How schools in Singapore suppress LGBTQ+ identities // LGBT Rights in Singapore| Updated on
Content warning: This article describes bullying, abuse, and suicide. Help is available.
Note: Most of the article describes pre-university schools in Singapore, where children and youth spend their formative years.
In January 2021, an anonymous Reddit post started going viral.
The post creator, a trans girl who later identified herself as Ashlee, claimed that her school and Singapore’s Ministry of Education (MOE) have blocked her hormone replacement therapy (HRT) even though her doctor and father had approved the treatment. She also claimed that MOE told her doctor to stop prescribing HRT to students.
Massive outrage erupted, as people questioned MOE’s rationale and legal authority in interfering with their student’s medical treatment. Many were shocked at the serious allegations — a Member of Parliament (MP) even questioned the Minister for Education in parliament on policies surrounding such issues.
Yet to many of us within the LGBTQ+ community, this wasn’t exactly news.
Oogachaga, a local organisation that provides counselling services to LGBTQ+ folks, quickly stated that Ashlee’s experience wasn’t unique. TransgenderSG, a local transgender support organisation, further claimed that there have been “much worse cases” where trans students were abused — some to the point of suicide — when their schools and MOE prevented them from transitioning or undergoing HRT.
The truth is, Singapore’s schools have been suppressing, erasing, and bullying LGBTQ+ folks for decades. Yet this form of institutionalised discrimination has been so successful that most people don’t even notice that it exists.
Here’s how it works.
Hello again, institutionalised discrimination
When humans build systems (think education systems, governments, etc.), we create rules and policies to guide our decision making. These rules, however, are often not as fair as we think they are.
The root problem is simple: humans are flawed creatures.
As we create rules, we often impose a part of our personal biases onto them. Over time, as these rules get codified, replicated, and extended, the same bias gets applied to an entire system. Without fully knowing it, we have built a system that’s biased against a group of people.
This is institutionalised discrimination.
In practice, minority groups (such as racial and sexual minorities) are often at the receiving end of bias and prejudice. And as we’ve mentioned in our previous article, LGBTQ+ folks in Singapore are subject to institutionalised discrimination in nearly all aspects of their lives.
The scariest thing about institutionalised discrimination is the fact that well-meaning people placed within biased systems often end up doing biased things. Many times, people within these systems don’t act out of malice — they’re merely following the rules and policies in place. However, their collective actions can often result in discriminatory outcomes.
This problem is further compounded when it happens in an education system. As children learn in an environment that tells them — directly or indirectly — that being LGBTQ+ is “wrong”, they grow into adults who subconsciously hold onto that belief. When they rejoin the school environment as teachers, principals, counsellors, or ministers, they reinforce the same beliefs. The cycle of discrimination repeats.
Let’s take a look at how this works in practice.
How schools in Singapore erase the existence of LGBTQ+ identities
The way schools in Singapore erase LGBTQ+ identities is truly quite extensive — if it were intentional, we’d have to give it a 10/10 score for villainy.
It begins with the education curricula, but extends way beyond that. Here are the details (skip to TLDR).
LGBTQ+ identities are erased from education curricula
We’ll start with the obvious: sex education classes in Singapore’s schools almost never acknowledge the existence of LGBTQ+ sexualities and gender identities.
If schools decide to mention the existence of gay people, MOE’s curriculum made it sure that they also teach students that gay sex is illegal in Singapore. Because of that, discussions about homosexuality remain contextualised in the notion that it is a criminal act. Even if this were presented in the most neutral way, students will be left to internalise the idea that being gay is inherently wrong.
In 2009, MOE removed AWARE, Singapore’s leading women advocacy organisation, from its list of approved sex-ed vendors partly because their class material didn’t condemn homosexuality. A decade later, schools continue to “ignore the existence of LGBTQ+ people” in sex-ed classes, as teachers imply that being gay or bisexual are “phases” that people eventually get over.
