Facilitators of controversial relationship workshop were "ineffective": HCI principal

Elizabeth Soh
Elizabeth Soh
Screen Shot of Agatha Tan's Facebook Post

[UPDATED on October 9, 2014 at 4 pm: HCI Principal says facilitators are "ineffective"]

Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) principal Dr Hon Chiew Weng has said that the facilitators who conducted a controversial relationship workshop were “ineffective”, reported local news outlets on Thursday.

This comes as an apparent conclusion to an internal investigation conducted by HCI into a workshop run by Focus on the Family Singapore, which has drawn flak from Singaporeans and students for its “bigoted” content after its content was publicised in an open letter by student Agatha Tan.  

According to TODAY, Dr Hon said that a male facilitator for the workshop was “unable to address the concerns of students satisfactorily when several of them objected to various viewpoints during the discussion”.

“As educators ourselves, we recognise that the success of any talk or workshop depends to a large extent on the quality of the speaker or facilitator... We are disappointed that this time they had sent someone who was unable to address the concerns of the participants,” said Dr Hon.

“One lesson we can learn from this episode is that even if a programme is approved by both MSF and MOE, things can go wrong. We have to depend on ourselves to ensure the quality of our programmes."








The Ministry of Education (MOE) announced on Wednesday evening that FoTF's relationship workshop will  "cease its run by end-2014." 

MOE also clarified that it was the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) that appointed Focus on the Family Singapore to run the relationship workshop for junior colleges.

The Straits Times quoted its spokesman as saying that the workshop on relationships does not fall under MOE's sexuality education programme, but Focus on the Family Singapore has been approved by MOE to run sexuality education programmes in schools.

Student Agatha Tan had written a lengthy open letter, posted on Facebook and sent to her principal, Dr Hon Chiew Weng, about how the FoTFcourse and its material had “distressed” her with its definitions of male and female behavior. The letter went viral, with over 500 shares on social media within 17 hours of its posting on 6 Oct.

In her open letter, Tan complained that facilitators "spent their four hours with us discussing things such as what a girl ‘really means’ when she says something else, as opposed to guys who are ‘direct’ and ‘always mean what they say’."
 
This was accompanied with a photo of the booklet and a graphic which had lines like “She says – Sure, go ahead. She really means – I don’t want you to,” as well as “She says – I need to talk. She really means – I want to complain.”
 
“Focus on the Family sends a dangerous message: that you should always assume that a girls means something else (like “yes”) when really she just means “no”,” posted Tan.
 
The module was conducted by facilitators from Christian charity Focus on the Family Singapore, a provider approved by the Ministry of Social and Family Development.
 
Tan also took offense at the stereotypes listed in the booklet, which referred to females as “gals”.
 
“Gals, it writes, ‘need to be loved’, ‘can be emotional’, ‘want security’… It paints girls as hopelessly dependent beings who are incapable of surviving without guys,” she said."This is an extremely sexist view….”
 
Tan added that the booklet said that “a guy can’t not want to look” when a scantily dressed female walks by because “no man with a pulse could have done otherwise”.
 
"There are two main problems with this – firstly, that guys are apparently incapable of controlling themselves or their hormones at all, and this is excusable because it’s in their natures, and second, that as a girl, when I dress, I should be thinking of what guys think rather than what I think,” she said.
 
She ended her open letter saying that her school had a basic responsibility to ensure that it is a “place free of bigotry where students can at least feel safe to study in”.
 
"By engaging the services of groups such as FotF to teach sexuality education in school, the management hence indirectly participates in promoting rape culture, tells students that we should conform to traditional gender roles instead of being our own persons, demonstrates that the acceptance of diversity in people is unimportant, and erases minority groups in the student population,” she wrote in her post.

"I hope that these concerns will be taken into consideration for future events and workshops,” she added.

In response, HCI, which teaches secondary and junior college students, says the school will gather feedback on a relationship module that one student criticised for being "bigoted".

It aimed to educate students on healthy relationships, an HCI spokesperson said on Wednesday in response to queries from Yahoo Singapore.

"The school provided information on the programme and gave parents and students the option to opt out of the workshop," the HCI spokesperson said. " We are in touch with the student to understand her feedback and would also gather feedback from the other students."

Focus on the Family's spokesman, Vicky Ho, said that FotF was "in touch with the relevant parties to address the student's concern."

"It’s UNcomplicated is not a sexuality education program. It is designed to be a relationship program to help young people unravel the world of the opposite sex, uncover the truths of love and dating, and reveal what it takes to have healthy and meaningful relationships. The curriculum is based on well-researched material by various trusted family life and relationship experts. Our workshops have received positive feedback of more than 85% of the students rating it as Very Good/Good," said Ho.

On Wednesday, alumni members of Hwa Chong Institution (HCI) launched an online petition against Focus on the Family workshops being conducted in the school, following a current student's open letter accusing the programme of being 'bigoted'.

"We cherish our education at Hwa Chong and feel that ‘workshops’ such as these contribute to the creation of an unsafe space for its students. It is also disturbing that our beloved alma mater may be negligent or even complicit to let this workshop through the vetting process, if there was any. Some of us are parents and teachers and we want Hwa Chong to be a safe space that young people can speak up about their concerns and not get shut down," reads the online petition, which has collected over 160 signatures since it was put up.

The petition went on to ask that the programme from FoTF be suspended immediately 'in order to address all these concerns', as well as a request for more channels during school hours for debate and discussion amongst students on gender and sexuality.

Facebook user Pam Sia, who shared Tan’s post, commented that she felt “compelled to share” it.

"I must say the information is pretty dumbed down, almost insulting to teens at JC level. As if a juvenile version of some of the trash found in women's magazines — I'm glad there are individuals who can see through the BS,” she wrote.

Rayner Teo, who also shared the post, said that “this needs to be heard by people at MOE. Casual sexism has no place in our schools - certainly not in a sex ed programme.”