The editor asked for permission to include a particular poem of mine in his book. He also said some very nice things about my poem. I felt pleased, not because of his compliments, but because I felt that this particular poem was indeed an excellent choice for his book.
Why? Because the poem addressed a topic which was very relevant to students (in fact it was based on a real-life event concerning a young student). So I could see how a teacher might use the poem to create and present a highly interesting lesson in class. And I could easily imagine the students relating very well to the poem.
So I replied to the editor - yes, please go ahead and include my poem in your textbook.
This year the editor wrote to me again. He informed me that the poem, unfortunately, would not be included in the new book. Apparently, a higher authority had objected. They did not feel that the poem was suitable for inclusion in a textbook for students.
Why? Because, in the editor's own words, the poem cuts "too close to the bone of everyday reality". The poem would not be suitable for teenagers in school, because it was "too real ...".
Anyway, here's the poem:
The Schoolgirl Kills Herself After Failing An ExamI mention the poetry incident now, because I've just been reminded of it - strangely enough, by the Aware saga. Let me explain.
She jumps from the tenth floor of a housing block
into the brief wild terror of freedom, dies and transforms
into twelve paragraphs of newsprint in the Straits Times,
cool and objective, black and white, verifiable facts only.
We are told that her classmates are "shocked".
And that her parents refuse to comment. We know that
she scored 41 marks for her last exam paper, a fatal result.
A teacher describes her as a "quiet, hardworking girl".
We feel obliged to pause to reflect. We wish to search
our conscience. She was only eleven, we remind ourselves.
There must be others like her. There must be another way,
we suspect, for children to grow up in this country.
But yesterday's news is quick to slide into the grey of memory.
She will become another incidental casualty. We turn the page.
We forget. Again we trip and fall head first into the future,
down into the depths of a national urge to never stop excelling.
Suicide can be a disturbing topic. Nevertheless the issue is real, and worthy of discussion. Only a small proportion of students will ever become suicidal, but that takes nothing away from the significance of the topic as a social issue. To avoid the topic, on the grounds that it cuts "too close to the bone of everyday reality", is basically a kind of chickening out.
Homosexuality is also real. Only a small proportion of the general population is homosexual. Again, that takes nothing away from the significance of the topic as a social issue. For educators to deliberately avoid the topic, as if it did not exist, is somewhat like trying to pretend that in the real world, young people do not commit suicide.
The fact that a topic is controversial is a bad reason to avoid discussing it. It might even be said that the more controversial a topic, the greater the need to openly discuss it. We should bring the topic out into the light; analyse the facts; study the theories; and share our views. We should work towards gaining more clarity and understanding, instead of doing the ostrich thing and sticking our heads into the sand.
Unfortunately, it appears that some members of the Christian right have recently been insisting that schools in Singapore behave like ostriches. The specific targets? Junior colleges whose students have discussed gay issues in their General Paper classes.
Below you can see the Education Ministry's half-hearted defence against the attack of the Christian right:
ST May 7, 2009
GP teachers did not push alternative lifestyles
By Amelia Tan
IN ITS letter to The Straits Times yesterday, the Ministry of Education (MOE) revealed that it had received 'feedback' about materials on alternative lifestyles used in junior college General Paper lessons.
Among the issues raised was one contained in an e-mail which has made the rounds recently. It said that during a discussion of same-sex marriages, students at a junior college were given a worksheet with questions asking for their views of a nuclear family unit. They were also asked to discuss topics such as the legalisation of gay marriage and parents of the same sex forming families through adoption.
A documentary on the lifestyles of such families was also shown in class, the e-mail said. It questioned if it was appropriate to discuss such topics, and charged that this promoted homosexuality. It is not known who wrote the e-mail.
In its response yesterday, MOE said: 'GP lessons are meant to promote critical thinking and discussion on contemporary issues.
'These materials and lessons did not involve Aware...MOE investigations showed that the teachers had used these materials to initiate discussion on family structures, and not to promote alternative lifestyles.
'Nevertheless, MOE will remind school leaders and teachers to exercise greater professional discretion in guiding their students when such topics are discussed. They should also adhere to social norms and values of our mainstream society.'
Sigh ... I wonder what's next on the cards, for Singapore. Perhaps the Christian fundamentalists will insist that everyone subscribes to their view that the world was created in seven days. And then they will insist that the topic of Darwinian evolution be banned from discussion in our schools.
This kind of issue has already shown up in other countries. Read this article about Josie Lau's favourite "charity", Focus on the Family. When is Singapore's turn?