Being liberal in conservative Singapore isn’t easy. You can upset people you are familiar with if you espouse ideas of equality and freedom on the various aspects of life. Liberals, regularly criticised by the closed-minded, quickly realise that their views will never be accorded time or space in an argument.
Well, it may be harsh to describe conservative Singaporeans as the ugly face of this tiny city-state, but they are. I’m referring to people like Lawrence Khong who’s going on about Health Minister Gan Kim Yong’s parliamentary replies on questions of homosexuality. Why do I call Khong’s stance “ugly”? Because he chooses to interpret a factual statement as “condoning” homosexuality.
Khong was ordered last August to pay $7,000 to a woman worker at his church. He had sacked her for getting pregnant in a relationship with another staff member. Khong beats the drum regularly against gays. He seems to regard them as unworthy human beings. What is worrying is his fear that young people in Singapore will be “influenced” to become gay or lesbian or bisexual or transsexual by two statements on the Health Promotion Board website: “A same-sex relationship is not too different from a heterosexual relationship” and “Both require the commitment of two people”.
In another example, Professor Khairudin Aljunied of the Malay Studies Department, National University of Singapore, has drawn flak from undergraduates protesting against his two Facebook posts (“Liberal Islam, Lesbianism and the likes of it” and “When Liberals Become Oppressive”) that display a “trenchant hostility towards sexual minorities, and which we believe is unbecoming of a university professor”.
“In ‘Liberal Islam, Lesbianism and the likes of it”, Professor Khairudin characterises alternative modes of sexual orientation as “wayward” and condemns them as “cancers” and “social diseases” to be “cleansed”. These words are tantamount to hate speech. They do not merely express a principled opposition to deny the extension of legal rights to sexual minorities. What they represent is a clarion call to eradicate (or “cleanse”, in the words of the Professor) any and all instances of gender expressions and relations that fall outside his preferred heteronormative order.’
Thanks to the Internet and social media, young people today are exposed to a lot more information about more subjects than we parents can ever imagine. They are thus growing up in an environment that encourages different ideas and values. While I am not suggesting that parents compromise on any values, what the older generation must learn to do is to communicate with their children, young or old. Explain their values. Listen to their children’s opinions: Don’t just dismiss these as so much rubbish, but try and understand why they think they’re right. Then try and get them to see the older point of view. How else can we get them to understand and respect a different standpoint?
Another ugly aspect of Singaporean behaviour is not allowing maids to have a day off a week. Sure, getting a hard-working maid who’s good at housework and in the kitchen as well as able to look after bed-ridden old folk or young children is largely a matter of luck. Now that the Manpower Ministry has finally made one day off a week law, many employers think that it’s okay to pay them $70 for the four days off work to which they are entitled. It is only a matter of organising one’s schedule on the maid’s day off — be it looking after the bed-ridden parent or cooking a meal (warming it up in the microwave?) or – shock-horror – looking after the children. It is so ugly o treat other people like slaves.
Two years go, I was looking for a new employer for the maid who had looked after my bed-ridden mother for two months until she died. I spoke to a professional couple, who needed her to look after the wife’s dad, a bed-ridden old man. But when I said the Filipina maid must have Sundays off so she could go to Mass and meet up with her cousins, the couple said: “Mother won’t agree (because mother refused to tend to her bed-ridden husband). I told the husband I spoke with what I thought of his mother-in-law. He agreed, but said neither he or his wife were prepared to argue with mum. Ugly mothers raise ugly families. And so it goes. Hence it is hardly surprising that maids want to leave employers who refuse them a day off a week. Conservative employers are afraid maids will get pregnant or mix with bad company who will come to their homes when Madam is not in.
A liberal employer will probably have taken the time and made the effort to explain house rules to the maid — and not expect that all instructions, rattled away in Singlish, no doubt, will be understood. How many times do we have to tell our own children to do something that isn’t in their nature to do, like tidy up their rooms? And if the maid does get pregnant or wants to return home after working here a number of years, a liberal will probably simply shrug and say, “Hmmm, can I manage my home without a maid?” Liberals don’t expect the world to revolve around them. They rationalise, smile (occasionally, moan) and move on. Life really is too short to waste time whingeing, especially about minds that are closed to new ideas. Best to leave the uglies looking at their own highly unattractive expressions.
If you think we should run an “Ugly Singaporean” column, send us your 80–100 word samples.