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The tyranny of the majority June 29, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Philosophy, Politics.
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4 comments

Many of us mistakenly concede to arguments that end with “…well this is what the majority believes, so it’s just too bad for gays/liberals/whoever”. We erroneously believe that a law, a policy, or a practice can be justified simply because the majority agrees with it, because of the flawed notion that democracy, or majority rule, is equivalent to mob rule.

 

What is mob rule? Well, simply put, it is the tyranny of the majority. It is the tendency of the majority to put its interests and opinions over those of the minority. It is the assumption that the majority has the right to impose their will to enforce discriminatory laws or policies on the minority simply by virtue of their strength in numbers. In his work, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill wrote:

 

“…there needs protection also against the tyranny of the prevailing opinion and feeling: against the tendency of society to impose, by other means than civil penalties, its own ideas and practices as rules of conduct on those who dissent from them.”

 

Just because an opinion is held by the majority, that does not automatically mean that the opinion is correct, or that implementing a rule based on that opinion is justifiable on that basis alone. If the majority of Singaporeans were to believe that say, Hindus, or Muslims (or the people belonging to some other numerically minority race or religion) should be deemed as second class citizens, that alone would not legitimize discriminatory laws against them. Similarly, even if the majority of Americans were to agree with discriminatory Jim Crow laws, that alone would not legitimize the reinstating of such unconstitutional laws. In the same vein, when homosexuals are denied certain freedoms on the basis that the majority of Singaporeans do not approve of those freedoms, there is no reason to presume that the will of the majority is sufficient to vote away the rights of homosexuals.

 

When it comes to practical issues, it may be perfectly sensible to go with majority rule. But I believe that the majority (or even a political or moral authority) should not be given that power when it comes to issues of personal liberty (as long as these liberties are not in violation of the harm principle). Allowing the majority to deny rights and freedoms to minority groups is no better than despotism.

 

I am no philosopher or political theorist, and I do not intend to argue about the conservative principles which value the sacrifice of individual freedoms to the collective will of society. (Not at this moment, anyway) But I do know that from a liberal perspective, there is little room for the government or society to impose discriminatory laws or opinions onto minorities, because of the ideology’s emphasis on the respect for individual rights and distaste for governmental or societal interference. After all, the smallest minority is the individual, and liberalism is simply the protection of individual freedoms from oppression by the tyranny of societal conformity, the tyranny of the magistrate, and the tyranny of the majority.

 

The full text of J. S. Mill’s On Liberty is available here. Highly recommended as a thorough introduction to liberalism. :)

French secularism and the burka June 24, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Liberalism v Conservativism, Religion.
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8 comments

 France is considering a ban on the burka, on the basis that the garment is a symbol of female submissiveness and male dominance, and is thus contrary to the French republican principles of women’s rights. To be honest, I am completely torn as to which side I would take regarding this issue. On the one hand, as a liberal, I am opposed to the idea of the government having a say in the personal choices of its people. But on the other hand, as a woman and as a feminist, I am totally and completely offended by the burka and the rationale behind its use. In this post I will attempt to explain my views, and perhaps come to a rational and consistent position.

 

Why I am against the ban

As I mentioned earlier, (and perhaps way too many times in this blog), I am a liberal when it comes to the limits of government control. This means that I believe that the government has no right to interfere in the personal choices and actions of its people, as long as those choices and actions cause no harm to others. In the case of the burka, I find it alarming that the government would deny women the right to choose how they wish to dress. To me this is no less atrocious and authoritarian than the governments of those Muslim countries which impose the burka or the veil on its female citizens. I don’t think it is wise for a civilized Western country sink to that level.

 

Why I am against the burka

Firstly, the notion of “the freedom to choose the burka” is problematic because how much of these women’s decisions are actually made freely without coercion? Is the choice to cover oneself up really free if that choice is being made by someone who has undergone a lifetime of indoctrination with the message that this is the only proper way for a woman to dress? If a man tells his wife, “you’re free to decide whether or not you want to wear the burka, but only immodest women and bad wives choose to expose themselves.” then that is no longer considered a choice; it’s considered social pressure and coercion.

