Our Daily Sacrilege

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day has faced criticism by the usual hardliners, and in the Western media. The issue at hand, apparently, is this divide between freedom of speech and religion, and religious tolerance/harmony.

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day is slammed because, among other things, it violates one of the beliefs of Islam, specifically a prohibition against producing representations of the Prophet Muhammad, Allah, and other major religious figures. The idea was doing so would defeat the idea of idolatry. By drawing a picture of Muhammad, one would violate this principle, and so commit blasphemy and disrespect Islam.

Very well. But let me draw your attention to a little-known fact. Every day, someone, somewhere, deliberately commits sacrilege.

If you eat meat, you violate the Mahayana Buddhist belief of abstaining from harming sentient beings and cultivation of compassion.

If you eat pork, you violate Jewish and Muslim dietary regulations.

If you worship multiple gods, you violate one of God’s commandments.

If you worship a Creator deity, you violate Buddhist philosophy.

If you worship no gods…things get interesting.

Perhaps the one activity that does not contravene any religious philosophy is the act of breathing. Maybe sticking to a vegan diet, too. Every religion is so fundamentally incompatible that it is probably impossible to live without violating a religious rule or other — even and especially if that rule belongs to a religion you don’t believe in. The only sane way forward is to keep to the beliefs you believe in. Just you, mind, not anybody else.

Islam may prohibit idolatry. Very well — but this prohibition is only for believers. If I am not a Muslim, why should I concern myself with this, and other, rules? Conversely, if I were not Buddhist/Christian/Jewish/any other religion, I have no need to live my life by the beliefs of other faiths.

Respect for other religions cannot be refraining from actions that their doctrines call deplorable. It is simply impossible for everybody to do so all the time. Respect for other religions is simply the acknowledgement that their followers are on a different spiritual path, no less than one’s own. To demand that someone refrain from doing something offensive to your religion is to impose your religious belief on that person, and thereby take away his ability to choose his religious belief.

This is, of course, not to say that voluntarily acting in accordance with someone else’s faith is wrong, such as an atheist giving thanks in the presence of her Christian friends. These actions, while commendable, should be voluntary gestures of respect, to preserve the free will of individuals — this makes the gesture even more significant than it already is. This is also not to say that deliberately preventing someone from following his religion is acceptable, like serving non-halal food to Muslims. It is akin to imposing your belief or lack thereof on that person or persons.

In the same vein, I would think it’s unacceptable to do anything that deliberately provokes a person or persons on the basis of religion. Placing a pig’s head on the doorstep of a Muslim family falls under this category, because it implies that their choice of religion is invalid or otherwise wrong.

This does not, however, mean that criticism of certain religious philosophies or beliefs is wrong. For instance, one can argue that the Catholic Church’s position on abortion is right or wrong on various grounds. The difference between an insult and criticism is that insults are primarily designed to provoke anger or other negative emotions, while criticism (as I use the term here) is an analysed response that is grounded in the real world.

It is also unacceptable to resort to threats of or actual violence against people who do insult religions accidentally or otherwise — religious ideas are just ideas, and have no actual basis in the physical world. Hence the reference to Everybody Draw Muhammad Day, but not the South Park episode that started it all.

I really don’t understand why people are so sensitive about religion. A religion, at its heart, is a series of beliefs and practices. You belong to a particular religion for as long as you perform the required rituals (praying, going to church, etc.) and profess belief in necessary doctrine (there is but one God, the Four Noble Truths, the existence of the Sephirot). A religious belief has little if any material substance; it is an idea in your head. It is neurons firing in your brain — nothing more than that can be proven as yet. A religious practice exists exactly as long as people practice it; when people stop doing it, it ceases to exist. You may believe that a particular doctrine is true, but belief does not make something true, in the same way the Earth will always be a sphere no matter how hard I believe it is a two-dimensional rectangle.

A belief, in short, is merely a series of thoughts in your head, some of which may be shared by others.

Everyday sacrilege does not erode a religious belief. Neither does deliberate, apparently blasphemous, action. These things are physical actions, but beliefs exist in the realm of ideas. Ideas, especially religious ideas, are a step removed from the real world.

