With Singapore’s increasing complexity and heterogeneity, the Singapore government has been in retreat on the social regulation front. Where once it tried to prescribe morals and social behaviour, imposed with a big stick if necessary (e.g. passing laws/regulations about flushing after urinating, males having to keep hair short — some readers may be old enough to remember this) , it is now realising that there are social forces greater than itself. Society will change regardless, and heavy-handed attempts by the government to impose its will must surely exact a political price.
Yet retreat, gradual and tentative as it is, is not easy. In its wake comes all manner of disagreements among different sections of society, and people continue to expect the government not only to police morals and social behaviour, but also to impose on the rest of society the norms they think should prevail. Naturally other sections of society will contest those so-called norms.
In the face of such conflicting demands, political leaders have been trying to disengage, to avoid being shot by multiple sides of the conflict if nothing else. More and more, regulation is left to bureaucrats. Sometimes, the brief given to the bureaucrats is to “consult”, an exercise that usually means to divine some kind of happy mean that people can compromise upon.
Bureaucrats, however, are more than able to read between the lines. They know that the real commandment is to do whatever is necessary to protect ministers from being forced to pay a political price. Whatever consultation exercise they embark on, the aim is clear: find a solution that produces as little controversy as possible, so that ministers are not forced to take sides. If controversy is unavoidable, make sure the more powerful side is pleased; if it is the weak side that remains displeased, at least you would have minimised the political price the minister has to pay.
Where once the Singapore government ruled by instilling fear, it is a little ironic that they are increasingly fearful of powerful segments in society.
But when everything boils down to self-preservation and the need to avoid stepping on the wrong toes, what results is a bureaucracy that essentially operates in a moral vacuum. Any sense of right and wrong is superfluous, if not downright inconvenient. There are no fundamental principles to go by.
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A few weeks ago, one such controversy was reported. It was a case handled by the Community Mediation Centre:
The recent ‘curry controversy’ broke when it was reported that a family who had moved here from China objected to the smell of curry-cooking from their Indian neighbour, which escalated into a feud. It was reported that mediation resulted in the Indian family agreeing to cook curry only when the Chinese family were not home.
— AsiaOne, 16 August 2011, Families settle curry dispute, not mediators
As thousands of Singaporeans knew in their bones, this was an absurd outcome. There was such an uproar, Law minister K Shanmugam was forced to comment.
However, Mr Shanmugam clarified that the outcome of the dispute, which happened over six to seven years ago, was the result of an agreement between the two families and was voluntary. The outcome was neither imposed nor enforced.
It is also not the Community Mediation Centre’s (CMC) role to point out whether an agreement is reasonable or not. The solution must also be provided by the disputing parties themselves.
It’s still wrong. Now we see that not only did the Mediation Centre not get the point, neither does the law minister. The point is, the Indian family had a right to cook curry or whatever anytime they wanted. There was nothing to mediate. The Chinese family should have been told to get lost and learn to respect the liberty of others.
You see in the above report the minister trying to avoid responsibility for the result by saying the solution was arrived at by the parties themselves — if we are to believe the report.
Here was an example of how government agencies have no more anchor points. They have no sense of right and wrong. Everything is reduced to a calculation about how to avoid being hammered by the stronger side — in this case, the ethnic majority. Never mind if it tramples on the rights on others. The problem? The problem is that the whole government does not understand the concept of rights.
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Readers will know that I have long blasted our censorship policies, the origins of which are very much like how the “curry solution” was arrived at. The government may hail the policies as reflecting “mainstream” views — which is code for a disgraceful mishmash of compromises, leavened with much kowtowing to powerful segments, with no regard for the fundamental rights of others.
Rewarded once, the powerful segments will continue to push for more. And without the backbone of rights, bureaucrats will bend. In fact, they have bent so often, sometimes they don’t even wait for any member of the public to complain. Thus Simon Fujiwara’s installation piece at the Singapore Biennale 2011 was vandalised by the curators themselves before it even opened to the public. And celebrity photographer Leslie Kee’s book Super Stars, meant to raise money for the Aceh tsunami 2004, was banned before importation.
