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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.

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