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RIP, Christopher Hitchens December 16, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Religion.
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Christopher Hitchens has passed away. The world has lost a man of tremendous intellect, eloquence, and reason. Since being diagnosed with esophogeal cancer last year, he has faced his prognosis and his mortality with nothing but courage and dignity. Despite his imminent death, he never sought for solace in superstitions or illusions, nor did he fall back on the crutches of religion. Instead, he chose to face it head-on.

“The only position that leaves me with no cognitive dissonance is atheism. It is not a creed. Death is certain, replacing both the siren-song of Paradise and the dread of Hell. Life on this earth, with all its mystery and beauty and pain, is then to be lived far more intensely: we stumble and get up, we are sad, confident, insecure, feel loneliness and joy and love. There is nothing more; but I want nothing more.”
― Christopher Hitchens

In his life, Hitchens bravely fought to promote critical thinking and rationalism, making countless contributions to the social, moral, and political sciences. In his death, Hitchens has taught us how to live: there is no need to dwell on death and take comfort in the illusions of an afterlife; instead, we should relentlessly pursue and celebrate life – appreciating it for its fleeting and infinitesimal nature.

RIP Christopher Hitchens. You will be missed.

Xenophobia is xenophobia November 29, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Life in London, Singapore, Society.
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I don’t even know how to introduce this video. Just take a look.

Now tell me: how is that sentiment different from this? (From facebook)

Xenophobia is xenophobia.  Whether you are complaining about the smell of foreign workers, or blaming them for taking your “rightful” place at Universities, or telling them to go back to where they came from,  you are no better than that horrid woman on the tram in London. Xenophobia is ugly, hateful, and disgusting, regardless of whether it is spouted by a British chav or a Singaporean beng.

Thankfully, in my time in London, I have never personally encountered a xenophobic attack (verbal or otherwise), and neither have most of my black, brown, and yellow friends who were born and raised in Britain. I wonder if the same can be said for the average foreigner living and working in Singapore.

Protected from the anti-science brigade November 22, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Education, Life in London, Science, Singapore.
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Having grown up in Singapore, the one thing I am most thankful for is my excellent education in science. It was tough, it was rigorous, and I probably took it for granted. But I’m now starting to see that the quality of science education is not so universal. It may sound ridiculous for me to say this, but I am so glad that in Singapore, kids are taught that science is a good thing.

I’ve been living in the UK for more than a year now. And I got the shock of my life when I walked into a pharmacy one day about a year ago, to discover that they sell little bottles of sugar pills for more than S$10 each. Not just any old sugar pills. Sugar pills that have been dipped into water containing a “homeopathic substance” at a 10-60 dilution (For those of you without a calculator at hand, that’s one molecule of the original substance per 1034 gallons of water). In other words, sugar pills dipped into water. Pills that have been shown in hundreds of clinical trials to be no more effective than a placebo. Now, I had heard of homeopathy before, but I didn’t think that anybody actually took it seriously. How was I to know that that pharmacies would sell plain water and sugar pills as medicine, and that there would even be a hospital devoted to homeopathy, and that even the NHS recognizes it as a form of alternative medicine1? I see that not only as a huge failure of the promotion and understanding of science in the general population, but also a flagrant disregard for the scientific process and evidence-based medicine by the authorities.

Perhaps even scarier than the acceptance of homeopathy is the worrying fact that in some neighborhoods around London, measles has become endemic among children. Measles is not a nice disease at all: it is extremely infectious, has a not insignificant fatality rate, there is no specific treatment, and it can result in serious complications and sequalae. Measles is hardly a problem in Singapore because all children are given the MMR vaccine, which confers good resistance against measles, mumps, and rubella.

So why is the incidence of measles so high in a civilized city like London? Well, some people choose not to vaccinate their children because they believe that the MMR vaccine is linked to autism. This belief started due to a paper published by Andrew Wakefield in 1998. Wakefield’s research methods were poor, he made up a new syndrome (“autistic enterocolitis”), he manipulated data, and his claims were downright dishonest; but the media lapped it up anyway, sensationalizing his paper and broadcasting his lies. Despite the fact that his paper was eventually retracted by The Lancet, despite new reports that his claims were fraudulent, and despite at least 4 (that I know of, at least) subsequent studies on the subject denouncing the Wakefield’s MMR-autism link, this was all ignored by mainstream media. We cannot blame the parents who didn’t know any better (Or maybe we can blame them for turning to tabloids as their source of health information?). The resurgence of measles in the UK is single handedly the fault of the unregulated salacious tabloids willing to spout outright lies to sell copies. While I am disappointed by the absence of press freedom in Singapore, I am at least thankful that until now at least, even our tabloids have not sunk low enough to promote anti-science nonsense just for profit, whilst risking the health and lives of thousands of people. Free press or not, there is a line at reporting scientific untruths.

