Singapore Planned Parenthood Association responds to parenthood talk controversy

A screengrab of the e-invite to the SPPA Symposium held on Friday, 25 April 2014. (Screengrab from SPPA website)

[UPDATE on Monday, 28 April at 6:30pm: Adding comments from AWARE's Jolene Tan]

The talk organised by the Singapore Planned Parenthood Association (SPPA) on Friday was focused on values, and was "grossly misrepresented" by an AWARE representative who attended and live-tweeted from it, said the association's president.

Speaking to Yahoo Singapore on Saturday afternoon, naturopathic physician Dr Sundardas D. Annamalay, who has helmed the SPPA since last year, acknowledged the controversy that ensued after Jolene Tan, a  senior communications manager at women’s rights organisation AWARE used Twitter to broadcast updates from Friday's talk, but explained the SPPA had in fact wanted to bring together diverse views.

"That goes without saying," he said. "If our speakers had identical views to us, why would we need to bring them in? (By doing this) we open it up for debate, and have different people commenting... if we really didn't allow diversity, we wouldn't allow people who disagreed with us to attend the programme, make comments, ask questions or make comments about this in public. We are encouraging public opinion."

Event focused on values

Dr Sundardas also stressed that the symposium, called "Towards a Values-Centred Society", was about a person's core values, a facet of the sexuality debate that frequently gets left out in the deluge of information about contraceptives, abortion and other means of planned parenthood.

The talk had attracted some 300 participants from numerous secular organisations. These included the Singapore Kindness Movement, the Parkinson's Society Singapore and a host of other smaller companies and groups.

"When we do our sex education programmes we talk about abortions, contraceptives, making choices," he said. "What the speakers wanted to stress is that if you just provide information without core values, there is no way young people will know how to put things in perspective."

"Personally, I feel we should give people knowledge, core values and give them the information. The speakers were allowed their perspective... everyone is allowed to express what they have to say and the public is expected to make up their own minds," he added.

Tweets were a 'distortion' of what was said

Turning to the tweets from Tan, he said, "I want to give people a fair representation of what happened, and this means that even divergent opinions about the conference and what was said should be aired, while at the same time misrepresentations need to be corrected."

Tan, using the @AWAREnews account, tweeted that keynote speaker, California-based behavioural psychologist Dr Melvin W. Wong, had made a number of polarising comments about religion and sexuality.

In her words, Wong praised anti-gay sex law Section 377A as a “model for the world” and that “the whole world needs (to have) American values”.

Wong had also reportedly said marriage and religion were "a must for everyone".

This despite the SPPA’s website saying it “defend(s) the rights of all young people to enjoy their sexual lives free from all… discrimination” and under its core values, says it is “committed to gender equality” and “eliminating discrimination” against young women.

In response, Dr Sundardas told Yahoo Singapore that Wong did not say those things, but instead spoke of an original set of core values espoused by Americans in the past, long before alternative perspectives and sets of values emerged.

The rise of these alternate sets of values, said Dr Sundardas, threw America's society into confusion, a state in which it remains today, in Wong's view.

Wong's comments about Section 377A being a "model for the world" were also not expressed in the manner portrayed by Tan, noted Dr Sundardas.

Instead, he had expressed his personal views that it was a "considered statement, a wise decision that (Wong, being an unapologetic Christian) feels others should look at in greater detail".

While Wong was also quoted as saying the "media should reflect (the) Christian agenda" and that husbands should love their wives but it's "not easy with women these days", Dr Sundardas said he wasn't able to speak on his behalf as he was not present at the time.

Who is Melvin Wong?

Beyond that, according to more tweets from Tan, Wong -- who in late 2003 peddled a controversial “treatment” for homosexuality known as “Reparative Therapy” through a seminar in Singapore --
said parents “should have (the) right to decide on (the) sexual orientation of (their) children” among other anti-homosexual comments like it is “almost child abuse” for one to have gay parents.

