By John Cheo
Golden Jubilees are a wonderful opportunity for critical retrospection and reflection; to know where a society can or should go, it must know from where it came. This is especially important for Singapore, an unnatural and improbable nation which has defied many pessimistic predictions to be what she is today.
Needless to say, societal introspection is an exercise easier said than done. Among other things, loose or partisan sloganeering — the employment of short and striking words or phrases that attract attention for a particular agenda — should be either avoided or, if bandied about, put on trial.
One such slogan that deserves scrutiny is the set of so-called “Asian values” which, according to Dr Tan Eng Chun’s letter to The Straits Times last week, gives Singapore and presumably other “unabashedly Asian” cities a monopoly on virtues such as “filial piety, humility and a focus on the family.” In the same letter, Dr Tan further opined that in her “bid to be a top global city,” Singapore should not mindlessly import what he believes are unwholesome “Western values.”
In general, the logic behind such counsel is uncontroversial; since no two societies are exactly the same, wholesale replication of government policies and social mores is unwise, indeed impracticable.
Dr Tan’s examples of such allegedly vitiating “Western values” are “absolute freedom of speech” and “sexual permissiveness or gender ambiguity.” It is curious why Dr Tan would claim that the West subscribes to an “absolute freedom of speech” since the United States Supreme Court has, on more than one occasion, ruled that the First Amendment is not, in fact, absolute.
For example, in the case of Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, the Court articulated that “it is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances.” Similarly, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which all 47 Council of Europe members are party, notes that because the freedom of expression “carries with it duties and responsibilities,” it cannot be absolute.
Perhaps more problematic is Dr Tan’s suggestion that “sexual permissiveness or gender ambiguity” are one and the same First, it is disingenuous to imply that “sexual permissiveness” with “gender ambiguity.” This is because a gender-ambiguous person may very well be celibate or monogamous just as a gender-unambiguous person may very well be sexually licentious.
Second, the history of Western medicine and colonialism shows that, if anything, traditional Western values as mediated by the Judeo-Christian heritage privileged gender rigidity, not gender ambiguity. Since a common example of gender ambiguity is homosexuality, it is worth remembering that most if not all Asian and African countries that continue to criminalise same-sex acts derive such “sodomy laws” from Victorian England in the 19th century, at the height of imperialism.
Third, it is misleading to think that there exists, in some utopian universe, a set of timeless and homogenous “Asian values” immune from influences beyond the region. The truth is that culture is a living entity that evolves. To essentialise “Asian values” and juxtapose them against particular characterisations of “Western values” ignores our common humanity and unnecessarily exaggerates our differences.
Sadly, history teaches us that zealous claims of cultural relativism and exceptionalism have functioned as coats of shellac over unspeakable injustice and discrimination.
While Singaporeans justifiably have a lot to be proud of as our country marks her 50th year of independence in 2015, we need to honestly and boldly question what more can be done for us to truly live up to the ideals of “justice and equality” as enshrined in our National Pledge which, at any rate, is a better guide for Singapore’s evolving social compact than what some may nebulously label as “Asian values.”
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