Is the State a tool for the majority to control everyone else?

By Jason Phan

Minister for Communications and Information, Yacoob Ibrahim explains that prevailing social norms determine what is considered ‘pro-family’ to the State. With reference to the National Library Board’s (NLB) removal of two books, he writes:

“The prevailing norms, which the overwhelming majority of Singaporeans accept, support teaching children about conventional families, but not about alternative, non-traditional families, which is what the books in question are about… Societies are never static, and will change over time. But NLB’s approach is to reflect existing social norms, and not to challenge or seek to change them.”

Why should the prevailing social norms be privileged and imposed on all, merely because they are prevailing?

And shouldn’t it matter whether these norms are fair? If NLB were placed in 18th century America, it would apparently refuse to carry books that speak against racism and slavery since these reflect dominant norms. If our Ministry of Education works on the same principle, it would require teachers in that society to reinforce racism and slavery.

Perhaps our State institutions imagine themselves to be morally neutral in simply reflecting dominant norms. Sadly, they are mistaken. Such a governing principle only makes the State an instrument for the majority to impose their will on the unconsenting minority, with no regard for moral constraints.

Do we really think such a State is just?

How would Yacoob Ibrahim respond if the majority of Singaporeans think left-handed people ought to be slaves regardless of their consent? Would he agree that the State should allow left-handers to be enslaved without their consent? And would he defend NLB when it refuses to carry books that contradict this prevailing norm?

We sure hope not. But what is the principled basis for resisting the majority’s demands in that scenario? Surely it would be on the grounds of justice. But if justice can be invoked to reject the values and policies the majority wishes to impose on everyone, then Mr Ibrahim cannot simply defend NLB’s actions by pointing to the prevailing social values. He must explain how the prevailing notion of what it means to be ‘pro-family’ is the only reasonable one.

Every reasonable and fair-minded person in Singapore should demand that Yacoob Ibrahim justifies that point.

Some would argue that there is no single standard of justice that can be applied to all. Thus public policy in Singapore should be guided by what the majority accepts. However, it means the majority can impose anything they wish on the minority. Surely such a principle cannot be sound as it implies an absurdity. There is a fair basis to govern in a pluralistic, secular society — I have tried to defend this view elsewhere. I would recommend Mr Ibrahim to read John Rawls and other great political philosophers – if he has not already done so.