Thursday, April 30, 2009

AWARE Saga: Christ Is Neutral Towards Homosexuality?

Updated: Added and amended last 2 paragraphs. Things have again worsened. On the AWARE website, there's now a .pdf document targetting the old AWARE's so-called focus on homosexuality. It's titled 'AWARE Old Guard hijacked against family values'. Of course, the irony now is that just not so long ago...
On Thursday, the new team said Aware had become too focused on just one issue - promoting lesbianism and homosexuality.
Of course this is quite untrue but sometimes FUD stick. Guess who the people focusing on homosexuality are now! I would like to go back to what Dr Thio said.
Dr Thio said she went on to discover that in Aware's comprehensive sexuality education programme, which is taken to schools, homosexuality is regarded as a neutral word, not a negative word. 'I started thinking, 'Hey, parents, you better know what's happening,'' she said. 'I talked to parents. I said: You better do something about this, otherwise your daughter will come back and say, 'Mum, I want to marry my girlfriend.' 'Or your son will say: 'Dad, I want to marry my boyfriend.''
Thio is guided by her church and what the church teaches. She believes she is speaking for her faith when she says that homosexuality is a sin. For many years now I haven't been sure if that's actually taught in the Bible. Well, there are some verses that seem to suggest this, but on closer examination, they need not have shown anything beyond the shadow of a doubt. It is natural, thus, to ask ourselves the issue that Thio talks about: homosexuality shouldn't be neutral; it should be negative. Anyone that doesn't think so is promoting homosexuality and their daughters will become lesbians and so on.

Now, let's just take a look at what an important person says. How about, let's see what the most important person in the Christian faith say about this issue. Surely Jesus Christ has something to say about this topic that the Thio's church deems important enough to have a big link at its top-left sidebar on its website emphasing its position on homosexuality. What does Christ Himself say about this important and urgent issue?


What?! What do you mean, 'nothing', you ask. Well, it's true, nothing. Christ does not mention homosexuality anywhere in the Gospels. (The Gospels are four books of the Bible that describes the birth, death and Resurrection of Christ. It also contains His teachers and what He said.) If you don't believe me, you may want to read Matthew, Mark, Luke and John yourself and see if Christ mentions anything about this issue. Well, I guess He is also quite neutral about it. If not, won't He have mentioned something about it, especially since it's such a big sin? While Christ does not mention homosexuality, he does have a lot to say about hypocrisy and using God's name in vain.
"Woe to you Pharisees, because you give God a tenth of your mint, rue and all other kinds of garden herbs, but you neglect justice and the love of God. You should have practiced the latter without leaving the former undone..." Luke 11
"Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you. And why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye..." "Not everyone who says to Me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ‘Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ Matthew 7
I wonder what Thio will say about this? Does she think that Christ promotes homosexuality since He is neutral on the subject and has never spoken about it? Now, it is of course correct to say that just because Christ doesn't mention about something, it doesn't mean that it's right. For example, just because music piracy isn't mentioned by Christ, it doesn't mean we should download music illegally. However, in the AWARE case, we are dealing with a sin supposedly so big that it justified the taking over of AWARE using scorched earth methods. I think the bar we have set ourselves to condemn and discriminate others has become that much higher. People who are interested to do things in the name of God need to really read and see what Christ teaches and go back to first principles. The EGM takes place tomorrow. Good luck to the Old Guard!

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

AWARE And Obama's National Academy of Sciences Speech

A week ago, Dr Thio Su Mien came out at the press conference of the new AWARE exco and announced that the sex education program conducted in schools under the watch of the previous exco had the ability to make students become gays and lesbians. Yesterday, the Ministry of Education issued a press statement which essentially destroyed Thio's ridiculous statements.
...Sexuality education conducted in MOE schools is premised on the importance of the family and respect for the values and beliefs of the different ethnic and religious communities on sexuality issues. The aim is to help students make responsible values-based choices on matters involving sexuality....

The schools that engaged AWARE found that the content and messages of the sessions conducted were appropriate for their students and adhered to guidelines to respect the values of different religious groups. The schools did not receive any negative feedback from students who attended the workshops and talks or their parents...

