ISD’s position is also one which requires being sensitive to other religions.

But what good would this do, except merely to maintain a thin veneer of religious tolerance over a festering sentiment of continued disrespect and intolerance that is never addressed? What is the point of trying to shield ugly beliefs from the scrutiny of the multi-religious public sphere, when those beliefs are still held in the individual and collective minds of the faithful? Is that really a better option than allowing those ugly beliefs to be expressed, and condemned, out loud? We will never reach true religious harmony (a fragile equilibrium state of peace, maybe, but not harmony) if we continue to mistakenly equate “the hiding of intolerance” with “tolerance”.

Racism, intolerance, sexism and homophobia have been protected and defended by the untouchability of religion for too long. It’s time we question the morality and validity of religious beliefs and texts, instead of just sweeping these jarring examples of intolerance under the rug of false harmony. Censoring intolerance would not make it disappear, especially when such intolerance and disdain for those who are not “like us” continues to be glorified in holy texts.

In this way, I’m glad that Pastor Tan said what he did, and all of us Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and nonbelievers came to know about it. If anything, it serves as an excellent opportunity for religious leaders and followers to re-examine their beliefs, and to open their eyes to see the fuels for intolerance not so subtly hidden in their religious texts and teachings.

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Learning about the birds and the bees at 21 February 7, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Education, Singapore.
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Last semester, I took the single most useful course in my entire academic life: a general module about reproductive health. That’s right, a course on sex education. Now, I’d like to think of myself as pretty knowledgeable regarding this topic. After all, I took biology at the A levels, and as an avid supporter of comprehensive sex education and the ill effects of abstinence only sex education on teenagers, I do quite a bit of reading into this subject. But I took the module anyway, partly out of interest, but also partly out of a morbid curiosity for a potentially propagandistic pro-marital-pregnancy, anti-pre-marital-sex message from the government.

If what passes as “sex education” in Singapore schools was anything to go by, I wasn’t too optimistic about the impartiality of the module and the lecturer. I went to my reproductive health class with a healthy dose of skepticism. After all, so called “sex education” in schools is tinged with not-so-subtle disapproval of premarital sex, high praise for the wonders of abstinence, and a general arrogance and judgmentalness of abortion, contraceptives, anal sex and the like, as something “other people do”, maybe we’ll learn a bit about those deviant acts, but not without driving home the point that this is not what decent, normal people like us partake in.

Imagine my pleasant surprise when none of these sentiments arose at all in any of the lectures and tutorials. Everything was so matter-of-fact, just as how it should be. No nonsense about right or wrong, should or should not. No judgmental comments, no moralistic notions of “sin”, no snide remarks about homosexuals or prostitutes or sex before marriage, no government-endorsed pro-family propaganda. Just the unbiased facts. Facts about the physiology of the reproductive systems, facts about the effectiveness of different types of contraceptives, facts about the social demographics and possible socio-cultural reasons of women who undergo abortions, and even gory, explicit head-on videos of babies being born (which, I might add, could be pretty good contraceptive incentives in their own right :O), all the way up to facts about obstetric health, and menopause and andropause. Such an honest approach to sex education was refreshing. I was so used to the concealment of the truth and the mishandling of facts in sex education talks held in my younger years.

It wasn’t that pre-marital sex, homosexuality, anal sex, abortion or prostitution were encouraged, or even condoned. That is the beauty of what “neutrality” is. They were simply treated as acts which some chose to partake in, and others don’t, and here are the medical, scientific and sociological reasons for and consequences of these acts. (It never fails to perplex me why conservatives and traditionalists so reluctant to supply our youths with such information at schools, when they are always free to carry out their moralistic preaching in the private spheres of their homes and places of worship, but I digress.)

I could go on about that reproductive module all day and how empowering it felt to be treated like an adult and not have the facts censored for me. But I won’t, because there’s more to this post than just enthusiastic gushing.

After my initial surprise at how enjoyable and insightful I found the course, I started wondering why this thoroughly useful and honest course was only taught to a small class of university students. They should make such content compulsory for all undergraduates. Hell, they should make it part of every teenager’s and young person’s school syllabus. After all, practically all of us are going to eventually have sex, if we’re not already doing it. All of us are owners of bodies with reproductive systems, and almost all of us will have to familiarize ourselves with that of the opposite sex. Almost everyone would find family planning advice useful, and you’d have to admit that enlightening men (and even women! A surprising number of women don’t even know about what’s going on inside them) about menstrual cycles and pregnancy would do more good than harm. Who doesn’t need to learn the important skills of getting pregnant when you want to, not getting pregnant when you don’t want to, and about maintaining your reproductive health in general?  What better place to learn about these useful life skills but in schools?

What hit me even harder was the irony that of all the people in Singapore, us university undergraduates were the ones with greatest access to such information. At the risk of sounding classist or elitist, I dare say that we are not the demographic group most in need of sex education. It is those from low income families who have the most to lose in the event of an unplanned pregnancy (be it teenage or even within marriage).It is the less educated women who need to learn about contraception in order to be empowered within their relationships or marriages. It is those who may not even get the opportunity to study about human biology who are most susceptible to believe falsehoods perpetuated by those with conservative agendas.  It is the young teens, those with the greatest number of misconceptions about sex (i. E. Peeing after sex will flush out the semen and prevent pregnancy?) who are in most dire need of accurate and non-judgemental sex education.

But instead, what we have in secondary schools and junior colleges are morality-based preaching sessions telling us the evils of sex, which, study after study shows to be ineffective against curbing teenage pregnancy or STD rates.

The fantastically informative and enlightening sex education I received at 21 only highlights the inadequacy of sex education in our formal education system. It is sad that I had to wait 21 years to learn the unbiased facts about something as fundamental to human life as sex and my reproductive health. It is even sadder that the vast majority of Singaporean youths will continue to live in ignorance and be fed with untruths that prevent them from making informed choices about their own bodies.

Apologies February 7, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Uncategorized.
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I must apologise a million times over for my neglect. I know it’s no excuse, but the rigors of university life have caused me to temporarily put this blog, and any political or philosophical thought, on hold. I am guilty of the very apathy I had rallied against. If anything, I have learned just how easy it is to be consumed by school or work, and how convenient it is to choose to be ignorant of the social and political issues that seem so irrelevant to our practical lives.

The next post will be up REAL soon. That said, I’m trying not to be such a lazy bum and will post more regularly from now. :P

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