Eradicating the Drug Menace: No One Left Behind

For the average Singaporean, it is far easier to believe that the drug problem exists far away—in another country, another neighbourhood, amongst another community, an alien and invisible segment of our society. Many of us learnt about drugs through early preventive education. Surely, we can all recall those school assemblies where stern-faced officers from the Central Narcotics Bureau (CNB), would show us slides with photos and videos of the various drugs and the terrifying impacts that their use can have on the human body and appearance. (more…)

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Trapped in the "Wrong" Body?: Transgender Among the Malay Community

You know them as the ‘T’ in ‘LGBTQ+’ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, and queer), but how much do we really know about the transgender community in Singapore? Transgender people, especially among the Malay/Muslim community, are rather distinct, least talked about, and face a range of different issues and problems in Singapore.

Transgender is a non-medical term that has been used increasingly as an umbrella term describing an individual, whose gender identity or gender expression differs from the sex to which he or she was assigned at birth. Gender is not the same as your biological sex, although many of us identify them interchangeably. Gender is used with reference to social and cultural differences whilst sex is the genitalia that you are born with, your reproductive organs, and your chromosomal makeup. Gender forms a large and important part of our identities, as we use this social marker to navigate many of our choices, behaviours and attitudes in life.

The topic of the transgender people remains contentious today, and is treated with a high level of social stigma. There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding the existence and culture of transgender people. Lacking understanding of this community may result in prejudice and discrimination at multiple levels that are present in interpersonal relationships, as well as the social and institutional milieu.

Transgender people experience their transitions in a variety of ways, either opting to undergo the process only socially, hormonally, or for a combination of hormonal changes and surgery. The Karyawan team spoke to four transgender individuals about their transition experiences in becoming the person they believe they always were. This article also takes a closer look at the challenges and treatments transgender people receive in the various aspects of their lives ranging from their homes, religious communities, and the society. Pseudonyms are used for all of the interviewees to maintain their privacy as well as their families’.

Not many of us would consider transgender individuals to have a stable family life and even have children. Most of the transgender individuals that we spoke to think of themselves as having strong family values, with children and good spousal support. Consider the case of Andi, a 28-year-old female-to-male (FTM) transgender who lives with his female partner, Dilah, and their three-year-old daughter who was conceived through a sperm donor.

Andi always felt that he was a boy trapped in a girl’s body. He recalled feeling this way since he was nine. As a kid, Andi preferred and enjoyed male-oriented activities including soccer. He always felt uncomfortable when he was made to wear female clothing.

Andi has been on testosterone therapy for about four years now and shared that he is happy with his bodily changes. The prescribed hormonal jabs that Andi takes every few months are used for hormonal “masculinisation” in FTMs and are responsible for promoting “male” physical traits. The effects were quite apparent when the Karyawan team sat down with him; he now sports facial hair and a deep voice. He has officially changed his name on his identity card (IC) although he is still legally a “female” since he has yet to undergo any sexual reassignment surgery.

Andi shared, “It was a great moment to receive recognition as a male after the transition. I can now go to the gents without getting stares. My daughter is also my main motivation for this transition. I want her to see me as a father figure. I do not want her friends to make fun of her for having a father who looks like a woman.”

Coming out as a transman has definitely affected his familial ties but he believes in being honest and not throwing his family aside no matter what.

“My father is a religious person so he still has difficulties accepting how I am now. He would not look me in the eyes whenever we see each other. It is sad, of course. I am aware of the religious rulings on transgender but I never asked to be or feel this way. I was in constant frustration with myself growing up. My mother, on the other hand, has always been open and supportive of my decision. In fact, she accompanied me to one of my hormonal jab appointments,” he said.

Andi hopes to have his sexual reassignment surgery done in the future and to get married to his partner. He also hopes that society will be more understanding and sensitive towards people like him.

He added, “Do not judge someone by their sexual orientation or gender identity. People like myself do not wake up one day deciding we want to be part of a community that is frowned upon by so many.”