When Thio first made those statements using arguments that seem ridiculous, I was very intrigued as to how this could have happened: I couldn't reconcile it with the idea that Thio seems to be a brilliant lawyer! Or at least I assume that she is one given the fact that she was the first female dean of the Law Faculty at the National University of Singapore. So I wasn't able to fit the role that she plays (as a lawyer) with the assumption that her role usually entails possessing persuasive skills. Her argument are definitely not persuasive to the casual observer.

The only explanation that I could come up with then was that a higher power had replaced the 'lawyer in her'. This was of course her faith, or at least how she interpreted it. One's faith or ideology (depending on your preference), becomes the rock on which all other opinions rest on. Reasonable debates thus gets thrown out the window, rendering the person to make simple mistakes that people at the top of their fields are unlikely to make.

I am reminded just how important it is to separate a pre-determined set of ideology with facts, open mindedness and reasonable thinking; quite similar to what we call science. Two days ago, President Obama gave a speech at the Academy of Sciences when he promised increased investments in scientific research and development. He also addressed a serious issue which was seen during Bush's administration: the tainting of scientific judgement due to the influence of lobbyists and faith-based viewpoints. For example, right wingers like Focus on the Family's James Dobson had for years denied that global warming was happening because it would have been costly to businesses if that was indeed found to be true. A lot of other scientific research was also amended to suit particular ideologies ane political affiliations. This has to stop, Obama says.

On March 9th, I signed an executive memorandum with a clear message: Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over. Our progress as a nation - and our values as a nation - are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our democracy.
That is why I have charged the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy with leading a new effort to ensure that federal policies are based on the best and most unbiased scientific information. I want to be sure that facts are driving scientific decisions - and not the other way around.
This is so, so important. I think that what is happening behind all the bad thinking and poor arguments from Thio and other new AWARE personnel can be attributed to a set of prior beliefs and assumptions that they hold. This ideology 'insists on its own way' and doesn't give open mindedness a chance. Instead, dissent tends to constitute a failure of faith. 'I find your lack of faith... disturbing...' that sort of thing. Another inherent difficulty is getting out of groupthink in an 'organised religion'. (Sometimes it's not exactly the organisation's fault in that the leaders haven't really planned it like that; groupthink just naturally happens.) Fortunately though, this does not describe all faith based places. There are churches which are more progressive do not interpret scriptures in similar ways.
At root, science forces us to reckon with the truth as best as we can ascertain it. Some truths fill us with awe. Others force us to question long held views. Science cannot answer every question; indeed, it seems at times the more we plumb the mysteries of the physical world, the more humble we must be. Science cannot supplant our ethics, our values, our principles, or our faith, but science can inform those things, and help put these values, these moral sentiments, that faith, to work - to feed a child, to heal the sick, to be good stewards of this earth.
So, what the previous exco needs to do at the Extraordinary General Meeting Saturday will be to systematically demolish what the new exco have said themselves such as fear scaremongering and misrepresentation of previous work done by AWARE. There is a need for facts that concerns our health, because in matters of sex ed, we're dealing life and death issues. Presenting inaccurate information and holding on to an ideology when the evidence doesn't seem to support it cheapens the value of open inquiry. Science can help 'inform things', let's keep it that way.

Additional reading: Why smart people defend bad ideas.

Friday, April 24, 2009

AWARE: Analysis of Statements From A Representative Of New Guard

Today has been a watershed day and a sad one as well. For over several years now, I've wondered when religion is going to permeate Singapore society in a significant but not-so-good way. Today is the first time that this has explicitly happened. The national press has started to use the word 'coup' (pronunciation: koo) to describe the taking over of AWARE. The relevation of the coup leader Dr Thio Su Mien is most alarming: she was the one who was sort of behind the whole operation.

Now what I would like to do is to analyse what has been said, and look at it from a non-religious point of view. The reason is that the only way we can resolve this amicably in a pluralistic society is to use plain logic and to be rationale in our discourse. There is enough material apart from the religious aspects that paint a picture of no-confidence on this group of people. The following analysis is based on what is reported in the papers.

