I’m temporarily coming out of retirement to write one last post, one that I have been thinking of writing since the Donaldson Tan episode, but never got around to do so until now. This will probably be the most important post I ever write on this blog (most unfortunately I am writing while being sleep deprived – I do apologize for any incoherence). This post is about Shimun Lai and Sun Xu. It’s also about Trayvon Martin and Robert Bales. It’s about Yawning Bread’s homosexual activism and anti-gay Christians. It’s also about you and me.
Before you read any further, I strongly encourage you to click on the link below and read the article written by American blogger Dan Pearce (i.e. Single Dad Laughing). I believe this article will most likely be the most important article you read today (way more important that what I’m writing now), and may even be the most important article you ever read. I kid you not. This is a must read (especially for Christians):
Mr Pearce has very eloquently described one aspect of the human condition which we often fail to admit to ourselves, although we’re often quick to point it out in others: we have an innate tendency to look down on others. There are many words to describe it: arrogance, condescension, pride, self-righteous, guai-lan…but they all really reflect the same attitude: “I’m not the same as you. I’m better than you.” And if we’re quietly observant about ourselves, we find that it permeates all our relationships and our thoughts about other people. People like Indians. Foreigners. Homosexuals. Christians. Non-Christians. Ex-convicts. Current convicts. Future convicts. People who aren’t smart enough to enter university/JC/a good secondary school. People who have “louzy jobs”. People who support the PAP. People who rant on TRE.
There are of course, very plausible psychological or anthropological explanations for this. People are actually insecure. They feel feel weak, powerless. Hence they seek affirmation. If the world doesn’t give affirmation to them, then they find ways to give it to themselves. Such as by comparing themselves against the nearest person they observe, and telling themselves: “I’m so glad I’m not like that person. I’m clearly better than that person”. They feel better about themselves. It gives them confidence. Confidence gives them ability to face life and to live life. Eventually it becomes a habit, a philosophy of life. [Btw, I’m sure this is a gross over-simplification behind such human tendencies, although I do think there is some truth to this explanation] This meta-narrative also sheds light on who tend to be the nice guys (those who mitigate their innate tendency to condescend): usually the ones whom come from strong supportive families, or are part of a loving community, or have a network of deep personal friendships built on trust. These are the people whom are the least insecure, who have the least reason to affirm themselves…because they don’t need to. [I’ll return to this later]
Racial and religious harmony have always been “celebrated” in Singapore. When Singapore was founded, our leaders wisely realized that Singapore’s heterogeneous makeup will likely create divisions and eventually conflict. Our leaders were wise because they saw the natural tendency for those who are alike to flock together and condescend on those who are not-alike. However, our leaders were unwise in thinking that having a mantra of “racial and religious harmony” will solve this problem (or perhaps they were less ambitious, all they wanted was no riots). “Racial and religious harmony” is a message. There are people who buy and don’t buy into the message. Perhaps the message could be better expressed, or made to sound less authentic by appearing less politically motivated. Nevertheless, a message doesn’t change the heart of a person, unless the person agrees with that message. Making people something agree with a message, even a good correct message, is something our government hasn’t quite been able to do, perhaps for a while now. But an unseen consequence of such messaging is that we create new divisions: people who buy-in and people who don’t. New divisions create new avenues to condescend with each other, new routes for conflict. Perhaps we see this most clearly in America.
Some of us look to America and see a utopia. This is a place where they believe in true freedom. Where the government really truly and genuinely believes in human rights (like free speech), and not just politically motivated polemics. Where people can be united under a common understanding that they all have equal rights as a citizen. But if so, why do hate crimes still persist in America? And more surprisingly, many times the hate shown to those who commit hate crimes are even more appalling than the original crime itself (mainly because it has been amplified by group behavior). How did this happen? How did a nation built on such solid foundations of equality like America end up being so messed up? Because our tendency to condescend doesn’t go away when we believe in a message. Our tendency to condescend doesn’t go away when we believe in human rights. If anything else, we find someone else to condescend…usually those we disagree with. Our disagreement justifies our condescension. George Zimmerman may or may not have condescended Trayvon Martin. But definitely plenty of Americans condescended Zimmerman. This spawned allowed “don’t fight racism with racism” to trend on twitter significantly yesterday. And if you read those tweets, you find that plenty of Americans condescended the Americans who condescended Zimmerman. The cycle of condescension doesn’t end. Shimun Lai condescended Indians. Those who called her racist condescend her. And if I were to be honest with myself, I probably condescended those who called her racist, for failing to see their own condescension. At the end of the day, the irony was on me.
