By John Cheo
In his letter to the ST Forum on April 1st, Dr Tan Eng Chun wrote that in her “bid to be a top global city,” Singapore should not mindlessly import what he believes are unwholesome “Western values.” In general, the logic behind such counsel is uncontroversial; since no two societies are exactly the same, wholesale replication of government policies and social mores is unwise, indeed impracticable.
Dr Tan’s examples of such allegedly vitiating “Western values” are “absolute freedom of speech” and “sexual permissiveness or gender ambiguity.” It is curious why Dr Tan would claim that the West subscribes to an “absolute freedom of speech” since the United States Supreme Court has, on more than one occasion, ruled that the First Amendment is not, in fact, absolute.
For example, in the case of Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, the Court articulated that “it is well understood that the right of free speech is not absolute at all times and under all circumstances.” Similarly, Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights, to which all 47 Council of Europe members are party, notes that because the freedom of expression “carries with it duties and responsibilities,” it cannot be absolute.
Perhaps more problematically is Dr Tan’s suggestion that “sexual permissiveness or gender ambiguity” is somehow a “Western value.” First, it is incorrect to equate “sexual permissiveness” with “gender ambiguity.” This is because a gender ambiguous person may very well be celibate or monogamous just as a gender unambiguous person may very well be sexually licentious.
Second, the history of Western medicine and colonialism shows that, if anything, traditional Western values as mediated by the Judeo-Christian heritage privileged gender rigidity, not gender ambiguity. Since a common example of gender ambiguity is homosexuality, it is worth remembering that most if not all Asian and African countries that continue to criminalize same-sex acts derive such “sodomy laws” from Victorian England in the 19th century, at the height of imperialism.
Third, it is misleading to think that there exists, in some Utopian universe, a set of timeless and homogeneous “Asian values” immune from influences beyond the region. The truth is that culture is a living entity that evolves. To essentialise “Asian values” and juxtapose them against particular characterizations of “Western values” ignores our common humanity. Sadly, history teaches us that certain claims of cultural relativism and exceptionalism have functioned as coats of shellac over unspeakable injustice and discrimination.