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The ugly side of pragmatism May 11, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted by laïcité in Politics, Singapore, Society.
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74 comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who will the moderates choose? April 26, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The burka ban part 2: Tolerance of religion or tolerance of oppression? April 13, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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Many have argued that the burka ban reflects an intolerance of Islam and is a form of restricting religious freedom. But these claims make the presumption that religions should be exempt from scrutiny when it comes to compliance with basic human rights, or even social integration policies. The truth is that the French constitution protects the individual’s rights to religious freedom, but also the sanctity of secular, liberal values. In other words, the law seeks to protect an individual’s right to practice his religion, as long as those practices do not conflict with the liberal values of equality.

Firstly, what we all must realize is that there is a limit to religious tolerance. This is true for France, the USA, Singapore or any other country in the world that claims to support freedom of religion. One cannot hide under the shield of “religious freedom” to defend practices that cause harm to an individual or to society. In countries like Singapore and the UK, it is illegal to cause religious offence or incite violence, even if such actions are condoned or even encouraged by a particular religion. So it should come as no surprise that a believer’s right to wear the burka must be balanced with the offense that it causes to a society that believes in equality between the sexes. France has simply decided that French secular values trumps this right. (On a related note, why don’t I have the right to walk around naked in Singapore? Because the government has decided that my right to wear nothing is trumped by society being offended by public nakedness due to its conservative sensibilities. Fair enough.)

Secondly, wearing the burka is not a religious requirement, but a cultural one. There are millions of Muslim women all over the world that do not wear the burka. Even in France, there are only about 2,000 Muslim women that do wear it. A ban on the burka does not compromise one’s ability to practice Islam in a peaceful and moderate manner; but it only affects those who interpret Islam in a radical way that involves the indoctrination of girls in an environment that is anti-choice and devoid of personal freedom.

Cultural freedoms have limits too: the cultural practices of female genital mutilation, forced marriages and honor killings are outlawed in the civilized countries that recognize an individual’s basic rights to safety and to choice over the supposed value of preserving cultural norms. It is fallacious to suggest that all culture is sacred simply because many people have been practicing it for a long time. Such an argument can be used to defend all sorts of atrocities that are otherwise traditional and cultural: bride snatching, slavery, the list goes on.

Ultimately, whilst there must be tolerance and respect for different religious and cultural practices, a line must be drawn somewhere. France has decided to draw the line at inculcating young boys and girls with misogynistic notions of a woman’s worth being related to how she dresses. And frankly, I see little problem with them choosing to draw the line there – I too would like to live in a society where girls and women are not continuously faced with threats of shame and dishonor, and boys and men are not taught to use excuses like a woman’s dressing to defend rape and disrespect. Cultural and religious tolerance does not automatically mean tolerance of oppressive cultural and religious practices.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning April 12, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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2 comments

The burka is more than a piece of clothing. As much as libertarians prefer to over-simplify the issue into “the government trying to control the attire of its citizens”, it isn’t as simplistic as that. The burka is a symbol of female oppression. The mere fact that the women of some religious sects are compelled to don it is telling enough: Why do women have to wear it and not men too? Why are they compelled to, and not given a choice? What kind of selective “truths” are they brought up to believe – that all men are potential rapists or that an uncovered woman deserves to be raped? Who enforces this rule to wear a burka – mullahs, religious police, the men who own her? What happens if she chooses not to wear it – killed, stoned, loss of her father’s “honor”? What kind of cultures force their women to wear burkas – those that impose a multitude of other rules to control the behavior of women, or those that let women have individual freedoms? Like it or not, the burka is so inextricably linked to all these connotations of sexism, misogyny and oppression that one can’t put it on without suggesting that one is either a victim of, or a proponent of these illiberal values.

Why do symbols matter? Ideally they shouldn’t, but in reality they do. Symbolism is the reason why there is a difference between burning a Koran and burning a dictionary, between stepping onto a national flag and a piece of cloth. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably be arrested if you walk down the streets of Israel in your Hitler halloween costume complete with swastika and fake moustache. Symbolism is the reason why you will probably get lynched if you walked the streets of New York wearing a KKK hood. People attach meanings to books, flags and articles of clothing. The burka symbolizes female oppression because of the reasoning behind it, the lies used to compel women to “choose” it, the threats and punishments used to enforce it, and the meanings of female ownership and honor that come with it.