The Karyawan team also met Khai who, like Andi, has changed his name but is still “female” on his IC. Khai has been on hormonal therapy for about three years and plans to get a top surgery done so that he will look less feminine.

Khai shared, “As a kid, I feel that parts of my body do not fit with my gender identity. Growing up, I also did not get much attention from my parents. I have a mentally ill sister who requires full attention from my parents so much of their time is spent on her. As a kid, I did not really know which direction to head.”

“I do not have a firm religious upbringing. And although my family are not practicing Muslims, my father is still unhappy with me coming out as a transman. My mother, on the other hand, is more accepting,” he added.

Khai hopes that the Malay/Muslim community in Singapore could be kinder and accepting towards them. He said, “It does not hurt to be nice to us. As much as we choose this ‘path’, do try to understand where we are coming from. You may not know our stories, so please be more sensitive.”

The Karyawan team also met Azri, a FTM ex-Muslim transgender, who is active in advocating for the transgender people among the Malay community and in organising sharing sessions for them.

Azri said, “The transgender among the Malay community do not really know where or who to go to for social support. They also feel embarrassed because of the stigma surrounding the transgender community. That is why we came up with this group to support and empower our community in terms of education and jobs, and basically in organising any activities among ourselves. There is currently no avenue for a Malay/Muslim transgender to seek information on religion.”

According to Azri, bullying and discrimination in school have led many transgender students to drop out of school early, which in turn, negatively affected their employment opportunities. He shared that securing legitimate employment is definitely a lot harder for a transgender person here.

A poll of 41 transwomen in Singapore found that nearly half of them had considered suicide, while about 15 percent actually attempted suicide in the past year. The poll, led by transgender shelter, T Project, and social enterprise, B-Change, also found that 78 percent of respondents felt depressed in the past year.

“One of the misconceptions that people have of us is that it is just a phase. It is actually, rather, a journey of discovering ourselves. Get to know us from a human perspective rather than just reading about us. Instead of coming up with your own opinions, try to listen to us, our struggles, our contributions, and maybe you will understand why we are striving for more acceptance. We did not choose to be this way. I mean, who would want to pay money to be happy with themselves only to be criminalised, discriminated or rejected?” Azri shared.

Singapore performed its first sex change operation on a 24-year-old man in 1971 and two years later, allowed those who undergo the operation to change their gender legally. According to the transgender individuals we spoke to, despite decades of official recognition, transgender individuals are prone to the debilitating discrimination that prevents them from a ridicule-free life.

The male-to-female (MTF) transgender community, for instance, is largely associated in the public’s eye with prostitution. With this albatross hanging around their necks, many MTF transgender person often face difficulties in getting a decent job. The lucky ones ended up in the fashion, hairstyle or the cosmetics trade, much like our next interviewee, Amy.

Born a male, Amy, now 52, started identifying as a female at the age of eight and has always dreamt of being a model. Amy’s mother passed away when she was seven. She dropped out of school at the end of Primary 6. At the age of 13, Amy ran away from home because she could not get along with her new stepmother when her dad remarried. That was when Amy started mixing with the transgender community, who also helped her in her transitioning process. Amy started taking hormonal pills at the age of 14 and got her first breast implant at 17. When she turned 21, Amy went to Bangkok to undergo a full sex change operation before returning to Singapore and officially changing her gender to female on her IC.

Amy then successfully pursued her dream to be a model. She signed with a famous model agency and became one of the top local transgender models during her time. She eventually retired from modelling as she got older and worked for a friend in a production company. Amy also enjoys cooking and in fact, has started a very well-received cooking show on her Facebook fan page. Her cooking videos, which accumulated hundreds of likes each, while her fan page which has garnered over 10,000 likes, are testament to her widespread influence and popularity especially within the LGBTQ+ community.

Touching on religion, Amy said, “Yes, as a Muslim, we are not allowed to change our identity but what is done, is done. The only way to repent is not by changing again, as procedures will make it even more complicated, but instead, to keep our iman (faith) strong and move forward with the teachings of Islam.”

