NLB saga: Looking beyond the liberal/conservative divide

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By Cherian George

Some will see it as a victory for a vocal minority of liberals. Others will declare it a conservative triumph. Perhaps, though, it was never about where the government landed on the left-right spectrum. What was really at stake were the principles by which a multi-cultural nation makes decisions that will inevitably offend one community or another.

This specific controversy was over three children’s books meant to teach kids about non-conventional families. The National Library Board’s professional librarians had earlier decided they were suitable for acquisition, but some parents complained that the books were too soft on homosexuality. As a result, the books were to be discarded. Following a public outcry, the government intervened, in time to save two books from pulping. They will not be returned to the children’s shelves, but will be made available in the adult section.

Compared with the earlier decision, this is a passable compromise. It concedes to the conservatives that the books should not be freely available to all children regardless of the moral objections of some of their parents. At the same time, it does not permit these parents to dictate standards for all library users: adults interested in teaching their own children to be more broad-minded about what constitutes a loving family can still borrow the books.

What was striking about the earlier decision was not so much that it did not conform to liberal standards (nothing new there), but that it deviated from the government’s own principles. For more than 20 years, it has been official policy to avoid censorship when classification would do. A totally laissez faire approach to public morals would fall short of the fundamental societal obligation to protect the young; it would risk treating children like adults. At the other extreme, a crude censorship approach treats adults like children, denying them choices that they are entitled to.

In contrast, classification maximises choice for consenting adults while protecting the vulnerable. NLB’s original response to the conservatives’ complaints was inconsistent with this rational, well-established approach. The latest decision simply brings the practice more in line with the principle. Instituting a proper, transparent review process would have to be the next step. Expert judgments by professional librarians need to be shielded from shadowy complainants who are not prepared to come out to justify their positions publicly.

Even more disquieting was the fact that the decision to pulp was part of a wider pattern, of deciding cultural policy based on how offended people are. It is dangerous for the government of a multi-ethnic country to resolve disputes this way, even if they side with the majority. Once the referee signals that he will side with those who cry the loudest, some players will start outperforming the most talented World Cup actors.

In football, at least, an eagle-eyed referee and slow-motion HD replays can discover the truth: was it a real foul or did he dive? When it comes to religion and morality, however, it is all subjective. No amount of rational theological forensics can establish whether a believer’s outrage is justified. Governments that agree to play this game end up having to take community leaders’ word for it, that they are suffering intolerable indignity.

Around the world, religious leaders use this inherent uncertainty to their own political advantage. Claiming to be offended and then declaring battle against the real or imagined source of that offence is one of the easiest ways to galvanise your followers; gain a higher profile than your competitors; put opponents on the defensive; and play the state like a puppet. It happens in Malaysia; it can happen here.

Indeed, as the most religiously diverse country in the world, Singapore is particularly prone to this risk. There is no limit to the offence that the intolerant can choose to take from what other communities do. Proselytisation by Christians and polygamy among Muslims are just two examples of practices that some consider consistent with their faiths – but that others find upsetting. Thus, restrictions based on the capacity to offend won’t just hurt secular liberals; it will also backfire on the most devout.

In most countries, like Malaysia, the state simply sides with the majority community (it’s wrong, but at least it’s unambiguous). Here, where there is no religious majority, the state will find itself pushed this way and that. And the ultimate result will be the conclusive unwinding of Singaporean experiment in multi-racial, multi-religious harmony.

The only responsible approach for a society like Singapore is for the state to adopt a strong bias for tolerance, and suppress nothing other than the most extreme of speech. Adult Singaporeans need to be educated to look after their own feelings.

After decades of enjoying the dubious privilege of turning to a nanny state whenever one feels offended, many Singaporeans will find this a difficult adjustment. Indeed, by changing tack, the government may lose more votes than it wins. But it is the only viable strategy for a crowded city-state whose greatest asset, as well as its greatest challenge, will always be its cultural diversity.

This article first appeared here: http://www.airconditionednation.com/2014/07/18/diversity/