Month: July 2014

Professor Mahbubani’s $50k homes are only a quick fix

In the midst of the controversy over the NLB it slipped my mind that I’d wanted to respond to Professor Mahbubani’s Big Idea on Saturday. But I came across a takedown of his article earlier today and that reminded me to write. The citations on that piece are excellent and I don’t have much data to add; instead, I wanted to focus on two things in Professor Mahbubani’s piece which may have slipped by a little less noticed.

The first is something on which we agree. There is no way Singapore will be as successful in the next 50 years as it’s been over the last 50. And although he exaggerates how special Singapore’s record is relative to other countries—and even though our median per-individual household income ($2247 monthly) is a far sight from our GDP per capita ($6710 monthly, according to his piece)—it’s true that living standards have improved. This progress is unlikely to be matched because the low-hanging policy fruit has already been harvested, so to speak—we’ve cleared our backlog of people to house, kids to educate and vaccinate, jobs to provide, sanitation to improve, and so on. This sort of unambiguously-good public policy is a thing of the past, and we’ll start to see more trade-offs appearing. Policies will have distributional consequences, favouring some segments of society over others (rich over poor, young over old, and so on). We’ll also begin to disagree on the desirability of policy outcomes (is having more people good or bad?) Because of this, there’s no way our public policies can attract the same sort of public consensus that they have had in the past. And if that’s the case, I believe it to be an argument for greater democratic contestation in Singapore.

The second is something I absolutely disagree with. Professor Mahbubani suggests that Singaporean property developers build cheap housing (homes priced at $50k) in neighbouring countries so that Singaporean families can enjoy space in their living arrangements. Nazi parallels aside (Lebensraum?), here’s why I think it’s a terrible idea:

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As nobody in particular, I object to Dominic Foo’s so-called arguments

Jaxe Pan’s Facebook note here. Dominic Foo’s response here. This piece responds more or less point-by-point to Dominic Foo’s piece, so read it before coming back here. Better yet, read them side by side, since that’s how I wrote this piece.

Background: as you know, last week the NLB withdrew and destroyed some children’s books for homosexual and non-pro-family themes. I’ve been looking desperately for some intelligent defence of the NLB’s actions so I can engage meaningfully with people who disagree. I thought Dominic Foo’s piece might be charitably read to be such a defence. I believe that in a pluralist society, dialogue is important, and I have sought to keep this post civil. Where it does degenerate (in the last paragraph), it does so because I ran out of patience reading convoluted arguments that didn’t add up. I’m publishing this piece not because it’s good writing, but because I spent 6 hours on it and found some interesting evidence on adoption and gay parenting—and evidence is always good.

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‘Censorship’ at the NLB

Update (10  Jul 2014 4:30pm): the books will be pulped, so apparently they won’t even be anywhere in the library.

A few days ago, the National Library Board withdrew two books (And Tango Makes Three, and The White Swan Express) from the library system. The news broke on Facebook on 8 July 2014. According to Kirsten Han, “And Tango Makes Three is about two male penguins who paired up and nursed an egg, while The White Swan Express is a story about children being adopted not just by straight, white families but by gay parents, mixed race parents and even a single mother.” I see two particular areas of concern: whether NLB is indeed “censoring” books or if its actions are limited to withdrawing these two titles from children’s sections, and the lack of availability of books that show children positive portrayals of unconventional family models.

First, the NLB needs to clarify immediately if the books have been withdrawn entirely or just from children’s sections. The overwhelming impression, and the plain meaning of the email from the NLB’s chief librarian (quoted here as part of a Facebook post), seems to be the former. If true, this demonstrates two inconsistencies. Many books with far more “disturbing” content are in our libraries and on our school syllabi. And removing these two books entirely is clearly inconsistent with the libraries’ mission of educating the public. Leaving them available for adult lending only, while a regrettable situation, is a compromise which still allows parents to make choices for their children’s reading. On the other hand, removing them entirely is censorship. Besides, removing the books disregards the views of that segment of Singaporean society which is positive or ambivalent towards non-traditional family structures. Page 42 on this document, which reports results from the Institute of Policy Studies’ Survey on Race, Religion and Language, shows that 24.2% of respondents think that gay adoption is “not wrong at all” or “not wrong most of the time”. This is after being asked, in preceding survey questions, to reflect on their religious views, which I think would tend to bias most respondents towards conservative views. Clearly, if the NLB has withdrawn the books entirely, it is taking sides in a debate that isn’t settled yet.

Second, the NLB should not be passing judgement on what constitutes a family unit. Referring to a reductive notion of a father-mother couple as a “strong pro-family stand” is objectionable because there are and always have been different types of families—biological, adoptive, single-parent, grandparent-headed, even gay. None of these is necessarily better or worse (this article summarises the current state of our understanding of gay parenting). However, the normative judgement embedded in the NLB’s “pro-family” stance has at least two consequences. It stigmatises other family structures, and even the practice of adoption. Moreover, it harms the children who are too young to understand why society disapproves of their parents. These children particularly need positive portrayals of their family structures. Instead, the NLB’s purported “pro-family” stance hurts actual children in real families in the service of an imagined ideal. Let’s think, for a second, about the real harm that might be caused from these books being available to children: A child picks up a book about a cute penguin family (And Tango Makes Three). This child brings the book to their parent, and asks to borrow it. The parent (let’s say) is socially conservative, and scandalised that such a book is available for lending. The parent has to explain why their child can’t read that book—essentially, expose their moral reasoning to an innocent child’s questioning. They have to tell the child why certain kinds of families are unacceptable by their own standards, and justify to them why they think these families can’t be allowed. By removing books like these from the sight of children, all the NLB is helping to do is prevent (or delay) those awkward moments that result when a sanitised, reductive, simplistic moral universe comes into contact with a gritty reality it can’t deal with. The social conservatives are not engaged in a crusade to remove smut from shelves, as they would have you believe. Rather, they are acting to preserve their own worldview and remove anything that might cause them discomfort. Incidentally, I think those people who oppose this move on grounds of censorship are barking down the wrong alley. Censorship does not rouse Singaporeans to anger. What the social conservatives are really working towards is twofold: insulating their worldview from coming into contact with any other, and imposing it on the rest of society. Withdrawing And Tango Makes Three and The White Swan Express from the libraries is much more than just thought-policing. Louis CK has a hilarious joke about talking to children about gay people (warning: it’s Louis CK): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eb-JZSyhWSc&t=1m04s

Thoughts on Pink Dot 2014

I was at Pink Dot 2014, on June 28th; I think it was my fourth—2010, 2011, 2013 and 2014. The organisers have claimed that 26,000 people showed up at Hong Lim Park. The numbers certainly keep increasing every year. But after six Pink Dots, it feels like the event hasn’t changed much since the first one I attended (I think that was in 2010; I’ve been to four of them). There are a few speeches and song-and-dance items, and everyone chills out casually till it’s time to turn on the pink (corporate-sponsored) torchlights and point them upwards for the camera drone.

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