So how does one break the cycle of condescension? How does one truly fight racism or xenophobia or hate? Does the solution lie in messages and principles like “inalienable human rights” or “racial and religious harmony”? I think we have seen that fail spectacularly, both in America and in Singapore. Does it lie in laws, censorship, and legal enforcement? This certainly appears to be an up and coming trend in Singapore. But as Cherian George points out, that path only leads to further mistrust, further segregation, further conflict. I think Dan Pearce realized what the solution is. The only remedy to hate…is love. The only real way where we can stop condescending each other, is when we actually start to care about each other. When we actually start to believe “yes, Indians may smell differently from me, but so what? They are still real people with real feelings with real experiences and if I really get to know one of them they may be the most amazing friend I have” or “yes, these PRCs talk really loudly on the MRT and I honestly am irritated by that, but so what? Are they deserving of my hate because they come from a different culture, they are here in pursuit of a better life, and if I really get to know one of them they may inspire me with the most amazing stories of perseverance and determination that I have ever heard?”. Can we learn to stop justifying our condescensions, and to start seeking ways to love, care, respect, understand and appreciate each other? The most amazing thing about overcoming our tendences to condescend, and replacing it with a desire to love is that love pays forward. Parents who bring up their children in a nurturing and loving home where they don’t feel insecure tend to have children who are loving and kind to their siblings and friends [again, gross over-simplification of parenting process (e.g. the role of discipline), but I believe the general idea is sound]. A school principal who understands his true calling not to be the seeking of promotions, recognition and status, but rather to love his teachers by empowering them to do their jobs well, is a principal who inspires teachers to loves students, who grow up to inspire others. Just like condescension starts a cycle of condescension, love has the potential to start a cycle of love and amazing positive outcomes …. if only you can get past your condescending tendencies.
In the same way, I see this as the greatest mistake of Alex Au in his activism for gay rights. Yawning Bread may be (hands down) the most intelligent, articulate, internet savvy, social-political analyst of our generation, and I have nothing but great admiration for him as a blogger. I also admire his determination and perseverance to seek justice for the disenfranchised, be they domestic helpers, foreign workers or homosexuals in Singapore. However, he has clearly shown that he thinks very little of Christians, including those who have genuinely tried to reach out to him in love on his blog. Of course he feels he is justified in his condescension. His reasons behind this justification may very well be correct and good reasons (definitely, in general Christians treated gays very unjustly). Nevertheless, what he ends up doing is really perpetuating a cycle of condescension. If only he sought for Christians to get to know him as the intelligent, humorous, and amazing person that he truly is, if only he allowed Christians to love him and found ways for him to love them back, he could have done so much more for barriers to be broken and for stereotypes to be torn down.
To be fair to Mr Au, even if he wants to, it’s probably incredibly difficult for him to do so, given how Christians have treated him in the past. In the same way, if I were to be honest, I don’t really think in general we, the people of Singapore, really are capable of overcoming our tendencies to condescend, that we can become a people who are truly and genuinely interested in understanding, respecting and appreciating those who are different from us. I do believe part of the blame does lie in our system, which by virtue of its meritocracy, is necessarily competitive and individualistic. After all, there is little incentive to be co-operative, altruistic and loving in a society like Sinagpore’s. [This is another irony: meritocracy, the great principle envisioned to prevent Singapore from being divided along racial lines, actually fuels our insecurity and drives us further apart.] But part of the blame must also lie with the people, for choosing to buy in and failing to see how meritocracy is alluring but ultimately broken (which we are starting to get a sense of now). But if I do really think that Singaporeans are not capable of overcoming their condescension, if I think that Singaporeans are hopeless people who will never learn to understand the true value of becoming a nurturing and supportive community, then am I not guilty of the same condescension? (Again!)
I’ll conclude by trying to explain what I don’t mean. I don’t mean that we cannot be realistic in our assessment of Singapore society. We must, if we want to have any hope of progressing from where we are today. I don’t mean we cannot point out evil, wrongdoing or the condescension of others. We can, and we should. But we should strive not to do so out of a spirit of defensiveness, because defensiveness is the condescension that the other party is unenlightened and doesn’t know where you’re coming from. Similarly, we should strive not to do so out of a spirit of ‘I-am-here-to-educate-you-on-how-wrong-you-are”, because that is being self-righteous and just going to perpetuate another cycle of condescension. But it does mean that you can state your case as kindly, humbly and patiently, and at times being willing to suffer abuse. This is what Martin Luther King Jr understood when a white man continually assaulted him, and he told his supporters that they should not touch his assailant or retaliate on him. Will this be easy? Of course not. Will we succeed at this even if we tried our very best? Probably not all the time. An experienced but happily married couple (maybe not many left in Singapore) may explain it this way: loving someone is pretty darn difficult. But if you are persistent, patient and selfless in your love for one another, it can work out wonderfully.
Jesus once taught, “first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” Many Christians use this as a rebuke on hypocrisy (and rightly so), but I think they fail to appreciate the full wisdom of this teaching. Jesus never said that we cannot remove the speck from our brother’s eye. Instead, he said remove your plank first, and then you will see clearly – only when we realize our own shortcomings, how imperfect we are, and how much we are equally prone to condescension as the person I am disagreeing with, only when we have a more humble attitude towards others, will we be able to perceive the situation more clearly. Only then, are we qualified to remove the speck from our brother’s eye – only when we are humbled, are we enabled to correct another person in a loving and patient way.
Thank you for reading. God bless you all.
[PS. Firstly I will like to apologize; I have really no time to vet and proof read this post, hence it may contain typos and be incoherent at times. Hopefully the message still gets across. Secondly I want to apologize if I am unable to find the time to moderate/reply to comments. Lastly, I know some of you will read this as one tremendously self-righteous rant. Thank you for taking your time to read this anyways. This are my last regards, I really really am going to retire for good.]