The Virtual Tussle Over Health Promotion Board’s FAQ

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Just completed my final undergraduate essay for USP3506: Religious Discourse in the Contemporary World. Phew, what a sense of relief!

Lost track of the date of submission for the essay... only realised on Saturday that the essay was to be submitted on Sunday. It has been quite a rush, trying to write an expository in slightly more than one day. But, yeahh! Done!  



The Virtual Tussle Over Health Promotion Board’s FAQ

Contesting Religious and Secular Beliefs Over Homosexuality

Abstract

Singapore’s Health Promotion Board, in coming up with a set of Frequently Asked Questions on homo- and bi-sexuality, has ignited a public controversy. Faith communities, uneasy that this advisory may signal a swing towards moral degeneration, reacted by issuing open letters to their laity, political leaders, as well as the general public. There is a cascade of online statements arguing for and against the statutory board’s advisory. In the highly interconnected virtual space that Singapore has, online developments influence and are influenced by events from the real world. With the advent of an Internet age, opinions can be shared more directly without passing through the filters that print media are subjected to. These virtual tools, while capable of being used for attacks on opposing camps, can also be used to build a bridge based on mutual understanding and respect. In a multi-religious but secular society like Singapore, such bridges are of paramount importance.

Keywords

Health Promotion Board, homosexuality, religions, secularism, online media

Introduction

Singapore is a country with virtual highways bringing its citizens into close proximity. The online media is easily and extensively available to individuals, as well as groups of people. It affords opportunities for like-minded citizens to congregate; it hands virtual loudspeakers for some to project their thoughts; at times, it even functions as platforms for petitions to take place. It is in this online world where the latest friction on the positions of Lesbians, Gays, Bisexuals and Transgenders (LGBT) in Singapore erupted.

The Health Promotion Board (HPB), a statutory board under the Ministry of Health, was established in 2001 with a vision to “build a nation of healthy people”. In November 2013, the board posted a set of Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) on sexuality and sexually-transmitted diseases. It is the former type of FAQs – those on homo- and bi-sexuality – that sparked a public outcry.

At first, the FAQs were relatively ignored, buried among the bytes of information churning within the online world. In 3rd February this year, however, someone who goes by the name ‘Aaron’ started an online petition to remove this FAQ:
We urge Minister Gan Kim Yong to conduct a thorough, non-biased, comprehensive review of the website’s information as it dangerously promotes homosexuality.

The elected government of Singapore owes its citizens the responsibility to do thorough comprehensive research before they take such a committed stand as taken by the Health Promotion Board.
The statutory board, somewhat thrown off-guard by the sudden attention leveled on their FAQ, decided to take down links to Oogachaga, SAFE and AFA, all LGBT-friendly organizations providing counseling support in Singapore. Their knee-jerk reactions resulted in a counter petition by undergraduate Melissa Tsang:
We recommend that Minister Gan Kim Yong ignore the ridiculously misinformed and regretfully bigoted petition "Review HPB's "FAQ on Sexuality"".
We urge the HPB to restore the original version of the "FAQ on Sexuality", complete with links to Oogachaga, SAFE, and AFA.
The debate became even more vociferous, with various religious groups and their leaders weighing in. Online circulars were released and these groups’ reservations with the FAQ were expressed. On social media platform Facebook, church members were calling for their friends to sign the petition against the FAQ. There is a fear, rooted on religious grounds, that this FAQ may lead to moral degeneration and consequently, societal breakdowns.

Responding to these agitations, proponents of the FAQ insist that Singapore is a secular society and religious factions should not prescribe formulae to run the country. At the heart of this pulsing debate is the divide between the expectations of religious groups and non-religious civil activists. The opposing camps are located within the same multi-ethnic and multi-religious society. Within this common physical and virtual space, it seems inevitable that their opinions would contest.

Please Take Down the FAQ

Some questions and answers offered by the Health Promotion Board hold implicit value judgments. They can be considered as offensive and alarming by religious groups:

• “A same-sex relationship is not too different from a heterosexual relationship.”

According to the holy teachings of certain religions – Christianity and Islam, for example – a same-sex relationship is greatly different from a heterosexual one. Among these disparities, one is noteworthy: the homosexual relationship is not sanctioned by divine will, unlike the heterosexual one.

 • “Homophobia is the irrational fear, disgust, or hatred of homosexuals, or of homosexual feelings in oneself.”

The word ‘homophobia’ is intense, with its suffix suggesting an exaggerated and illogical reaction. The sentence, taken at face value, seems to portray any opposition to the civil rights of LGBTs as an ‘irrational’ and hateful force.

• “Some people are even biased towards gays and lesbians. Because of their lack of understanding and fears, these people may ostracise or discriminate against homosexuals and bisexuals.”

Similarly, the above statement from the FAQ positions the opponents of the FAQ in a negative light, with suggestions that they are ignorant and fearful.

