Thursday, June 30, 2005

A Touchy Topic Is Aired

A telephone poll of 1,000 people by researchers at a local university this year showed 68.6 percent of Singaporeans had a negative attitude towards homosexuals, 22.9 percent had a positive attitude and 8.5 percent were neutral.

The June 25 Saturday headline screamed "$40,000 Fix-up after HIV outcry". A private school located off Upper Thomson Road had to spend $40,000, due to knee-jerk reaction from parents of its students, a sum amounting to 40 per cent of the school's annual operating cost. The hullabaloo stemmed from the parents' belief that all gays are HIV positive, and that a gay teacher would have infected everything he touched.

Mr Paul Fernandez was given a verbal reprimand by police in September 2003 for committing an act of gross indecency with another man on the public staircase landing of a private block of flats in Klang Lane in Singapore's Little India. He claimed it was a consensual act that came to the police's attention only after he made a report that the other man had robbed him. But because of his close contact with children, the police sent a letter to the school about his clandestine liaison with the man. [Homosexual sex, oral or anal, is a criminal offence in Singapore].

A Straits Times report in February 2005 first identified the school as the Centre for Exceptional Children, which takes in students of age 3 1/2 to 12 years with learning disabilities or low IQs.

The school, which had 20 students then, claimed it did not know Mr Fernandez was gay or that he had been arrested. But the parents were aghast. They faulted the school for hiring a gay teacher. Four pulled their kids out. Other parents insisted that the teacher not teach their children and must not be in the same room as their kids.

On 30 March, the school's board decided to sack Mr Fernandez, who was informed by letter in April. Principal Mrs Queenie Tan went on record to say they did not fire him because he is gay but because he did not follow the school's guidelines: teaching in a classroom with windows so he could be observed.

His termination was not enough to pacify the agitated parents. Some wanted the school to replace everything he had may have touched. Re-paint the school, they insisted. Replace the toilet bowls. Throw away the chairs that he may have sat on. Why? Because they were afraid their kids would get the HIV virus by contacting the objects the gay teacher had touched. Mecifully, they did not insist the road be repaved.

No evidence indicates Mr Fernandez is HIV positive. Furthermore, there is no way the virus can be transmitted through objects touched by an infected person. As Dr Elly Sabrina Ismail, 35, a general practitioner explained: 'HIV is transmitted through blood and bodily fluids through close bodily contact like during sex. A virus can't survive for long when it's exposed to the environment. It's just sheer panic without understanding what it's all about.'

But Mrs Tan said 17 parents told her personally that they wanted the renovations carried out irregardless. So, in March, the school relented. It even replaced the teaching aids - like flash cards and alphabet blocks - that Mr Fernandez had used. The school had to order some of the replacements from the UK. It also replaced a microwave oven, hot water flask and toaster Mr Fernandez had used. Even the cupboards were changed.

Mrs Tan informed the parents personally and via e-mail she would be effecting the changes.

Gay coupleExplaining why they replaced the items, Mrs Tan said: 'We considered the general consensus of the parents. They pointed out that even the Government had banned gay parties and this contributed to the negative feeling they had towards gays.'

To allay their fears and concerns, she decided to carry out the changes even though she admitted it was going overboard. Mrs Tan said the school is only three years old and was not due for renovation.

A parent, who only wanted to be known as Mrs Ong, 46, admitted she was being "kiasu" (a Hokien expression directly translating as "afraid of losing out"). Her 8-year-old son is dyslexic. She said: 'In this day and age of mutating viruses, well, I am just a mum who is concerned for my child. I am a kiasu mother. My son still puts things in his mouth and is not aware of what is hygienic and what is not. I was just thinking for my son and the other children.'

Queried whether she knows that the virus cannot be spread through furniture, she responded: 'Yes, but I'm not taking any chances'.

Someone should inform Mrs Ong that Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong has told the world, through Time Magazine in July 2003, "his government now allows gay employees into its ranks, even in sensitive positions." The change in policy was being implemented without fanfare, Goh divulged, to avoid raising the hackles of more-conservative Singaporeans. "So let it evolve, and in time the population will understand that some people are born that way," Goh said, adding a personal note, "We are born this way and they are born that way, but they are like you and me."

The next time Mrs Ong has to be at a government office, she should be extra cautious about taking a seat in the waiting area or opening the door without gloved hands. Of course, she could choose to patronise only private hospitals, dental clinics, stay in private property and enrol her kid in private schools.