I guess it could be worse. I could be living in the US, where the anti-science sentiment exists even louder and prouder amongst a significant proportion of the population.  We should count ourselves fortunate that creationists have no influence over our education system, and our kids can learn scientific facts about evolution and the age of the earth, untouched by the blatant scientific untruths of 2,000-year-old books. We should be glad that the terms “genetically modified2”, “chemical”3, “stem cell research”, or “cloning” are not dirty words that immediately provoke a kneejerk reaction of disgust and suspicion. And I sure as hell am happy that science is not used as part of a political agenda in Singapore by portraying the acceptance of science as a form of oppression of the “average Joe”. It seems as though the Republicans not only shun science, they have a burning disdain for it, a hatred of intellectualism, and a distrust and scorn for members of the intellectual elite: scientists, academics, and the educated class as a whole. This is a party that uses the word “professor” as a smear to discredit people who they deem to be too educated.

Of course I’m not saying that every Singaporean is a glowing example of scientific thinking and rationalism. We do have our share of people who believe in baseless pseudoscience, superstition, and dubious medical claims. But one thing we have going for us is that we are taught to respect intellectualism and revere knowledge. We appreciate that knowing more about the world around us is always a good thing. As someone who is just starting a career in science, I am always grateful that my scientific curiosity was nurtured instead of discouraged, and my education in science remained factual, not censored.

Footnotes

  1. I wouldn’t say all alternative medicine is bunk. It’s just untested, unverified, and unproven. I just wish that “alternative” medicine would be subjected to the rigors of (statistically sound, large sample size, randomized, double-blind, controlled) clinical trials and safety testing in order to weed out the nonsense, and so the treatments that actually work can actually be upgraded to be called medicine.
  2. For clarity sake, genetic modification of crops is not bad because it is bad for health, it is bad because of economic and ecological reasons.
  3. Just because something is “chemical”, it is not necessarily bad for health – sugar, salt, amino acids can all be defined as chemicals. Similarly, just because something is “natural”, it doesn’t mean it is safe. Snake venom is a perfectly natural substance. “Artificial” does not automatically make something bad for health either.

Just when you thought things couldn’t get more messed up November 19, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Religion.
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Just when you thought that forcing women to shroud their bodies and hair in loose black cloth wasn’t bad enough, a moral committee in Saudi Arabia has threatened to force women to cover up their “sexy eyes”. Yet again, extreme conservatives have demonstrated the extent of their ridiculousness – to go so far as to blame “sexy eyes” for tempting men.

So what has this got to do with us normal people? After all, I’m pretty sure that even the most socially conservative person that you or I know would not agree with the committee’s threats. Before we all pat ourselves on the backs for being more progressive than the Saudi moral committee, let’s take a look at our own society, or even at Western society. Are we really that much better than them?

There are two main themes that we all still have in common. The first is blame. In Saudi Arabia and in Singapore alike, it is still not uncommon for women to be blamed for the actions and choices of men. While in a conservative Middle Eastern society, rape may be blamed on a woman’s sexy eyes or tempting ankles, our “traditional Asian”, Western influenced society is equally guilty of blaming rape on a woman’s attire or behavior. In both situations, instead of focusing on the actions and choices of the perpetrator, people choose to hold the victim accountable. Maybe it is simply easier to blame the sexiness of eyes and ankles and cleavage and thighs, than to face the fact that *gasp* men have control over where they stick their genitalia?

The second theme is control. Over and beyond supposed rape prevention, dictating how a woman should and should not dress means assuming that you have the right to control her actions. Control is by no means limited to punishment by stoning (or whatever medieval means we imagine “backward” countries to utilize). Threats of hell, stigmatization, and shame are used to punish women who show more skin that what is deemed acceptable. (Funnily enough, in modern society, we not only punish women for dressing too sexy, we also disregard women who are not sexy enough.) Of course, men are not immune to such judgment either, but I would contend that there is a far higher social price to pay for being a slut than a stud, and there is a far stronger social pressure on women to dress sexy-but-not-too-sexy.