While the facts given by the HPB online advisory is unquestionably useful to LGBT and their families, the opinions embedded within can be contentious. The Singapore Islamic Scholars & Religious Teachers Association (PERGAS) released an online statement to record their disappointment with the board’s FAQ. This group notes that the FAQ contrasts with “the state’s pro-family policy” and “undermines the traditional family unit which is essential in building our society”. Likewise, the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) registered their discomfort with “the wordings and tone of the FAQs” which “appeared to be at odds with the Government’s position” and “may even encourage some to experiment alternate sexual practices”. These groups of religious leaders are worried that HPB’s advisory would normalise homo- and bi-sexual relationships. Their arguments are made public – in both mainstream and virtual media – not only for the consideration of their laity, but also for them to unambiguously stake their positions in this controversy.

Such opinions on non-procreative sexuality are not new in Singapore. They have been raised whenever groups feel threatened by policy shifts appearing to favor the LGBT community. When asked about this recent controversy, a volunteer-counselor from a Methodist church and a full-time staff at a Catholic group expressed their stances with the same rhetoric. According to Kenneth Paul Tan (2008), these threats are often “yoked onto the existing discourse of low fertility in Singapore”, leading to “a reduction in the size of the future workforce and defence force”, which in turn has “devastating consequences for the future economy and security of Singapore”. These arguments, based on a chain of possible phenomena, are typical strategies playing up on nationalist fears. Also, they tend to be religiously inflected; in its online declaration, PERGAS cites Islamic teachings while NCCS ends its letter to its members with a prayer for God’s guidance.

Apart from collective notes of concern issued by associations, individual religious groups and leaders have openly staked their positions. Pastor Lawrence Khong (2014), from Faith Community Baptist Church, shared a seven-page response expressing his dissatisfaction with the partiality of the FAQ. His personal Facebook account, as well as the church’s website and Facebook page, are his chosen platforms to offer rebuttal. In its original FAQ, HPB is seen as taking side by naming Oogachaga as a resource avenue. This particular organization is a member of the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association, with a hotline run by specially trained LGBT or LGBT-affirming counsellors. The church is “baffled” as to why the statutory board did not feature other established supports. Focus on the Family, for example, is not mentioned, despite being an independent charity registered with the National Council of Social Services and with partial funding from the Ministry of Social and Family Development. “To exclude these other avenues of care is to discriminate in favour of LGBT-affirming organizations,” the writing goes and that is “both unjust and harmful”.

Although the links to Oogachaga and other LGBT-friendly support groups are removed, there is a residual uneasiness that the FAQ on sexuality is not as neutral as the Health Promotion Board claims it to be. The government body is seen as overstepping its mission by passing value judgments in favor of a particular group.

This brouhaha would have been avoided, PERGAS seem to suggest, if religious groups are consulted prior to the posting of an advisory on a contentious topic by a government board. The Muslim organization “wishes to state its readiness to be consulted on potentially sensitive issues such as this matter in the future”, thereby ensuring that their interests are represented. The mildly-worded rebuke disguises the disquiet that some religious groups may have and their fears of being sidelined in a modernised country with an overarching economic imperative.

Having instant access to the public’s attention via online media, including social platforms, allows religious groups to exert their moral authority. Such virtual voice-speakers are less restrictive, uninhibited by the layers of bureaucracy, censorship and self-censorship that print media face. They are convenient too, allowing religious groups and leaders to engage directly with their members and critics alike. Other than facilitating an exchange of opinions, technology can also provide tools for these faith-based communities to galvanise their members into action.

A Leaked Document: Support 377A, a simple guide to giving feedback

The Internet is a library of facts and opinions that can be accessed by everyone at the same time. It is a repository where words, pictures and videos, once uploaded, cannot be easily removed. Even articles that have become obsolete or are taken down may surface again to trouble their creators. In January 2013, a gay couple that has been together for fifteen years filed an appeal to challenge Section 377A, a legislative act criminalizing sex between mutually consenting men. This couple alleged that the law entrenches “stigma and discrimination” against LGBT in Singapore. In response, Pastor Khong and his church came up with a step-by-step guide to advise members on how to express their distress to authorities vested with political and legal influence. The virtual document was replete with Biblical quotes, along with samples of what to write and the contact emails of Singapore’s political leaders, including that of the Prime Minister, Minister of Law and Acting Minister for Social and Family Development.

The guide was to be forwarded to “the likeminded and the aligned” whom required advice on how to give feedback “in an acceptable manner through available channels”. It was “not meant for mass distribution to everyone in your church or everybody you know on Planet Earth”. Naturally, since the guide was supposed to be a secret, it was leaked out to the public and everyone involved in that debate knew about this ‘secret’ document.

Slightly more than a year later, this issue was revived in a related discussion on the Health Promotion Board’s FAQ on sexuality. The document, originally intended to be covert, went viral again with LGBT-sympathetic individuals sharing it through Facebook. This particular guide, written by a Christian community, was re-contextualised as a proof of religious leaders’ moral panic when the government appeared to be ceding grounds to the LGBT community. While the online media can be useful in reaching out to like-minded people and galvanizing activity, they can also bring about unexpected, perhaps even self-damaging, consequences.

