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NLB and the erosion of our secular morality

By Donald Low

The National Library Board’s (NLB) decision to remove and pulp the three children’s books deemed to offend Singapore’s “pro-family” norms has reignited the age-old contest between Church and State, and more specifically in Singapore’s context, the role of private morality in public policy and how the state should adjudicate between competing conceptions of morality in society.

Many view the current debate in starkly binary terms - a contest between a religious or conservative majority and a liberal minority that represents a small but vocal segment of society. According to this binary view, those who claim to be pro-family are naturally assumed to support the withdrawal of the offending children’s books.

Yet in all my conversations in the last few days with former and current civil servants (many of whom held or are holding senior positions), I was surprised to find that not a single one of them supported NLB’s decision. None of them, as far as I know, are enthusiastic supporters of the Pink Dot movement or view the rights of LGBTs as an important issue for the government to address. Many of the civil servants I spoke to were also Christians who would readily say that they subscribed to “family values”. But all of them were deeply disturbed (even offended) by NLB’s decision, not just by the decision to remove the books, but also by its underlying rationale and what it says about the kind of public service we’re becoming.

In my conversations with them, I very quickly realised that as professionals in government, they were applying a secular morality – rather than their own private (or religious) morality – to assess decisions that affected the common good. The purpose of this essay to make explicit their line of moral reasoning, and to argue that this secular morality, which I share, is the only way for the state in Singapore to arbitrate between competing (moral) claims.

So why did my civil service friends find NLB’s decision offensive to their secular morality? In my mind, there were at least three breaches of our secular morality.

Fairness and Non-discrimination

First and perhaps most importantly, the decision to withdraw the books violated the public service principle of fairness and non-discrimination. This principle holds that the state should not discriminate against anyone, and deny them access to public services, on account of their beliefs, religious convictions (or lack thereof), and life choices.

This principle of non-discrimination is why in spite of the government’s pro-family stance, public sector doctors do not deny treatment to unwed pregnant women, teenage mothers, people who have contracted HIV through casual sex, and many others whose life choices public officials may find disagreeable on a personal level. In these instances, I think we can agree that it would be wrong for a public sector doctor to refuse to serve these patients and to tell them that they can obtain the services from the private sector on the grounds that the government has not banned such services.

I recall facilitating a discussion between a group of young civil servants and the late Dr Balaji Sadasivan, who at the time was the Senior Minister of State for Health. Dr Balaji was asked if Christian gynaecologists in the public sector should have the right to refuse to perform abortions. Dr Balaji was aghast at the suggestion and proceeded to lecture the young civil servant who had asked the question on the distinction between private beliefs and public morality. His bottom-line: if you don’t agree with the non-discrimination principle of the public sector, join the private sector.

Now, some may argue that there is a substantive difference between library books and essential healthcare services. They are wrong. While library books are not a matter of life and death, it cannot be the case that simply because they are less important to the well-being of individuals (a questionable assumption, especially for people who aren’t ill), it is legitimate for the state to practise discrimination. But I do think that this argument – that it’s only children’s books which are at stake here – is part of the reason why NLB probably thought it was all right to remove the books. After all, nobody would really get hurt. This view, even if understandable, is flawed. For if we allowed “non-essential” services like library books to be provided on a discriminatory basis, when do we know that something is essential and should be provided to all?

A different objection to the non-discrimination principle holds that the state has already made a decision to promote certain values and life choices, say traditional families and family values. This promotion does not just take the form of hectoring by government leaders, but also the provision of material incentives and benefits for such families (think of the baby bonus) which may not be provided to people who do not conform to the state's life choices. In addition, Section 377A which is clearly discriminatory remains on our statutes. So why should we find discrimination with respect library books objectionable?

The first response to this argument is that liberals like me do in fact object to children of single parents not having the same benefits as children of traditional families. We also object to Section 377A on principle.

But even if one didn’t object to the state’s preferential treatment of traditional families and the continued existence of Section 377A, one should still object to NLB’s decision. In the case of the library, its very purpose and the very nature of its service preclude it from being used as an instrument to serve any particular political or religious ends. Public agencies like the Ministry of Social and Family Development were set up to promote the institution of the family. It can therefore enact policies designed to benefit individuals whose choices conform to the state’s normative ideals. The same cannot be said of NLB. The very purpose of a national library is to open minds and broaden the horizons of all. Its ethos must be one of tolerance, intellectual discourse, and neutrality with respect to people’s life choices (as long as those choices don’t harm others). Libraries should not be required to promote any particular conception of the good that the state chooses. What has happened – the destruction of books by a library - is a perversion and overturning of that ideal. NLB has undermined its very own purpose. It can no longer be considered a library; it is only masquerading as one by having the form (a building with books) but not its essence (a beacon of knowledge).