“Decency” is a poor excuse. Decency according to whose standards: the religious police?  The government? Religious leaders? Who gave them the authority to decide what should be considered decent, and who are they to decide that women’s bodies should be subject to stricter scrutiny than men’s? Such control is manifested most obviously in conservative Islamic societies whose laws demand that women (against all respect for reason, safety, or culture) cover their entire bodies. But it also manifests in Western society when we have absurd policies about public breastfeeding, or when everybody freaks out when a nipple appears on national television. It’s almost as if a woman’s body is always defined as sexual, never mind the fact that we use our bodies to dance, swim, run, and nurse infants, the sole purpose of exposing our skin is for the viewing pleasure of men, right?!? Pair that view together with a sexually repressive society and you get a ridiculous obsession with policing and judging women’s attire.

Ultimately, it’s a no brainer that women in Western society and Singapore’s society enjoy more freedoms than our Saudi counterparts. But the next time you see a rape victim being accused of “asking for it” because of her sexy dress, don’t forget that the very same argument can be made for a fully niqab-ed women with sexy eyes. Perhaps the extreme victim blaming and control over women that we hear about in Saudi Arabia will force us to see the absurdity of our own society’s attempts to blame and control women.

10 Top Tips to End Rape! October 19, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Uncategorized.
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Things that cause rape June 11, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Rants, Society.
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4 comments

 

 

 

 

I could write a whole post on rape statistics. I could mention how provocative clothing plays no role in a rapist choosing his target (Want to know what is the major factor? Appearing vulnerable – even if that means dressing like a conservative, docile, demure lady like your mother taught you.) I could also mention the fact that even the most non-provocative people in the world fall victim to rape – infants, the elderly, and even Muslim women covered head to toe.

But all that wouldn’t matter anyway. Because rape isn’t a natural disaster like an earthquake, and rape isn’t a disease like lung cancer. Rape is not a phenomenon that simply happens to you. What is the point of looking at the “odds of getting raped”  (and then blaming a victim for not being careful enough) when rape is only caused by one thing?  It is solely a result of one person’s conscious choice: the rapist’s.

 

 

The ugly side of pragmatism May 11, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Politics, Singapore, Society.
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Over the past few weeks leading up to the elections, I’ve found that one word seems to be mentioned a lot by PAP supporters: pragmatism.  Even the PAP itself is an embodiment of pragmatism. In contrast to other political parties that bring up the idealistic notions of “human rights”, “first world parliament” and “freedom of speech”, the PAP is a party that espouses the practical notions of stability, efficiency and economic progress on a national level. Going by the election results, it seems that most Singaporeans still identify with this pragmatic approach to governance.

At face value, pragmatism isn’t all that bad. When lofty ideals and academic theories are brushed aside in favour of policies that deliver the goods in real life, who can really complain when wealth and development are achieved at such a fast pace? Singapore itself is a testament to the power of pragmatism – in a mere half a century, it has become an economic and technological success, thanks to the pragmatic approach of ignoring (or silencing) critics and bulldozing ahead with policies in an unhindered manner not unlike a dictatorship.

But pragmatism is simply a means to an end, not an end in itself. Pragmatism has succeeded in bringing our country from third world to first (economically, at least,) but then…. what? Is this all there is? Money? At the end of the day, we live in an exceedingly wealthy country. Most of us would be considered among the richest people in the world. But are we the happiest? Do we have the best quality of life? How much of our happiness, our sense of empathy, our humanity, have we compromised in the pursuit of wealth?

“Pragmatism” has simply become an euphemism for the ideals that we are willing to compromise, and the ugly traits we are willing to take on, all in the name of pursuing wealth. As long as an approach has a “pragmatic” label stuck onto it, it suddenly becomes legitimate, never mind that it goes against basic human rights, our own sense of morality, or even personal dignity.

As long as the ends always justify the means, there is nothing wrong with putting political dissidents in jail or suing them to the point of bankruptcy. Never mind the right to free speech, never mind the benefits of the marketplace of ideas, never mind the injustice done to people who have not even done anything wrong. As long it makes us politically and financially stable, it’s all okay, right?

As long as we hold pragmatism dear, there is no problem with having economic investments in Burma, directly or indirectly supporting the military junta. Who cares about Burma, who cares about the lives of the average Burmese people, who cares if they ever attain democracy? Our GIC makes money from them! Who cares if we’re economically on semi-friendly terms with North Korea? Money is money, right? We’re not being selfish or money-centric, we’re being pragmatic!