Thank You For Putting Up The FAQ…

The letters of concern issued by religious authorities represent groups of people sharing similar paradigms. They are courteous but strongly-worded, and informed by religious sensibilities. In comparison, the responses from LGBT organizations are more muted. Only Pink Dot, a movement promoting LGBT rights in Singapore, publicly praised the FAQ; on its Facebook page, Pink Dot shared the HPB advisory while calling it “wonderfully factual and balanced information on sexuality”. There are also thankful murmurs to the Health Minister and Prime Minister for refusing to give in to pressure and take down the FAQ.

Perhaps sensing that the political leaders are treading a tightrope on this issue, LGBT organizations are less exuberant. After all, this policy development favors them and there is no need to create celebratory sounds lest this advisory be revoked. They understand that they do not have the same extent of influence with politicians – the way religious groups would have – and it may be better not to engage in public spats with these other groups of people.

There may also be memories of previous occasions in which the LGBT movement has been chastised to tone down for fear of having their rights taken away. In January 2003, then-Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong concluded a public controversy about hiring homosexuals in the civil service. He said that “gays must know that the more they lobby for public space, the bigger the backlash they will provoke from the conservative mainstream”, causing their public space to be “reduced”. In January 2013, Ho Peng Kee, then-Senior Minister of State for Law and Home Affairs, advised that “while homosexuals have a place in society… repealing Section 377A will be contentious” and may send a “wrong signal” that the government is “endorsing the homosexual lifestyle”. There are obvious political directives for LGBT organizations to not agitate publicly for more civil rights.

Whatever the reasons, LGBT organizations appear to be lying low in this public controversy, despite having the option of releasing online statements and press releases. The most vocal supporters of the FAQ, hence, are not organizations but individuals.

The Pioneer Generation VS The Millennial Generation

Health Promotion Board’s advisory has inspired a storm of open letters, not just by groups of religious leaders but also by individuals, some of whom are prominent citizens.

Thio Su Mien, former Dean of the Faculty of Law at the National University of Singapore, weighed in on the controversy with an open letter addressed to the Ministry of Health and the Prime Minister. She claimed that the Health Promotion Board, in its FAQ on Homophobia and Biphobia, is “effectively promoting hatred against Singaporeans who subscribe to the Shared Values of our nation” of a heterosexual “family unit” raising children together. She indicated that the public “needs to see prompt action demonstrating that statutory boards are not above the law” and that “HPB is held accountable for its action”. Thio drew on her identity as a member of the Pioneer Generation fretful of her country slipping into a morass of decline and moral decay. She hoped that the government would restore its moral basis of authority by taking remedying actions.

Her strongly worded letter was matched in intensity by the emotional words of Adrianna Tan, a homosexual civil activist. Tan sent her open letter to the Minister of Health and Prime Minister as well. “I am not a member of the Pioneer Generation,” she said, “but I am a member of the Millennial Generation who desires to see small steps in social progressiveness so that the Singapore I call home will grow into becoming the inclusive society we want to be.” Tan asserted that religious-inflected reasons should not impinge on the workings of a secular society, that religious groups should not dictate the lives of people who do not share their beliefs.

It is interesting to note the role that the Internet has played in enabling this candid display of opinions by two people from very different generations and religious persuasions. If not for the Internet, Thio, self-described as being from the Pioneer Generation, and Tan, a self-proclaimed member of the Millennial Generation, may otherwise have never come across each other. The online media have enabled strangers to respond to one another with ease, though the communication may result in a verbal clash of opinions.

A Virtual Battle Over Homosexuality

In Singapore, disagreements rarely take place in the form of physical violence. They usually occur, not as an exchange of fists, but as an exchange of words. The great depth of Internet penetration enables religious authorities to share their doctrines, reach out to believers and galvanise them into action. It also allows strangers to respond to one another. Articles can become viral, accruing comments, page views and influence, particularly if they are shared over social media. The primary advantage of online media over print media is that the former can more easily liberate a chorus of opinions. The convenience of such virtual tools may make it tempting for religious and secular groups to pit their opinions as and when disagreements arise.

However, it is easy to post an article but difficult to clear up any mess that it may cause. It takes wisdom to know what to say and when to say it. It takes wisdom as well, to keep quiet even when one feels the urge to speak up. After all, information, once released into the virtual space, cannot be easily re-captured. With increasing religiosity in Singapore as well as a greater plurality in views, there is more tinder for a spark of misunderstanding to ignite conflicts.

These virtual tools, while capable of being used for attacks on opposing camps, can also be used to build a bridge structured on mutual understanding and respect. In Singapore, a multi-religious but secular society, such bridges are important in fostering thoughtful consideration between groups oriented in different directions.

(Word Count: 2863 words) 

Bibliography

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