The burka ban is full of symbolism too: it symbolizes that the French have zero tolerance for female oppression. I highly doubt that the small fine is going to convince conservative radical believers to change their mind about the burka, and arguably, there are many other better ways to encourage women to escape from this form of oppression such as providing an avenue for asylum and education. Instead, the value of the burka ban is in its message: that oppression and its symbols have no place in secular France, and if that one were to be insistent on keeping women enrobed in a shroud of subjugation, one is welcome to do so elsewhere.

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

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

The burka ban is now enforced April 12, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Politics, Religion, Society.
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2 comments

France has become the first country in the world to ban face veils in public. I have written about this controversial issue before, and I have expressed how my inner libertarian finds it difficult to accept governmental control over a person’s clothing, while my inner feminist admires the French government’s commitment to preserving equal rights and liberal values. Now that the law is actually being enforced, I am brought to face this issue yet again, and I now realize that there is so much more to discuss – more than I would like to fit into a single post.

Over the next few days, in 4 separate, hopefully less wordy segments, I will talk about the various deeper issues of the French burka ban, and how this controversy goes far beyond feminism and libertarianism.

The burka ban part 1: Symbolism and meaning

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

The burka ban part 3: The problem with cultural relativism

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism

Confessions of a foreigner March 31, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Life in London, Politics, Society.
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105 comments

I know many Singaporeans are not afraid to display their hostility towards foreigners. My days in university have taught me that; snarky comments, nasty nicknames and resentment against “china students” were anything but uncommon. Bur recently, after viewing a video posted by Yawningbread talking about the influx of foreigners becoming a chief concern in the coming elections, and after coming across a petition for employers to employ Singaporeans first, I’m beginning to sense that this antagonism is growing, or at least becoming a lot more visible and socially acceptable.

Or maybe it’s just me. You see, I am a foreigner now, so perhaps I have become more sensitive about these things. As a Singaporean student living in the UK, never in my life have I felt more conscious of how a country’s locals treat its foreigners. It’s not because I’m treated any differently here. It’s because I’m not treated any differently here. Unlike how we used to treat the students from China back in NUS, talking about how they screwed up the grading curve making it impossible for us locals to get As, letting them form their own enclaves and never really welcoming them into our own cliques, no one treats me like a foreigner here. No one complains about me stealing places that local students “deserve”, no one makes a big deal about my race or where I come from, and I can bet that no one actually blames me or other international students for congestion on the trains and buses (which I’m sure is actually worse than the situation back home).

That’s not to say that anti-foreigner sentiments are totally absent. But the key difference is that no one here can get away with blaming social and economic problems on immigrants without looking like a total bigot. Sure, you can criticize foreigners all you want here, but in everyone’s minds, that instantly relegates you to the likes of right-wing parties like the BNP, or salacious hate and fear mongering tabloids, or ignorant racist or homophobic countryfolk. You’d have to be pretty delicate and wise with your words here if you want to argue against foreigners and immigration. That’s a far cry from the brazen xenophobia that I sometimes see in Singapore, where foreigner-blaming is common to university students and busybody aunties alike.

Looking back on it, I feel ashamed of how nasty we were to other students simply based on their nationality. These students from India and China want success as much as any one of us, and they are probably more desperate to improve their lives than most of us privileged Singaporeans. Why should nationality make any difference? If they can qualify to get into our universities, then they have every right to be there. It doesn’t seem fair to me that we are more entitled to jobs or to places in primary schools or universities, simply because we had the privilege of being born in Singapore. Simply because by some stroke of luck, our grandparents decided to leave their villages but theirs didn’t.

Is it really fair to blame foreigners who want to work and study in Singapore? If you had the ability, the opportunity and the means to, would you pass up the opportunity to work or study abroad, thus improving your job prospects, increasing your potential earnings and broadening your horizons? Foreign students and workers are simply making that same logical choice for themselves.

I had a lengthy discussion with my British colleagues on this issue. I asked them what they thought of the growing unemployment problem in the UK and the opening of the “floodgates” to workers from all over the EU. My question was met with no anger, no hostility, and not a tinge of resentment. (I dare you to ask a similar question to a young jobseeker in Singapore and attempt to stop the xenophobic rant that would most surely ensue.) Many of the responses I got were startlingly applicable to Singapore. “It’s not like the locals would want many of the jobs that the immigrants take up, anyway.” “Where would our country be without the contribution of immigrants?” “They just want to be able to enjoy the high standard of living here that we take for granted.” My friend put it most aptly. In the most matter-of-fact manner: “We’re competing with the world now. That’s just the way it is.”