The Karyawan team met Ustaz Ashraf Anwar who shared his religious perspective on the issue surrounding the transgender community in Singapore. Ustaz Ashraf is a graduate from the Faculty of Theology and Islamic Culture at Al-Azhar University, and the Faculty of Arabic Language and Islamic Studies at the American University of Cairo. He is also pursuing a master’s degree at Nanyang Technological University. Ustaz Ashraf Anwar is certified under the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS).

Ustaz Ashraf shared that the attitude of Islamic scholarship with regard to transgender was and still is a challenging and an intricate issue. The topic has not been dealt with conclusively and quite comprehensively within the Islamic institutions, and needs to be explored further and deeper, taking into consideration the challenges and stigmatisation transgender individuals face on a daily basis. He said, “There are undoubtedly opposing views in this matter and there is no fatwa or clear rulings on transgenderism or gender dysphoria in Singapore. We cannot simplify this issue, for with technological advancements and new findings, the issue should also be seen in an evolutionary way. We need to also consider the medical aspect of transgenderism holistically in relation to the religious aspect. Each issue should be considered on a case-by-case basis.”

According to our interviewees, there are many cases where transgender people are being barred from entering the mosques. The team asked Ustaz Ashraf for his opinion on this:

No transgender should be shunned from the mosque. From my personal experience, most of the time when it happened, the mosque officers probably have no experience or capacity in dealing with the individuals. They probably did not mean to shun them away. How can any Muslim shun their brothers and sisters from praying and connecting to Allah? I currently teach and sit at the board of the An-Nahdhah Mosque, and transgender people are always welcome to pray at our mosque,” he shared.

Ustaz Ashraf advises the transgender community to continue to pray, have faith and always strive to be closer to Allah. He also hopes that the Malay/Muslim community would be more understanding and receptive to engaging the transgender people by exemplifying and following the footsteps of the Prophet (pbuh).

“Try to talk to the transgender community and treat them like a fellow brother and sister. Look beyond their physicality for they too hold the same sanctity and value of life like us. There is a hadith that says, ‘If you show mercy to those who are on the earth, He who is in the heaven will show mercy to you’,” he shared.

The Karyawan team also spoke to Mr Azfar Anwar, an Oxford-trained scholar in Islamic Studies and History, with an interest in Islam and homosexuality. According to him, scholars of modern contemporary Islam have not comprehensively addressed transgenderism. Those of pre-modern Islam, however, accepted transgender individuals as part of the community. Whether undergoing sex change is permissible in the case of transgender individuals or not is situational.

Mr Azfar shared, “I know a lot of transgender persons who are practising Muslims. The question we should all ask is why have they chosen to remain a Muslim despite the social stigma they face. There are a number of individuals from the LGBT community who left Islam because they felt that the Muslim community has failed them. The transgender people, like everyone else, are part of our community. They are not second-class citizens, and their faith should not be questioned. They should be lauded for having such strong faith, despite the adversities they face in this world. Because on top of homophobia and transphobia they face from their own community, they also have to deal with Islamophobia alike other Muslims. Complex issues such as gender reassignment surgery should be addressed by the medical practitioners and not asatizah, who are not trained to diagnose gender dysphoria.”

Transgender people have always existed in every society, culture, and religion. Their nonconformity to the prescribed gender roles should, however, not exclude them from the mainstream community and subject them to harassments and abuses. There is no scope of discrimination, harassment, and violence on the grounds of gender in Islam. Human beings, irrespective of their gender, class, ethnicity, and religion, are entitled to respect and lead their life with dignity. ⬛


Nabilah Mohammad is a Research Analyst at the Centre for Research on Islamic and Malay Affairs (RIMA). She holds a Bachelor of Science in Psychology and a Specialist Diploma in Statistics and Data Mining.