 

Of course the argument could then be turned around to the western women. Isn’t our society pressuring us to wear makeup and short skirts too? While that may be true, the key difference lies in the degree of coercion. If I choose to go out without makeup, I am merely considered an anomaly amongst women. But if a woman pressured to don the burka chooses not to, she may be shunned by her family and community, often without sufficient education or resources to fall back on. In this way, it is no longer considered a free choice when the “choice” is between the burka and a woman’s means to existence.

 

Secondly, the reasons behind the burka are flawed and incredibly insulting. The main premise behind the burka is this: women should cover themselves up in order to protect themselves from unwanted advances and sexual assault from men. This premise is insulting to both men to women: it assumes that men are sexually aroused at the mere sight of female flesh, it assumes that men cannot control their sexual urges, and it assumes that female sexuality is a negative thing.

 

Take for example, the outrageous and offensive comments made by a Muslim cleric in Australia a couple of years ago, blaming women for getting gang raped because of how they dressed:

“The uncovered meat is the problem.”

The sheik then said: “If she was in her room, in her home, in her hijab, no problem would have occurred.”

He said women were “weapons” used by “Satan” to control men.

Such is the rationale and mindset behind the coercing of women to cover themselves up, and the punishing and ostracizing of those who choose not to. It involves the abhorrent notion that women and their bodies are mere sex objects and should be covered up to prevent men (weaker beings with no self control or dignity) from temptation.

 

But as an educated woman, I know that it is not my obligation to dress in order to prevent men from being tempted. Educated, self-respecting men should know that it is their own responsibility to control their urges and actions. Men are not children, or worse, animals, who have no control over their desires and who require women to remove temptation away from them. Assuming that they are is insulting and simply untrue. Furthermore, the burka is also a symbol of the belief that female sexuality is a threat to men, or even society. At best, such a belief is simply unfounded paranoia. At worst, it is a manifestation of male dominance and the need to control women by limiting their freedoms, their intellect, their voice, and their sexuality.

 

Thirdly, the burka is alienating and dehumanizing. As a garment, it does an effective job of making its wearers both literally and figuratively invisible and indistinguishable to others. Unlike the hijab, which is commonly worn by Muslim women in Singapore and allows us to see their faces and facial expressions, the burka covers the woman’s entire face, only allowing a mesh screen for her to see through. This alienates the woman by preventing her from effectively communicating and engaging with the outside world. It also dehumanizes her because the rest of us can’t help but see her as a mound of cloth, rather than as an actual thinking, feeling human being.

 

Fourthly, arguing that the burka should be respected because it is justified as a religious practice is not good enough. I am against the burka for the same reason why I am against female genital mutilation, female illiteracy, the practice of sati, honor killings and other misogynistic practices which are often justified using religion. In this way I somewhat agree with the French government’s reasons for bringing up the issue:

 

“If it were determined that wearing the burka is a submissive act, and that it is contrary to republican principles, naturally parliament would have to drawn the necessary conclusions,” he said.

 

Religious justification is simply not enough. There should definitely be a limit to religious freedom, and that line should be drawn when religious practices encroach onto human rights, no matter how deeply entrenched such practices are in the religious community. In the case of France, where laïcité is a core principle in their constitution (because of historical problems the State had with the Catholic Church, outward displays of religion in France are now taboo), it is understandable why the French would want to ban something that threatens their hard fought secular values.

 

Fifth, the burka is not “freeing”. It is sometimes argued that women who expose flesh are not taken seriously by men because they are only valued for their looks, while a burka frees a woman by allowing her to be judged for who she is rather than what she looks like. Other than the fact that this is simply false (People will now judge the woman based on her overt and extreme expression of religion more than her intellect or her personality), the burka is in fact highly impractical and restricts many practical freedoms. For example, a burka clad woman would not (and should not) be allowed into a bank for security reasons, and would be ineligible for many jobs as face-to-face interactions are a prerequisite for engaging interpersonal interactions, professional or otherwise.