As long as pragmatism remains the ultimate goal, why should anyone care about anyone else? Notions of helping the poor escape the poverty cycle, or ensuring that the working class get a decent wage, or protecting the rights of the marginalized have  become too idealistic for the pragmatic Singaporean to consider. What’s more important are the practical issues: HDB upgrading, making sure my kid scores As in school, getting a promotion at work, making more money. Rights, freedoms and empathy have become the furthest things from our minds.

Perhaps this is because our society has become so “meritocratic”, so cutthroat that it now becomes pragmatic to see the world as every man for himself. Or perhaps this efficient, fast paced society has alienated us from each other, making us lose the will to empathise with each other – an attribute that is such an intrinsic part of our humanity. Ultimately, what makes a country liveable has less to do with its GDP, but more to do with what it does with its wealth. There is nothing pragmatic or desirable about a dog-eat-dog society that only aims to make its rich richer.

As I watched the PAP colors fill up the Singapore map graphics during the elections, what disappointed me most wasn’t the fact that the PAP would be in near parliamentary hegemony again for the next 5 years. Instead, what I was most dismayed by was the fact that given a choice between the status quo and an idealized future, 60% of Singaporeans were too pragmatic to even give idealism a chance.

What the elites (or rather, elitists) think April 30, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Politics, Singapore, Society.
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This morning I woke up to a rather offensive post on my facebook newsfeed. It was made by an ex-schoolmate of mine who had gone to the same junior college as me. (If it matters, said JC had somewhat of an “elite” reputation, ahem)

80 percent of those voting for the opposition are ignorant hypocrites sour about their failures in life deciding to blame their inadequacies on the pap.

What was worse was the number of people who “liked” it within minutes, and the people who voiced their agreement. Not being able to restrain myself from butting in, I hastily typed out a reply and left for school.

By the end of the day, I saw that 17 people had “liked” the original elitist post. Unfortunately the original poster had deleted the post before I had the sense to screengrab it again.

So is this what the more privileged people in Singapore really believe? That they got where they are merely through their own hard work, and that those who are not able to live comfortably in Singapore deserve their fates as a result of their own stupidity and laziness? Are all elites elitists?

Now, before I end up shooting myself in the foot here, let me just clearly state that some people may classify me as privileged, and I wouldn’t disagree. I am fully aware that as someone who doesn’t live in public housing, whose family finances have never really come under threat, and who has the opportunity to do postgraduate studies abroad, that I am a very fortunate Singaporean. But that’s just it: I’m fortunate. Lucky enough to be born at the right place and time. I know full well that if I had been born into different circumstances: if I had to work after school or if I didn’t have the resources to help with my studies, I would probably be in a very different situation right now. Hard work and intelligence play but a minute role; even in our “meritocratic” society, the social and economic stratum into which you are born still plays a significant role in deciding how successful you are in life.

Which is why I found the initial comment so offensively elitist. If you are lucky enough to be born into a comfortable life and you can’t be bothered to try to fight for social equality or give back to society, the very least you can do is just shut up and be happy. Be thankful that you had the luxury of time to study and pursue your interests, be appreciative that you get to enjoy the fruits of your parents’ or grandparents’ labor, and be glad Dad’s business contacts or Mom’s law firm gave you the opportunity to do internships and build up your CV.

But a few (not all) elites can’t seem to simply be happy and shut up. Instead, comments like the above come about when one gains a sense of entitlement, and starts to believe the meritocratic myth that all successful people deserve their successes, and that logically, those who are visibly less well off are suffering due to their own personal failings. Being poor has become God’s (or Karma’s) punishment for being lazy and stupid.

Of course there are people who are unsuccessful in life because of laziness and/or stupidity, and of course there are many successful people who got there because of sheer hard work and ingenuity.  But to argue that the status quo is perfect and fair is simply naivety, and to accuse those unhappy with the status quo of being responsible for their own failures is simply elitism at its finest. The sad truth is that meritocracy in Singapore is imperfect. The sadder truth is that the disconnect between the average Singaporean and a privileged one is wide enough for the latter to make such comments and be proud of it.

Who will the moderates choose? April 26, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Politics, Religion, Singapore.
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7 comments

It’s already a given that hard-line conservatives will come running to Vivian Balakrishnan’s call to arms when he decided to bring up the issue of Vincent Wijeysingha’s sexual orientation and the accusation that the SDP has a “gay agenda”. It doesn’t matter if it was an ad hominem attack and it doesn’t matter if the PAP attempts to retract his statements. His message has already been sent and it rings clearly in the hearts and minds of staunch conservative Christians: your fellow believer needs your vote, especially now that he is running against a homosexual.

