May 1999, partially rewritten in Nov 2004

When 'broad consensus' denies social justice.




In a recent press interview, Education Minister Teo Chee Hean said, "We would not encourage or facilitate some groups, for example gay groups, because there is a broad consensus among Singaporeans today that we should not do so." 


Of course, the first thing is where is the data? How does one assert that there is a "broad consensus"? 

Yet it is quite beside the point, because the point is really about social justice, not about popularity. If we tried the "broad consensus" excuse in some parallel situations, you'd see how lame it is.

Example 1:

Suppose many families believe that the role of females is to be good wives and mothers. Education is not important. They do not send their girls to school. Quite the reverse. If the girls are too educated, they may be too independent and headstrong to agree to marriages arranged by their parents and to be dutiful wives and home-bound mothers in future.

The government refuses to do anything in this matter, because there is a "broad consensus" in society that such is the proper role of females. Education is not made compulsory, and no aid is provided to support schooling for girls.

Example 2:

Child abuse occurs in a number of families. Social groups cry out for government agencies to intervene and for the law to be amended to empower the agencies to take the children away from their abusive parents.

The government refuses to do anything in this matter, because there is "'broad consensus" in society that the family is sacrosanct, that parents know best and discipline is good for children. To intervene and remove children from their parents is contrary to the pro-family policy of the state.

Example 3:

Taxi companies won't hire women drivers. They believe that it is dangerous for women to work the late shift, or to drive male passengers to out-of-the-way destinations. They also think it is somehow discordant with the image of chauffeurring, which is traditionally a male occupation. There is a bit of classiness associated with a male chauffeur which would be good for the taxi companies' image.

A group of women are fed up with such an attitude and the closure of job opportunities against them. They want to form their own taxi co-operative. If others won't employ them, they'll work for themselves.

The government, quoting the "broad consensus" in society that is "not comfortable with" women taxi-drivers, refuses to register their taxi co-operative, or give them taxi licences. Never mind that the women are prepared to bear their own risks.

[Parallel: gay people wanted to form their own society, the government refused to register it.]

As you can see, the excuse of "broad consensus" is always lame whenever it meets an issue of social justice. The government insults your intelligence by using this excuse.

As you will suspect, what actually happens is that the government first decides what its beliefs and objectives are. If they are something that enjoys a fair degree of support, the government can sell it as a position demanded by a "broad consensus" of the people.

It doesn't have to be a majority. The government can either avoid providing data (as in the case of gay people in Singapore), or else with its huge machinery can design a survey with carefully phrased questions to create the necessary findings.

But there will be instances where the government has decided to do something which, by no stretch of the imagination can be considered popular. Then the policy will be sold as something progressive and needed for the future. 

For example, up until around 1960, many sports clubs and civic associations were race- and ethnic-based e.g. The Chinese Swimming Club. People liked it that way; it seemed the most natural way to organise people with common interests, common language and common cultural backgrounds. But at a stroke the government said no club may restrict membership anymore on grounds of race.

Now why wasn't the broad consensus, very evident from the choices made by people to join their various clubs, not heeded? Why did the ideal of social justice trump broad consensus?

So, coming back to gay groups, let's be clear about the arrow of causation too. The government's position on gay citizens and gay groups isn't determined by public belief. It's just a figleaf to cover their broad refusal.

Yawning Bread 


27 April 1999
The Straits Times

Minister Teo Chee Hean interviewed by journalist Irene Ng. Excerpt.

Q: How would the Government differentiate between the civic groups?

A: There are groups where Government completely share their objectives, and it is part of the Government's agenda and programme to promote such activities, for example voluntary welfare organisations.

In those cases, the Government would come forward and provide resources, expertise, and so on, and work very closely together.

In other cases, the Government would be neutral. If you wish to start groups such as in arts or sports -- such as a deep sea fishing club -- go ahead. There may be no need for the Government to provide any public resources for such groups to form.

But there will also be groups with views and purposes which the Government does not agree with and which a broad range of Singaporeans would also not be comfortable with.

In such cases, it would be the responsibility of Government to make its views known.

I think we have to see these various groups in the context of Singapore -- not all of them are the same; not all of them serve a public purpose.

We would not encourage or facilitate some groups, for example gay groups, because there is a broad consensus among Singaporeans today that we should not do so.