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Who will the moderates choose? April 26, 2011

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

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism April 14, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Liberalism v Conservativism, Politics, Religion, Society.
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Yesterday, I alluded to arguments made on the basis of cultural relativism: the idea that culture is sacred and that criticisms of cultural practices coming from outsiders are not valid as those judgments are unfairly made based on an outsiders’ skewed perspectives. From a cultural relativist’s point of view, we cannot describe the burka as oppressive or sexist, because we are using our own biased standards of sexism to judge the practice of another culture. Whilst there is some value to cultural relativism – the notion that no culture is really superior or inferior to others comes to mind – it is also extremely problematic because from this viewpoint, religions and cultures can never be blamed for any of their practices, no matter how racist, misogynistic or homophobic; they are simply immune.

Why should they be granted such immunity? Because these practices have been conserved for decades or centuries? Well, forced marriages, bride snatching, honor killings, female genital mutilation and the practice of sati have been around for centuries too, and I have yet to come across any civilized person who would dare to suggest that these practices should be preserved for cultural value.

The key flaw in the cultural relativist’s argument is the assumption that the preservation of a culture’s status quo is desirable in itself. Perhaps based on the argument that since the practice has been around for so long, or is practiced by so many people, there must be some inherent value in it. But the problem is that no culture is perfect. In fact, all cultures are extremely imperfect, and all societies can be changed for the better.

Take for example the issue of slavery. Today, most societies recognize slavery as a crime against humanity; an atrocious practice that dehumanizes people, where people are not recognized as individuals but as property; denied of choice and freedom simply because they were born into an unfortunate circumstance with an unfortunate skin tone. Back in the 1800s, slavery was the norm and it never even crossed anyone’s mind to consider the personhood of the slave. In fact, slavery was in a way “functional” for society. I would hate to imagine what would have happened if no one questioned the status quo, on the basis that “slavery has been working fine for the past century, why change it?”

Given this (literally) conservative mindset, it is thus no wonder that some women are themselves proponents of the burka, or even practices like female genital mutilation and forced marriages. That is the desired outcome of indoctrination: to be brought up to believe only one version of the truth and to never question the status quo, to assume that your culture as it is right now is perfect.

I would ask a cultural relativist: do you not think we are not more morally enlightened today compared to the past? Is it not possible for one culture to be more morally enlightened than another, given that some cultures have unquestioningly stuck to the practices of the past whilst others have critically examined them and made room for individual rights and freedoms? Then why oppose cultural change, if it can be for the better?

The enemy isn’t Islam, neither is it westernization. The enemy is and always has been social inequality. Throughout the centuries, one thing that almost all cultures have in common is the desire for social progress, defined by the breaking down of barriers to equality. From the abolition of slavery and Jim Crow laws, to the civil rights movement, to the ending of apartheid, to the feminist movement – it is clear that there is a human desire to be respected as an individual and not to be denied choices and opportunities based on one’s class, race, religion, gender or sexual orientation. In this way, addressing the burka problem, even if you may not agree with the means of implementation, is a necessary and welcome form of social progress.

It is time that we stop hiding behind cultural relativism and political correctness and start recognizing what the burka and the culture behind it means: a tool to limit the self actualization of women and a climate of threats and punishment if a woman decides not to comply with prescribed gender roles.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression?

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

In case you haven’t watched this… January 29, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Singapore, Society.
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(…but I’m pretty sure you have)

Having been living in the UK for the past 4 months, I’d have to say that I had somewhat of a delayed reaction when I chanced upon this video. My initial reaction was a non-reaction, really. I had grown used to a living in a city where homosexuality is simply a non-issue. People who defended gays hardly made the news; in fact, it is the homophobes who make headlines by causing outrage for their audacity and lack of tolerance. Imagine that. A society where being anti-gay is as politically incorrect as being anti-muslim.

Anyway, I soon realized the significance of what MM Lee said. His message wasn’t new; the “just leave homosexuals alone” message has been made again and again by activists and non activists alike. Neither was I surprised that MM Lee held such a liberal view. As much as I disagree with him on politics, I have always known and respected his pragmatism and rationalism, and there is nothing more practical or rational that just letting gays be gays.

What is significant is that for the first time, someone “up there” – someone who is respected, or even revered; someone with authority; someone whose views are given legitimacy simply because of who he is – gave his truthful opinion about homosexuality instead of the hardline right wing conservative rhetoric that we’re so used to from “those in power” (ahem). And perhaps more important is not what he said, but how he said it, as if it is no big deal. There’s no point attacking homosexuality or defending it, decrying it or promoting it, glorifying it or censoring it, when at the end of the day it really is no big deal.

