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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.

The ugly side of pragmatism May 11, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Who will the moderates choose? April 26, 2011

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

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.

Christian evangelicals and their religious high horse February 20, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Singapore, Unbelief.
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As a kid, I never enjoyed telling religious people I that was a “freethinker”. It wasn’t because I had any desire to be religious, and I sure as hell wasn’t ashamed of my freethinking. No, it was because my declaration as a freethinker almost always immediately brought about a look that was a mixture of condescension and pity, and – as if they were doing me a huge favour – was often accompanied by an offer: would you like to come to church with me some day?

For some reason, the word “freethinker” gave most people the idea that I was not (yet) exposed to religion, that I was brought up in a nonreligious environment and had not had my eyes “opened”, that my entire sense of morality, spirituality and philosophy had yet to be examined.

But by the time I was a Primary 3 schoolgirl (in a catholic school, no less), this was certainly not the case. I knew all the hymns, prayers, rituals and Bible stories. I even had friendly debates with my Christian friends about the existence of god during recess and we always came to the same stalemate: they were convinced, and I simply wasn’t. My status as a freethinker was not due to a lack of a religious influence, but a result of it. Believe me, if there was any 9 year old that could argue against the existence of a benevolent omnipotent being, it was me. I got so sick of the assumption that the only reason why I was a freethinker was because I had not yet been “awoken” by the Bible that by the time I reached secondary school, I felt it necessary to add a qualifier to my answer. Are you a Christian? No, but I went to Christian schools for the past 9 years, just to ward off the umpteenth attempt to invite me to church.

Perhaps this kind of assumption was a product of the religious demographics of Singapore. Many, if not most of the Christians here are the result of conversions and are “born again”. Or perhaps this was a byproduct of the religion itself; if Christianity is the one true religion, maybe believers cannot fathom why anyone would be an unbeliever unless they had not yet been exposed to the “wonders” of the bible. Either way, both mindsets probably play a part in believers looking at nonbelievers with condescension, as people who are not yet enlightened, as people to be “saved” from the abyss of unbelief.

In my teenage years, though I was comfortable with my unbelief, I was acutely self conscious of being openly atheist and subject to judgement by these so-called “enlightened” born again evangelicals. Even in a secular secondary school, it was almost as if going to church was “cool”, a sign that one was a member of the upper echelons of society. Being a Christian was synonymous with being English educated and intelligent enough to reject the pagan gods of one’s parents. Needless to say, things did not get much better in my Methodist junior college, where freethinkers, Buddhists, Hindus and Taoists alike were “fair game” for conversion; a goal with a motive and enthusiasm behind it not unlike that of the missionaries that sought to convert the primitive idol worshipping natives of the new world.

But what Christian evangelicals often fail to realize is that this desire to evangelize is presumptuous, disrespectful, and sometimes downright insulting. Who are evangelists to assume that just because I do not subscribe to a particular religion, it means that I have not given each religion a considerable amount of thought and based on my own reasoning, rejected them all? Who are evangelists to judge Taoism, Buddhism, Hinduism, ancestor worship (or other more mystical beliefs of their parents) as beneath Christianity; beliefs that should be outgrown? Who are evangelists to assume that my life as a “heathen” is any less fulfilling or meaningful than that of a believer such that I would need a belief in a deity to fill some kind of purported emptiness in my life?  Whether or not they realize it, believers who keep trying to convert the rest of us are making these condescending and patronizing assumptions. They are sitting on their religious high horses, with the belief that their worldview is superior, that one cannot possibly be spiritual, moral, or contented unless one subscribes to their philosophy.

Today, I’m perfectly happy to describe myself as a freethinker because I now see the word for what it really means – I think freely; free from doctrine, free from conformity to a status quo,  free from an authority telling me what to think or do. But this doesn’t mean that I sit on an atheistic high horse either. Granted, I may never agree with the beliefs of Christianity and some of them may even seem nonsensical to me. But one thing I’ll acknowledge is that its believers, through a combination of personality, personal experiences and brain chemistry, hold those beliefs to be true. All I am asking is for believers to give me that same respect to acknowledge that the tools I use to seek the truth – science, reason, rationalism – have meaning to me, make sense to me, are true to me, and that my atheistic worldview is at least as valid as their theistic worldview. To assume that they have the monopoly on truth and morality is mere arrogance. It is unfortunate that many sects of Christianity emphasize the importance of evangelism, but in such cases it really is up to the individual to choose: is it more important to be a good Christian, or to be a tolerant, respectful and empathetic human being?

Footnote: I was inspired to write this post when I was looking through old comments and found this “gem” here: “The only mandate we Christians have is to lead godly lives and share the gospel with the unsaved. I thank God that He sent someone do that for me because 25 years ago, I was just like you and your readers.” Maybe the author was purposefully making a passive aggressive insult. Or maybe he was simply oblivious to how patronizing he sounded. It always reminds me of how evangelists make me feel when they talk down to me as a “lowly” unbeliever.

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.

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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Being “sensitive” enough to hide our intolerance February 10, 2010

Posted by laïcité in Religion, Singapore.
Tags: , , , , , ,
6 comments

It was all over today’s newspapers: Pastor Rony Tan of the Lighthouse Evangelism independent church was called up by the Internal Security Department for his insensitive comments about Buddhists and Taoists in videos posted on his church’s website.

Let’s not pretend that this is shocking news. I even wrote about it a couple of posts ago: religious texts, especially those of monotheistic faiths, do not lack in their praise and justification for the intolerance of other beliefs. So why would it be surprising if the religious leaders themselves expressed such opinions? Having attended some Christian services myself (Don’t ask why. Long story), where palmistry, astrology, atheism, Islam and “mystical” religions like Buddhism and Hinduism, were described as being the “worship of false idols”, “black arts of the devil”, or “sure ways to damnation”, all in the span of a single sermon, I can say that the only thing unique about Pastor Tan’s case was the fact that it was recorded and exposed to the public eye.

All this brings me to an important question: does this mean that such “insensitive” comments should be censored out of sermons? In his apology, Pastor Tan himself stated that he would not make such comments again. The ISD’s position is also one which requires being sensitive to other religions.

But what good would this do, except merely to maintain a thin veneer of religious tolerance over a festering sentiment of continued disrespect and intolerance that is never addressed? What is the point of trying to shield ugly beliefs from the scrutiny of the multi-religious public sphere, when those beliefs are still held in the individual and collective minds of the faithful? Is that really a better option than allowing those ugly beliefs to be expressed, and condemned, out loud? We will never reach true religious harmony (a fragile equilibrium state of peace, maybe, but not harmony) if we continue to mistakenly equate “the hiding of intolerance” with “tolerance”.

Racism, intolerance, sexism and homophobia have been protected and defended by the untouchability of religion for too long. It’s time we question the morality and validity of religious beliefs and texts, instead of just sweeping these jarring examples of intolerance under the rug of false harmony. Censoring intolerance would not make it disappear, especially when such intolerance and disdain for those who are not “like us” continues to be glorified in holy texts.

In this way, I’m glad that Pastor Tan said what he did, and all of us Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Taoists and nonbelievers came to know about it. If anything, it serves as an excellent opportunity for religious leaders and followers to re-examine their beliefs, and to open their eyes to see the fuels for intolerance not so subtly hidden in their religious texts and teachings.

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