National University of S________?

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If there was a meme for every month of the year to capture an event, 2020 by far has the most wide-ranging collection. Global pandemic, BLM, cancel culture, GE2020 in Singapore and just in the first week of Sep 2020, we saw a mini storm on change.org over a petition to cancel an event organised by tFreedom, a student group in Tembusu College – NUS.

tFreedom’s description of itself on Tembusu College’s ‘Student Life’ page reads, “tFreedom is an LGBTQIA+-affirming community that aims to build a more diverse and inclusive college. We organise events to advocate and educate on matters regarding gender and sexuality, fostering greater awareness and understanding amongst Tembusians on such issues. tFreedom also host private gatherings for LGBTQIA+-identifying members to create a safe space for them to freely express themselves… (see more here)”.

To achieve its goal, ‘Let’s Talk About Sex (LTAS)’ [a programme of tFreedom] is organised in hopes of raising awareness about sex education and removing the stigma associated with sexual health through weekly discussions. It so happened that LTAS invited 0101 studio to join their planned discussion on 2 Sep about rope bondage sex. 

The petition titled “Stop Promoting Violent Sex at NUS” started by Hope Leow which garnered over 9,000 signatories as of 12 September was started on 29 Aug with the goal of seeking MOE and NUS to provide an explanation concerning a specific college-approved discussion on rope bondage sex organised by tFreedom. In response to it, a counter petition titled “Stop Censoring Sexual Discourse at NUS” was written by an anonymous user, “Singapore Public” on 29 Aug and tFreedom wrote an open statement on 31 Aug. The event had by then also been cancelled.

Tensions ran high with both camps offering emotionally charged views.

Certain Singaporeans expressed misgivings with the bondage talk.
Others defended it as education.

The two camps are unlikely to reach a resolution given that both are entrenched in their own perspectives – and have different starting points, foci concerning morality and expectations towards higher-learning institutions.

Those wishing to see NUS work harder to regulate student activities view institutes of higher learning to be places wherein imparted knowledge ought to uphold public morality, common decency, and at bare minimum within the confines of a restrained and responsible sexual ethic. This side is uncomfortable with the idea that a university which should be exposing young adults to key skills, the arts, competitive sports and the like, should have an extra-curricular group teaching students about the “safe practice” of bondage sex – a sexual fetish where one party often dominates over the other. (Power asymmetries be damned unless they’re kinky amirite?) These people are dismayed with the overt and brazen sexualization of college life what with the sexually-charged orientation camps, an alarming rise in cases of sexual harassment on campus, and now, talks normalizing bondage sex. Anachronistic as it may seem, they believe that schools should be environments of legitimate academic concern and not be co-opted as platforms for the exploration and implicit sanction of fringe sexual conduct which has little to no educational value.

On the other side, arguments alluding to morality is not thrown out either. The focus of this morality is not abstinence however, but consent. Advocates for the event believe that by having regular talks about sex, there can be increased awareness of consent and safer sex practices. This side also seems upset that a ‘privately organised’ event for college students was brought to national awareness which resulted in its cancellation and that participants of the now-deleted LTAS public telegram group were exposed for their involvement in the group. Supporters of this side also believe that institutes of higher learning should encourage the exchange of knowledge regardless of taboo, even knowledge about sexual practices, as presumably, there is some educational value in these.

So, who’s right and who’s wrong? Should NUS continue to approve and allow such activities or should it begin placing boundaries on what the University’s name can be associated with? Whose moral worldview should take precedence in our universities and have sway over future policies? What does wisdom look like when it comes to the treatment of fetishes and taboos in the public square. Are these matters to be handled with juditious discretion or in broad daylight?

Is it time for us to relook our own expectations regarding education institutions? Is it time for a respectful, face-to-face exchange of concerns?

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