Huge Leaps of Logic
Thio spoke of the reasons why she wanted the old management changed.
Dr Thio explained that her concern about the direction that Aware was taking was partly prompted by a letter from a parent who was concerned that the society was promoting a homosexual agenda. He wrote to the Today newspaper in 2007 to ask why Aware's choice of a movie for a charity show was Spider Lilies, about two lesbians who fall in love.
Well, this inference and conclusion seems quite reasonable at first glance, but a little more thought will help us see that this is quite a bad argument and is just not tenable. Just because an organisation shows a movie with lesbian characters doesn't mean that the organisation wants the viewers to become lesbians! I went to research on other charity screenings and found the following.
  • The SMRT had a charity screening of Spiderman III. From this we can tell that it wants to encourage its customers to swing from place to place instead of taking the train. In addition, it endorses violent behaviours in its customers like smashing into trains and blowing up public structures as seen in Spiderman II.
  • The NTU School of Art, Design and Media helped to publicise a charity screening of We Want Roses Too, a movie about the 1970s sexual revolution and feminist movement in Italy. A central character of this movie has an illicit abortion. NTU's aim is to try and to influence its students to have illicit abortions. MCYS' portal promoted the same film too. Its aims, obviously, are similar.
  • had a charity screening of the movie Lilya 4-ever. Its sponsor was Mrs. Lim Hwee Hua, Minister of State for Finance and Transport. This movie examines 'human trafficing and sexual slavery'. By having this movie screening, is trying to promote and endorse sexual slavery among movie goers.
  • The National Committee for UNIFEM had a charity screening of Take My Eyes. This movie involves a woman who runs away from her abusive husband but later returns to him because she still loves him, only to be beaten up again. This movie encourages and endorses husbands to be abusive towards their wives because, well, their wives will always return to them.
  • AWARE had a charity screening of Spider Lilies. This is a movie about two women who fall in love and who are lesbians. By screening this movie, AWARE is endorsing, promoting and encouraging the viewers to become lesbians themselves.
Sex Ed
I've written about this before 2 years ago. My concern about sex education that is linked to a particular faith might be less objective. The primary reason might be that the theology (interpreted accordingly) tends to be more important than the disinterested facts. The facts sometimes need to be tweaked to accommodate the theology. This is not good for the consumer because I think there should be full disclosure so that people can make their own decisions. We don't want to lose the trust of the people we mentor. Let's have a look at what Thio says.
Dr Thio said she went on to discover that in Aware's comprehensive sexuality education programme, which is taken to schools, homosexuality is regarded as a neutral word, not a negative word. 'I started thinking, 'Hey, parents, you better know what's happening,'' she said.

'I talked to parents. I said: You better do something about this, otherwise your daughter will come back and say, 'Mum, I want to marry my girlfriend.'

'Or your son will say: 'Dad, I want to marry my boyfriend.''

These parents were flabbergasted, she said, adding that such sexuality education was taking place in the United States and Europe and was not new.

'What is happening in society is that we are redefining marriage, we are redefining families,' she said.

'So I'm a concerned citizen and if people are so ignorant, I think I want to teach them.'
Here we have another series of leaps of logic. I'm not sure why she wants to describes groups of people in negative terms, but let's look at the government's Health Promotion Board website. In the section titled 'Do You (a girl) Really Prefer Girls or Are You Just Different?'
Lesbians are women who are romantically attracted to other women, but it’s never as simple as that. It’s hard to say for certain what makes a woman a lesbian. Some argue it’s due to environmental factors, while others believe genetics determine our sexual preferences.

Are you a lesbian or just not a “girly” girl? There’s no clear cut answer except this − only you would know if you are a lesbian. But being one doesn’t make you less normal. Each human being is unique, with different likes and dislikes.
Now, even the official health advice website is neutral on the topic. What gives Thio the right to paint a negative picture of people who are not like her?

Thio continues.
Pointing out that Aware's programme was already in 30 schools, she said: 'The suggestion is that in this programme, young girls from 12 to 18 are taught that it's okay to experiment with each other.
'And this is something which should concern parents in Singapore. Are we going to have an entire generation of lesbians?'
Yet another strange leap in logic. A central argument that she has is that AWARE is trying to promote people to be lesbians. This statement is really quite ludicrous. How on earth do you try to encourage someone to be a lesbian? I'm a heterosexual. Now, why on earth would a counsellor tell me to try to be a homosexual if I'm not? It just doesn't make sense at all! Now, assuming that there were indeed some counsellor as strange as that, how on earth am I going to follow that advice? "OK, I think you're right, I'm better off being a homosexual person." I just don't see how this process will work. It's just wildly incredulous.