Talk to any artist, and each of them has a litany of complaints about the regulators.
We continue to have film censorship, even though the process has evolved to one where filmmakers and distributors are pushed through licensing and funding pressures to censor themselves. The whole process of drawing up censorship guidelines replicates what I said above. The officials go through a “consultation” process, but end up making decisions that pay great heed to the religious conservatives, totally ignoring others’ right to freedom of expression. The minister then refuses to take responsibility, relying on the pretence that he had nothing to do with the censorship guidelines so developed.
Which is crap. He is still responsible, because he created the occult process of “consultation”and transferred the political pressures to the bureaucrats.
Despite bureaucrats internalising their fears and acting pre-emptively on them, once in a while, conservatives still bark. Here’s a letter that appeared recently:
Is this ad too indecent for Orchard Road?
I am am writing to request the removal of an indecent, giant poster plastered across the new Knightsbridge mall building along Orchard Road.
It not only makes no sense as an advertisement for a clothing brand (the man in it has virtually no clothes on), but it is also plain lewd.
A girl gets berated for letting slip the F-word in a speech (‘NTU regrets use of expletive during speech’; Aug 1), but it is all right to plaster the giant picture highlighting a part of the male anatomy that should remain private, on the busiest shopping stretch on the island!
I have stood at the crossing between Ngee Ann City and Paragon watching passers-by as they catch sight of it, and every single person I have noticed has either looked away quickly, in what can only be embarrassment, or pointed it out to a friend for a quick giggle.
And let me pre-empt the usual counter eagerly dismissing Singaporeans for being so ‘sexually repressed’ as to tear it down.
This is a matter of common decency, plain and simple.
Ong Ker-Yu (Ms)
— Straits Times Forum, 27 August 2011.
You will notice that the letter writer protests she is just asking for common decency, not sexual repression. But the point is she feels it is sexual (“lewd”, “the male anatomy should remain private”), and wants it suppressed. Maybe she’s right, it is not sexual repression, but it sure is sexual suppression.
Sexual expression is a valid form of expression. It deserves protection as a human right. The only way you can argue against it is if you first posit that anything sexual is morally problematic. But many people do not accept that kind of framing, and once it is not seen as morally problematic, it is no different from any other kind of legitimate expression.
The human body is a beautiful thing. Great art has been created around it, sexualised or not.
In an earlier article, I wrote about how homophobia is traceable to the conservative compulsion to preserve male dominance and the subjugation of females. Much of people’s aversion to nudity too springs from the same subconscious well. You see it in the way they are far more sensitive to the display of male flesh than to female flesh. It is fine to use females as objects of desire, but not the male form. The male should be the gazer, not the gazed upon. To be gazed upon is to lower his status and that is extremely upsetting to people who have ingrained in them the idea that males should dominate females.
Ong Ker-Yu wants the authorities to ban the Abercombie and Fitch advertisement, but she and others like her seem to have no problem at all with this illuminated poster at right, which can be seen at many bus stops. Similar pictures and displays can be found in various magazines and store windows.
Still, I have a bad feeling that the bureaucrats, fearful of conservative “backlash”, will hurry to tell Abercrombie and Fitch to remove their ad, never mind if once again, Singapore makes world headlines for shooting itself in the foot, despite our dreams of being modern and cosmopolitan.
To the bureaucrats I say: Stop quivering. Stand firm. We have a right to the freedom of expression, and it is the constitutional duty of any government to protect citizens’ rights, from curry to art.
Addendum 1 Sept 2011:
From a friend’s Facebook posting, I see a fascinating video about Sam Steward, a professor of English in the US, who in the 1950s and 1960s wrote, drew and photographed the underground sex lives around him, and through his work, was part of the gradual change in social consciousness that was occurring at the same time. Many would class his work as pornographic, and yet one would have to be particularly closed-minded to deny that his work was not art, was not a legitimate form of expression.