Is Singapore too conservative?

If you asked me a dozen years ago if Singapore society was at all liberal, I would have said “No” without batting an eyelid. But today a certain number of areas have been opening up to more progressive ideas and values, which goes to show we are taking giant steps towards becoming a more open and liberal society.

(Just to clearly communicate my understanding of “liberalism”, I refer to the definition in the Oxford Dictionary: “the willingness to respect or accept behaviour or opinions different from one’s own and to be open to new ideas”).

If you look back to not that long ago, the 70’s, you’ll find that men with long hair weren’t allowed to pass through customs and were generally frowned upon, as they were perceived to be hippies and, by virtue of that, drug addicts.

It didn’t matter that men who kept long hair were doing so more out of fashion than out of political activism and that they were just imitating their favourite Western celebrities.

The government progressively stopped seeing men with long hair as a “threat” to civil society and the stigma eventually phased out during the 80s.

A more recent example of a liberalising Singapore would be the state of our media. Despite the recent uproar about online censorship, we don’t exactly live in a bubble and are basically free to surf any website we want and consume whatever information we like.

With the advent of social media in the 2000s, the online sphere has become even more dynamic and most opinions expressed in public forums are shared with fellow netizens rather than with the authorities (with the exception of comments that threaten to disrupt racial and religious harmony, as well as those that are defamatory).

To put it simply, the Western concept of pluralism (which refers to the diversity of views and opinions across society) has not been lost on us; on the contrary, many of us have become active citizen journalists on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the rest of social media as we know it.

I don’t think there’s anything wrong in championing the truth, no matter what your truth may be, even if it goes against what most people think. The important thing is to back up your statements with facts and be fully accountable for what you say online as opposed to hiding behind your screen.

Think about how different our online landscape would be if the Internet today were such a free-for-all!

In the world of arts and entertainment, we’ve been able to push the boundaries in many respects. Our theatre scene, for instance, if full of performances with mature themes that have been staged without problem!

MDA censorship of films, while still strict by comparison with some Western nations, has loosened over the years with the screening of controversial films such as Irreversible in 2004 and Brokeback Mountain in 2006.

Also, walk into any DVD shop today and you’ll find films with NC16 and M18 ratings available for rent or purchase, which wasn’t possible before.

What I’ve highlighted is specific to media and the arts, but what about in terms of our culture and way of life? Have we broken with tradition when it comes to delicate topics such as celibacy before marriage and equal rights for LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transsexual) Singaporeans? Or have we continued to stick to the status quo for fear of reprisal from conservative groups?

These have indeed been trickier discussions to manoeuvre as they involve religious interests, and it would take years or even decades before opposing sides could agree to disagree.

Even in so-called Western liberal democratic nation-states such as the US and France, these matters continue to be fiercely debated even as new laws are passed. The recent change in French law to allow same-sex marriage was met with huge street protests by French conservatives.

Change is never easy, but that’s not to say we haven’t seen an evolution of social attitudes.

We’ve already seen MOE become more “progressive” about sex education in schools (for example advocating abstinence yet also teaching teens how to correctly use a condom).

Ten years ago, no one would have dared bring up those topics in public!

Overall, I truly feel we’ve made huge strides towards maturing as a society, but we must remember that change and progress don’t happen overnight.

Singapore’s conservatism has never left the island and probably won’t in the foreseeable future. But that isn’t necessarily a curse. We must recognise that we are progressive as a society, based on our terms.

I mean, we can’t just make a 180-degree turn and adopt Western liberal values just for the sake of adopting them; they have to lead towards real social progress!

Despite what many people think, I don’t see any reason why the rich history of Asian values we hold dear in our hearts (filial piety, respect for elders, prioritising community interests over individual ones, etc.) can’t be complemented with so-called “Western” values (critical thinking, civil liberties, etc.).

I deeply believe that only a fine blend of all these values will continue to make Singapore a more socially vibrant and inclusive society, and that’s the kind of Singapore I want for us and for our future generations!

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Vince Chen

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