The claim that youngsters are encouraged to 'experiment' also sounds fishy. According to Mathia Lee who is an AWARE sex ed trainer,
What do we teach about homosexuality?
We don’t impose our views. In the first 2 sessions, we explore view points by asking the students what they think. Our aim is to open up students to the fact that there are many different views, and to open up their minds to all these different views so that they can think about it, and make their own choices based on their own personal values.

The bottom line is: respect for each other, even though we disagree. If the students bring it up, we acknowledge that some religions do hold homosexuality as being wrong. But just as we’ve learnt to respect each other’s religion where dietary restrictions are concerned, and not to impose on each other, we can also respect each other’s religious views in the same manner.

Our Program contents?
Part 1: Exploring different views and values — we do not use the terms “right” and “wrong” on any view.
Part 2: Factual info on contraception and STIs — here we do have “right” and “wrong” eg. AIDS can be cured is clearly wrong.
This seems reasonable to me. There seems to be a certain openness, a non-judgemental approach to dealing with people, much like what is painted at the HPB website. Thio has more.
She said that there were many women's issues that needed to be looked into, and cited the need to ensure that retrenched women are dealt with fairly. 'I find to my dismay that Aware seems to be only very interested in lesbianism and the advancement of homosexuality, which is a man's issue,' she said.
She felt this matter had to be discussed, but Aware should focus on going back to look after all women in Singapore.
Now it is fairly obvious that if Thio thinks the way she does, of course she will feel that lesbianism (whatever that means) is the only thing that AWARE is interested in. Our previous analysis has shown this line of thinking to be quite false. A quick check on its website clearly shows that AWARE is also about a lot of things. Another website shows that, on the contrary, AWARE has done nothing much for lesbians in the past two decades.

Hopefully the press will continue to keep an eye on this story. The EOGM is on 2 May. More details here. Check out

Saturday, April 18, 2009

AWARE: Demonstration Of Democracy

The recent developments at AWARE have been most fascinating. To have an understanding about the official point of view and preference about what we're supposed to think, it's useful to refer to the Straits Times. Today's newspaper is full of stories about the negative aspects of the 'hostile takeover' as well as a negative portrayal of the new executive committee of the women's group. The unorthodox public scolding from the new President's boss DBS bank has also raised an eyebrow or two. Whether this is is just a good news story or whether this is a concerted effort to discredit the new team remains to be seen.

I believe that the new executive committee did nothing wrong per se to get elected. They followed the rules. They planned, they strategised, they got many people to attend the AGM, and they managed to get themselves voted in with their (and other unrelated people's) help. This is how one obtains power; any capable politician knows this.

Most of us are not aware that such a thing can be possible (as seen from the shock expressed by the existing members of the organisation). A change in leadership requires people to vote. Firstly, a lot of locals don't get to vote due to realities of electoral rules. (My father hasn't voted in parliamentary elections for 30 years, for example.) Second, when they do have a chance to vote, they should have some sort of expectation that they might be successful; that some things can, and might, be changed. Usually in this country, that doesn't happen (or at least change happens very slowly). That's one reason for the apathy of young people; they just don't believe that they can do anything to change things.

So, out of the blue, we have this AWARE snafu. A few people who did their homework, obeyed the rules and simply just showed up proved to the rest of the other members who chose to stay at home that change is indeed possible. It's not a mathematical, nor practical impossibility. But more than that, these people who planned the 'coup' at AWARE managed to do something far more psychologically significant. They demonstrated that it is possible to change the status quo, and to do it in just one AGM.

Now, this surely will result in a 'disturbance in the Force', a challenge to our existing paradigm. Do we sit on our lazy butts and wait for others to change things, or do we try to change some things ourselves? Now, one can carry this possibility into national elections, and the thought of it can be a little... disturbing, at least to some. Why might happen if more people thought that it is possible to enact change by voting? This might explain the current backlash against the new executive committee in the official press.