With all this talk of “competing with the world”, it’s easy to let a dog-eat-dog society take over. It’s easy to sink into a world where only the fittest survive, and the weaker members of society fall through the cracks. But this is not inevitable. Even as we welcome the talent and competition that immigration brings, there is no excuse not to have a safety net to ensure that all members of society – locals or foreigners – have a minimum standard of living, and this means minimum wage, affordable healthcare and bargaining power in the form of unions.

I’m pretty sure most Singaporeans really aren’t xenophobic; they’re just concerned about their livelihoods. I just hope they see that the solution lies in better welfare, better transport, and better schools, and not in demonizing foreign workers and students who are really just like us.

This is what freedom of speech looks like March 27, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Life in London, Politics, Singapore, Society.
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I woke up to the sounds of helicopters and whistles and drums in the distance. I had an inkling of what was going on – there were university union members handing out flyers to university staff and students to strike against the pension cuts earlier in the week. I checked the BBC website, and sure enough, there was going to be a protest in London – a huge one. One that would involve more than 200,000 participants angry with the government’s spending cuts to the public sector, causing a loss in jobs. Sure enough, I looked out the window and saw legions of people carrying flags and signs, walking from the tube station towards the embankment, and tour buses upon tour buses dropping off protesters arriving from all over the UK.

I had plans to do grocery shopping, but given the bus delays and road blocks due to the protests, that wasn’t going to happen. Instead, my boyfriend and I decided to follow the crowds.

Whilst we walked alongside the protesters, I was struck with a sense of pride and warmth. Sure, many of the policies that they were protesting against had little to do with me, and I’m not even British. But I was just so happy to be living in a country where the average Joe had such strong opinions about not only his own livelihood, but that of his friends, his family, and of fellow Britons, and was not afraid to speak up about it. Even more unbelievable (at least to someone who comes from a country where it is illegal to gather in a group of more than 5 people) was the wondrous fact that the city had blocked off its main roads and redirected its bus services, just so that these protesters could carry out their route along the river Thames to hold a rally in Hyde Park.

 

 

Waterloo bridge was closed to traffic to allow protesters to march

We walked across Waterloo Bridge (which was free of traffic because of this event), taking in the almost surreal sights: men, women, teenagers and seniors, holding signs and flyers and cameras, marching across the bridge, amid a backdrop of London’s iconic buildings. On the other side of the river Thames, protesters spanned the entire stretch of the embankment as far as I could see; their colourful flags and balloons making it appear as though they were taking part in a carnival.

 

Protesters spanned the embankment as far as I could see

 

I thought the crowds looked beautiful

There was music. And laughter. And painted faces, and costumes, and children sitting on their parents’ shoulders and many other sights I never expected of a political protest. These people weren’t bitter or volatile, neither were they hooligans trying to stir up violence. They are everyday citizens – teachers, nurses, professors, doctors, firemen and students – unhappy with the fact that their government has decided to cut their jobs. These are average people, concerned about what will happen to their schools and universities and hospitals and emergency services after all the job cuts. They just want their voices to be heard and changes to be made.

 

They were old, young, male, female, parents, grandparents, students. Not the type of extremist troublemakers that the Singapore government tries to train us to associate with politcal demonstrations.

Why is Singapore so afraid of all this? Why are our demonstrations (subject to approval) constrained to a tiny grassy patch at Hong Lim? Why is it illegal to air our unhappiness in public? Why does the government paint all protesters as troublemakers and radicals, when in reality many of these issues are the concerns of the average citizen? How can we be told to be satisfied with the approved routes of feedback – sitting at your computer and typing an angry letter to your MP – when issues like jobs, healthcare, civil liberty and economic injustice are real issues to be passionate about and whose scale can only accurately be expressed visually in the form of a demonstration?

Is Singapore afraid that protests may cause inconveniences or scare away tourists? Well I was definitely inconvenienced today, but that inconvenience is tiny compared to what hundreds or thousands of public sector workers would have to go through if their jobs were cut. And if one Saturday’s disruption is what it takes to show the ministers and MPs just how many lives are going to be adversely affected by their policies, then it’s well worth the disruption.  “Maintaining order” and “minimizing inconveniences” are shabby excuses for trying to restrict free speech.

Today I saw what real freedom of speech looks like, and it was beautiful.

N.B. During the protests, a small group broke off the main route and attempted to cause trouble at Picadilly and Oxford Circus. It is unfortunate that there are always a distinct bunch of youths whose only intent is to be a menace, but fortunately these were only about a couple hundred people out of the 250,000 peaceful protesters. Moreover, the police also exercised much restraint, without using unnecessary force and showing discretion when arresting these troublemakers.

