Yawning Bread. 6 October 2009

Non-discrimination is nothing if not gray




At brunch on Sunday, my friend said in passing how rare it was to find idealistic people in Singapore, and then mentioned me as an example. I was surprised, and quickly disabused her of her illusions. I don't see myself as idealistic. I may be passionate about certain things but I am quite prepared to live with a lot of graininess in this world. Many things, in my view, will never be perfect. In fact, in many areas, people will not even be able to agree on what perfection is.

Let me re-visit the question of non-discrimination. This has been rumbling on in emails to me ever since I said I would hesitate to hire a workman for a casual job (just for a few days) that I needed done if he was fasting during Ramadan. Shock reverberated through my readership. Isn't that discrimination, some asked?


However, I didn't say I wouldn't hire anyone who did. I said I would hesitate. I guess if I had to choose between one Muslim who fasted and a Muslim who didn't, I would choose the one who didn't, all else being equal, though in real life, seldom are all else equal.

I didn't say I wouldn't hire a Muslim. One's beliefs are not my business. It wouldn't matter an iota to me if one believed in little green men. Nor did I say I wouldn't hire a practising Muslim if it was outside Ramadan. In fact, ever since I've been in business for myself, I've always had Muslim employees. Most fast, some don't. One or two don't restrict themselves to halal food.

But this small matter of looking at whether this workman fasted, when hiring for a job that required physical labour, seemed to send people reeling in shock.

It's great to have ideals, but it shouldn't blind us to the extent that we see any kind of discrimination at all as wrong. There is necessary and unnecessary discrimination. I also have the sense that people have imbibed the idea that religious discrimination is one of the worst forms of discrimination. Actually, I disagree. Religion is over-protected. Moreover, we need to make a distinction between freedom of conscience on the one part and religious practice on the other part. Even with religious practice, most times, it is of no significance to others. But sometimes it is, and others should not be barred from taking it into consideration in the name of "non-discrimination".

* * * * *

To show you that it is not possible to have a simplistic reading of "non-discrimination", here are 30 questions. To some, you will say Yes, to others No. I think there will be very few who will say Yes to all, or No to all. Moreover, if one takes a large enough pool of people, I doubt if there'll be any consensus which questions should be Yes and which ones No.


1. Is it reasonable for a shopping mall management to insist to the cleaning contractor that it must deploy only male cleaners to male toilets and female cleaners to female toilets?

2. Will you let a shopping mall management insist to its cleaning contractor that it must employ only female toilet attendants, since females can be more flexibly deployed (thus higher productivity), cleaning both male and female toilets?

3. Can a company handling bank documents refuse to hire someone with a criminal history of theft for the position of despatch clerk?

4. Can a state-funded hospital refuse to hire a doctor who will not perform abortions, will not provide patients with information about abortion, when abortion is legal in the state, even if the doctor asserts his right to religious freedom?

5. Can a privately-owned clinic refuse to hire a doctor who, out of religious conviction, will not perform abortions, will not provide patients with information about abortion, when abortion is legal in the state, and among the many services offered by the clinic?

6. Can a privately-owned women's clinic, handling mostly gynaecological cases, refuse to hire a male nurse?

7. Can an all-boys school refuse to admit a girl student?

8. Can a Chinese lion dance troupe restrict its membership to Chinese only?

9. A Muslim job candidate for a dishwasher's job says he has no problem washing dishes in a Chinese restaurant (with pork dishes) provided the employer provides him with rubber gloves. Will you let the company take this fact into consideration whether to hire him?

10. Is it acceptable for an airline to charge extra for a second piece of check-in luggage?

11. Is it acceptable for an airline to insist that grossly obese passengers should pay for a second seat?

12. Some Christian employees in a company form a cell group. They meet regularly in the company canteen after work for prayer sessions and bible study. Can the employer tell them not to do it on premises?

13. A strict Muslim woman has a nursing qualification. Her religious belief is that she must not come into contact with any male who is in a state of partial or total undress. She cannot touch male skin. Can a state-funded hospital refuse to hire her?

14. When hiring a nanny, the family tells the employment agent that the nanny should be female. Is this acceptable?

15. When hiring a cook, the family tells the employment agent that the cook should be male Chinese. Is this acceptable?

16. When hiring a nanny, the family tells the employment agent that the nanny should be Christian, to fit in with the family's values. Is this acceptable?

17. A job candidate tells his prospective employer that he observes his sabbath very strictly. He does not do work on that day. Normally, the company does not require him to work on that day of the week, but the candidate says his religious belief is such that he will not even answer calls or check mail that are job-related, even in a fast-developing situation. Can the employer refuse to hire him?

18. An Indian restaurant only hires ethnic Indians as wait staff in order to maintain its ambiance. Is this acceptable?

19. An airline only hires females for its cabin crew in keeping with its brand image. Is this acceptable?

20. Can a privately-owned child care centre refuse to hire for the position of teacher-caregiver a Muslim woman who insists on wearing a niqab (i.e. full body cover, including face veil)?

21. Can a state-funded school refuse to hire for the position of teacher a Muslim woman who insists on wearing a niqab (i.e. full body cover, including face veil)?

22. A state makes it a criminal offence to refuse to do National Service, even if a person's objection to carrying arms and serving in the armed forces is tied to his religious affiliation. Is such a policy acceptable to you?

23. Can a religiously-affiliated, privately-owned adoption agency, citing its religious tenets, refuse to serve same-sex couples wanting to adopt, assuming it is legal in that country to do so?

24. Can a gay bar refuse to admit more than a small number of heterosexual customers, in a bid to sustain its gay ambiance?

25. Can a bar charge different prices for male and female customers, especially on "Ladies Nights"?

26. Can a state-funded railway operator declare certain carriages "women-only"?

27. Can a massage clinic refuse to hire a qualified therapist on the ground that he or she smokes?

28. A funeral company charges a lower price when the deceased is Roman Catholic. Will you allow that?

29. A beer company is hiring promoters. Not only will it be hiring only females, it intends to select candidates based on looks, to rule out anyone over age 30 and to require employees to wear short, revealing skirts anathema to conservative religions. Is this acceptable?

30. A company is looking to fill a sales position. The employee has to build relationships with Chinese, Japanese and Korean customers, and the industry that it is in, drinking with customers can help build relationships, though it's not carved in stone. Thus, while drinking is not essential to the job, Muslim candidates are asked if they completely stay away from alcohol. Is that acceptable?

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