Mr. Loh, an ex-general paper and literature teacher, confirms with us that the “sex-ed syllabus leaves out homosexuality or gender [diversity] completely”. He adds that students who have questions about LGBTQ+ identities are frequently referred to school counsellors instead, who would often classify such identities as psychological problems [Note 1].
But the erasure of LGBTQ+ identities goes beyond sex-ed classes. Mr. Loh, through his 25 years of teaching experience, has learnt that teachers shouldn’t discuss LGBTQ+ identities with students.
At a school event with a panel discussion, Mr. Loh recalled a student asking the panel guests about their thoughts on s377A, a British-era law that makes sex between men illegal. A member of the panel, who was a lawyer, quickly responded that they cannot comment because s377A is a government policy.
On another occasion, Mr. Loh’s Vice Principal destroyed new books for the school’s library that appear to contain or suggest LGBTQ+ themes, without even finding out the details of the books.
Through these and many other incidents, Mr. Loh learnt that discussing LGBTQ+ topics with students isn’t only forbidden, but that it may also affect his career advancement prospects. He, like many other teachers, has learnt to erase LGBTQ+ identities from all of his classes in order to keep his job.
“Yes, I fear repercussions to my career,” Mr. Loh says. “It may affect promotional prospects or attract possible disapproval from parents who may take such information to the media to protect their children from such ‘immorality’. So yes, teachers may be pressured from being [publicly out as LGBTQ+], let alone discussing LGBTQ+ issues in class.”
LGBTQ+ teachers feel pressured to stay closeted and hidden
Because of the way LGBTQ+ topics are policed in schools, many queer teachers force themselves to stay closeted at work in order to keep their jobs.
AO, a current MOE teacher, has decided to remain closeted in school out of fear of losing their job. They’ve heard stories of teachers being fired for being LGBTQ+ or for discussing LGBTQ+ identities. They don’t feel comfortable sharing with their colleagues what they do in their spare time, and found themselves policing and censoring their own behaviours in school.
“I don't feel safe doing something as innocuous as waving a pride flag or wearing a pride mask in public. I worry about whether wearing a graphic t-shirt with a rainbow design is too obvious. I'm not doing anything political in any of these acts, but it can be interpreted as such,” AO says. “I have chosen to live closeted except with people I trust.”
In a 2019 interview, multiple queer teachers have also shared their common understanding that they will face career repercussions if they decide to come out. “If you come out, your hopes of being promoted to principal-level are basically dashed,” one teacher said. Ms. Ren, another teacher in her 30s, thought that she would be “negatively judged by MOE, no matter how capable [she is] as a teacher” if she made her sexuality known.
Mr. Otto Fong, an ex-teacher who publicly came out as gay on his blog in 2007, said that he knew of teachers and educators who “feared for their jobs” because they are queer, and knew of queer educators who were “dismissed for weird excuses and had to join the public tuition industry”.
Mr. Loh, ex-GP and literature teacher, agrees with these sentiments. He says that none of the queer teachers he know are open about their sexuality at work because of the way LGBTQ+ issues are handled in schools.
Our schools’ open hostility towards LGBTQ+ identities doesn't only affect students, but also forces many queer teachers to remain in hiding. On top of affecting their mental wellbeing as they fear for their livelihood, this harmful environment also ensures that students never see LGBTQ+ role models in their schools. This is an often-ignored but potent form of erasure: cisgender and heterosexual students never get to have role models who happen to be queer, and queer students never feel represented in their schools’ leadership. This lack of representation makes it easy for students to continue accepting the negative stereotypes that they hear from their classes and educators.
Teachers and school counsellors are discouraged from affirming LGBTQ+ identities
On top of not discussing LGBTQ+ identities or coming out as queer, educators have learnt that they should also never give affirming messages to their queer students.
Many teachers, whether queer themselves or allies, have been warned against giving messages that are supportive of LGBTQ+ students.