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Let's Talk about Our Prejudice against Children

In a news article published on 21 May 20171, it was reported that there has been a spike in the number of child abuse cases in Singapore. According to the report, the Ministry of Social and Family Development (MSF) probed a total of 873 child abuse cases in 2016, an almost 60 per cent increase from the 551 cases in 2015. (more…)

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Same Same, But Different

Education in Singapore is very important for its survival. Most of us have been reminded that labour is the only resource we have and that we need to be educated in order for us to make the economy grow. (more…)

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The Bicentennial and the Layperson

Those who have gone through the Singapore education system may recall having studied history at least at the lower secondary level. Some of the key names or words associated with the early history of Singapore they would be familiar with are Sang Nila Utama, Temasek, the “lion”1, orang laut, fishing village, Stamford Raffles and William Farquhar. (more…)

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Welcoming Subject-based Banding in Singapore's Secondary School: Reform or Re-formation of Our Superstructure?

There was a momentous, if not overdue, education policy announcement in the first week of March 2019. In five years’ time, secondary school students in Singapore will no longer be streamed into Express, Normal Academic (N (A)) or Normal Technical (N (T)) streams. Beginning 2024, there will instead be full subject-based banding (SBB) and students will take up subjects at higher or lower levels based on their strengths.

In a Straits Times article dated 6 March 2019, Minister for Education, Mr Ong Ye Kung said, “With full SBB implemented, […] we would have effectively merged Express, N(A) and N(T) streams into a single course. […] So from three education streams, we will now have ‘One secondary education, many subject bands’. We will no longer have fishes swimming down three separate streams, but one broad river, with each fish negotiating its own journey.”

In nine months, from January 2020, 25 secondary schools will pioneer this subject-based banding initiative. This article argues that the work of banding students may not be carried out in full as claimed, nor will it be as fluid as the broad river metaphor that Minister offers. I would venture to add too, using an analogy derived from Karl Marx’s theory, that there are huge base and superstructure rocks to negotiate as we begin this much-needed swim.

Marx defined ‘base’ as the forces and relations of production within a society, which determines the various groups of people found therein; the nature, hierarchy and structure of relationships between them; the roles that they play or are allowed to play; as well as the materials and resources involved in producing the things needed and wanted by society.

A ‘superstructure’ is Marx’s term for all other aspects of society. These include culture, ideology encompassing worldviews, ideas, beliefs, norms and expectations; identities that people take on; social institutions such as education, religion, media, and family, among others; as well as the political structure of the country and the State, or the political apparatus that governs society. Marx argued that the superstructure develops out of how the base operates, and in doing so, strengthens the power of the dominant group in the society.

It must be recognised that neither the base nor the superstructure is naturally occurring, nor are they static formations. Both are socially constructed by the people in a society, and both are the sedimentations of various social processes and interactions between people that are constantly shifting and evolving in unintended directions.

The base of Singapore education system built on streaming students is forty years old. Streaming was part of our primary school provision for thirty years until the SBB was implemented for Primary Five students in 2008. Up until that year, primary school streaming was one of the most controversial, and yet the most stoutly defended, policies in the history of Singapore’s education system. There were divergent messages within the State’s discourse of streaming during these three decades. One that stuck in my mind is feeding students what they can digest.

The 1979 Goh Report, which partook in the institution of streaming, spoke of it as a means of giving students “half a loaf when a whole loaf will choke” – a metaphor that is far from egalitarian, and even downright condescending. Streaming has always also been seen as a magical solution for reducing attrition rate in our school system. During his parliamentary speech on 5 March 2019, Minister Ong took this argument in defending the decades of streaming further. He claimed that if our education system had not reduced attrition rates through streaming, social stratification would have been far worse. Yet, the State knew that it was not an egalitarian policy.

Former Minister for Education, Mr Tharman Shanmugaratnam, in a 2004 Parliamentary session, pointed out that egalitarian policies may not always work, and that streaming is more focused on outcomes. He noted how standards have fallen in British universities as a result, not only of rapid expansion, but of many years of experimentation with egalitarian policies in schools, which have led to a lowering of standards so that more students can pass and obtain the same qualification. He concluded that Singapore should stick to a system that is focused on achieving strong outcomes for all.

