SINGAPORE — The Singapore Psychological Society (SPS) has denounced "conversion therapy", the practice of trying to change or suppress the sexual orientation or gender identity of LGBTQ people, calling it ineffective and harmful to individuals, and recommends that psychologists use evidence-based therapy to help LGBTQ clients.
In a statement posted on the society's social media on Wednesday (30 June), SPS said:
"As a professional body, the Singapore Psychological Society commits to the use of evidence-based practice to support the needs of LGBTQ+ individuals and to do no harm.
Current research indicates the inefficacy and possible harmful effects of conversion therapy. As such, we recommend that when treating clients struggling with their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, psychologists use evidence-based therapy.
This includes exploring and affirming their orientation/identity, exploring assumptions and goals that may have originated from societal pressures, managing stress, and promoting well-being."
SPS is the first professional organisation in Singapore to state a stance on conversion therapy.
The society was responding to the news that Canada's House of Commons passed a bill criminalising conversion therapy on 22 June. The bill still needs to be passed by Canada's Senate in order to come into force.
SPS said that people's innate sexual orientations or gender identities were not mental disorders to be fixed, and treatment for LGBTQ clients should focus on their mental health needs instead of changing their "being".
SPS also wrote in its message, "As Pride Month draws to a close, SPS stands with every single person for their deepest 'self' (i.e. who they really experience and identify themselves as) — and in particular, we honour the LGBTQ+ population who have suffered deeply, and who we deeply cherish just as they are.🌈"
The Singapore Psychological Society is the local professional association of psychologists. It currently has 1,102 members, 534 of which are registered psychologists.
What is conversion therapy?
Conversion therapy might be performed by mental health professionals, religious practitioners or the community and family members. It seeks to change a person's sexual orientation or gender identity, or to reduce their non-heterosexual sexual attraction or sexual behaviour. It is practised in many places around the world; techniques include electroshock treatments, "corrective rape", psychotherapy, abstinence training, cognitive restructuring, masturbatory reconditioning, or religious prayers and exorcisms.
Places like Germany, Taiwan, Brazil, Malta, Ecuador, India, the UK and Canada have made moves in recent years to ban conversion therapy as research has shown that it is ineffective and linked to depression, suicidality, anxiety, social isolation and decreased capacity for intimacy.
Attitudes towards LGBTQ people in Singapore remain largely conservative, and mainstream Christian and Muslim religious groups have stated that homosexuality is unnatural. There is little data on the practice of conversion therapy in Singapore, but therapeutic professionals and religious practitioners are known to practise it.
Community applauds statement
Psychologist Camellia Wong, whose specialisations include sexual identity issues, said, "It's great that SPS recognises that LGBTQ individuals in Singapore need help for their own mental health too, and recognises that conversion therapy does more harm than good. For those who do not yet know what SPS does, it’ll be a good source of evidence-based information on the harm that conversion therapy brings when they research about it, especially for those who face discrimination from family members who want them to go through conversion therapy."
Leow Yangfa, a social worker and executive director of Oogachaga, an NGO that provides counselling services for the LGBTQ community in Singapore, said it was not unusual for them to see clients who had gone through harmful conversion therapies from their previous therapists or religious leaders, leaving them with observable symptoms of shame and trauma.
"It is extremely significant for the Singapore Psychological Society to be the first professional organisation in Singapore to take a stand that is clearly science and evidence-based, instead of one that is based on subjective opinion or religious beliefs," said Leow. "It remains to be seen if the other relevant professional bodies, such as the Singapore Association of Social Workers and the Singapore Association for Counselling, as well as those in the nursing, medical and psychiatric professions, will do the same. Elsewhere in the developed world, like the UK, USA, Australia, New Zealand, and Taiwan, many professional associations already take evidence-based stands against such conversion practices."
"In addition to being significant, it is also sending a symbolic message to members of the local LGBTQ+ community that they will be safe, affirmed and respected when they access these services," Leow added.
Pauline Ong, executive pastor of Free Community Church, the only officially LGBTQ-affirming church in Singapore, said, "The statement by the Singapore Psychological Society is timely and significant because conversion 'therapy' is still taking place here in Singapore, albeit in different forms than in the past. The current forms are more subtle but still as harmful. Psychological conversion therapy is still conversion therapy, and anything that seeks to reprogram the mind through enforced negative feedback and shame is harmful to a person's mental health and well-being. We have seen this happen in some religious circles and it is heartbreaking. We believe it is possible to reconcile one's identity or orientation with one's faith in a healthy way."
The government of Singapore said in Parliament last year that homosexuality is not a clinical disorder that needs to be cured, citing international medical classifications, and that the ministry of health expects doctors and healthcare professionals to practise according to evidence-based best practice and clinical ethics.
However, homosexuality remains illegal in Singapore. Three separate legal challenges against Section 377A of the Penal Code, a law which criminalises sex between men, were dismissed by the High Court in March last year.