Sunday, March 23, 2014

HPB FAQs on sexuality – A Brave Effort (22nd February 2014)

Our Singapore Happenings 
22nd February 2014
HPB FAQs on sexuality – A Brave Effort  

A lot of buzz has been going on lately about the HPB FAQs – A FAQs aimed at addressing key questions youths may have about sexuality. The FAQs drew a flurry of comments and opinions from both the LGBT community and the conservatives. Many interpreted that the Health Promotion Board (HPB), a government statutory board, was promoting homosexuality through the FAQs. The LGBT community has largely applauded the FAQs such as Pink Dot SG’s spokesperson Paerin Choa who said it found the information to be objective and aligned with globally accepted scientific standards. On the other hand, a petition calling for its review has since surfaced. The petition author by the name of “Aaron” argues that HPB “dangerously promotes homosexuality” and that “[f]ollowing public moods, popular trends or making unsubstantiated statements will not help to bring clarity on the issue at all”.

It is never easy for the government to take a stance on such a controversial topic such as homosexuality; not just in Singapore but in countries around the world. Some countries like Canada and England have legalized gay marriages while others like Nigeria and Russia have enacted anti-gay laws. It is never easy when you have two camps, equally convinced and outspoken about their stance, wanting the government to pander to their agenda whenever possible.

Taking a step back, we have to understand the purpose of these FAQs. It is primarily to address the concerns of youths in Singapore who have burning questions regarding their sexuality and to provide them with the help needed. Being a statutory board that provides public health education resources, HPB has a tough role to play as it is inevitable that it will have to stance to be able to address issues hard-on whilst remaining neutral and objective. The reasons for the FAQs to be interpreted as being pro-homosexual/bisexual can be seen in its phrasing of answers such as: “A same-sex relationship is not too different from a heterosexual relationship. Both take the commitment of two people.” and “Homophobic people are prejudiced - and will sometimes reject and bully homosexuals.” The Health minister has since clarified that the FAQs do not promote same-sex relationships and the government’s stance that family is the basic building block of society remains unchanged.

Could the information be presented in a better manner with better explanations about Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT)? Yes. Could the FAQs on sexuality be focused on other aspects of sexuality rather than making homosexuality/bisexuality the only focus in the FAQs? Yes. Could the phrasing of answers to the questions be better? Yes. But I would still applaud the HPB for taking the brave step in taking up the responsibility and challenge of addressing these sensitive but important issues. It is tricky; any slight hint of taking a side will get flanked by the opposing party. But ultimately it is the maturity of the board to acknowledge that there are increasing fractions in society that do not fall into the category of having a heterosexual relationship. With the rise of new media where information are more easily accessible and changing global perception on these issues, more people are exploring and questioning their sexuality.  In the process, youths may get confused with the varied opinions and schools-of-thought. HPB accepts that this is happening and looks at the issue from a neutral perspective; explaining what it is about and teaching youths how to go about their uncertainty. It remains an authority in public health matters in Singapore so it is only their responsibility to provide the help that youths may need in an information-rich, but not necessarily right, world.

It is good to note that HPB actually removed links to Action for Aids Singapore, Oogachaga Singapore, and SAFE Singapore – non-government organizations providing youth counseling and psychological services after the petition for the FAQs to be reviewed was created. It could be the awareness that this is still a sensitive topic of discussion and that the statutory board do not want to be seen to be endorsing the values these organizations stand for. This is in fact the state of debate on the topic of homosexuality in Singapore – deadlock. The advocates on both sides are equally staunch in their beliefs. As a society, I believe we have a long way to go before we can be comfortable or embrace the idea of homosexuality being a part of our societal landscape especially in an Asian context like Singapore. As can be seen from The Institute of Policy Studies survey on race, language and religion involving more than 4,000 Singapore residents found 72.9 per cent of respondents saying it was “always wrong” or “almost always wrong”, when asked how they felt about gay marriages. 

Society has to decide when it is ready to embrace it; I do not think the government has the moral authority to do so. For now, we are definitely not ready. But as time passes, more studies on homosexuality will be done and we may gain a deeper understanding behind the genetics of homosexuality. Maybe then, our mindset and perception will be different and we can begin to accept and embrace the notion of homosexuality. In the meantime, different groups are free to air and advocate their beliefs but it is about being respectful of each other’s comfort level when discussing such topics. That is maturity in itself.

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