Ex-teacher Mr. Otto Fong revealed in an interview that, after telling his students that “all differences should be accepted, and that included being gay”, he was quickly asked by his school’s management to stop talking about such issues. “Most teachers know to avoid addressing the LGBT issue positively,” Mr. Otto Fong said.
Ms. Ren said that a teacher’s job could be at risk if they say something supportive of LGBTQ+ rights. She said that even “anonymous, unfair, inaccurate” complaints made by parents could “really get a teacher in trouble, harassed by school authorities, and/or blacklisted for future teaching positions. MOE doesn’t even need to get the teacher’s side of the story.”
Ms. Stella, a secondary school teacher, said that her colleague who voiced support for LGBTQ+ rights was told that her social media posts were “objectionable”, and was made to remove them. Ms. Stella’s colleague was further “warned to distance themselves” from LGBTQ+ issues.
Educators’ fear of retaliation for showing support for LGBTQ+ students is real. In January 2021, over 600 educators and social workers signed a statement to call on MOE to do better for their trans students, yet most of them decided to hide their real names to protect their jobs. “Many of us were afraid to write this statement or put our names to it because we recognise that it is still not safe for us as individuals and professionals to publicly express these views,” the statement said.
Every school in Singapore has 1–2 counsellors to support students with their mental wellbeing and emotional development. However, evidence suggests that they are prevented from providing positive counselling to queer students, and are even forced to report queer students to the school authorities.
When Ruien came out to his school counsellor in secondary school, she quickly informed him that she had to report his sexuality to the principal as well as her superiors. Uncomfortable with this, he eventually decided to stop going for counselling altogether.
Other anecdotes corroborate this practice. An anonymous teacher claimed that their school counsellor told participating teachers in a gender and sexuality workshop that, should a student “confess LGBT identities or relationships”, they need to “report it to the school, their parents, and possibly the police”. When questioned, the counsellor justified their practice by citing the criminal nature of s377A, and further claimed that queer individuals face higher suicide rates, and that suicide is also a criminal act in Singapore.
Leow Yangfa, executive director of Oogachaga, tells us that they’ve heard that it’s part of MOE’s policy for school counsellors to breach confidentiality whenever a student discloses their LGBTQ+ sexuality. “As soon as an LGBT student comes out to them, the school counsellor would be required to inform their parents,” Yangfa says. “This is what many of our counselling clients have told us, and some MOE school counsellors have verified that too, under assurance of anonymity.”
On top of that, Yangfa also revealed in a previous interview that MOE schools aren’t allowed to refer students to Oogachaga’s LGBTQ-affirming counselling services. He also said that some schools, perhaps unaware of the harmful consequences, have even encouraged parents to send their children to abusive “conversion therapy” practitioners.
When schools prevent teachers and school counsellors from affirming their queer students, they not only negatively affect the mental wellbeing of students, but also ensure that LGBTQ+ identities remain consistently framed in a negative light.
Anti-LGBTQ teachers bully queer students without consequence
It pains us to say this, but some teachers and educators can be the most cruel perpetrators of abuse and bullying against LGBTQ+ students in Singapore.
When bullying comes from a teacher or school leader (such as a principal), its damaging effect is far greater. Their position as figures of authority not only makes students feel powerless in reporting any abuse, but also signals to other students that it’s acceptable — and even encouraged — to bully LGBTQ+ people.
When Joshua was in secondary school, his sexuality was leaked to his classmates. They started calling him derogatory names and ostracised him at social activities such as sports games and project work.
On one occasion, his classmate disrupted an ongoing lesson by shouting aloud that Joshua is gay. But instead of condemning the interruption, Joshua’s teacher joined in on the bullying. The teacher confronted Joshua in front of the class, asking him to confirm his sexuality to everyone. When he didn’t respond, the teacher turned to Joshua’s desk mate and asked if sitting next to a gay person made him feel scared. This blatantly aggressive response from the teacher signaled to the class that being gay is wrong, and that bullying gay people is the right way to go.