 

A conclusion?

 

Are the atrocities that are represented and perpetuated by the burka worth compromising my liberal values of non interference in personal choices? For now I don’t think I can resolve my own internal conflict. But ultimately, a burka ban would only treat the symptoms of the problem, and not the true evils of misogyny, female oppression and victim-blaming.

 

Instead, I believe that education is key. Secular, unbiased education (as opposed to religious indoctrination) for women and girls opens up options and opportunities so that these marginalized women have the ability to make informed choices for themselves, so that they can truly be emancipated from such social and religious coercion.

The ineffectiveness of abstinence-only sex education June 21, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, Science.
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3 comments

Although this is by no means a new issue, I thought it would be useful to have the facts of the issue in one post, at least for easy access to “ammunition” against those who push for puritanical and fruitless abstinence-only sex education.

 

Studies have indicated that abstinence-only sex education programs are ineffective

 According to a study done by the American Psychological Association (APA), it was found that comprehensive sex education is more effective at stopping the spread of HIV infection. From the article:

 Based on over 15 years of research, the evidence shows that comprehensive sexuality education programs for youth that encourage abstinence, promote appropriate condom use, and teach sexual communication skills reduce HIV-risk behavior and also delay the onset of sexual intercourse.

 In contrast, scientifically sound studies of abstinence only programs show an unintended consequence of unprotected sex at first intercourse and during later sexual activity. In this way, abstinence only programs increase the risk of these adolescents for pregnancy and sexually transmitted illnesses, including HIV/AIDS

 The full article is available here.

 

According to a research team from Oxford University which reviewed 13 US trials involving over 15,000 people aged 10 to 21, it was found that none of the abstinence-only programs had an impact on the age at which individuals lost their virginity, whether they had unprotected sex, the number of sexual partners, the rates of sexually transmitted diseases or the number of pregnancies.Their research, which was published in the British Medical Journal, showed that in comparison, programs which promote the use of condoms greatly reduce the risk of HIV.

 

A study by the nonpartisan Mathematica Policy Research also showed that abstinence-only sex education does not keep teenagers from having sex. The study used a rigorous, scientifically based approach involving two statistically equivalent groups – a program group which received abstinence-only education, and a control group which did not.

 “There’s not a lot of good news here for people who pin their hopes on abstinence-only education,” said Sarah Brown, executive director of the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy, a privately funded organization that monitors sex education programs. “This is the first study with a solid, experimental design, the first with adequate numbers and long-term follow-up, the first to measure behavior and not just intent. On every measure, the effectiveness of the programs was flat.”

 Brown said Mathematica’s results underscore what other, smaller studies have shown: “The most effective programs are those that say abstinence is the best choice but birth control and protection are also worth knowing about.”

An official at the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States agreed.

“Comprehensive education means teaching about abstinence and a myriad of other topics,” said spokeswoman Martha Kempner. Among them, she said: “contraception, critical thinking, one’s own values and the values of your family and your religious community.

“Abstinence-only was an experiment and it failed.”

 

Virginity Pledges

 In addition to abstinence-only sex education, we are also seeing more teens taking so called “virginity pledges, where they (or sometimes even creepier still-their parents) pledge to stay virgins until they get married. However, it was found that not only are teenagers who make such promises just as likely to have sex, but they are also less likely to use protection.

 By 2001, Rosenbaum found, 82 percent of those who had taken a pledge had retracted their promises, and there was no significant difference in the proportion of students in both groups who had engaged in any type of sexual activity, including giving or receiving oral sex, vaginal intercourse, the age at which they first had sex, or their number of sexual partners. More than half of both groups had engaged in various types of sexual activity, had an average of about three sexual partners and had had sex for the first time by age 21 even if they were unmarried.

“It seems that pledgers aren’t really internalizing the pledge,” Rosenbaum said. “Participating in a program doesn’t appear to be motivating them to change their behavior. It seems like abstinence has to come from an individual conviction rather than participating in a program.”