I’m hoping for the day when “news” like this isn’t news anymore. “Minister XYZ supports equal rights for gays? Yawn. Big deal. So does the majority of the population. ” The day that someone publicly announces that he isn’t a homophobe and no one even blinks, is the day that we have all taken a step forwards towards equality.

Gay marriage – the mythical threat to traditional marriage August 3, 2009

Posted by laïcité in Liberalism v Conservativism, Society.
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Conservatives and religious fundamentalists have long argued that gay marriage would threaten traditional marriage. Now any reasonable person would find that claim to be ridiculous and baseless. It is simply not rational to suggest that gay marriage is in any way linked to divorce or the decline of marriage rates. All it takes is to ask a married person: if gay marriage had been legalized before you got your traditional marriage, would you have gotten a gay marriage instead? It seems that the only way gay marriage would threaten heterosexual marriage is if we assume that all men were really gay in secret.

 

But conservatives have also been known to make a slight variation of the above argument: gay marriage threatens traditional marriage because it deprives the term “marriage” of its fundamental meaning. But what really is the fundamental definition of marriage, and who are these conservatives to imply that there can only be one correct meaning for “marriage”, which conveniently happens to be theirs?

 

Legally speaking, a marriage is a partnership. It gives spouses certain rights and responsibilities, such as responsibilities for child care, tax deduction benefits, the power to make decisions about a partner’s medical care and legal rights to a partner’s estate and property upon his or her death. But above and beyond the legal aspect of this partnership, individuals and couples also attach their own meanings and symbolism to marriage. Depending on the people involved, marriage may mean anything from a sacred union, to a public proclamation of love and commitment, to a ritualized rite of passage, to an act of resigned compliance with social norms and expectations. Personal meanings and symbolisms are just that: personal. There is no reason why a same-sex marriage would have any effect on one’s own heterosexual marriage, or change one’s own definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman.

 

The problem arises when people seek to impose their own definition of what a marriage is onto others. It takes a judgmental, self righteous person to suggest that other people’s definition of marriage has any bearing on his or her owns’. Take for example the all too common “functionalist” argument that gays shouldn’t get married because a marriage has the practical function of providing a stable and convenient environment for child rearing, and therefore gay marriage would be pointless. But by doing so, are they not implying that married couples who are childless (by choice or otherwise) do not meet their functional definition of a marriage, and therefore have a less meaningful relationship than couples who are married with children?

 

It is not reasonable to dismiss the emotional significance of a marriage simply because the couple is unable or unwilling to fulfill the practical functions of a marriage as prescribed by someone else. In fact, as a straight unmarried woman, I would be incredibly put off the notion of marriage if self righteous conservatives tried to impose their own definitions of marriage as an institution for procreation onto me.

 

Another (more troubling) example would be the argument that marriage is a religious institution and that gay marriage would be contrary to their religious values. Aside from the obviously false premise that marriage is a historically religious institution (It isn’t; marriage predates religion. It is a human institution adopted by religions), such an argument is also religion centric, unsuitable for a secular state and a secular contract. If one were to argue that gays shouldn’t take part in the holy, religious institution that is marriage, then shouldn’t one also argue against atheists, agnostics and freethinkers getting married? How about banning pagans, fornicators or divorcees from getting married too?

 

One crucial fact that proponents of such arguments ignore is that there are in effect two types of marriage: civil marriage and religious marriage. It is possible to have both; the civil marriage which is validated by signing a certificate of marriage, and a religious marriage conducted by a pastor in a religious ceremony. Religious marriages may make a couple married “in the eyes of god”, but only a civil marriage is recognized in the eyes of the state. A religious marriage is something people get on top of what is effectively a secular, legal contract, which is necessary if they wish to enjoy the rights and benefits of a legally married couple.

 

Religions have every right not to recognize gay marriages, but they have absolutely no right to dictate whether or not a secular, civil marriage between gays should be recognized by the state. As long as we live in a secular state, religious explanations have no place in arguments regarding legal contracts such as marriage. A secular government should not be involved in discussions about the sanctity or holiness of marriage, simply because it is only concerned with marriage as a legal contract.

 

If we unravel the nonsensical claims made by the defenders of traditional marriage, what we will find is a group of people too afraid to admit their true motives, that is, because of their own moral misgivings about gay marriage, they seek nothing more than to control other people’s lives. In other words, they are essentially arguing that “gay marriage shouldn’t be allowed because it goes against my values and is contrary to my definition of marriage.” Until conservatives can prove that allowing same-sex marriages actually causes harm to those outside the marriage, their protests remain as poorly disguised attempts to support discrimination based on sexual orientation, and as merely another means to control the minority by denying them something which is available to everyone else.

The tyranny of the majority June 29, 2009

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

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”.

9crzgdmtks

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.

Traditional asian values June 5, 2009

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