Since then, other teachers have also joined in — one of them encouraged Joshua’s classmates to spend time with other classmates instead of him. The bullying in school got so bad that Joshua started making suicide plans: he slept with a knife every night, ready to end his life if the pain got too overwhelming. Joshua survived school, but had to be admitted to a hospital at one point.
Unfortunately, his experience wasn’t unique.
Local author Amanda Lee Koe shares with us how teachers in her all-girls secondary school bullied queer students without repercussions.
When Amanda turned in her composition homework, her form teacher refused to mark it and told her it was “inappropriate” because it featured LGBTQ+ characters. (Side note: Amanda would later become the youngest person to win the Singapore Literature Prize.) Indignation and humiliation turned into deep anxiety and fear when Amanda found out that her teacher outed her to her parents because of this composition.
“What does this signal to a teenager?” Amanda says. “Not only about whose stories get told, but who gets to live and love? Worse, how could a teacher out a student to their parents behind their back, without any consideration for their privacy, mental welfare and physical safety?”
Yet that was just the beginning.
When her teachers realised — through an anonymous report made by an adult — that Amanda had a girlfriend in the same school, they separated the pair and sent them for interrogation by the Discipline Mistress and Vice Principal. The questioning was invasive and deeply traumatising for Amanda and her then-girlfriend.
Amanda’s teachers also sent her to counselling, but her school’s counsellor was unwilling to address LGBTQ+ relationships. Instead, the counsellor asked if Amanda had family problems, insinuating that only those who were “broken” would “turn” queer. The counsellor also talked about finding “positive [heterosexual] role models”, which left Amanda thinking that queer individuals had “no future”.
“For a long time after this, I believed that queer folks were doomed to come to tragic endings,” Amanda shares. “In recent years, when young queers started telling me I was their role model, I was in disbelief. I’d been made to feel like a criminal misfit for so long. How could I possibly be a decent role model for anyone? That was when I realised how deeply I had internalised the notions I had been force fed in school.”
Amanda also recalls how her teachers freely bullied other students they suspected were queer. A student who was a few years older than Amanda had her prefect title removed when her teachers found out that she’s queer. The teachers would also pick on masculine-presenting students, poking fun at their haircuts, and even sexually harassing them by inspecting and policing the type of bras they were wearing.
“I don’t want to use the word ‘persecute’ lightly,” Amanda says, “but ‘persecute’ means ‘to pursue with harassing or oppressive treatment, especially due to ethnic or racial origin, gender identity, or sexual orientation’. It’s absolutely clear that generations of LGBTQ+ students have been persecuted in Singapore’s schools, at great detriment to our wellbeing and growth, causing much distress at a sensitive moment in our lives. Like any other student, what we need at that formative age is support and affirmation. Instead, we’ve been targeted and punished.”
This bears repeating: Joshua and Amanda’s experiences aren’t unique.
When Jo confided in her primary school teacher that she liked girls, the teacher decided that it was appropriate to force her to reveal her sexuality in front of the whole class (PDF report, page 57). The teacher went on to say that being lesbian is wrong, and insinuated that Jo only liked girls because she had been sexually assaulted by men. Even though Jo told her teacher that she was never assaulted, her teacher continued talking about sexual assault for 20 minutes, which left Jo feeling “morally corrupt”. This happened in a primary school.
Mr. Loh, ex-GP and literature teacher, tells us that his principals have told students that being gay was wrong without providing any explanation. Online anecdotes provide many other similar examples of bullying, with one even recounting that their teacher asked the students to discuss whether they should “drive gay people out of Singapore”.
These acts of bullying are unacceptable, yet teachers and school leaders who are guilty of committing them seem to remain free from repercussions.
