Concept of family and what it means for Singapore society

By Howard Lee

Senior Pastor Lawrence Khong has once again left his wake in the development of social space in Singapore, although not necessarily in a good way.

In the latest report on the would-have-been Red Dot Family Movement event at the Padang, Mr Khong questioned the reasons that the Ministry of Social and Family Development gave for declining the use of venue. He was quoted as saying, “I am puzzled by MSF’s restrictions on TOUCH to organise (the event) and also confused with their position on family.”

Granted, MSF gave very little clarification on why it deemed the Padang unsuitable for the event, now called #FamFest 2014. As a precedence for future events, this does not bode well. All MSF did was reiterated that it will “continue to support social service organisations and projects that strengthen families in a socially cohesive manner”. Some might even find it strange that MSF should have any input on the conduct of events, particularly at the Padang.

Perhaps MSF’s puzzling response is really only a fair match to the reasons given by TOUCH and Mr Khong for organising the event. In it application to stage the event, TOUCH has indicated as reported in media, that the event was meant to “celebrate the International Year of the Family 2014 and to highlight the important role of family in nation building as part of the SG50 celebrations.”

Mr Edmund Wong, general manager of TOUCH Family Services, rejected suggestions that the event was meant to be pitted against Pink Dot, and affirmed that “the event was organised as an SG50 celebration of the family’s contribution to nation-building.”

Compare it to what Mr Khong said more recently, and you might notice a significant difference. “#FamFest 2014 is about defending the family against the onslaught of sexual infidelity, divorce, family violence and media that promotes sexual immorality including the homosexual agenda,” he was reported as saying.

Forget for the moment that Mr Khong has now explicitly stated that #FamFest 2014 is meant to “defend the family” against “media that promotes homosexuality”, which is glaringly at odds with Mr Wong’s insistence that the event had no intention of going against Pink Dot, arguably the most well-mediated lesbian, gay, bisexual and transsexual (LGBT) event in Singapore.

Of greater concern is what TOUCH and Mr Khong sees as the definition of the family. If #FamFest 2014 is indeed about “the important role that the family plays in nation building”, what then is the concept that TOUCH has about the family, rather than what it is not?

Granted, issues like divorce, family violence and infidelity do form a realistic part of the world we live in. It would be wrong to ignore them and focus purely on the celebratory aspects of the family. But what TOUCH proposed as “light-hearted” activities – “honouring the Pioneer Generation, renewal of marriage vows by couples and the recital of the National Family Pledge” – can barely be seen as a positive reinforcement of the role of the family in society.

The family is, indeed, the basic building block of society. But it does not earn this status by virtue of displaying a family hierarchy, by marriage, or by the recital of a pledge.

The family is the bedrock upon which we literally build the foundation for the next generation. Whether our children turn out to be sociopaths, cheats, bigots, or any other character group that are commonly accepted to be “anti-social” in nature, depends very much on how we as parents teach and guide them to contribute positively to society. It is the positive aspects, as much as the negative ones, that build our children into the adults who will contribute to society – no matter if they never got married, never started a family of their own, or never lived to a ripe old age.

As parents, our key role is not only to provide for the physical needs and mental development of our children, but also to nurture them. We want them to be useful members of society, to hold values that are important not just for their own well-being, but that of their community, country, kind.

Some of us might want to help them develop their spiritual needs, but we also need to be mindful that they enter a world that could have a very different perception of what spirituality means. Some of us wish to impart certain cultural norms, but we also need them to understand that the world they encounter is a mosaic of heritage. Useful members of society accept social differences and are tolerant of diversity.

How, then, does TOUCH and Mr Khong believe that what they do, particularly in organising this event and generally in what they stand for, contribute to the development of the future generation as civil members of their local communities, as citizens of Singapore, as people of the world? By reciting a pledge at a “fun-filled event”?

Therein also lies a contradiction of relating the family to Singapore and SG50 celebrations. Before we can speak of the family’s role in Singapore, we first need to talk about community. Without a community or a collective of communities, there can be no nation. We cannot believe that the family is a building block of the nation, without first believing that the family contributes to the nation first through a community.

And Singapore has seen the blossoming of communities in recent years like no other, or perhaps only because we have not been aware previously. We have seen the development of civil society groups and are also increasingly aware of these communities. New community-centric media provided fertile ground for this development, as much as it has brought greater awareness for them.

Human rights groups, environment and animal rights groups, the LGBT community, groups keen to explore the alternative history of Singapore, sporting communities, arts communities, special interest societies… Some of these grassroot communities have grown in prevalence and are beginning to test the boundaries of their spheres of influence. This is healthy for Singapore, as much as it is healthy for the family, to know that it can reach beyond its own nucleus.

How have these communities figured in this one event by TOUCH, and more importantly, how do they fit into the SG50 narrative? Even more critically, how have they contributed to, and are receiving contribution from, national policies?

Perhaps, then, MSF’s reasons for rejecting of the event by TOUCH are not so hard to imagine. Perhaps we can believe that there are those in MSF who have a clear view of the family-community-nation thread, and have seen that Red Dot, #FamFest or whatever we wish to call it, is missing the crucial link in the middle.

However, from a national perspective, the pressing need is not to figure a way where the family-community-nation thread can be put on display through some event. Indeed, that civil society has established itself thus far over the years is proof that families is alive and well in trying to make Singapore a better place, even as we accept that some families do need help.

The challenge for SG50, then, is about finding a place for these communities, and giving them a voice and space to grow. Only by closing the gap with the diversity of its communities can a nation connect with families.

Image from TODAY online.