In January 2021, a viral reddit post quickly became one of the most prominent accounts of trans discrimination in Singapore's recent memory — leading to a protest, parliamentary debate and newfound visibility on how the state treats transgender students.
This issue explores how the state and civil society responded to one student's testimony, and what it says about the shape of solidarity and LGBT activism in Singapore.
“[Rant] Transgender Discrimination in Singapore Schools and MOE's denial of mental health issues”
14 January: It began as a post on the subreddit /r/SGExams, a subreddit with over 76,000 members and a frequent haunt for students and young adults sharing their frustrations with student life. On this day, Ashlee shared a detailed account of her experience of discrimination from her school and the Ministry of Education. In her post, she shares how her school had barred her from attending classes, obstructed her access to hormone therapy, and imposed restrictive rules on her appearance.
As a trans student with gender dysphoria, she argued that these were issues which constitute discrimination and placed responsibility squarely on the school and the state — noting that her peers were supportive of her transition.
Disclaimer: As part of this issue of Samizdat, the writer contacted Ashlee for her input, but did not receive a response. This issue summarises and analyses events surrounding her story, but does not speak on her behalf.
Under Reddit’s democratic system of users determining what content becomes more visible based on their up- or downvotes, her post quickly shot to the frontpage of /r/SGExams and is currently the most upvoted post in the history of the subreddit.
Going Viral and the Government’s Response
15 January: Before her account ever received mainstream media coverage, her story spread like wildfire across a host of social media sites and alternative media outlets.
The first reports of this story by media outlets emerged on alternative platforms like The Online Citizen and Dear Straight People. Many netizens initially expressed disbelief towards Ashlee’s account, while others expressed their outrage and indignation at the way she was treated.
16 January: The following day, the Ministry of Education released a statement responding to Ashlee’s story. This blanket denial was short on details beyond dismissing Ashlee’s story while misgendering her.
(What is misgendering? Check out Heckin Unicorn's glossary of LGBT terms for a brief explanation of this and other related terms)
The statement also asked “students who experience unkind behaviour from peers to approach the teachers or school leaders as they are committed to keep students safe” — ignoring how Ashlee made clear that the issue was not one of bullying but institutional policy.
In the mainstream media, however, some of the first reports on Ashlee’s story lead with an identical angle:
"In August, I went to see my doctor again, as I had just turned 18. However, he told me that the MOE had called for a meeting with him, demanding that he stop writing memos to schools or referring people to hormone therapy without informing the MOE first…
… My doctor said he couldn't refer me and that he will work with the MOE. Since August, there has been no referral for hormone therapy”
Lune Loh, a Singaporean trans activist, recalled seeing Ashlee’s story on her Facebook feed. The story immediately stood out to her because of its resonance:
“[Ashlee] could well have been a fake person… but I realised that she could not have been fake because whatever she had shared is real. It’s everything generations of trans women and trans femme people in Singapore have faced.”
For Lune, it was the hair that got to her. When Ashlee shared her account of being restricted by her school on how she had to present herself or be barred access to education, Lune was reminded of her own negotiations with teachers over how she should present herself.
“Everything just came together. There’s a lot of history of disciplinary action and trauma. After MOE sent the first response, of course we’re angry...” Lune explained. “We have seen this happen before and nothing has changed.”
At first, Lune and her fellow activists did what many Singaporeans do when confronted with injustice: write to their Members of Parliament and use official channels to raise their concerns.
21 January: After calls for clarity from netizens, civil society organisations and journalists, a joint statement was released by the Ministry of Education and Institute of Mental Health.
This joint statement claims that medical decisions lie with clinicians, patients and parents, and not MOE. The statement also notes that home-based learning has been offered to Ashlee, but failed to elaborate on why a student might be forced out of the classroom as Ashlee had alleged. One commentator described it as “a non-statement”.
When official channels failed to elicit the desired response, Lune and her friends realised that they needed to protest against the unjust policies that are hurting transgender youth in Singapore’s education system.
On 26 January, Lune and fellow activists stood before the Ministry of Education holding placards that read trans rights slogans in a peaceful protest. In minutes, the police had arrived to ask them to disperse. Three, including Lune, were arrested under the Public Order Act.
It is worth stressing the rarity of protests in Singapore and the severity of restrictions against them. In Singapore, protesters have been arrested for holding small and peaceful assemblies (sometimes of single persons). This makes the trans rights protesters’ decision to demonstrate at the Ministry of Education all the more striking.
At the time of writing, the outcome of the cases against the protesters is unknown.
