By Choo Zheng Xi
What do Yoda, Vivian Balakrishnan, Yvonne Lee, and ex-CJ Yong have in common?
No, this isn’t the opening line of a dirty joke. All of the abovementioned characters are guilty of having used a form of logical deduction known as the ‘slippery slope’ argument. It’s a line of reasoning that works as such: if we allow A to happen, we will be taking the first step down the slippery slope of allowing B, C and D to happen too.
Remember Yoda’s warning: ‘Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering’? Classic slippery slope.
Vivian Balakrishnan, who was a debator in his college days, took a page out of Yoda’s book to deploy this rhetorical tactic in Parliament. Commenting on bartop dancing, he noted:
“If you want to dance, some of us will fall off that bar-top. Some people will die as a result of liberalising bar-top dancing, not just because they have fallen off the bar-top. Because usually a young girl, with a short skirt, dancing on a bar-top, may attract some insults from some other men, and the boyfriend starts fighting. Some people will die. Blood will be shed for liberalising this policy. While I support the liberalisation of the policy, I also want all of us to be aware that there is a price to be paid for liberty.”
Thankfully, little blood has yet been shed for the government’s bold steps in deregulating bartop dancing. Perhaps Dr Vivian was being too pessimistic in his somber projections?
Here’s yet another slippery slope argument, this time by PAP MP Denise Phua during the elections last year – as reported by channelnewsasia:
“In this movie starring Singaporeans, called ‘The Days After’, based on what will happen if you put more and more opposition members into Parliament, this is what the scene will look like. ‘The Days After’ — the analysts will rate our political risk very high, it’ll be negative; the stock market will tumble; potential investors will hold back their investments; current business will seriously think about moving business out of Singapore.”
In the recent ministerial pay hike debate, MM Lee offered the public a particularly steep slippery slope to contemplate: a failure to raise ministerial pay might lead to shoddy characters being elected into Parliament, which would lead to economic collapse, and eventually, our womenfolk being exported as foreign domestic labour. One wonders why this doomsday scenario didn’t occur in the days before ministers were paid as well.
The Slippery Slope And The Law
Perhaps we can permit our politicians a dose of occasional scaremongering. But you might be slightly worried to realize that our legal scholars and judges occasionally indulge in it too. You might be especially concerned if it is relevant to our basic rights guaranteed under the constitution.
Section 14 (1) of our Constitution guarantees that
(a) every citizen of Singapore has the right to freedom of speech and expression;
(b) all citizens of Singapore have the right to assemble peaceably and without arms; and (c) all citizens of Singapore have the right to form associations.
However, Section 14 (2) allows these rights to be circumscribed:
Parliament may by law impose —
(a) on the rights conferred by clause (1)(a), such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence.
Now this in itself is not remarkable: even the freest of democracies realise that no rights are absolute, and legislatures have the power to pass laws circumscribing these rights.
Sadly, good ol’ Slippery Slope is trotted out as a justification for circumscribing many of our rights, and really, sometimes these arguments are downright weak.
In his judgment on Dr Chee Soon Juan’s abortive 2002 Labour Day protest, our then Chief Justice Yong Pung How offered the following slippery slope justification for circumscribing Dr Chee’s rights:
“The opening of the Istana grounds on Labour Day was a highly visible event with strong public participation. Indeed, there were close to 5,300 people in the grounds on the day of the offence. It did not take a great stretch of imagination to conclude that a political rally in the grounds that day could have resulted in a threat to public order and safety”.
With all due respect to the then Chief Justice, in the context of our famed Singaporean orderliness and respect for the law, it really does take quite a stretch of imagination to see a political rally on the Istana grounds of a sort that would result in a threat to ‘public order and safety’. Kudos to his creativity.
Perhaps the silliest slippery slope argument to date is the bunch of comical assertions recently put forward by Assistant Professor Yvonne Lee from NUS Law School (writing in her personal capacity).
Singaporean society, she says, is generally conservative and has always been respectful of religious sensitivities. Therefore we should not abolish 377a. To do so would open the door to legalizing paedophilia and bestiality, lead to reverse persecution of religious leaders, and generally undermine family values. Sadly for her, her first premise exposes the fallacy of her slippery slope argument: it is precisely because our society is a conservative one respectful of religious sensitivities that her doomsday scenario is that much quackery.
Context: The Achilles Heel of The Slippery Slope
Deductive logic, if honestly utilized, is a powerful intellectual tool. However, the problem is that many of these lines of reasoning happily discard the context within which they operate. As shown in the course of this article, any idea, taken to its most negative logical extreme, can be construed as potentially apocalyptic. Public figures owe us at least intellectual integrity of honest and realistic projections in decision making.
So here’s a simple rule of thumb to help you pull apart badly constructed slippery slope arguments and strengthen your own: it all boils down to context.
Keep this in mind the next time a politician, academic with an impressive sounding title, or even jedi master offers you a slippery slope argument that projects disaster.
About the author: Choo Zheng Xi is currently a Law Student at NUS. He is seeking help to publish this article in full or in part in a newspaper. Any assistance would be much appreciated
 Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Parliamentary debate on Stayers and Quitters, 1st October 2002
 Chee Soon Juan v Public Prosecutor,  2 SLR 445
 Straits Times, 4 May 2007, Review Section