In a rare smackdown of a reader, the Straits Times dismissed a reader’s demand (link) that it tailor its editorial content to suit his sensibilities. The incident flashed across social media for a day or two, with approving comments, then disappeared.
This is what the reader, Idris, wrote:
I think it’s worthy to note that there are many Muslims who are readers of The Sunday Times. I was quite disturbed by the fact that the paper’s edition on Oct 5 which falls on Hari Raya Haji featured a distasteful article in the Sunday Life! section (“Cheat Sheet: Ham”). The Sunday Life! food critics could have been more sensitive to the events that unfolded for some Muslims on this religiously auspicious occasion such as the sacrifice of cows or sheep. They could have chosen a food-related theme and perhaps discussed lamb cuts. At the very least, avoid discussing non-halal food (food that Islam sanctions against consumption such as ham). Local journalists should practise more sensitivity and respect local cultures, at least for the most important races in Singapore.
In reply, the newspaper’s Readers’Editor Yap Koon Hong said:
While we are mindful of religious sensitivities, Singapore is a secular nation and The Straits Times is a secular newspaper. If we were to adopt the stricture advocated by Mr Idris, we would be unable, for instance, to publish stories about consuming beef on days when Hindus observe Thaipusam and celebrate Deepavali as well as meat-related stories on Vesak Day when Buddhists observe a vegetarian diet, and on certain days of Lent which is observed by Catholics.
Gabriel Seah: During Ramadan, the Straits Times shouldn’t talk about food because Muslims are fasting.
Asy’ari Asni: Oh yes, all of us must pander to the Crescent Mafia, lest we be accused of the dreaded word; Islamophobia. What utter bollocks! Best Regards, A Former Muslim
Chan Cw: wear white was formed because they claim pink dot was out to upset them. and some in “we are against pink dot” began discussing slaying of gays
Kok Ming: So many rules to follow to ensure people’s feelings are not hurt. Really headache. We should question whether certain beliefs are valid in the first place so that we do not need to set up so many rules to protect them. Imagine we have thousands of religion each having their own rules that we need to respect them.
R Vishal Tiwary: While I agree with the rationale behind not being able to adopt the proposed stricture, it is my humble opinion that a point can be made equally effectively without resorting to being crass and/or childish. If one of your few remaining readers expresses his concern about your choice of articles, you could minimally provide a balanced reply that shows you have given some thought, albeit a fleeting one, to balancing the conflicting considerations.
Sivam T Murthy: “Most important races in Singapore” Is there a list, ranking them in order? You know, for clarity and future reference. Also, race and religion are different right? And uh.. hindus cant eat beef. So you might wanna scrap all the cow stuff too… but then, im not sure what rank hinduism is.
Vi Vian: Like. For a secular nation, we are already making more concessions for some religions as compared to others. Any further and we will seem like a non secular nation.
The first seven comments on my Facebook thread can be seen at right, giving you a flavour of the responses.
However, there was no follow-up that I could spot. Perhaps it’s because people have seen enough of such demands coming from all manner of religious quarters, they’re heartily sick of it. Another possibility: Most people might also see this exchange as yet another instance of aggressive islamicity. This view could explain the cheering from the sidelines of the newspaper’s response, but it can also account for the relative absence of further discussion. Singaporeans have long internalised the idea that to speak critically of any religion is taboo.
Actually, in my view, this isn’t an issue just of aggressive islamicity. It’s part of a broader issue: conflict between identity and globalisation. Globalisation has a tendency to undermine identities, especially identities that sharply delineate in-groups and out-groups.
While I am tempted to think that this conflict is a relatively new phenomenon, coming to the fore in the last few decades, I’m pretty sure I would be wrong. Globalisation has been going on for as long as technology has been advancing — which has been millennia — so if defence of identity is a natural counterpoint to the erasure of identity that is a handmaiden of globalisation, defence of identity must be an age-old story itself.
But if one takes the view that technological change, and thus globalisation, has accelerated in the past century or so, then perhaps the argument can be made that defence of identity has correspondingly become more urgent.
Technology can be highly disruptive. It shrinks distances, facilitates the flow of new ideas and greases the movement of people. Those rooted to places, lifestyles and ideas are confronted by different ways of being and doing. The disruptiveness is threatening to those who would rely on identity for their self-image or for their social power.
Identity takes various forms, and the various kinds of identity are also in conflict with each other. The most readily available identities are linked to religion and ethnicity. Religion has the benefit of long-articulated ideas and age-old ritual, making them as “ready-to-eat” as pizza delivered to one’s door. Read up (or rather, in this day and age, watch the videos), buy in and hey presto, one finds community, belonging and plenty of reason to think you are right and special and everyone else is going to hell. What can be more self-affirming than that? As a famous song goes: “I once was lost, but now am found.”