From these findings it is highly possible that these teens were pressured to take such pledges, either by their peers, parents or religious community. Their purity rings aren’t a symbol of their dedication to celibacy, they are a symbol to prove how conservative and religious they are. As a result, not only are the pledges ineffective, they are also counterproductive in that the teens end up engaging in unsafe sex.

 

Expecting all teens to abstain is unrealistic

 In addition to the facts that almost all humans have a natural desire for sex, and that we are hit with an especially potent cocktail of hormones during our teenage years which make us all the more horny (tsk tsk), the brains of teenagers also make them more prone to impulsive behavior. Brain scans have shown that the frontal lobes, the part of the brain that control impulses, don’t mature until age 25, and their connections to other parts of the brain continue to improve to at least that age. This results in teens making bad judgments. (Incidentally, this is also the reason why teens are usually not tried as adults in the court of law.) Given this, it is simply unavoidable that some teens will eventually have sex, regardless of how much the abstinence message is drilled into them, and even regardless of their own plans to abstain.

 

So the question is, do we just want to let these teens to fall through the cracks, and punish them (by means of pregnancy and STDs) for their inability to control themselves, nevermind the fact that unwanted pregnancies, teen marriages and STDs all have negative impacts on society? It seems like the conservative right wants to do just that. By continuing to push for abstinence-only education in schools despite overwhelming proof that it is ineffective, it is clear that the conservatives care more about their own consciences than about the real consequences faced by individuals and eventually faced by society. Our society can do with less of such selfishness and self-righteousness, and more respect for our youths.

Atlanta: Court throws out ban on exposing children to gays June 18, 2009

Posted by laïcité in International, Liberalism v Conservativism.
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From the article (emphasis mine):

 The state high court’s decision overturned Fayette County Superior Court Judge Christopher Edwards’ blanket prohibition against exposing the children to their father’s gay partners and friends.

 “Such an arbitrary classification based on sexual orientation flies in the face of our public policy that encourages divorced parents to participate in the raising of their children,” Justice Robert Benham wrote.

 The Fayette County judge’s prohibition “assumes, without evidentiary support, that the children will suffer harm from any such contact,” Benham wrote. But there is no evidence that any member of the gay and lesbian community has engaged in inappropriate conduct in the presence of the children or that the children would be adversely affected by being exposed to members of that community, he said.

More:

“Placing a blanket ban on children’s association with gay people not only hurts this father’s relationship with his children, it is blatant discrimination,” Littrell said. “The court has done the right thing today by focusing on the needs of the children instead of perpetuating stigma on the basis of sexual orientation.”

 I wonder what a pro- “family values” conservative would think about this issue, and if they truly have the interests of the children at heart. Would they support the maintaining of the children’s relationship with their father, regardless of gay friends and all, or would they plead “traditional family values” again and argue that the potential and unproven harm from associating with gay people is so severe that it is not worth preserving the parent-child relationship? Perhaps we should pose this questions to the anti-gay people that we know in order to differentiate between a well-meaning person who misguidedly thinks homosexuals are harmful to children, and a true bigot who hides his homophobia behind a mask of “family values”.

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On homosexuality – Why we’re asking the wrong questions June 15, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Science.
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Debates about the acceptance and neutrality of homosexuality often revolve around the issue of whether homosexuality is a lifestyle choice or whether it is a natural occurrence. Those who justify the discrimination against homosexuals often argue that homosexuals choose to partake in such “immorality”, and that they can even be “turned straight”. On the other hand, liberals and gay activists would argue that homosexuality is not a choice, and that it is unfair to punish someone for something that he or she had no control about.

Obviously I am not one to be swayed by faith-based arguments. To me it is obvious that homosexuality is not a choice; gays do not consciously choose to be gay, just like how I did not consciously choose to be straight, and neither can we consciously choose who we are sexually attracted to. It is also pretty clear that homosexuality is not unique to humans; homosexual behaviour has also been observed in no fewer than 1,500 species of animals, including swans, sheep and apes. Numerous studies by reputable medical and psychological journals have evidence to back up this position, and the facts of this issue have already been thoroughly discussed in many blogs and articles. In fact, there is even much discussion about whether there is in fact a strict binary straight/gay dichotomy, or if human sexuality falls along a continuous spectrum.