When educators publicly bully LGBTQ+ students, they send a clear message to other students that being queer is wrong and punishable, and grant them permission to join in on the bullying. On top of that, they send a strong warning to LGBTQ+ students to keep their identities hidden or risk punishment. This atmosphere of bullying isn’t just an injustice, but also further encourages self-erasure of LGBTQ+ identities in schools.
Trans students are literally erased from schools
Transgender students in Singapore face additional discrimination, and in extreme cases, are literally forced out of schools. To understand how this happens, we’ll need to look at how schools reinforce gender norms on students.
All primary, secondary, and tertiary schools (except polytechnics and universities) require students to wear gendered uniforms. On top of that, schools also impose gendered haircuts on students. For example, a male student would typically be required to wear shorts or pants, and keep a short haircut. A female student would typically be required to wear skirts and keep her hair longer than shoulder-length. Students who don’t adhere to such dress codes would often face disciplinary action from their school.
While these gendered presentations don’t affect cisgender students much, they may worsen the gender dysphoria that trans students face. Gender dysphoria is a well-recognised form of mental distress that some trans folks face, due to the mismatch between their body and sense of self.
When a school forces a trans girl to wear boys’ uniform and keep her hair short, it will likely exacerbate any gender dysphoria that she’s already experiencing. And because MOE appears to have no official policy on whether schools should support their trans students in their gender presentation, the mental health of a trans student is likely subject to the whims and personal biases of their school’s teachers and leaders.
Take Ashlee’s case, for instance. While her teachers and peers were supportive of her presenting as a girl in school, she claimed to have met with interference from her Discipline Master and Principal when they learnt of her HRT. Even though her doctor and father supported the treatment, her principal allegedly tried to interfere with the treatment’s dosage, and prohibited Ashlee from presenting as a girl in school. According to Ashlee, the school also tried to prevent her from reappearing on campus by asking her to take her classes online — an unfair and impractical request, because Ashlee would then be forced to skip hands-on lessons such as science practical classes. Because of this, Ashlee said that she was considering dropping out of school.
In another recent case, Elise from the Institute of Technical Education said that her course manager has forbidden her from using female restrooms on campus. On top of that, she said that her lecturer and peers have consistently and intentionally misgendered her, even going so far as to call her transitioning process a “lifestyle”. These actions have not only caused great mental distress to Elise, who is already struggling with suicidal thoughts, but also increased the likelihood that she would drop out of school to avoid further torment.
[Update: Since the story of her discrimination was shared online, Elise’s school has allegedly taken steps to affirm her gender in school. For instance, they’ll start using her preferred name and pronouns, and allow her to grow her hair out. Her bullies have also allegedly been taken to task by the school. However, she’s still not allowed to use the female restrooms on campus.]
In a recent interview, Edward shared that his principal refused to allow him to wear the boys’ uniform, even though his school counsellor helped make the plea with him.
Ashlee’s, Elise’s, and Edward’s experiences aren’t isolated cases either. According to TransgenderSG’s recent report, 78% of trans students experienced bullying and abuse in schools, and less than a third of them felt safe at school. TransgenderSG also reported that schools have been known to create such hostile environments — by enforcing “unreasonable demands” or preventing trans students from transitioning — that they force trans students to drop out of school.
When schools actively prevent trans students from presenting as their genuine self, they essentially force them to choose between their mental health and having an education. In extreme cases, trans folks would drop out of school, or worse, take their own lives due to extreme distress. This is the most brutal and tangible form of erasure in schools: trans folks are literally disappearing or killing themselves because of hostile environments in school.
LGBTQ+ speakers are removed from school events
Singapore’s schools also have a track record of banning queer speakers at events.
In 2018, St Joseph’s Institution barred Rachel Yeo from speaking at their TEDx talk one day before the event, because they realised that she was part of the Inter-University LGBT Network. Rachel shared that, while the student organisers didn’t seem to find any issue with her background, their school claimed that she was “not permitted to speak due to MOE regulations that were beyond their control”. MOE quickly denied the existence of any such regulations.
