Monday, November 20, 2017

Fact or Fiction

Picture this:

You are residing in a country, which is currently at a state of civil war. One of the provinces in the country is attempting to secede by supplanting the Government via military revolt.

While the province is not ethnically homogeneous, it is inhabited mostly by a fair-skinned race.  On the other hand, the country is being governed by a darker-skinned race hailing from another province, who have shown themselves to be shrewd and skilled administrators.

The political and economic dominance of the darker-skinned overlords have long brewed discontent among the natives of the province. The natives demand autonomy and exclusivity in a province, where they are culturally and demographically dominant. Not all natives share this view of course. Indeed, many welcome the leadership of the Government and immigrants; and despise the racist overtures of their fellow compatriots.

Further fueling this tension is the Government's decision to outlaw the practice of a particular religion, one that is beloved and widely practiced by the natives of the province. The ban drove the worship of the religion underground, breeding a network of agitated operatives seeking to subvert the Government.

Complicating this issue is the intervention of a foreign power, which has fought two wars with this country.  In the last great war, an uneasy truce was declared after a prolonged stalemate and heavy casualties on both sides. One of the conditions for peace imposed upon the country was that this particular religion be outlawed. Since the signing of the peace treaty, special agents from said foreign power have been brazenly operating within the country's boundaries, exacting extra-judicial punishments on those who dared flout the religious ban.  The Government, cautious to prevent a reversion to hostilities with the foreign power, has remained largely indifferent to these covert operations.  If the foreign power's objective was to agitate the inhabitants of the province, the move, while lacking in subtlety, was a resounding success.

The fair-skinned people, now incited by a charismatic demagogue, have joined a military movement for independence. Their rallying cry, while ostensibly grounded in the struggle for religious freedom, is frequently overshadowed by racist undertones.

The above scenario may be familiar to some of you gamers out there. It is a description of the socio-political settings in Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Credit to be given to Bethesda Studios for a game that has been widely lauded and which has provided hours of immersive role play.

What is perhaps troubling is how easily we are able to draw parallels between a fictional world and the world we live in today.  Religion has always been, and will no doubt continue to be, a tool that is readily instrumentalized for political ends. To the secular observer, the transparent exploitation of religion appears to be laughable and the naivete of the religious fanatic seems incredulous. However, one should be slow to doubt the extreme lengths a religious fanatic would go in order to achieve his/her goals, which are often apocalyptic in nature. The day we are rid of religion is the day when we strip political actors of an all-too accessible tool for unleashing mayhem. And the world would be better for it.

For the avoidance of doubt, my Dragonborn joined the Empire and crushed the pitiful rebellion of Ulfric Stormcloak. Skyrim is not just for the Nords.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Religion of Peace up in arms over perceived slight

Indonesia has often been touted as the shining example of tolerant Islam (otherwise also known as the Religion Of Peace - ROP).  

Which is why I was extremely surprised to hear that the popular Governor of Jakarta, affectionately known as Ahok, is now being prosecuted for blasphemy. 

Calls for his arrest have apparently led to violent demonstrations, causing at least one death according to TODAY.  But let us postpone judgment and try to understand what exactly had caused hundreds of thousands of peace loving Muslims to feel so aggrieved.

Allegedly, Ahok had advised his supporters not to be misled by opposing politicians who cited the Quran as basis for not electing him. I know. Outrageous. To put this matter into perspective, one should know that Ahok is a Christian.  And the specific Quran verse in question is Surat al-Maʼida (fifth chapter), verse 51, which I reproduce below:
You who believe! Do not take the Jews and Christians as allies. They are allies of each other. Whoever of you takes them as allies is already one of them. Surely Allah does not guide the people who are evildoers. (5:51)
One might be inclined to conclude that such passages are self-evidently intolerant. The passage might give the impression that Jews and Christians are Sithlords and one should be very cautious about making friends lest one succumbs to the dark side.  I can assure you, that is not what the ROP is about. There is clearly some context we are missing here. Obviously, there are situations whereby such instruction could be a valid and even, gasp, a moral one.  You just don't know it yet. I strongly suggest you clarify with a fellow believer.

The ROP is not to be blamed for the actions of a few. By "a few", I meant to say that a mere 200,000 people found it worth their time to throng the streets, paint banners and shout slogans, baying for the blood of a sithlord man who had the audacity to advocate a different interpretation of the ROP's beloved Book. The nerve of that man indeed. What next? Is he going to suggest that women should be treated equally as men? Disrespectful garbage.  

Sigh, not sure why non-believers cannot be more tolerant of the ROP. 


Thursday, November 3, 2016

Inciting violence not as serious as blasphemy in Singapore

In response to the annual Pink Dot event held in Singapore, a man by the name of Bryan Lim had posted the following call to arms on his Facebook:

I am a Singaporean citizen. I am an NSman. I am a father. And I swore to protect my nation. Give me the permission to open fire. I would like to see these £@€$^*s die for their causes.”