But I digress. In my opinion, the question of whether or not homosexuality is a choice is not even an issue. So what if it were a choice? Why would that do anything to justify discrimination against people who make a certain choice about something as private as their sex lives and sexuality? What has someone’s sexuality got to do with society’s approval? As long as it’s between consenting adults and done in private, I fail to see why the law, or conservatives, or the moral police (also known as right wing religious fundamentalists) should have any say in the matter. In this way, it’s not an issue of whether homosexuals are born that way. It is an issue of how much we allow society and the law to dictate what we can and cannot do in our private spheres, when those choices and actions cause no direct harm to others, and are basically none of anyone else’s business.

Of course there are also those who argue that the question matters, because those who “choose” to be homosexuals are choosing to sin. Even if we ignore the fallacious and cherry picking nature of those who believe homosexuality to be a sin, we are left with a religious based argument – homosexuality may be a sin to Christians or Muslims, but not to Buddhists or secular humanists or atheists/agnostics. There is no reason why a secular’s country’s position should be based on the teachings of one or a few religions, or even the beliefs of conservatives. It is simply not justifiable for a law to discriminate against a group of people, regardless of whether or not they chose to be in that group, for no reason other than to reflect and reinforce religious or conservative opinions. The question we must ask is this: Is the purpose of the law to perpetuate social norms, regardless of the harm that such a position may cause to the minority being persecuted, or is the purpose of the law to protect the freedoms of its people, so as to allow the maximum amount of individual freedom as long as it does not encroach onto the freedoms of others?

Conservatives may argue that society and the law should have a say in sexuality and sexual practices, because the “immoral” nature of such practices would have a negative effect on society. But such arguments are not backed by evidence. Instead, they are usually backed by powerful emotions such as disgust for homosexual acts, and fear of committing a sin. But when we take away such biased conservative emotions, we will see that there is no reason to assume that tolerating, or even accepting homosexuals has a negative impact on society. Plenty of civilized, liveable, family friendly countries do not have laws against homosexuality or homosexual sex, and studies have even found that homosexual parents are no better or worse than heterosexual ones. In fact, the demonizing of homosexuality and discrimination of homosexuals increase the occurence of suicides and have negative effects on health issues. In any case, the burden of proof lies with the conservatives to provide us with evidence to justify the discrimination against homosexuals by showing that  the social “benefits” of such discrimination outweigh the invasion of privacy and intrusion of individual freedoms that such a position entails. Until then, the practice of judging, labelling and criminalizing the private actions of a group of individuals, regardless of whether they can help being the way they are, remains unethical and unjustifiable.

What it all boils down to is how much of our private lives do we want to be controlled by the government or by the self-righteous conservatives. If groups of people continue to be discriminated against because of who they are or the choices they make, Singapore will never become the open and inclusive society that it aspires to be.

Britain: Children as young as four are given ‘gay’ assembly June 7, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Education, International.
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2 comments

This morning in my hotel room in London I happened to chance upon a very interesting headline in today’s copy of The Daily Telegraph. Children as young as four were given an assembly about homosexuality as part of the International Day against Homophobia and Transphobia. From the article (emphasis mine):

In a statement sent out to schools by the council education officer Lynne Miller said: “Young children are exposed at a very early age to homophobic language. Pupils may call each other ‘gay’ without really understanding what it means, but learn that it means something negative, useless, and not positive.

If such usage is not challenged it makes it much more difficult to address homophobic bullying in secondary schools.

“Schools are well placed to explore different lifestyles as they are able to reach all children and young people and do this in a professional and evidence-based way and within a safe learning environment.”

Other than the fact that this issue mirrors the fiasco over Aware’s sexuality education program in schools in Singapore, I found a couple of things about it particularly refreshing.