Everybody Draw Muhammad Day is not a statement against Islam. It is a statement against people who would threaten to kill, or have already killed, innocents in the name of religion. Even if it were disrespectful towards Islam, can the event harm Islam in any way? It cannot, for Islam, like all religions, is an idea in the minds of humans, and ideas cannot be wounded or injured. Ideas cannot bleed, cannot die, cannot erode.

Ideas either exist, or not exist, in the minds of people. It is the believers who will do the most ‘harm’ to any religion, for is it they who have an idea to lose — they may stop believing in their faiths, forever drop the ideas from their minds, or twist the mainstream beliefs into something else for temporal ends. Non-believers cannot possibly harm an idea, or cease to believe in something they do not believe in. It matters not if someone else criticises or mocks your faith, for if you continue to believe in your faith, it is not harmed. If someone else you know decides to leave your faith, it is her choice, not yours. Your belief is shaken not one bit.

(This is not to say that your belief in your belief may not be shaken — but a discussion of that is irrelevant here.)

Don’t worry about others violating your religious beliefs; someone, most likely a non-believer, most surely is, somewhere in the world, even if that person does not know it. The real question should be, what does it matter to you? And why?

As for me, give me this day my daily dose of new beliefs, and forgive me my own beliefs in perfect faith that to the god/s or ideas I believe in it is right to pray and that it is not right to pray to any being besides him/her/it/them, for I testify that there is no God to me but the god/s and ideas I choose to have faith in, in recognition that all god/s I may accept are aspects of a divine Unity I may choose to believe in, to attain cessation of suffering and enlightenment for all sentient beings. Blessed be, even if I or others do not believe or believe in something else.

See what happens when you try to pay respect to all faiths you think are important at once?

The Problem with Pink Dot

Pink Dot 2010 was underwhelming.

That’s the only word I can think of to describe it. Yes, over 4000 people turned up. Yes, there was a general affirmation of the freedom to love, regardless of sexual orientation. Yes, there were decent performances during the main event. These are decent achievements, but I felt more could have been done.

Pink Dot says it is not ‘a protest, rally or demonstration’, but rather a ‘gathering of like-minded Singaporeans’. Well, a rally is a gathering, one designed to arouse enthusiasm — which is what Pink Dot is about: a gathering of like-minded Singaporeans to generate interest and awareness of Lesbian Bisexual Gay Transgender (LBGT) issues. By gathering so many people in one spot, the organisers of Pink Dot had the power to influence a great number of people to be more accepting of LBGT people.

And squandered it.

Pink Dot says it supports the freedom to love. The MCs said that. A mother-daughter pair spoke about their experiences and how being non-heterosexual is all right. The rest of the time was spent on performances. It’s fine and well if you want to affirm freedom. But simply saying ‘I support the freedom to love’ is quite different from the ground truth. It’s the difference between good intentions and concrete action.

This year, Pink Dot is focusing on the families of LBGT people. It wants to families to support non-heterosexual members. Pink Dot threw a spotlight on family problems within such families — but left the reasons surrounding these problems in the dark.

What Pink Dot should have been about

Fear exists. Ignorance exists. Pink Dot acknowledges this. There is prejudice, too. It’s enshrined in Section 377A of the Penal Code. It’s in sermons by ultraconservative religious leaders. It’s in perspectives maintained and shared by ultraconservative friends and family members. It’s boxed up and packaged as ‘Asian values’ and ‘conservative society’.

On this, Pink Dot says nothing.

It’s revealing. The signs of ignorance and fear overshadowing the pink dot is tucked far away from the crowd. The MCs didn’t mention it. I don’t think anybody actually talked about fear and ignorance of LBGT people and issues, or prejudice against such people — not at any great length. And yet it is prejudice, ignorance and fear that overshadows acceptance of LBGT people, everywhere in the world. The MCs, speakers, or performers did nothing that approached this basic fact. Until you face the issues, it’s little more than hot air. Prejudice will continue to perpetuate, making Pink Job’s task (and those of LBGT activists, and the lives of normal LBGT people) that much harder. For all its good intentions, Pink Dot did not do much to advance the freedom to love.

