All this fuss about Ashley Madison

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By Augustine Low

Morality in Singapore is under serious threat, judging by the ranting and raving over adulterous affairs website Ashley Madison.

Ministers Chan Chun Sing and Yaacob Ibrahim, MPs, the National Family Council, the Media Development Authority and over 27,000 Singaporeans on Facebook have all weighed in with condemnation and consternation.

It’s just what the doctor ordered for Ashley Madison founder Noel Biderman. He’s a peddler of forbidden fruit so the collective rage of a country is sweet music to his publicity machine.

MDA has said it is blocking access to the Ashley Madison website due to the “flagrant disregard of family values and public morality”. It is a rare instance of public morality being cited in a policy or regulatory decision in Singapore. Up to now, public policy in Singapore is seldom – if at all – framed to reflect moral judgment.

ashleymadison
Source: Courtesy of Ashley Madison

The point is that public morality differs from society to society, from age to age. A Gallup poll, for instance, shows that there are more Americans today who find same-sex marriage acceptable than not. Abortion, however, is still largely morally unacceptable. I suspect the reverse could be the case for Singapore.

So who is the arbiter of public morality? The state? The citizens? Maybe organised religious groups?

Adultery is certainly morally reprehensible.  But is it more so than the taking of a life, whether through abortion or capital punishment, both of which are legal in Singapore?

And we still have Section 377A of the Penal Code which criminalises homosexual sex between men. So if this is also subject to moralistic arguments, it opens a can of worms for the government. There are those in the West who have gone so far as to say that it immoral to deny same-sex unions, let alone criminalise homosexual sex.

I, for one, think that the government lost the plot on morality when it caved in to casinos. Lim Boon Heng famously cried in public, confessing that he was initially opposed to casinos but finally relented when told that 35,000 jobs could be created for Singaporeans.

This only sends the pathetic signal that if something is morally unacceptable and comes with considerable social cost, it can still be tolerated and accepted if it offers economic benefits and has the potential to raise the GDP.

Where do we draw the line? Do we welcome a billionaire who wants citizenship with open arms even if he is known to have shady business dealings, all because he promises jobs?

Officially taking the moral high ground against Ashley Madison also risks making Singaporeans being seen as more self-righteous than others. The website already has a presence in more than 30 countries including Hong Kong and Japan. We simply play into the hands of the founder, who relishes a moralistic fight.

Instead, we should take him on his own game, with the message: Hey Noel Biderman, you have said (in media interviews) that you are happily married and that both you and your wife have not had affairs. You said you would be DEVASTATED if you found out your wife went on Ashley Madison. We take your word for it. We do not condone a business model which the founder himself finds offensive. Goodbye and good riddance!

Augustine Low is a communications strategist.