On the illegality of (certain) drugs November 6, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Politics, Singapore, Society, Uncategorized.
4 comments

As Singaporeans, we learn to never question the law. If something is illegal, then it must be inherently wrong. How do we know stealing is wrong? Because it is illegal! Why is murder bad? Because the police will catch you and put you in jail! It’s funny (or sad, really) when people mix up causes and effects.  Laws may stem from value systems, morals or the harm principle, but ideally their ultimate function is to protect our rights, our safety, and in some cases, our “moral values”.  But when one is brought up to fear the law, to never question it and to accept it as an unchanging truth, it’s no surprise when he gets things mixed up.  The law doesn’t seem to serve our interests anymore; instead, it appears almost like a state endorsed scripture dictating what is acceptable and unacceptable, good or bad, right or wrong. The morality of an action is now decided based on whether or not the law allows you to perform it.

An interesting effect of this mindset is the average Singaporean’s misconceived opinion on the issue of drugs. If you ask someone on the street what he/she thinks about drugs, chances are that you are going to get the standard reply: Drugs are bad. They’re bad because they’re illegal. Don’t you know you can get sentenced to death for the possession of drugs?

In other words, the average person rationalizes that drugs are bad because the law prohibits them. If pressed further, he might bring up the adverse health and social effects of drugs, but how does one know that such effects are really that bad? “Well, they’re bad enough for the government to outlaw drugs!” That is simply putting the cart before the horse, an unfortunate (and sometimes disastrous) result of putting unquestioning faith in an authority to always look out for our best interests. Goodness or badness is no longer an inherent trait, but is instead dictated by an authority.

It seems that the biggest misconception of all is that drugs are prohibited only because of the immense harm that they cause to the individual and to society. To illustrate how that is not the case, we just have to look to the drugs that aren’t illegal: alcohol and tobacco. Just a couple of days ago, a paper was published in The Lancet, accessing the relative harms of different drugs with regards to the user and to wider society. Considering 16 criteria including the drug’s effects on the user’s physical and mental health, adverse effects on the family, crime, and economic cost, alcohol emerged as the most harmful drug while tobacco was evaluated to be about as harmful as cocaine. Other illegal drugs such as ketamine, marijuana (cannabis) and LSD were ranked markedly lower than alcohol.

So why are alcohol and tobacco still legal, while everything else isn’t? There are a myriad of reasons, ranging from the social approval and acceptance of these drugs, to the power of the tobacco and alcohol industry, to the amount of tax these drugs generate. [1] In all cases, the amount of harm caused is but a minute factor contributing to why these drugs are selectively allowed over others.  As a result, we mistakenly believe that alcohol is a much safer drug than say, cocaine, simply by virtue of the fact that the government allows it. Similarly, we start dreaming up reasons why marijuana is evil and bad for health, whilst accepting tobacco smoking as a social activity.

 Is it fair then, for a piece of legislation to be falsely rationalized as intending to protect us, but when it is instead driven by economic, political and social pressure? Is it fair then, to demonize certain drugs as deadly, additive and destructive (not to mention demonize those who use them), when tobacco and alcohol are equally, if not more deadly, addictive and destructive?

I wouldn’t suggest banning tobacco and alcohol. But neither would I suggest legalizing drugs (not at this juncture with Singapore society’s maturity level, anyway). The takeaway message is this: the law (the authorities, the government, or anyone else who makes “the rules”) should never be shielded from question, and should never be immune to change. Instead of blindly accepting definitions of acceptable and deviant, moral and immoral, and what is “for our own good” from a source which is so influenced by politics, economics and power, we should instead ascertain for ourselves whether a piece of legislation has any rational merit. The mere act of questioning the norm, a tradition, or the status quo, is an act in freeing oneself from the constraints of authoritarianism and paternalism. Ubi dubium ibi libertas – Where there is doubt, there is freedom.

Footnotes
1. Interestingly, the criminalization of marijuana as opposed to tobacco in the United States in the 1970s was somewhat influenced by the fact that marijuana, a drug long used by African Americans and other minority cultures, was now linked to the negative values of individualism and youthful rebellion. The so labelled deviant youths, along with the minority races lacked the resources or power that the tobacco-using and producing elites had in order to influence policy. Marijuana was seen as a threat to the established order and to the tobacco industry, and was thus prohibited. Today, it is this fact that tobacco remains a hugely profitable industry run by big corporations which make generous donations to political parties that makes the suggestion of criminalizing tobacco almost unthinkable.
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