Ideology aside, I also have a couple of observations about the performances. The first is insufficient stage presence. The MCs — Adrian Pang, Tan Kheng Hua, and DJ Big Kid — attempted to raise and maintain a high level of energy and enthusiasm. When the main event begun, everyone had gathered in the middle of Hong Lim Park, leaving an empty circle for the MCs and performers. For some reason, the three MCs favoured only one segment of the circle, with occasional glances to their left and right. They did not turn around.

Needless to say, I was in the arc they did not look at.

The MCs...or their backs

The key to engaging any audience is eye contact. Granted, having an audience that surrounds you on all sides is a bit unconventional. But this could have been overcome with practice, or at least good observation. In this case, the MCs could have spent equal time addressing the audience on all sides: to their front, sides and rear. If nothing else, it makes you look more professional.

The second issue I have with the performance is the dragon dance at the end. A dragon dance is a traditional Chinese dance, usually performed during festive occasions. The dragon is mounted on poles and manned by a dance team. During the dance, the dragon is depicted as pursuing a ball, mounted on a pole and handled by a single dancer. Such dances require a large amount of space to fully show off the dance team’s skills, and to pay homage to the qualities of the dragon.

But there was too little space for the performers. They did their best, to be sure, but the dance largely had them running in circles, with occasional twirls and spins. Even worse, the logistics crew placed some tables and ladders in the middle of the circle. The furniture was not used as props, so they became obstacles — and unsightly obstructions for photographs. Should a dragon dance be scheduled, I think the choreographer should have a say in the amount of space for the performers, to ensure that the dancers would have enough space to perform — or perhaps use props to pull off more difficult, and aesthetically pleasing, maneouvres.

The problems with the performance, though, is just a side note. By failing to squarely face fear, ignorance and prejudice, Pink Dot did little more than bring like minded people together. It can talk about ‘supporting the freedom to love’, but until it addresses the problems restricting the freedom to love, I doubt Pink Dot can do very much, if at all.

Shanmugam's Slippery Slope

Law Minister and Second Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam seems to abandoned logic in favour of imagined catastrophes. In today’s TODAY, Shanmugam said that the mandatory death penalty is a ‘trade-off’ to protect ‘thousands of lives’. In effect, repealing the mandatory death penalty must lead to drug mules being released, which must lead to public sympathy for the mules, which must encourage the drug lords to send more drugs into Singapore. In doing so, he has glossed over the situation in favour of appealing to public fears about drug trafficking and abuse. He does not seem to acknowledge the subtlety of the situation.

Note the distinction between a mule and a trafficker. A mule is the person hauling drugs around, while a trafficker is someone who makes money by buying and selling drugs. Traffickers include street dealers who sell drugs on the street, distributors who move drugs, and kingpins responsible for supply of drugs.

The repeal of the mandatory death penalty does not mean the abolishment or acquittal or all drug mules. It simply means that judges will have to decide whether they should hand down the death penalty for every single drug offender they try, instead of sending them all to the gallows. It does not mean that the offender will be automatically acquitted and released on the streets.

Shanmugam’s example is disingenuous. He says that the drug barons will send young mothers to move drugs. By abolishing the mandatory death penalty, the mother will have to be acquitted, generating public sympathy. This example clearly ignores reality.

Drug mules merely shuttle drugs around. They do not even need to know what they are smuggling. Malaysian Vong Vui Kong, sentenced to death for trafficking heroin, claims that his boss in Johor Bahru asked him to deliver some packages to Singapore without revealing what these packages are. Elsewhere, drug traffickers are seducing young women, recruiting them as unwitting drug mules by asking these women to deliver a package or luggage overseas. Shanmugam’s example means that ignorance is a crime punishable by death.

One of the pillars of justice, as Shanmugam must surely know, is proportionality. Four different people may commit essentially the same crime, but receive different sentences due to different degrees of culpability. In this example, four different men have been arrested for killing someone and are now on trial.

The first man is a hired killer, paid to kill a person. He set out to kill someone, and achieved it. His purposeful action would, in a court of law, earn him the highest penalty.

The second is a disgruntled employee at a bakery. To take revenge on the company, he adds rat poison into the goods. A customer dies as a result, while dozens more fall ill. While his intention was not to kill someone, he knew that his actions would lead to severe harm. He gets the second highest penalty.