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The Shape of Solidarity in Singapore
Earlier, when Ashlee’s story became public, over 50 LGBT organisations released a collective statement of solidarity, calling on the Ministry of Education and the Institute of Mental Health to act on its commitment to keep students safe.
After the protest, backlash against the government response emerged from many corners, including a smaller coalition of local NGOs, international human rights organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, Southeast Asian civil society organisations and more.
Ashlee is Not Alone
The statement from local LGBT groups called attention to the wider trend of discrimination against trans students in Singapore:
“We believe today’s events reflect the frustrations of youths who are continually silenced and rendered invisible by the system… Beyond Ashlee, the discrimination against transgender students in schools is well-documented.”
They also called attention to a report on transgender issues that was submitted as part of Singapore’s Universal Periodic Review (a review of a country’s human rights record by the United Nations).
This report, released in October 2020 (well before Ashlee’s story was shared), notes that:
“a particular area of concern is the impact of “unwritten policies” on transgender youths that compromise their privacy, health, safety and access to education"
Local activist Carissa Cheow shared: “What this case really exposes is that we need to build systems that work for us, and not dismiss people when they tell you that systems are not working for them. If they tell you that, it means they have experienced it firsthand.”
We, the undersigned, are teachers, counsellors, social workers, and community & youth workers…
The most grassroots and individual-driven expression of solidarity towards Ashlee and the protesters came from a diverse group of teachers, counsellors, tutors, social workers, psychologists, professors and many others.
Together, they released an open letter that quickly acquired more than 600 signatories (from 300, according to initial media reports) and called for the Ministry of Education “to implement and communicate a clear policy on supporting transgender students at schools, in line with advice from healthcare professionals, and in consultation with the respective students and their families.”
While around 160 signatories signed under their full names, the vast majority did not — instead signing the open letter with pseudonyms or only part of their full name. The group wrote:
"Many of us were afraid to write this statement or put our names to it because we recognise that it is still not safe for us as individuals and professionals to publicly express these views."
The speed at which their open letter gained traction, coupled with the fear which underlies such activism, highlights a crucial dynamic in Singapore: While many care about political rights and equality, and are often willing to show support for such causes, the fear of potential consequences (especially when one works in the public sector) can drive much of this support underground.
The Impact of LGBT Activism
Ashlee’s story is not the first time that a trans person has come forward with their experience of discrimination in Singapore, but hers is arguably the most prominent account in recent memory.
In Singapore, the invisibility of transgender people and their issues has long been highlighted by local activists. NGOs have criticised the state for paying lip service to trans inclusion while failing to protect trans persons with their policies. Key challenges related to this include lacking workplace protections, lacking legal recognition of gender identity, unequal access to healthcare and education, and vulnerability to violence.
Existing research shows that the vast majority of people claim not to know a trans person — and that many of their opinions on trans issues can be shaped by media portrayals.
It is for these reasons that stories like Ashlee’s are crucial in raising public awareness of discrimination against trans people in Singapore and policy failures that demand action. Ashlee’s account and the ensuing activism from civil society pushed discussions on trans issues into the mainstream:
“Culture Wars” and Singapore’s Conservative Asian Values
1 February: In response to parliamentary questions on the Ministry of Education’s policies on trans students, Minister Lawrence Wong argued that schools have the flexibility to determine their own policies on trans students and that:
“Issues of gender identity have become bitterly contested sources of division in the culture wars in some Western countries and societies. We should not import these culture wars into Singapore, or allow issues of gender identity to divide our society.”
Lawrence Wong’s argument evokes a frequently used defence in Singapore against criticisms of the state’s human rights record. In painting progressive movements as foreign in nature, and opposed to Singapore’s socially conservative Asian values, the state reduces crucial debates into simplistic “us vs them” narratives.
Public Awareness is Not Enough
Activist Carissa Cheow believes that Singaporeans seeking change should go beyond merely raising awareness: “Awareness is not enough — this is not just an issue of prejudice and bias and stigma and individual mindsets, this is also about institutions and reform.”
In Singapore, a frequent response to calls for more equitable policy towards LGBT people is to point to Singapore’s social conservatism — and ask those seeking progress to wait for societal attitudes to change. However, such calls must be taken with a grain of salt, as the available research on public attitudes towards LGBT issues paints a more complex picture:
Public opinion surveys on LGBT issues in Singapore have many flaws. Transgender issues are often excluded, leaving the actual public opinion on trans equality ambiguous. Moreover, biased framing (how wrong is homosexuality?) can skew results to the negative by problematising LGBT people and associating them with social ills.