On the other end of the political spectrum, I’m sure that this incident of Vivian rearing his ugly homophobic head has pretty much secured the vote for the opposition for the liberal-inclined residents of Holland-Bukit Timah. Any apprehension or indecision about who to vote for has pretty much disappeared for these people. The answer is now simple: vote for those who did not resort to underhanded, sneaky, homophobia-motivated religiously-aligned smear campaigns to direct attention away from questions about their own competence.

But despite the huge wave of criticisms against Vivian’s gutter politics that has suddenly taken over the internet, and despite the real and scary threat of a growing hard-line conservative streak amongst the Christian elite, I’m convinced that these people make up but a minority of residents. The people who really hold the fate of Holland-Bukit Timah in their hands are not the gay activists or the Thio Li-Ann’s, but the religious and social moderates who are now finding themselves having to make a real choice for the first time.

In any other elections, these moderates would be politically apathetic or slight PAP-leaning, content with the status quo that lets them live in relative comfort. But now that Vivian has resorted to such unsavoury tactics, their educated, rational minds can no longer reconcile with what their PAP candidate is spouting out: making irrelevant insinuations about the opponent’s sexual orientation, oblique and clandestine remarks about an “agenda”, and rambling innuendos accusing the opponent of having something to hide. It’s now not as simple as voting for the status quo anymore

If you are a social/religious moderate from Holland-Bukit Timah, I implore you to make your choice wisely. Yes, on the one hand, you may have been brought up to believe homosexuality is wrong, and perhaps you still do. But on the other hand, surely you don’t believe that one’s sexual orientation has any bearing on one’s ability to be a good MP, and of course you don’t believe the right-wing conservatives’ fearmongering attempts to associate homosexuality with paedophilia. Moreover, surely you see through the personal attacks and insinuations and realize that Vivian has simply dodged criticisms against him and has yet again avoided a direct confrontation with the opposition in the form of a debate.

Now that religion and sexual orientation have been brought into politics, there are many more pertinent questions to ask yourself – magnitudes of importance greater than a single candidate’s sexual orientation:

  • Do you think religious-secular relations in Singapore will ever be the same again if Vivian’s actions are not only condoned, but rewarded in the form of voting him into parliament?
  • Do you think the 377A issue is really more important that the issues of the growing income gap between rich and poor or the generous monetary rewards given to ministers despite their glaring inadequacies? Are you willing to let Vivian’s strategy of misdirection and pandering to homophobia work in making you forget about these issues?

I trust and believe that most of the people in Holland-Bukit Timah have maturity and intellect to see what is really going on here. This is their chance to step up and show the rest of us what they will and will not tolerate in politics. I am nervous but eager to see who the Holland-Bukit Timah residents will choose, for it will be telling of just how much (or how little) religious persuasion influences politics and its resulting strain on the secular public sphere.

Love and support in the face of homophobia April 16, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Society.
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This is how we stand up to homophobia. With love and support. Because ultimately, beneath the veil of hate and prejudice, homophobes have no moral high ground to stand on.

Long story short: Last week during the Superliga semifinal volleyball match between Sada Cruzeiro & Volei Futuro, fans erupted in chants of “faggot”, aimed at Vôlei Futuro’s Michael, eventually forcing him to come out to the media.

For the next semifinal match, in a show of solidarity, the whole Vôlei Futuro team wore pink warmup shirts, while the team libero donned a rainbow jersey.

Pink warmup shirts

Source: voleifuturo.com.br

Rainbow jersey

Source: globoesporte.com

In a tremendous outpour of support, fans displayed a huge banner proclaiming “Volei Futuro against prejudice” and struck bright pink thundersticks emblazoned with Michael’s name, drowning out whatever remaining hatred that any homophobe dared spew out.

Volei Futuro against prejudice

Source: globoesporte.com

The Crowd

Source: voleifuturo.com.br

Just looking at those pictures make me all warm and fuzzy.  As boys and men all over the world are indoctrinated by society to harbor negativity towards homosexuals and enforce strict notions of “manliness”, it is heartening to know that friendship and empathy sometimes triumph over socially-endorsed homophobia. In a world where we are trained to swallow homophobic slurs as acceptable insults, it’s stories like these that help me regain my faith in humanity again.

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