I refer to the letter titled “Singapore should not fall prey to demands to be liberal” written by Mr Tam Wai Jia on 25th February 2016.
Using Madonna’s upcoming concert as an example, Mr Tam argued that Singapore should resist calls for liberalism because this would mean giving in to “public indecency” and “blasphemy”. Such a result would apparently upset the delicate social balance and destroy Singapore’s exceptionalism.
While Mr Tam’s commitment to his values is admirable, he misunderstands the nature of liberalism and its implications, should it be embraced in Singapore. Singaporeans should actually take this chance to better understand what liberalism is really about, and embrace it.
Liberalism as a political philosophy, does not entail a commitment to any substantive set of moral values, but is rather, a minimal conception that simply demands individuals respect the free choice of others. Simply put, embracing liberalism does not mean endorsing a particular way of life, but it means that we refrain from coercively suppressing, by law, how others pursue their version of the ‘good life’. According Madonna the right to parade an adulterated cross does not imply endorsing her beliefs.
Should Mr Tam or any Singaporean feel uncomfortable at Madonna’s concert, or what they deem as indecent or blasphemous, there’s nothing stopping them from simply disassociating themselves. As a matter of fact, it is only in a liberal society will the rights of conservatives like Mr Tam be strongly protected, where he will be left free to disassociate himself from events or groups he deems unconscionable. Ironically, Mr Tam, for his railings against the “demands to be liberal”, will derive many benefits from a liberal system since religious minorities will be protected from majoritarian pressures to conform.
A truly multi-racial or multi-religious society is one that embraces a diversity of values, where no singular set of “values” necessarily holds a privileged status. “Local mores”, in Mr Tam’s words, are not monolithic, and should not be. Our public space should be open to contestation.
Singaporeans are famously pragmatic, and rightly so. We have come so far, after all. If we really want Singapore to remain exceptional, the only sustainable approach would be to “let a hundred flowers bloom, and a hundred schools of thought contend”. This harnesses the collective energies of Singaporeans, and is the spark of innovation, creativity and progress.
So lets welcome the loud, the irreverent and the downright controversial. Doing so also reveals the degree to which we hold fast to the notion of multi-culturalism and openness. This is how we remain committed to the belief that while we are all different, we are still equally valuable.