Despite these flaws, IPS surveys do indicate a slow shift towards acceptance. Meanwhile, other surveys point towards broader support towards Pink Dot and alleviating LGBT inequality, as well as the existence of a significant middle ground on more contentious issues (such as same-sex civil partnership).
A look at the social media reaction to the protest also shows the diversity of opinion which exists on political action for trans rights — which cannot be reduced to broad social conservatism:
Thus, Singapore’s supposedly conservative Asian values are not as rooted in empirical evidence as many might claim. Perhaps the best example of this is that the Singapore public believes that abortion, casual sex and parents beating children are even less justifiable than homosexuality. (Again, this IPS survey problematises homosexuality in how it frames its question.)
Ultimately, by placing the burden of change on a faceless and ambiguously defined public, the state evades more difficult questions of how government policies that hurt LGBT people should be changed.
Carissa argues that when we focus on raising public awareness as the end goal of activism, we can fall into the trap of overlooking systemic issues:
“You can have everyone in that space be extremely supportive and have no stigma, but if the system is designed to harm people — then it will still harm people regardless of how good the people in the room are... You achieve the change you want to see by replacing these systems with systems that account for the lived reality of people.”
Indeed, Ashlee's initial post pointed out institutional problems that exist despite acceptance from peers and some staff members. Her update (in response to government statements) highlighted how the "flexibility" the Minister favours could allow policies which limit the ability of trans students to access education. She also refuted the minister’s culture war rhetoric by highlighting that she “did not personally affect anyone’s personal life” — and pointing out that her school would have done better by not obstructing her treatment and education.
As of the time of writing, it remains unclear whether Ashlee’s issues with her school (the Millennia Institute) have been resolved.
Why Online Grievances Matter
In Singapore, sharing grievances with the government online can play an important role in demanding change. A unique aspect of social media activism is hearing someone’s testimony in their own words. Such stories are harder to erase or demonise because they come from such an intimate and first-person perspective.
While the virality of Ashlee’s story was fuelled by social media, attributing the importance her story attained purely to social media would be an oversimplification. Grievances are frequently shared online — on such a frequent basis that one of Singapore’s most popular Facebook groups is Complaint Singapore — and not all of them gain traction.
The impact of these grievances also cannot be reduced to the severity of its claims: Nanyang Scandal was a website created by Mohamed Helmy, alleging harassment, animal cruelty and academic misconduct by Singapore’s Dementia Consortium. This grievance elicited only a blanket denial from the universities involved with few details, before disappearing from public consciousness.
Kirsten Han’s in-depth article on a mother’s fears about her son’s treatment in a Singapore prison elicited no official response despite the severity of the alleged abuse. When Workers’ Party MP Leon Perera asked questions in parliament in the same vein as the questions raised by Han, he received a short written reply reiterating that processes are in place to prevent abuse.
How and where the story is told matters
As with the online criticism of the mismanagement of quarantine processes, providing details can matter as many netizens react to online grievances with doubt, well before the government steps in. For Jade Rasif, keeping these receipts provoked a rare apology from a government agency.
While Rasif has an enormous platform as an established influencer, private citizens who shared their stories of how the Ministry of Health was insensitive to issues faced by disabled persons had to rely on alternative press outlets like Wake Up Singapore and the digital masses to bring their claims into the public eye and mainstream media reporting. For Ashlee, /r/SGExams’ community of students and young adults familiar with educational injustices likely contributed to the story’s intensely viral reception.
Resonance is also likely to be a contributing factor, as can be seen in the case of the many netizens who shared their concerns about political candidate Ivan Lim, resulting in his withdrawal from the election. It is telling that among the most frequently shared stories of Ivan Lim’s alleged character flaws are of his behaviour as a commanding officer during national service and his actions in the workplace — elements which are likely to resonate strongly with many in Singapore.
Not all who suffer are heard. In Singapore, the most important actors against abuse from public institutions often lie outside of government and mainstream media — and the most important role might belong to the digital masses who demand answers and take action when they see injustice.
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Interested in reading more about how government policies affect Singapore's transgender youth?
- How Schools in Singapore Suppress LGBTQ+ Identities (by Heckin Unicorn)
- Living with gender dysphoria: Transgender youths face stigma and inadequate institutional support (by Today)
- Universal Periodic Review: A Joint Report on Transgender Issues (by TransgenderSG, Sayoni and the Asia Pacific Transgender Network)