Let's not open the doors to 'culture wars'

A friend once told me how excited she was to take part in a demonstration during her travels in America, because she had never seen or experienced one here.

Those were the days when protests were in short supply in Singapore.

Not any more.

Now, mass gatherings of citizens intent on making their views on contentious issues known and heard have become a regular affair at Hong Lim Park and even spilled over to other parts of Singapore.

Indeed, since the start of June, there has been a spike in such activities. In just five weeks, there have been two protests against the Central Provident Fund (CPF) scheme and one against the Prime Minister at Hong Lim Park.

On the last Saturday of June, the park also played host to the annual Pink Dot picnic, a lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender(LGBT) event held to celebrate the "freedom to love" regardless of sexual orientation.

That same weekend, some mosques and churches were the sites of a Wear White campaign that saw Muslims and Christians donning white to counter Pink Dot and oppose the LGBT lifestyle.

Over the past fortnight, the action shifted to the National Library. The atrium of its Victoria Street building was where hundreds of parents and children gathered for a read-in last Sunday to protest against the removal of three children's books, after public complaints that they contained homosexual content.

Are these signs of a maturing democracy? After decades of a much-whispered-about "climate of fear", isn't it a welcome change that a growing number of Singaporeans are now unafraid to make public their stand on issues?


But I worry that the shift now taking place is one towards a culture of protest and purges that depicts differences in values and of viewpoints as battles of good versus evil.

When that happens, we stop regarding those who disagree with us as fellow citizens who see the world differently. Instead, they become enemies. The aim then must be to defeat them, find ways to discredit them and take them down.

If we head down this path, then even as fears of government reprisal lessen, the fear of what other citizens who disagree with us may do in retaliation will increase.

What contributes to this new culture of fear is a tendency for those who feel strongly about an issue - be it LGBT relationships or the CPF scheme - to talk and plot the next steps of their campaign within closed circles of the like-minded.

Rally cries to stage protests, organised efforts to lobby national agencies to purge public spaces of information one finds offensive, attention-grabbing speeches and withdrawals from public events as a way to pressure the same agencies to recant and take a U-turn.

None of these promotes mutual understanding.

The preference for stealth among some groups who move behind the scenes to lobby and pressure, and whose members refuse to come out to engage openly with anyone not seen to be in their camp, is also disturbing.

In the NLB saga, the man who boasted on Facebook that two children's books - And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express - were removed within two days of his letter of complaint, shut down contact once news of his post spread beyond the We Are Against Pink Dot group he belonged to.

Later, a group of 80 concerned parents, who resigned from the same group because they objected to the books' removal and to the hate speech circulating, chose to remain anonymous for fear of reprisals.

These are disturbing signs that Singaporeans do not trust each other to discuss and debate issues of public interest in a civil, respectful way.

But stealth and secrecy feed suspicion and conspiracy theories, and further erode trust.

I think it is vital that we as a society strive to keep open the lines of communication between groups who disagree.

If we do not, the conflict over values could well escalate into the "culture wars" that increasingly hinder compromise in several Western democracies, especially in the United States.

Last week, reflecting on the escalation of violence between Israel and Gaza, Israeli writer Nimrod Nir recounted how a Palestinian construction worker saved his life when he was 13 years old and accidentally cut himself so badly at home, that he was "drowning in his own blood".

And he mourned today's breakdown in communication between Jews and Arabs who once lived and worked side by side.

"What I do know is that since ordinary Israelis and Palestinians stopped communicating, we lost sight of all the things that connect, rather than divide, us," he wrote.

"When I tell my younger siblings today that a Palestinian from Gaza saved my life, they're sceptical. They can't even imagine a reality in which Israelis and Palestinians could be in the same room together without killing each other.

"But there was a time when we co-existed and had a deep, direct dialogue. It's nowhere to be found today, and both sides are trapped by their leaders' agendas. As in most wars, each side dehumanises the other.

"The more time passes without contact, the easier it is to forget that there are very similar human beings on the other side."

We in Singapore have entered a new phase in our political development. It is an exciting time that sees many more ordinary citizens stirring from years of apathy.

But as we stand up for what we believe in, let us also remember to listen to those who hold different views, to take seriously their deeply held values and beliefs and to converse with them in a way that builds mutual respect and trust.

For that is the only way we will be able to reach the compromise solutions vital to a healthy democracy.


This article was first published on July 20, 2014.
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