There is no other way to parse this statement other than it was an explicit and vulgar call to visit violence upon members of the LGBT community. Even Donald Trump's hint to gun bearers to protect their second amendment rights was, by contrast, far more subtle. And that is saying something.

You would be forgiven for thinking that such incitement to violence would constitute a serious criminal offense. I mean, threatening a single person with bodily harm is in itself a rather serious felony, much less a publicly expressed desire for a Columbine-type massacre at a LGBT solidarity event.

After his outburst, Lim was duly taken to task by netizens.  Lim's employer, Canon, has issued a statement indicating that they will investigate this issue. I am not sure exactly what needs to be investigated. Presumably, Lim's idea of taking a good shot would be quite different from what Canon pitches to its consumer base.

Police reports were lodged and Lim was investigated and charged by the Singapore police.  Inexplicably, the court only found him guilty of a lesser charge of making statements likely to cause alarm and fined him S$3,500.

What a slap on the wrist for Lim and a slap on the face for natural justice.

The reader will recall that it was only in 2015 that the Singapore courts sentenced a 17 year old boy to 4 weeks jail for making statements which injured the sensitivities of meek, peace loving Christians.

So a 36-year old man who made explicit and unambiguous threats to the lives of people for no reason other than he disliked their sexual orientation was let off with a fine, and a puny one at that. On the other hand, a 17-year old boy who compared the late Prime Minister to Jesus (for being similarly power-hungry demagogues) was deemed to have committed a crime serious enough to warrant a jail sentence. The latter, at least, had the merit of possibly passing off as critique of the late PM's political career, whilst the former was simply an unvarnished call for senseless murder.  Yet, it seems that the courts here were inclined to show more leniency to the ostensibly more mature offender.

Why? There is simply no logic in this. 

Sunday, October 9, 2016

An Imaginary Conversation

Imagine you are an avid lover of coffee. I mean, who doesn’t like coffee? Beans artfully roasted to an aromatic crisp and then meticulously stripped of its life-giving essence. But you know what, I get it. Some people like it. Some people don’t. And that is quite fine.
Now further imagine that there is this guy (let’s call him Paul) who insists that, for some reason, you are not permitted to have coffee.  

“Why is that?”, you inquire.

“I don’t like it.” Paul retorts.

“Erm… so? You don’t have to partake in it…”. Your brows furrow in puzzlement. 

“I don’t like it. I don’t want you to have it. I don’t want other people to have it. I don’t want my children to imbibe this black fluid. Drinking coffee is revolting and no one should be allowed to sip this shit.”

“But it is not repulsive to coffee drinkers.”

“Were you born loving coffee?”, Paul demands.

 “Well, no. Not personally. Some people are coffee drinkers from day one. Some realize they like coffee after sampling various beverages."        

 “Ah hah, see! You were not born with it.”, Paul sounded triumphant.

“I don’t think I am following…”           

 This means you can change your drinking preference.

“But I don’t understand why I should have to change my drinking preference just because it was not an in-born trait.”

“What is so difficult to comprehend? It is a choice. This means that coffee-drinkers may be able to influence other people to switch to coffee. And these hipster cafes are not helping at all. What with their constant listing of coffee on their menus. It is almost like coffee was the most normal beverage to order.

“You are really starting to lose me. It seems rather unlikely that tea drinkers would be influenced to switch to coffee, just because coffee is listed as an option on the menu. And also, what exactly is wrong with drinking coffee?”           

 “What? It is obvious coffee is bad. My Father said so.”

“Your good Father also said that shrimp, pork, and shellfish are bad. You seem to enjoy your lobster and bacon just fine.”          

 You are taking it out of context.”

“And what exactly is this context?”

             “You are cherry picking the prohibitions laid down by my Father.”

“Erm, no. You are the one doing the cherry picking.”         

 “I don’t even like cherries.”


“Look, think about the children! They are going to walk around and see people drinking coffee. Their malleable young minds are under assault. This is child abuse and we cannot have that.”

“I honestly don’t see what’s wrong with that. Speaking of which, isn’t it worse then that your Father had indoctrinated you with ridiculous and arbitrary beliefs about “untouchable” foods when you were a “malleable young mind”.” Is that not child abuse?

“You take that back! How dare you slander my Father. Of all people, you should know that mocking my Father is a punishable crime!”

“So when coffee-drinkers tell their children it is okay to love coffee, it is taking advantage of their naiveté.  When your Father does it, it is a constitutionally protected right. You can’t have it both ways.”

“Double standards are acceptable when protecting society from the ills of coffee drinking.”

“But coffee drinking does no one any harm. Why don’t you just live and let live and accept that not everyone subscribes to your taste?”