The third is a drink driver. After a night of drinking, he speeds home, driving dangerously. He runs down and kills a pedestrian as a result. While he did not intend to cause harm, he acted recklessly, leading to death. Recklessness is considered less severe than deliberate actions, and so he gets a less harsh sentence.

The last one is a terrorist bomber. His girlfriend, visiting her family overseas, asks him to post a package that she forgot to send. He does so. The package is a bomb, and it goes off in the post office, killing a postal employee. He did not intend to kill anyone, and did not know what the package was. Is he culpable for his crime?

Shanmugam has ignored these four categories of criminals, clumping them together as evildoers making war on civilisation. Most developed countries these days frown on drug use, and so do most of their citizens. Mules who knowingly move drugs from place to place tend to come from underdeveloped countries or poor areas of a country, who do so because they have nothing left to lose, and a lot to gain — from their point of view. Such criminals, as far as I know, are not very common in Singapore. The average high-volume drug mule in Singapore moves drugs because he or she was tricked into doing it — the last class of criminal.

Most people would naturally be suspicious if a stranger asked him or her to move packages around. But would they be suspicious if a lover or a superior asked them to do so? Would they examine these packages before sending them on? It’s highly unlikely. Remember the example of the bomber. You can only punish someone for negligence if the person significantly deviates from the standard of care expected in the situation. If the man had passed on the package after receiving it from a stranger, he may be accused of being negligent, because one would reasonably expect him to suspicious of that package. But he was seduced, and one would not expect to scrutinise everything belonging to your lover.

We can only apply the harshest possible penalty if the mule knows that or she knows that he or she is moving drugs — and even then, such a person did not deliberately target someone for harm, making he or she the second-worst kind of criminal, at best. If the mule does not know, then he or she can only belong the fourth class of criminal — or is not a criminal at all. Applying the death penalty, the harshest penalty, for this kind of offender violates the principle of proportionality, and therefore justice — something that Shanmugam fails to acknowledge.

The government opines that the death penalty serves as a deterrent. Only a person who is willing to carry something out can be deterred from doing that something. Only drug mules who are willing to knowingly shuttle drugs can be deterred by the death penalty, and repealing the mandatory death penalty does not abolish the death penalty. Drug mules who do not know they are moving drugs cannot possibly be deterred, because they have no intention of moving drugs.

Repealing the mandatory death penalty means greater discrimination and more options for judges. Judges would then be able to uphold the principles of justice far more easily, being able to hand out sentences in proportion to the crime, instead of being forced to hand out death sentences. The sentence can then fit the crime. Judges can still execute serious drug offenders if they feel the punishment is severe enough, without needing to order the deaths of drug offenders who did not deliberately set out to harm people. The government’s precious policy of deterrence would not be affected by a more selective approach to the death penalty.

(This, of course, means that the abolishment of the mandatory death penalty must lead to changes in relevant laws to reflect culpability)

In short, if the justice system do not punish the victims of con men, why does it insist on punishing people conned into moving drugs?

Now let’s look at this from a different angle. Perhaps Shanmugam was referring to the abolishment of the death penalty for drug offenders, and was worried that doing so encourages drug trafficking. Shanmugam seems to have stepped out of reality if this were his point.

The black market for narcotics is a market, stretching around the world with long supply chains. The drug dealer on the street is just small fry. The drugs he sells are purchased from a distributor, who tends to be just a middleman who moves the drugs, and receives them from yet another middleman. The drug baron, the one who directs production and supply, is motivated by market forces and profit. He is basically a businessman selling illegal goods.

Shanmugam says that if drug mules are released, then ‘you will get a whole unstoppable stream of such people coming through’. That is nonsense. Drug barons do not have infinite production capability. They need raw materials, labs, suppliers, middlemen, and mules. To send such an ‘unstoppable stream’, drug barons would have to step up production capability. This incurs a lot of costs, such as bribes, payment to middlemen and mules, and costs of setting up drug labs. A drug baron would only incur such costs if he is confident that there is sufficient demand — and profits — to cover these costs. By sending an ‘unstoppable stream’, the baron would be jacking up supply — which, as any economist can tell you, reduces prices, and quite probably profit. The only way to make profit in such a situation would be to increase demand for drugs.

