Dialogue & feedback welcome, but gender identity issues shouldn't divide society: Lawrence Wong

Schools can exercise flexibility if there are valid medical grounds and work out practical arrangements for transgender students who may face difficulty with certain rules.

Jane Zhang | February 01, 2021, 03:01 PM

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The issue of support for transgender students in Singapore schools has been a recent heated topic of discussion, following a claim by a transgender student that she was unable to undergo hormone therapy because it was forbidden by the Ministry of Education (MOE).

Responding to parliamentary questions by Workers' Party Member of Parliament (MP) He Ting Ru, Minister for Education Lawrence Wong stated in Parliament on Monday (Feb. 1) that schools can exercise flexibility and work out practical arrangements for transgender students who may face difficulty with certain rules.

"The schools will consult and work closely with different stakeholders including the relevant medical professionals, the students concerned and their parents in putting in place these arrangements," he said.

He also warned against "import[ing] culture wars into Singapore" around the issue of gender identity.

Schools have a duty to care for every student

Schools have a duty of care to every student, Wong said.

For students with gender dysphoria, the main focus is to "provide them with a conducive learning environment and to support their overall well-being".

He highlighted the "particularly difficult" issue of school rules, which are meant to "help students cultivate self-discipline and a sense of responsibility".

Wong said that the ministry recognises that students with gender dysphoria and who are undergoing hormone therapy could face difficulties with certain school rules.

"Where there are valid medical grounds, schools can exercise flexibility and work out practical arrangements for these students," he stated, adding that schools should consult and work closely with relevant medical professionals, the students involved, and their parents.

Wong said:

"Our guiding principles are to treat these students with dignity and respect, and to provide as much support as we can to help them."

He added that the ministry and schools strive to deal with these kinds of situations "sensitively and with compassion".

Should not import 'culture wars' into Singapore

"I recognise how strongly some people feel about this issue," Wong said, adding that continued dialogue and feedback is welcomed.

However, Wong added that issues of gender identity have become "bitterly contested sources of division in the culture wars in some Western countries and societies".

He warned, "We should not import these culture wars into Singapore, or allow issues of gender identity to divide our society."

Transgender student claimed that MOE interfered with hormonal treatment

In a Reddit thread posted on Jan. 14, a Junior College (JC) student wrote about her experience as a transgender student trying to go through hormone therapy.

The student, whose assigned sex at birth was male, was diagnosed with gender dysphoria at IMH.

Speaking with The Straits Times (ST), the student said that she had parental consent, as well as an agreement with her doctor, to seek hormone therapy — which is a treatment recommended by a number of doctors in Singapore who treat transgender patients — when she turned 18.

However, the student claimed, her attempts to undergo hormone therapy were disallowed by MOE.

This, she wrote in the Reddit thread, caused her further mental trauma, "as this affected my ability to pass and present as a female".

In addition, the student also claimed that she was told to cut her hair to a boy's style according to the school handbook, and to wear the male uniform. Any failure to comply, she was told, would result in expulsion.

All treatment decisions rest with medical professionals

In a statement on Jan. 16, MOE said that the claims are "not true" and added that the ministry is "not in a position to interfere with any medical treatment, which is a matter for the family to decide on".

Then, in a joint statement with the Institute of Mental Health (IMH) on Jan. 21, MOE and IMH wrote that final decisions regarding medical treatment involving the use of hormonal therapy are up to doctors and their patients.

When such cases involve minors, written consent from parents is also required, the statement added.

In Parliament, Wong reiterated that all medical treatment decisions, including the use of hormone replacement therapy, rest ultimately with medical professionals, the person with gender dysphoria, and their family.

He also repeated the fact that when minors under the age of 21 are concerned, parental consent is required.

"Such medical decisions are beyond the purview of MOE or any educational institution," Wong said.

Protest held about concerns over transphobia

A number of people in Singapore have voiced out their concerns about transphobia in Singapore's schools.

On Jan. 26, five individuals held a protest outside of MOE's headquarters at Buona Vista on the afternoon of Jan. 26.

Friendly People SG, a group of "concerned education and social service professionals", released a petition and statement of support for transgender students.

The petition, which has been signed by more than 550 individuals and group signatories as of Jan. 31, called upon MOE to equip schools to create a safe school environment for all students, including transgender students.

The petition said that many of the signatories were afraid to write the statement or put their names to it, as they recognise that "it is still not safe" for them as individuals and professionals to publicly express these views.

However, they said that they believed this is the right thing to do, as it is their professional duty to protect and care for all the young people they teach, counsel and guide.

Respect privacy

Responding to He's question about whether MOE would consider presenting a public report on matters regarding policies for students with gender dysphoria to Parliament on a regular basis, Wong emphasised the importance of privacy.

"Our experience dealing with such cases is that the family members themselves, especially the parents, are very uncomfortable with a public airing of their situation," he said.

Thus, he added:

"We ought to respect their requests for privacy, and avoid putting out information that will compromise any student or family confidentiality.

Let us give the students and their families time and space to resolve matters among themselves, in consultation with their doctors and counsellors."

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Top photo via YouTube / govsg and Twitter / Kirsten Han.