“What are you talking about? There is harm aplenty. I can cite at least one research backing up the adverse effects of caffeine.”

“And for each of those, there are at least ten other peer-reviewed journals suggesting otherwise. I believe the science is pretty settled on this one.”

“No it is not. I am sure you have heard numerous anecdotal stories about coffee drinkers scalding themselves due to unsafe drinking practices.”

“Yes but look, if you indulge in unsafe and promiscuous drinking practices, these risks present themselves, whether you are a coffee drinker or a tea drinker.”           

 “Your point being..?”

“Jesus, my point being there is no reason to single out coffee! Your objection should be towards unsafe drinking practices, not coffee per se!”

“Bah, you can argue all you want. Coffee drinking is morally contemptible. And to say that it is just as acceptable as tea drinking is to destroy the sanctity of Tea.”

“What? The sanctity of tea..? Goodness, this is ridiculous. You cannot dictate what other people can have or cannot have based on your own preferences. This is beverage bigotry.”

“As expected, you are resorting to name-calling. That is so disrespectful. Calling me a bigot for my coffee intolerance is being intolerant of my intolerant views. You are just as guilty.”

“I hope you know that the expression “tolerance” loses its meaning if it is also expected to be extended to intolerance.”         

  “Now you have lost me.”

“Not unexpectedly, if I may say so.”

“Was that a jibe? I hope you realise that your condescending attitude wins you no arguments or friends.”

“Not friends worth having. But it wins arguments all right.”

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Totally Gay Arguments

TODAYonline published a letter from one Stanley Teo on 5 October 2016 titled "Inequality of marriage should continue". Hopefully, the title was selected by an editor, and not of the author's choice. It does not augur well for persuasiveness when one's arguments begin with an endorsement of inequality. 

My interest was immediately piqued. A part of me hoped that the conservative right had finally stumbled on some solid arguments against gay marriage. These hopes were quickly dashed. Mr Teo simply rehashed the same old, evidence-free assertions.

He argued that allowing same-sex marriage is a slippery slope. He asked, if love and commitment were the only requirements for marriage, then what about incestuous unions and polygamy? This incest argument always comes up. Occasionally, bestiality is thrown in, you know, just to up the yuck factor. 

This is a straw-man argument. No one ever said love and commitment were the only criteria for marriage. Mr Teo employed this fallacy to mischaracterize the position of gay marriage proponents, to allow himself a score a cheap point (what about incest/polygamy?) against a fabricated position. Gay marriage supporters say that allowing gay marriage celebrates love between two consenting adults. Gay marriage supporters also point out repeatedly that gay marriage does no harm to any person, and does not injure heterosexual unions. This "do no harm" principle is an important limb of the arguments in the pro-gay marriage camp. Mr Stanley Teo completely ignores this and proceeds to assert a false equivalence between gay marriage and incest, which clearly cannot be said to "do no harm". I should not need to, but for the sake of conservatives reading this blog, I should add that this applies, mutatis mutandis, to bestiality.

And what about polygamy you ask? In my humble opinion, if the parties entering into the polygamous relationship are doing so with full transparency and mutual consent, then I respectfully submit that it is neither ours nor the State's business to butt in (no pun intended). 

Not satisfied with making just one fallacious point, Mr Teo then went on and brandished the Conservative's argument du jour -  "but think of the children!" he cries. You could almost imagine the tears well up in his eyes as his sluggish mind turned to all the poor kids who had to grow up with two fathers or two mothers. 

"Same sex parents are detrimental to kids!", he laments. Teo then went on to adduce a bevy of peer-reviewed literature to back up this bare-faced allegation...wait, what? he didn't? Oh I am sorry, yes, I forgot that people like Mr Teo are often quite allergic to the idea of "evidence" and "science". 

I apologize. That was unfair. I am sure Mr Teo had upon him good academic authority for making such assertions, much like climate change deniers and flat earth theorists. I mean, sure, it may well be a settled view among academics that climate change is real or that children brought up in a same-sex family fare just as well as peers who grew up with heterosexual parents, but hey, why let facts get in the way of prejudice right?

Furthermore, such arguments completely ignore the fact that marriages routinely break down, e.g., by divorce or death in the family. Going by his logic, should we also make divorces illegal to "protect the children"?

For some one who is anti-gay marriage, Teo sure makes some totally gay arguments. 

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Of Magic Talismans and Miracle Healing

Every morning, as part of my pre-work ritual, I scan through Todayonline for interesting articles. Mostly, the reportage consists of informative pieces trotting out  Government-endorsed announcements and other mundane news about taxes and/or the economy. Political or social commentaries are available but provide little beyond the expectedly banal and sycophantic drivel (Eugene KB Tan - take note).