Ethnicity is just as good. It brings a rich cultural tradition manifested in everyday life such as food and costume, some exclusivity in language, and often shared physical traits as well. Likewise, it can make you feel special and rooted, and provide plenty of reason (though not often encouraged to be voiced out nowadays) to think less of others. In some countries, race is the preferred marker rather than ethnicity — the choice itself shows how instrumental race/ethnicity is.
Oh yes, some will come around and say, “I am proud to be XYZ [insert ethnicity/race here], but I respect all others.” Hogwash. The act of identifying with XYZ cannot be separated from the act of othering the others. Why do you identify with XYZ and proclaim your pride in the first place?
There are other identities that can raise battle-standards too. Heterosexism is one. Male chauvinism is another. Related to ethnicity is nationalism.
Identity has another advantage: It is amenable to a soft-focus picturing of a romanticised past. If only people stayed within the fold, the world would be a better place again.
Idris’ letter to the Straits Times must be seen in this light. As a demand for genuflection, it’s part of a worldwide trend to assert identity when confronted with secular multiculturalism. His letter of course is very mild compared to the strident take-leave-of-common-sense Malay ethnocentrism disgorging from the ruling UMNO party in Malaysia, or (incomparably worse) the violent rampage of jihadists across the Middle East and North Africa.
But we might also note the rabid attempts by Zionists to keep Palestinians subjugated, or fundamentalist Christians’ attacks on gay people, or Putinists’ campaigns to resurrect an Orthodox-Christian Great Russia, striking out at the West in general and gays in particular (again!). Japanese ethnocentrism and Han chauvinism in China are all of the same ilk too.
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It should be no surprise that a desire to cling to identity maps over the conservative-liberal divide. A high valorisation of identity against its erosion by technology and globalisation is an inherently conservative instinct. In this regard, one of the most interesting scientific findings to emerge in the last few years is that the conservative and liberal personalities are less products of reason than they are manifestations of the way we viscerally interact with the world.
Conservatives have a higher threat perception. The new and unknown are approached more warily, and are deemed dangerous unless proven safe. The liberal mind is a lot more open to experimentation and discovery. For them, the new is exciting, the unknown beckons. Conservatives prefer order and certainty, with authority and discipline held as useful means to these ends. Liberals chafe under these strictures.
Unsurprisingly, those who put great store in identity would have personalities that coincide with conservatism, for what is identity after all, but a known, tried-and-tested model advertising order, stability and certainty?
* * * * *
As much as social media comments following Straits Times’ smackdown of Idris’ demand seemed positive, the truth is that Singapore is actually quite conflicted on this question of preserving identity versus globalisation. Our very definition of Singaporeanness makes references to Chinese, Malay and South Indian identities. Some would go further, stressing provincial Southern Chinese and specifically Tamil provenances.
Even the long-indoctrinated mantra of tolerance for other races and religions is an inherently identity-based and conservative line. No allowance is made for escaping race or religion altogether. Have we no inkling that ‘tolerance’ is ultimately patronising? That it still entrenches the separateness and implicit inferiority of the Other?
We’ve tried to surmount the risk of domestic racial and religious strife by promoting a Singaporean national identity. First of all, you’d notice that it is still a promotion of an identity, but additionally, even without it fully blossoming, its ugliness has become clear, and no less troubling than Idris’ letter too: a disturbing trend towards Pinoy- and PRC-bashing. Why are we surprised? All identity creation and defence needs an Other as bogeyman.
The state is as much a culprit. For decades now, we keep recursing to ethnic identities e.g. with dreadful effects on our education system (we’ve never made up our minds what primary language we should have, so we end up speaking all badly). We sometimes tell religions to f**k off (as when we say no tudungs allowed in school uniforms), but other times, we sneak one or more in, e.g. by constructing the notion of Singapore as a conservative society, and “we don’t approve of homosexuality”, when it takes little more than a quick review of antecedents to know it is a reference to fundamentalist Christianity.
We’ve also resorted to the “Asian values” argument to hold liberal democracy at bay. More insidiously, the tiresome line about our vulnerability, which only makes people instinctively fearful of imagined risks of disruption, and the constant preaching of the benefits of order, stability and respect for authority promote conservative-leaning thought processes. As argued above, such thought processes promote a greater aversion to the novel, the secular and the global.
Idris is a product of this Singapore.
Of all places, a city-state like ours, whose entire 200-year modern history has been awash with migration, should be very wary of identity assertion. If we want to succeed as a crossroads, as we have been for the last two centuries, staying open-minded and welcoming is a heck of a lot more helpful than closing in through identity defence. Readiness to embrace the new, the cutting-edge, eagerness to play with the novel and create serendipitous value — that’s what we should be rather than a fortress. Readiness to overturn the known habits and the old order — that’s what should keep us relevant. And these are essentially liberal personality traits.
In other words, the valorisation of conservative traits that comes with the promotion of identity and the fetish for ‘order’ is counter-productive for Singapore.
Yes, smack religious demands down, but don’t stop there. So long as we create generation after generation of conservative-minded people, it will recur, and it will mean a slow calcification of Singapore as crossroads.