Firstly, although there were indeed parents who complained about this assembly session about homosexuality, it was not because they were concerned about their kids “turning gay” or because of homosexuality being “immoral” or “sinful”. Instead, they were concerned that their children may have been too young and too easily confused by issues such as homosexuality. In fact, a parent even commented “I think for the older children they could understand as they tend to know about things already. But for my younger daughter Keira I think it was quite confusing.” So their concern was with the age at which the children are given the ‘gay” assembly, not the message itself.

Secondly, the authorities, the supportive parents, and the school involved have their priorities right: putting the interests of the children first, even if it means undertaking potentially controversial and unpopular actions. In this case, serving the interests of the children means preventing the occurrence of homophobic bullying, thus not only protecting the students who may eventually identify as homosexuals, but also protecting those who do not conform to traditionally accepted gender roles and behaviors from homosexual slurs. Moreover, what is even more commendable is the recognition that schools have a duty to give its students unbiased and factual information in a safe and non-judgmental environment.

After reading this article, I could only look back with dismay at how the Aware sexuality education program controversy turned out. The sad fact remains that when it comes to educating our children, Singapore’s conservative parents and education ministry have little respect for the principles of openness, inclusiveness, honesty or non discrimination. Maintaining the conservative status quo still remains their top priority, regardless of the welfare of the children, the existence of factual and scientific evidence which contradict their position, or the fact that prejudice and bigotry and intolerance are simply unethical.

Traditional asian values June 5, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Liberalism v Conservativism, Religion, Society.
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2 comments

In my previous post, I mentioned how Singapore’s government and conservative Singaporeans often use the term “traditional asian values” (TAVs) to resist social change and defend various forms of intolerance and discrimination against homosexuals and other liberal evils. What exactly are these “traditional asian values” and why do so many people seek to preserve them? 

To the Singaporean Chinese at least, “traditional asian values” are somewhat based on Confucian values. This includes goodies such as meritocracy and filial piety, but other pretty nasty ones as well: the maintenance and justification of a hierarchical social order, the perpetuation of social inequalities, and the strict roles imposed based on gender or social standing. 

It is because of this association with Confucianism that many often hold TAVs in high regard – it’s more than just a value system; it’s a tradition and a symbol of Chinese culture. They hold the flawed belief that TAVs are automatically good, desirable, and should be preserved, and anything that conflicts with these values are evil agents of western liberalism. But if we look closer, we’ll see that TAVs can be used to defend some archaic and undesirable practices.

 TAVs have long been used to keep women “in their place”. This may include confining women to the domestic sphere, or out of politics, or limiting them to more “appropriate” jobs and courses of study, or expecting women to behave in a certain way, or keeping them quiet and subordinate to their husbands.  A traditional value system seeks to preserve the status quo, and that means maintaining a patriarchal social structure, constraining men and women into fixed and well defined gender roles.

 TAVs can also be used to justify social inequalities. When we rely too much on the idealistic notion of meritocracy, we can easily dismiss the plight of the poor and uneducated. It’s so easy to say, “The poor/uneducated/underprivileged/unemployed deserve what they get. It serves them right for not working hard in school to get a degree.” It lets us conveniently overlook the unfair and even discriminatory obstacles which hinder some people from achieving success, no matter how hard they work. Moreover, it blinds us to the fact that many of those successful people whom we aspire our children to grow up to become, got there by more than mere hard work. Money, class, power and social standing definitely didn’t hurt. Worst of all, TAVs state that we should accept our place in society’s hierarchy. Whether we are referring to women, or a racial or religious minority, TAVs say that we should be obedient and contributing members of society, and resign to the fact that our interests and opinions are secondary to that of those in power.

 TAVs also aim to maintain social harmony. While that in itself is not a bad thing, it means that the silencing of any form of dissent or displeasure with the current system can be justified. It also ignores the fact that a transition period of social disharmony or conflict may sometimes be necessary to bring about positive social change. Recall the African American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s: only through actions of mass mobilization and civil disobedience were the blacks able to bring about the overruling of the oppressive and prejudiced Jim Crow laws. If our right to voice our discontent about the prevailing social order were to be dismissed under the guise of maintaining social harmony, society would remain stagnant with its reinforced social inequalities, and never progress towards a more tolerant and egalitarian society.