One article stuck out like a sore thumb this morning.  The headline read "Trial begins for couple accused of selling talismans worth S$490,000."  The TLDR version is basically that said couple sold talismans to their victims, wherein said talismans purportedly brought good luck or averted bad luck. The usual superstitious bull manure.  In my view, the scammed victims probably deserved it.  Caveat emptor isn't it? Was this not the exact same excuse peddled by banks who sold worthless Lehmann notes to retail investors?

Almost reflexively, my mind turned to an online note I wrote many years ago on Facebook. I had stopped writing notes on Facebook a while back after it became clear that it would make certain social and professional situations awkward (should the writings go viral whether by accident or by design).

A quick stroll down the electronic memory lane revealed that I wrote the note way back in 2009. Ah, such nostalgia, the good old days when people were not offended by everything under the sun and did not threaten any critique of religion with criminal prosecution.

I reproduce that note in part:

"I feel that clear boundaries must be set, in order to avoid obfuscating the thin line between religion and, for lack of a better word, a scam.

Take for instance, a man is peddling colorful stones. He touts the stones' magical healing abilities and sells them to unsuspecting old people. Beyond a shadow of a doubt, the society and in fact the law, considers this a criminal offence, subject to punishment under the Penal Code.

Let's compare the above example with the below scenario.

A man sells a seemingly innocuous Book. He praises the Book as the word of God, and states that some passages within said Book, when read with faith, can and will lead to the healing of diseases. Unsuspecting third party buys the Book, maybe joins a church, and finds himself giving (willingly of course) 20% of his salary to the church on a fixed basis.

The similarities between both examples are uncanny. One, both involve a transaction of money in consideration of a service or product (Be it stone or book). Two, both objects are touted to have direct or indirect restorative powers, which cannot be proven by Science. Three, both buyers are willing parties who were not coerced into making the purchase. And yet, quite inexplicably, whilst one contravenes the Penal Code, the other is widely accepted as a valid social norm."

At risk of sounding self-congratulatory, my note, written nearly 7 years ago, could almost be described as prophetic.  What, you think prophesies can only be found in the Old Testament? Pfft.

Honestly, what is the actual difference between the couple just indicted for scamming versus organized religious groups who run ticketed miracle healing events (or if not ticketed would involve handing round a bag for, mind you, voluntary donations).  Are we saying that as long as there are enough suckers believing the same manure, the same stinking pile of excrement suddenly ceases to be a scam and transcends into hallowed grounds. Or are we saying that as long as the persons peddling said manure "honestly believe" in the holy or magical properties of the goods being sold, it is not a scam? If so, would it then be a defence for the couple to state that they hold bona fide belief in their talismans?

The running theme, as always, is that religion has been unjustly and undeservedly placed on an unassailable pedestal.

Monday, July 4, 2016

The Making of a Radical

On the 3rd of July 2016, the majority-Muslim country of Bangladesh suffered a horrendous attack by a group of radical muslims. This adds to what appears to be an ongoing spate of attacks in the holy month of Ramadan. While no clear link can be established, it is taught among muslims that good deeds accrue more merit when performed during the holy month. Unfortunately for the patrons of that cafe, acts which are deemed as "good deeds" differ monstrously from one adherent to another. Whether by design or otherwise, the "correct teachings" of this religion appear to be lost on quite a number.

The notable thing about the carnage in Dhaka was that the perpetrators did not square with the usual profile of radicals. These men, who methodically butchered 20 persons in cold blood, were neither politically disenfranchised nor subjected to economic poverty.  It is difficult to stomach the fact that teenagers in their mid-to-late twenties would be capable of such depraved acts and demonstrated such scant regard for fellow human beings. Even more surprising is that these men attended elite and expensive colleges both locally and abroad. According to TODAYONLINE, at least one attacker was the son of a party member in the Awami League, the ruling party of Bangladesh.

There is an understandably uncomfortable implication here. Simply put, it was neither destitution nor poverty which bred and nurtured these buccaneers. To quote Anis Ahmed of the Dhaka Tribune:
That these kids from very affluent families with no material want can still be turned to this kind of ideology, motivated not just to the point of killing but also want to be killed...
Indeed, these are highly disturbing observations. We must be forced to contend with the very real possibility that nothing else, apart from religious ideology, had molded killers out of otherwise comfortable and privileged teenagers.

And yet, as certain as death and taxes, we will no doubt be force-fed banal apologist platitudes from the readily offended, politically-correct-or-die liberal media. "It is not the religion, it is the reader". "It is offensive to label these murderers radical muslims because Islam has nothing to do with this".

It is at times like these when the brilliance of the late Christopher Hitchens is sorely missed. Perhaps not an accurately reproduced quote, but in his seminal book God is Not Great, he wrote:
"Good men will do good things and horrible men would do horrible things. But for a good man to do unspeakable acts, it would require religion."
Religion is rarely content with merely driving men to accomplish morally contemptible acts, it enables them to do so without guilt and with self-righteous fury.