The next year, Singapore Polytechnic banned radio DJ Joshua Simon from speaking at their TEDx talk one day before the event, because they realised that his talk would contain recounts of his LGBTQ+ experiences. Even though the student organisers allegedly fought to keep him on the panel, the school asked Joshua to censor his script if he wanted to speak at the event. When he refused, it removed him from the event and apologised, claiming that it had to abide by MOE regulations.
In both cases, it appeared that it was the schools that found issue with having queer speakers, not the student organisers. Removing LGBTQ+ speakers at school events might seem trivial, but it’s yet another way in which schools erase the existence of LGBTQ+ role models from their students’ lives.
The result: extensive erasure of LGBTQ+ identities in schools
The erasure of LGBTQ+ identities in Singapore’s schools clearly goes beyond a lack of acknowledgement in sex-ed classes. Schools here have seemingly managed to eradicate LGBTQ+ identities from almost all aspects of the education system:
- LGBTQ+ identities are erased from sex-ed classes, and teachers are signalled to not discuss LGBTQ+ identities in other classes or events. This causes generations of students to remain uneducated about the facts and realities about LGBTQ+ identities.
- LGBTQ+ teachers are pressured to hide their sexuality in school, and LGBTQ+ speakers are banned from school events. This removes any exposure to positive LGBTQ+ role models in schools.
- Teachers and school counsellors are discouraged from giving LGBTQ-affirming messages to students. This causes LGBTQ+ identities to be consistently framed in a negative light in schools.
- Anti-LGBTQ teachers and school leaders freely bully queer students without any apparent consequences. This signals to students that being queer is wrong and worthy of punishment.
- Trans students are forced out of schools when they’re required to present themselves in the wrong gender or blocked from transitioning. This literally erases trans students from schools.
Schools in Singapore have been erasing queer identities for decades. To understand why this system of discrimination has managed to work for so long, we’ll need to take a closer look at the ministry and its leaders.
Why LGBTQ+ discrimination in Singapore’s schools persist
MOE regulations are undisclosed and inaccessible to the public
MOE has been tight-lipped about their policies surrounding LGBTQ+ identities and students, opting to issue vague statements instead. It’s unclear why the ministry is so secretive about their policies, but a side effect is that the public finds it difficult to assess the truth when anti-LGBTQ practices are reported. This is especially true when all we have to go on are the words from both sides of the allegations.
In 2018 and 2019, for instance, 2 schools have separately banned queer speakers from their events, with both schools seemingly citing MOE’s regulations as their main reason for doing so. Even though MOE has publicly denied the existence of such regulations, the fact that their policies remain undisclosed made it impossible for the public to figure out who was telling the truth. We were essentially called to place our trust in MOE’s words and ignore contrary voices.
In January 2021, when Ashlee’s allegations surfaced, MOE claimed that they don’t interfere with students’ medical treatments (while at the same time misgendering Ashlee). However, Oogachaga and TransgenderSG quickly pointed out that Ashlee’s experience wasn’t unique. TransgenderSG’s recent report also claimed that many schools had interfered with trans students’ transitioning processes. Once again, because MOE’s regulations are kept undisclosed, the public wasn’t able to tell who was telling the truth. We were called to place our trust in MOE’s words and ignore contrary voices.
When it comes to anti-bullying policies in schools, it’s unclear if MOE has regulations that prohibit teachers from bullying queer students. On one hand, MOE claimed that schools have a “zero-tolerance stance for bullying” (though this is mainly framed in the context of bullying carried out by students on their peers). On the other, there are tons of anecdotes — from students and teachers — about how queer students are being bullied by their educators. We are once again called to place our trust in MOE’s words and ignore contrary voices.
But just how much faith should we place on MOE’s words?