 But perhaps most worryingly, there is a more insidious side to the use of the term “traditional asian values”. This term has been repeatedly used as a secular (and hence politically correct) mask for the right-wing religious agenda. The Thios have been shrewd in their wordplay: by portraying certain moral values as the traditional values of a conservative asian society, they are able to “market” religiously rooted intentions to our secular tastes. In this way, any fundamentalist religious message can be made to sound secular, or even “Chinese”, thus legitimizing the perpetuation of religiously fueled intolerance and discrimination in our secular public sphere.

 As such, it is imperative for us to be wary of arguments backed up by TAVs, because these TAVs are not always positive for society or its people. In fact, the term itself can be so easily utilized by any group to lend credibility to any archaic practice, regardless of its actual merits. Instead of polarizing people and their values with labels such as “traditional asian” and “liberal western”, we should learn to look at such values critically in order to discern which would help make our society more open and inclusive, and which would further perpetuate social inequalities and justify discrimination.

A conservative country? Really? June 1, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Singapore, Society.
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3 comments

Singapore is a conservative country with a conservative majority who believe in traditional Asian values. That’s what we’ve always been told by the government and by the vocal conservatives who appear ever so often in the form of letters to the press, or personified by our “feminist mentor” herself, Dr Thio Su Mien. But how many of us actually are self-proclaimed conservatives? I honestly do not even know one person in real life who would be a prototypical example of a conservative who blames homosexuals and fornicators for the erosion of family values.

 The truth is, these people form a small but vocal minority in Singapore. It is they who assume that they hold the moral authority to represent the views and interests of all Singaporeans, and the government has nothing to lose by helping to perpetuate this convenient little generalization. After all, what else does conservativism entail but the discouragement of the questioning of authority, political or otherwise?

 But in everyday life, and even in little snippets covered in the press, we see signs that such conservative beliefs are anything but universal in Singapore. We don’t see the average Singaporean in a moral panic over the legal status of abortion, or homosexuality, or some other evil liberal scapegoat of the month. We don’t see couples divorcing or families breaking up as a direct result of these liberal evils. Neither do we see the average parent up in arms over the labeling of homosexuality as, god forbid, “neutral”, instead of the more acceptable “evil” or “abomination”. (My era of sex education was over a decade ago and even my parents didn’t have anything negative or positive to say about homosexuality. PS: neither negative nor positive = neutral)

 Instead, we are seeing the slow and steady growth of a liberal voice. The triumph of the Aware’s old guard over the conservative Christian steeplejackers, the public demonstration in support of tolerance and love regardless of sexuality during the Pink Dot event at Hong Lim park, and the numerous opinions expressed on the web and in the press during the s377a and Aware sagas all indicate that the liberals are not to be dismissed as a radical minority. We are not a bunch of crazy hippies; we are heartlanders, professionals, students, parents, children, religious, nonreligious, gay, straight… and we are being alienated when the conservatives claim to represent the views of all Singaporeans.

 Of course in no way am I implying that Singapore is a liberal country. I’m pretty certain we have a number of conservatives and liberals, a whole bunch of moderates, and a huge percentage of citizens who couldn’t care less about the legalization of homosexual sex or freedom of speech. The political, social and economic schools of thought that Singaporeans subscribe to are more diverse than we are led to believe: There are conservatives who create panic over the “decline of the family”, but there are also liberals denouncing discrimination against the LBGT community. There are authoritarianists who criticize anti-government opinions, but there are also anarchists who fight against excessive government control. There are capitalists who seek to benefit from free trade, but there are also socialists who demand more rights for workers.

 So who are conservatives to assert that they represent the opinions of the majority of Singapore? If the Pink Dot, or the Aware saga, or the liberal opinions in the press and on the Internet are not enough to illustrate that Singapore’s society consists of legitimate non-conservatives too, then what is? Perhaps that is the question that the vocal conservatives must answer before claiming to speak up for “our” conservative values.

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