Misguided Moral Equivalence

The second breach of secular morality that upset my civil service friends was the implied moral equivalence between the claims of the people who wanted to remove the books and those who wanted them to still be there.

It is sometimes pointed out – by government and others – that society today is more diverse and pluralistic and that the state has a more difficult job “balancing” between competing demands and interests. The unspoken assumption here is that the claims of those clamouring for more rights – say for the LGBT community or for alternative families – have to acknowledge the equally valid claims of those who want to deny them these rights.

But there is a clear moral difference between the two groups. One group is seeking acceptance for itself; the other is seeking to deprive the first group of a place in our common spaces. The analogy I would use here is that of blacks not being allowed to use public water fountains in the old American south. That was a deliberate exclusion of people for who they are – this exclusion can be of people, their voice, and yes, their books in public spaces. It is discrimination pure and simple. It is one group saying to another group that they are lesser members of society. There is no morality or moral equivalence to speak of. If it is wrong to discriminate on the basis of race and gender, why would it be ok to do so on the basis of sexual preferences? We might as well also pulp books with mixed race families.

Occasionally, as in the NLB saga, the government points out that both sides hold their views strongly, as if to suggest that the rightness of an argument corresponds to how much fervour and conviction people invest in it. This is bad reasoning – the validity of an argument has nothing to do with the strength with which its believers hold it.

On other occasions, the government says that the majority of Singaporeans are conservative and do not approve of alternative, non-traditional families. That may be a valid political consideration. But it is certainly not a valid moral consideration. Just because more people subscribe to a fallacious argument does not make it right. A few hundred years ago (and until more recently in South Africa), religion also sanctioned racial discrimination. It was wrong just like the current crop of homophobic zealots is wrong.

Misapplication of Community Norms

The third reason my civil service friends were so upset by the NLB’s decision was the argument that its decision was consistent with, and sanctioned by, “community norms”. This appeal to community norms is not, in and of itself, wrong. But it is grossly inadequate as a guide for public policy. Community norms are not the only yardstick by which to assess governmental decisions and actions. As argued above, fairness, non-discrimination and equal regard for all are far more important considerations. So even if some people’s life choices violated community norms, we do not deny them public services. If this were not so, community norms would provide us the reason to do all sorts of heinous things to minorities who offend the majority. Indeed, I find it extremely ironic that some fundamentalist Christians and Muslims would appeal to the community norms argument. They should know that their own histories are replete with examples of state-led persecution against them, justified by what the majority wanted.

A second problem with the appeal to community norms is that it ignores the possibility that there are contesting, even contradictory, norms at stake. In this instance, NLB’s decision to remove the books on the grounds that it offended society’s pro-family sensibilities bump up against at least two other sets of norms. The first set of norms is that of tolerance and respect for diversity and differences. We celebrate Singapore’s 50th year as a nation in 2015. One of our greatest achievements as a country is the generally accommodating, tolerant, live-and-let-live attitude the vast majority of Singaporeans take towards people not like us. In a contest between our pro-family norms and our norms of inclusion and respect for diversity, I would have thought the latter was far more valuable and important for maintaining social harmony.

I would also argue that the pro-family norms go against the grain of NLB’s own professional ethos and mission. Institutions are not just organisations providing a transactional service. For an organisation to also be an institution, it must have its own professional norms and values, a sense of mission, and integrity of purpose – all of which outlast any individual leader in the organisation. These institutional norms and values are permanent and timeless.

In the case of NLB, I would have assumed that one of the professional values it holds dear is that it is a neutral platform for society to access as wide and diverse a range of knowledge as possible. Another professional norm that the NLB should hold dear is that it is bastion of learning, knowledge and enlightenment. For such an august institution, with such an honourable mission and worthy professional norms, to cave in to ignorance and intolerance – even if it were the majority that is ignorant and intolerant – must be deeply disappointing to anyone who has ever served in a public institution.

TOC thanks Donald Low for allowing us to reproduce his facebook note in full