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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.

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Things that cause rape June 11, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, Rants, Society.
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4 comments

 

 

 

 

I could write a whole post on rape statistics. I could mention how provocative clothing plays no role in a rapist choosing his target (Want to know what is the major factor? Appearing vulnerable – even if that means dressing like a conservative, docile, demure lady like your mother taught you.) I could also mention the fact that even the most non-provocative people in the world fall victim to rape – infants, the elderly, and even Muslim women covered head to toe.

But all that wouldn’t matter anyway. Because rape isn’t a natural disaster like an earthquake, and rape isn’t a disease like lung cancer. Rape is not a phenomenon that simply happens to you. What is the point of looking at the “odds of getting raped”  (and then blaming a victim for not being careful enough) when rape is only caused by one thing?  It is solely a result of one person’s conscious choice: the rapist’s.

 

 

The ugly side of pragmatism May 11, 2011

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

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.

Love and support in the face of homophobia April 16, 2011

Posted by laïcité in International, Society.
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This is how we stand up to homophobia. With love and support. Because ultimately, beneath the veil of hate and prejudice, homophobes have no moral high ground to stand on.

Long story short: Last week during the Superliga semifinal volleyball match between Sada Cruzeiro & Volei Futuro, fans erupted in chants of “faggot”, aimed at Vôlei Futuro’s Michael, eventually forcing him to come out to the media.

For the next semifinal match, in a show of solidarity, the whole Vôlei Futuro team wore pink warmup shirts, while the team libero donned a rainbow jersey.

Pink warmup shirts

Source: voleifuturo.com.br

Rainbow jersey

Source: globoesporte.com

In a tremendous outpour of support, fans displayed a huge banner proclaiming “Volei Futuro against prejudice” and struck bright pink thundersticks emblazoned with Michael’s name, drowning out whatever remaining hatred that any homophobe dared spew out.

Volei Futuro against prejudice

Source: globoesporte.com

The Crowd

Source: voleifuturo.com.br

Just looking at those pictures make me all warm and fuzzy.  As boys and men all over the world are indoctrinated by society to harbor negativity towards homosexuals and enforce strict notions of “manliness”, it is heartening to know that friendship and empathy sometimes triumph over socially-endorsed homophobia. In a world where we are trained to swallow homophobic slurs as acceptable insults, it’s stories like these that help me regain my faith in humanity again.

The burka ban part 4: The perils of multiculturalism April 15, 2011

Posted by laïcité in Feminism v Patriarchy, International, Religion, Society.
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If you are a Singaporean, chances are that all your life you have been told about the wonders of multiculturalism. After all, multiculturalism is that marvelous notion that allows people of all religions and races to live together peacefully while still being able to practice their own cultures and beliefs. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways I think multiculturalism is great. Diversity should not only be tolerated, but also celebrated.

But multiculturalism – with its insistence that all cultures have the right to flourish in a multi-religious multi-racial society – is far from perfect. When there is no pressure to compromise one’s culture or one’s comfort zone in favor of assimilation, “sticking to your own kind” becomes the norm. It becomes easy to develop a laissez faire attitude towards the segmentation of society according to racial or religious lines, leaving room for not only social segregation, but also economic segregation along these lines as a result of the ghettoisation of certain social groups.

You’d think that as a liberal, it is rather odd of me to talk about the negative aspects of multiculturalism. Surely the alternative – assimilation – impinges on an individual’s right to live life as he sees fit? But ironically, multiculturalism does not necessarily mean greater freedom for the individual either. Culture itself is a form of social pressure, and when a culture endorses illiberal teachings such as misogyny or homophobia onto its members, a society’s multicultural, politically correct stance prevents us from intervening, and as a result indirectly supports such unfair teachings as well.

In countries like the UK where multiculturalism is the state policy, tolerance for ethnic communities doing their own thing has resulted in the segregation of society, the loss of a national or local identity, and could even contribute to the increased radicalization of Muslims. Tolerance and political correctness have resulted in the reluctance to intervene when cultural teachings and practices have gone out of hand, because “multiculturalism” has made it difficult to draw that line between what is respect for a culture and what is simply unacceptable to society as a whole. Similarly, in the case of the burka, even though the notion of requiring women to be shrouded in black cloth is unthinkable to most of us, someone brought up to believe that critiquing any aspect of culture is racist, anti-religion or politically incorrect would never dare to cause offense by speaking up.

A key contradiction between multiculturalism and social cohesion is the fact that while multiculturalism encourages us to embrace the fact that there are different cultures, religions and beliefs, in order for society to function, we need to be able to ignore these very differences and see each other as individuals. If every ethnic community decided to promote the anti-social values of exclusivity and culture-specific values, the multicultural “society” would be less of a society, and more like several cultural groups leading parallel but separate existences. How does this relate to the French burka ban? France does not practice multiculturalism. Instead, it exalts the secular values of liberty, equality and fraternity. By recognizing a set of universal principles that are over and above cultural and religious identities, it seeks to recognize citizens as Frenchmen and Frenchwomen first and foremost, devoid of racial and religious particularities.
The burka. (Source: bbc.co.uk)

The burka flies directly in the face of these principles. Symbolically, it is about as anti-liberty as an article of clothing can get – women are symbolically dehumanized to the public eye, reduced to a mere shapeless faceless blob devoid of physical indications of personhood. Moreover, such clothing not only is a clear and defiant statement of cultural difference, it also poses a real barrier to interpersonal communication – something which is essential for an integrative and cohesive society. Seemingly insignificant human gestures of friendliness and social bonding: an exchange of a meaningful glance or the sharing of a spontaneous smile or the simple mirroring of expressions in response to a shared experience, are now rendered impossible due to the physical barrier of the face veil. If that is not the literal embodiment of “anti-social” then I don’t know what is. (Take a look at the image and honestly say that such a garment has no influence over your desire to be “neighborly” with the woman underneath) What’s left is the sense of uneasiness and alienation that can only lead to a chasm between cultures. France may not have my full support for its burka ban, but its principles behind it certainly aren’t wrong.

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 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

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