Weaving the thread of both Mr Ong’s and Mr Tharman’s arguments, essentially streaming had been a non-egalitarian policy held on by our education system for an outcome that was seen to be more egalitarian. Mr Ong also went on to say that stigmatisation is not a government policy but a societal response. The fact is the base of our society was built on inequitable curriculum access and stratification by the State forty years ago, and a host of superstructure has grown out of this base.

For instance, Singaporeans who view children streamed into lower tracks as coming from an inferior upbringing, one that is not in line with their sets of values, is not uncommon. I have seen how quickly some teachers, school leaders, parents and adjunct educators equate a good student to a good person. Equating students from lower tracks to people with lesser moral values is not a surprising syllogism and, I would argue, a worldview that owes its debt to our history of forty years of streaming.

Literature on educational research since the 1970s have warned of how education systems reproduce and reinforce class stratification and how people can be systematically and indirectly categorised, labelled and excluded from the mainstream and elite strata of society, economy, and politics because of their race, gender, sexuality, age, and class. The State cannot disclaim such worldviews from its longstanding policy. The base could have been changed so much earlier, and the superstructure allowed to reconstruct since then.

In 2002, the Remaking Singapore Committee, while acknowledging that streaming in primary schools has allowed pupils to study at their own pace and helped them to go further in school, was concerned that streaming at Primary Four is done too early, is too exam-based and may be socially divisive. The Committee proposed refining the system to allow pupils to take subject modules of varying difficulty.

Our other concerns should also be that our students who are caught up in the lower tracks take on learner-failure identities. This point was made by Member of Parliament, Dr Intan Azura Mokhtar in her parliamentary speech on 9 March 2019, where she spoke about how her students in the Normal streams were convinced they were failures in learning mathematics.

Studies done by scholars, such as Pollard and Filer, show that students do not behave randomly in response to school expectations and learning contexts. Rather, they build on existing biographies and experiences and act in ways which are often patterned. Parentocracy, a system where parents deploy their greater economic, cultural and social resources to secure their children’s educational advantage, is now a set part of our societal response to the decades of educational streaming in our competitive education system.

The approach in which schools manage their practices could also contribute considerably to the students’ sense of success and failure. The Ministry of Education’s SBB booklet for primary school, which has been implemented for a decade now, recommends the practice as such: a child has the flexibility of taking a mix of standard or foundation subjects, depending on his or her strength in each subject. There were 17 curricular combinations drawn up by the Ministry in this flexible banding policy, but a quick survey of our primary schools’ implementation of the SBB initiative shows that schools are currently offering between four and six choices. Timetabling around a set of 17 combinations has proven too much for many schools and this desultory result of 25% of the possible combinations continues to this date.

How will our secondary schools which offer between three and five times more subjects than their primary counterparts cope with this work of timetabling? The pilot SBB school, Edgefield Secondary, had to go through more than 100 permutations before coming up with the final version of their current timetable. How sustainable will this work be in all secondary schools?

During my PhD fieldwork analysing the enactment of SBB amongst four primary school principals, only one of them took on the challenge of providing more than five combinations to their students. This principal offered ten different combinations and had to literally hold classes under the staircases. Beyond the logistical and technical challenges, my PhD study also showed that the modularity of the SBB combinations requires an entirely new set of decision-making strategies for our primary school leaders.

My study concludes that the perspectives policy actors at the school level use as conceptual frameworks in confronting a new policy are paramount in the work of defining, deciding and doing the policy. Only two out of the four principals in my study understood the conceptual framework of the banding work they have to carry through. The teacher in my case study class was a warm, affective teacher, but his implicit pedagogy was to continue to have low expectations of his students, taught them to the test, and instilled a fear of the Primary School Leaving Examination (PSLE) in them. The principal in my case study school saw his main task as making sure the students have a chance at getting better results in the PSLE through this new SBB reform, and towards this end, he only offered four curriculum combinations.

I would like to conclude by stating that beyond the logistical and technical complications of the structural adjustments in allocating teachers, classrooms and the assiduous, more complex timetabling work, there will be cognitive disjuncture and limitations which all policy actors within the school needs to overcome in the enactment of this policy. Our educators need to overcome the discrete and neat categorisations engendered by the streaming mindset and move towards a more complex way of deciding, planning and enacting the banding of students into so many choices of subjects. Classrooms will have to be much less homogenous, while pedagogies more differentiated.