Dr Sundardas again defended Wong, saying he did not use the word "decide" but "guide"and that he was expressing his personal view that parents should have the right to guide their children from young.

"(Wong) made no apologies about being a Christian; he talked about his own opinions... there was significant distortion here," said Dr Sundardas. "At no point did he say that homosexuality is inherently wrong; neither did he say that every homosexual should be converted to a heterosexual relationship."

Also shown at the conference was a video featuring Glenn Lim, who describes himself on his blog as a “writer, motivational speaker, trainer and curriculum developer”. According to Tan, Lim “slammed” comprehensive sexuality education, and called for the teaching of “abstinence only”.

These, said Dr Sundardas, were simply Lim expressing his own views as well -- views that are fair in their divergence, an aim that the SPPA was driving toward in their selection of speakers at the conference.

Apart from Wong and Lim were also Mathew Mathews, a research fellow with the Insitute of Policy Studies, whom Dr Sundardas said spoke almost solely on the findings of a study he led on the topic, as well as National Institute of Education lecturer Jessie Ee, who shared her own views on the values-centred argument.

Asked why the lineup of speakers appeared to be mostly conservative, Dr Sundardas stressed the difference between gender and core values.

"Honour, trust, respect, industriousness, accountability -- those are core values," said Dr Sundardas. "I don't want to see heterosexuality as a core value -- that's gender. It's okay to know different sexual preferences but we should first and foremost ground children in good core values before they grow older and decide for themselves what sexual orientation they are or want to be."

Users on Twitter following the live tweets on @AWAREnews reacted in anger and shock at them.

When she tried to speak up and ask questions or express disapproval of what was being said, Tan said she was either asked to keep quiet or leave, and tweeted that she was called “confrontational”.

Responding to Tan's claims that she was suppressed, Dr Sundardas said Wong had initially told her to stop interrupting him while he was talking, as she was clapping in response to parts of what he said that she agreed with.

Later on, in closing comments toward the end of the event, though, Tan tweeted him saying that the position of the SPPA does not align with the stance of its parent network, the International Planned Parenthood Federation.

“Freedom to make right choices through info with core values of responsibility [sic],” she tweeted, with regard to the SPPA’s stance.

Dr Sundardas clarified this, saying the SPPA and various other planned parenthood associations disagreed with the IPPF's position (held by some of its administration) that people should be allowed to exercise their rights to express their sexuality without having to deal with the responsibilities or consequences that followed.

"We were really upset about that, and they got upset with us for not standing up for people's rights," he said, adding, however, that subsequent regional meetings on the issue ended with the IPPF acknowledging that that line can be worded better and clearer and will work to do so.

AWARE: Conference lacked opposing views

Responding to Dr Sundardas's position on the symposium, Tan, who spoke to Yahoo Singapore on Monday afternoon, said she stood by what she had tweeted.

"I can see that the structure of Dr Wong's presentation might have confused people... to me I felt that the mssages were quite clear," she said. "I feel that I understood what was being communicated, (and) I've done my best to convey what I heard."

She also maintained her position, which she expressed to Dr Sundardas and a colleague of his during the conference, that the SPPA's lineup of speakers lacked a person who held views that were not as conservative as Wong's, Lim's and Ee's, for instance.

"The desire to present diverse views is admirable, but we haven't heard the countervailing view to (the conservative) perspective," she said. "We haven't heard the view that maybe people should be free to have a range of sexual orientations and that's okay. The idea of autonomy and acceptance of human diversity are also values, and those are not values that I heard represented from the speakers at the conference."

Yahoo Singapore is also trying to get in touch with others who attended the event.

Women's and gender equality advocacy group AWARE itself attracted headlines on Thursday for its opposition to the government's plan to enhance housing, healthcare and education benefits for NSmen, on the basis that the benefits should be linked to military service.

In 2009, the group also made national headlines after a leadership tussle sparked debate and scrutiny over the group's supposed pro-gay agenda.