MOE’s approach of keeping their policies undisclosed might have given them an unintended advantage for a long time, but each anti-LGBTQ school incident erodes the general public’s trust in the ministry’s words. At a certain point, the public will be forced to decide between two realities: the story that MOE continues to tell, or the mountain of stories from everyone else.
Transparency and awareness are critical in addressing systemic discrimination. If MOE continues to keep their regulations undisclosed, there will be little reason for the public to believe that systemic biases will be addressed. In the face of mounting evidence and the climate of declining public trust, MOE’s undisclosed regulations are beginning to look more shady than enigmatic.
Apathetic leaders enable discriminatory systems
When leaders are apathetic towards the discriminated, it makes it difficult to change systems of institutionalised discrimination. This might be the case in MOE: past ministers seemed to exhibit apathetic attitudes towards LGBTQ+ discrimination.
Ng Chee Meng, Minister for Education (Oct 2015 – April 2018)
In a 2016 dialogue with university students, a student asked Ng why her lesbian friend was forced to undergo counselling for being in a relationship that her parents supported. When he attempted to deflect the question, more members of the audience shared about similar experiences that their queer friends have endured in school.
Ng then appeared to defend the schools’ interventions by claiming that they would only have done so because the students were engaging in sexual activities. This was quickly refuted by the audience members, who informed him that queer students were disciplined for being involved in purely romantic relationships. There was no resolution to the discussion as Ng vaguely concluded that policies should cater to the majority in a population.
This exchange suggests that Ng might be clueless about the extent of discrimination against LGBTQ+ students that is happening in our schools. When presented with anecdotes of abuse, his reactions — to justify the schools’ actions, and to say that policies should cater to the majority — also suggest a bias towards keeping the status quo of the education system.
In a separate discussion panel in 2016, Ng was asked whether the government should step up to protect LGBTQ+ rights and change public misconceptions about LGBTQ+ individuals. Part of his response — that we should have “patience” in educating people on LGBTQ+ issues — appears to betray his ignorance about the plethora of censorship regulations that prevent LGBTQ+ issues from being discussed in Singapore’s media spaces.
Even though Ng had no part to play in building the systemic discrimination in Singapore’s education system, his apparent reluctance to reflect on its practices and ignorance of wider LGBTQ+ issues might have enabled its discriminatory practices to persist under his leadership.
Ong Ye Kung (Minister for Education, Oct 2015 – Jul 2020)
Ong Ye Kung shocked the nation when he claimed in 2018 that LGBTQ+ folks face no discrimination in housing, education, and at work. No other elected politician has ever made a claim as extreme and absurd as he did about LGBTQ+ discrimination here. (In case you’re still torn about this, we’ve previously laid down all the ways LGBTQ+ folks are discriminated against in Singapore, including in housing, education, and at work.)
Ong’s ignorance about LGBTQ+ discrimination is so astounding that it’s no surprise when discriminatory practices in schools seemingly went unchecked under his administration.
Lawrence Wong (Minister for Education, Jul 2020 – Present)
In a 2012 televised interview, Lawrence Wong was asked about the role that the government should play in protecting the LGBTQ+ community, a minority group in Singapore.
Wong started by saying that everyone should be treated with dignity and respect, but seemed to quickly push the responsibility of educating the public about LGBTQ+ issues away from the government and on to individuals. This reveals Wong’s possible ignorance about how state censorship prevents people from hearing about and understanding LGBTQ+ issues. While his response wasn’t as defensive as Ng’s or appalling as Ong’s, it still suggested an air of apathy towards LGBTQ+ discrimination in the country.
In Feb 2021, in the aftermath of Ashlee’s allegations, Wong was asked in parliament whether MOE will consider presenting regular public reports on how schools support students with gender dysphoria. Wong responded by saying that such reports will expose the identity of trans students and their families, and appeared to reject the idea of MOE being publicly accountable on that ground.