The intellectual, emotional and moral demands on all stakeholders will commensurate with our education system when this reform unfolds. We should also be cautioned that research has shown the claim that educational reform make as a special agent of social redemption is difficult to sustain. Minister Ong said that there are no reasons why the stigma of streaming should not be removed with SBB if society plays its part. I share the Minister’s hope and I do applaud this reform but I am wary of this magic bullet argument.

I have noted, just as many other researchers do, that both track placement and mobility vary along racial lines with an overwhelming number of minority and low socio-economic status students placed in the lowest tracks. It is argued that tracking maintained the existing distribution of power and privilege in society, one that is stratified to meet the demands of capitalism.

A large number of our Malay-Muslim children are placed in these lowest tracks in primary and secondary schools in Singapore. Will banding be the game changer for our Malay-Muslim children who have been underperforming in the current education system? Will the enduring issue of Malay-Muslim children streamed into the lowest tracks be a thing of the past with SBB?

The relation between the base and the superstructure is a dialectic. Theorists tell us that if there are large enough changes within the base, this will be reflected within the superstructure. The questions I would like to pose are not how large a change this reform will bring about, or how long it will take the superstructure to change; but will SBB in our secondary schools be the reform it promises to be, and make an impact on the way we value all our students and think all of them worthy of equitable curriculum access? Or will it be a re-formation of the old stratification along the lines of the three ‘G’s? Will the fluid river we are promised merely flow over the older rock formations of the current base and superstructure? ⬛


Dr Mardiana Abu Bakar is a lecturer with the Curriculum, Teaching and Learning Academic Group of the National Institute of Education in Singapore. Her teaching duties revolve around curriculum policy, theories, and enactments. She lectures on the pedagogies of dialogic teaching and reflective practices. Her scholarship looks into issues of ontologies, opportunities, and potentialities of policy-making, and curriculum implementation. Her three current research efforts are focused on issues of diversity in secondary school classrooms, intervention and support models in a childcare institution. She also looks into the ontologies of Institutes of Technical Education alumni and students within the pathways of the education system. She is also a consultant with Yayasan MENDAKI in developing a signature pedagogy through an Ethics of Care in the MENDAKI Tuition Scheme.

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The Problem with the Discourse of 'Arabisation'

There has been a concern about a “fundamental transformation” taking place within Muslim communities all over the world. In a 2016 The Straits Times article1, Prof Ghoshal stated that such “Muslim identity” is formed based on a worldview taken from early Quranic precepts, which resulted in the external manifestations of piety that resemble the way of life in the medieval Arab world during the formative stage of Islam. (more…)

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Health Supplements - Do You Really Need Them?

Most of us find it difficult to catch our breath and smell the roses while living in this breakneck pace of life in Singapore. We have deadlines and targets to meet, or errands to run, sometimes at the expense of our well-being. Occasionally, we are stopped in our tracks when we start feeling slightly under the weather. In our usual true fashion, we look for quick cures and easy solutions just so we can get the all-important work done. (more…)

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Reaching a New Horizon: Teaching English in Japan

Growing up, I had two big dreams I wanted to achieve in life. The first was to earn a higher degree. The second: to live in Japan for a while. So after completing my Master’s degree, I embarked on the Japan Exchange and Teaching (JET) Programme, a government initiative aimed at increasing grassroots international exchange and English fluency by hiring native English speakers to work as Assistant Language Teachers (ALT) and Coordinators for International Relations all across Japan. (more…)

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Rethinking our History: A Review of Historical Imagination and Cultural Responses to Colonialism and Nationalism by Dr Azhar Ibrahim

Colonialism has been a popular topic to discuss around the world from academia to civil societies and even mainstream media. It has been on the tip of almost every Singaporean’s tongue most recently, especially with the Singapore Bicentennial commemoration. But how do we begin to address our colonial history? (more…)

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