On a different note, I guess this development might be the beginning of the emergence of the right wingers I wrote about 4 years ago. This country cannot really afford this sort of thing, and I'm comforted that the man upstairs probably doesn't want it to happen too. There seems to be an EOGM next month. May the Force be with them...

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

She Dreamed A Dream

'I Dreamed A Dream' is a song from my favourite musical Les Miserables. It's a song about hopelessness and sadness; I find it very comforting to listen to.
There was a time when men were kind, And their voices were soft, And their words inviting. There was a time when love was blind, And the world was a song, And the song was exciting. There was a time when it all went wrong... I dreamed a dream in time gone by, When hope was high and life, worth living. I dreamed that love would never die, I dreamed that God would be forgiving. Then I was young and unafraid, And dreams were made and used and wasted. There was no ransom to be paid, No song unsung, no wine, untasted. But the tigers come at night, With their voices soft as thunder, As they tear your hope apart, And they turn your dream to shame. He slept a summer by my side, He filled my days with endless wonder... He took my childhood in his stride, But he was gone when autumn came! And still I dream he'll come to me, That we will live the years together, But there are dreams that cannot be, And there are storms we cannot weather! I had a dream my life would be So different from this hell I'm living, So different now from what it seemed... Now life has killed the dream I dreamed... Les Miserables/Claude-Michel Schönberg/Herbert Kretzmer
Sometimes singing this song results in the most delicious of ironies. The success of Susan Boyle in the talent show Britains Got Talent tells us as much about us (who don't expect less-than-attractive people to sing well) as about how an angelic voice can smash our stereotypes. It is truly amazing to watch, and hear, Boyle sing. She says she wants to sing like Elaine Paige (who sang Memories in Cats). I guess she's well on her way to her dreams now!
Other cover versions...

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Straits Times Changes Headline 4 Times Today!

There are possibly three reasons why I continue to pay money to read the Straits Times online. The first reason is that I want to know what others are reading daily, the second is I want to know what I'm supposed to know, and the third is that I get to experience pure journalistic gems like what has happened today.

In a continuing episode of Stop The Presses, we shall look at an article about foreigners who are going to be hired by one of the two new casinos to be opened here. The Sentosa Integrated Resort (IR) seems to be hiring a lot of foreigners rather than locals, and people are seemingly complaining about this. Mr Wang has the full text reproduced in his blog.

The problem is that the title of the article published this morning, "Singaporeans will get most IR jobs", does not seem to indicate what the rest of the article is trying to convey (because Singaporeans will not be getting the most IR jobs, it seems). Coincidentally, it was just today that I explained to my students that a newspaper article's headline is very important. In situational writing, if the exam question requires the student to write a report/article with a particular title, then the rest of the article should be adjusted accordingly. Mr Wang hypothesizes that in this case, the headline was perhaps written separately from the article. The problem was that the article did not say what the headline meant!

Now at this point in time, if I were the reporter who wrote the story, my head will probably just explode. How can I possibly reconcile this intractable dilemma?! So, the only ethical thing to do was to change the headline a few minutes after the first version went online, as Mr Wang suggests. The second iteration of the headline reads "IR jobs for foreigners?" Indeed, I think that the reporter might have been trying to send a coded SOS message out to alert readers: as pointed out by a commenter, he spelt his own name wrongly to accompany the first unreasonable and erroneous headline, only to correct it later to accompany the more reasonable amendment. (This need not be true; I just thought it would be funny if this really was what happened!)

Anyway, the title didn't seem to satisfy some people, and it was changed yet again to "Buzz Over Resort Jobs". I was just checking the STReader, and the title is now "Uproar over reports of IR jobs going to foreigners". I think this is a reasonable headline. At the very least, it isn't factually wrong!

4th Headline

So, what can we learn from this? Well, we learn that it is not easy to write newspaper headlines sometimes! Secondly, the various attempts to change the headline is a story in itself. I hope the reporter will continue to be on the case and will look forward to more updates. It's a most fascinating way of presenting a story!

Background reading: Mr Wang's entry.