His response is curious, because he appears to have conflated the idea of a publicly-released report with a report that exposes the private details of individuals. It’s very common for research reports on social issues to anonymise the identity of their participants, which suggests that Wong either isn’t very well-read, or was attempting to mislead the public to think that such reports will necessarily expose private information of participants (or perhaps there were other reasons?).
Case in point: New Zealand’s Ministry of Education publishes public guides on bullying in schools, which is filled with anecdotes and statistics on bullying that don’t reveal any private information of individuals. They even included a section on how bullying of LGBTQ+ students can be prevented. It’s really not that difficult if you care enough about your students.
The result: discriminatory practices in schools remain unchecked and unchallenged
MOE’s regulations remain unverifiable to the public, which makes it difficult to ascertain the truth behind allegations and denials. This not only gives teachers and school leaders discretion to practice discrimination in schools, but also makes it hard for anyone to hold them accountable.
Apathetic ministers appear to complete this recipe and allow discriminatory systems to persist without change. As products of Singapore’s education system themselves, many ministers seem to know little about regulations that stifle public discussion on LGBTQ+ issues in the country.
What results is a system that’s clearly broken, yet remains out of reach from the public and out of the minds of its leaders.
Here’s how we can make Singapore’s schools better
Schools in Singapore have clearly failed to provide a safe and nurturing environment for their LGBTQ+ students. And when MOE hides in the shadows of its undisclosed regulations, and ministers appear apathetic towards discrimination, it will be up to us to make schools a better place for LGBTQ+ individuals.
Here’s what we can do:
- Stand up against bullying. Stand up for your queer classmates and peers — let them know that it’s the system that’s broken, not them. This might seem trivial, but it can literally save lives. Research shows that intervention by bystanders can significantly alleviate the damage done on the bullied.
- Get familiar with LGBTQ-affirming organisations. Because schools are often unable to provide affirming support to LGBTQ+ students, knowing who you or your peers could turn to becomes vital. The end of this article contains a list of some LGBTQ-affirming organisations in Singapore.
- Learn about the diversity of sexuality and gender identities. Go to reputable organisations, such as the Human Rights Campaign, for education on sexuality and gender issues.
- Amplify queer voices and raise awareness of LGBTQ+ issues. The current state of our education system means that most people won’t learn much about LGBTQ+ issues. You can help change this by raising awareness of these issues, as well as amplifying queer voices. (Psst, share this article!)
- Ask your political representative to to speak up on queer issues. Not all politicians will be willing to do this even if you asked, but if you never ask, they’ll probably never do it. If your MP isn’t willing to speak up on queer issues, you could also factor that into their next election cycle. This website helps you find out who your MP is.
- Be an informed voter. Elections don’t happen that often, but they are the only opportunity for you to consider who you’d like to represent you in parliament. We don’t vote based only on a single issue, but it’s important to know where your political candidates stand on issues that you care about. After all, the MP that you vote for might become the next Education Minister.
We should note that an overwhelming number of medical organisations across the world have agreed that LGBTQ+ identities are not psychological problems (page 115).
Help is available
If you’re currently struggling with your sexuality or gender identity, help is available.
A social service helpline that supports LBTQ+ women in Singapore.
- WhatsApp: +65 8788 8817 (check operating hours here).
An LGBTQ+ support organisation that provides affirming counselling services.
- WhatsApp counselling: +65 8592 0609 (check operating hours here)
- Email counselling: CARE@oogachaga.com (typically responds within 72 hours)
A local trans shelter that runs trans-focused services.
- Temporary stay shelter: Find more details on their website
- Professional counselling: Find more details on their website
A local trans resource page with information about transitioning, living as a trans person, and more.
A local peer support group for trans folks. They provide information and support to trans youth in Singapore.
- Befriending Programme: Find more details on their website
- Study support for trans students: Find more details on their website
- Telegram chat: @transbefrienders
An emergency helpline that provides confidential emotional support to individuals facing crises.
- 24-hour hotline: 1800 221 4444
- Email counselling: email@example.com