Sexual abstinence is the norm for teenagers in a country where sex education focuses on the negative consequences of intercourse rather than positive relationships, a study shows.
Fear of sexually transmitted diseases and unwanted pregnancies are the main reasons why the vast majority of Singaporean pupils remain virgins: the Ministry of Education found that only 4.1 per cent of pupils in a study of 15 and 16-year-olds had had sex.
Anonymous questionnaires by 1,907 pupils also found that the most common reason for abstaining, cited by 73 per cent of those who had not had sex, was avoidance of sexually transmitted diseases and HIVAIDS. Some 69 per cent said it was because they wanted to avoid getting pregnant.
Other common responses were that they were too young for sex (64 per cent), they did not want to upset their family (63 per cent), and they did not believe in sex before marriage (63 per cent).
Sex education has long taken place in Singapore through subjects such as science, health education and civics and moral education. It was not until 2000, however, that a "more structured and interesting" approach was introduced through a programme called The Growing Years, which focused largely on healthy relationships and helping pupils make responsible decisions.
Even so, the survey, which also canvassed teachers' and pupils' views through focus groups, showed that sex education still focused on sexual health and the potential consequences. The building and managing of relationships was "neglected".
The Singaporean government, however, is determined that this approach will change and insists it is "far more important" for teachers to learn how to talk about handling relationships than to home in on disease and pregnancy. Similarly, pupils in the survey expressed a preference for "non-judgmental, open-minded" teachers who could lead discussions in small groups.
The findings were presented at the recent annual conference of the British Educational Research Association, held at Edinburgh's Heriot-Watt University.