To increase demand for drugs, legal companies can conduct market studies, pay for advertising, and conduct public relations campaigns. Drug barons have to rely on the efforts of the street dealers to increase demand for drugs. The drug baron is not selling his product to the street dealer; he is selling his drugs to the drug dealers’ supplier. In the same vein, a writer sells her works to his publisher, even though the readers buy the printed books. But now assume a situation where only the bookstore can sell books, and the books do not carry the authors’ names. This is the market for drugs. The only reasonable way to jack up demand for illegal goods is for the street drug dealers to reach out to people — the baron has little to no control over that. If demand in Singapore were to rise to such a height that the drug barons would send an unstoppable stream of mules, then the real question should be: why has government policy failed to discourage drug use amongst people and stop the street dealers?

Not that such high demand is likely. Singapore is a very small country, and would have a correspondingly small market for drugs. Drug barons would concentrate their efforts on large countries, where there is a higher demand for drugs. Why would drug barons send an unstoppable stream of mules to Singapore, when they would rather send this stream elsewhere? Drug mules are not renewable or widely available. They need to be recruited, and if the mules come from first world countries, the barons would have to spend a lot time and money training the recruiters to successfully swindle mules into sending drugs. Willing mules are more (but not freely, always, nor exclusively) available from poorer regions of the world — and even then, it is difficult to hire them to move drugs beyond a land border to a neighbouring country, or within the same country. Poor people do not behave the same way as most other people, making them stand out in a crowd, and immigration officials would naturally pay more attention to people who stand out. More so if a seemingly poor person somehow manages to afford a plane ticket and can travel overseas. People from more affluent societies are not usually willing mules, because they tend to have more respect for the law and more able to take up legal jobs. It is very costly to send an ‘unstoppable stream’ of mules, and not worth the effort for a small country like Singapore.

Shanmugam has also insulted the police forces and other agencies involving drugs. The greater the number of mules, the higher the chances of arresting one — and more. If the police were to detect an increasing number of drug mules, the police would react accordingly by training more sniffer drugs, cooperating with foreign counterparts, and stepping up enforcement measures. Every arrested drug mule can potentially give away the identity of his or her recruiter — cooperation with foreign counterparts could then lead to increased arrests, disrupting the supply chain. At the same time, the police would embark on a public outreach campaign, in an attempt to target the supply side of drugs. Drug rehabilitation agencies and halfway homes would do the same. The drug dealers and barons can only react to this by reaching out to more people to increase demand, which converts people slower than public outreach programs, increasing prices on the street, which drives away buyers and profits, and by attempting to bribe public officials. The last would attract the attention of the Corrupt Practices Investigation Bureau, which is regularly praised for its efforts (and probably justifiably so). Should drug barons decide to increase supply, they risk exposing themselves to law enforcement officials, who will have more information with which to track them down or disrupt supply chains. This does not even cover probable police responses to ‘soaring crime rates’ caused by crime, which would no doubt be just as holistic and intense. Shanmugam apparently thinks the Singapore Police Force cannot do this, even in the face of massive drug supply. The lack of confidence in the agencies that enforce the laws he is responsible for is noted.

Drug barons face significant obstacles when they attempt to increase supply and movement of drugs in any country, much less Singapore. It is ridiculous to state that releasing one drug mule would encourage drug barons to send more mules. It costs a great deal for them to do so, and Singapore is too small a market for them to bother. If in fact such a thing happens, then demand for drugs would be so widespread that the problem would in fact be demand for drugs, not supply, and the failure of enforcement actions. That is even assuming that the police, in tandem with other rehabilitation agencies, fail to stem the flow of drugs in Singapore. That is not likely for now.

Shanmugam said that the mandatory death penalty saves one life and ruining ten, implying that the other option is to save ten and take one life. This is a false choice. Why take the life if the mule does not know he or she is moving drugs? For that matter, why take the life at all?

If the government truly insists on maintaining the mandatory death penalty, then it must argue on the basis of reality, taking into account the factors mentioned above. It must argue that the mandatory death penalty serves to deter drug mules, even drug mules who do not what that they are moving drugs, and the drug traffickers overseas who cannot be touched by Singapore’s death penalty. It must argue that a more selective approach to the death penalty for drug offences cannot produce the same effect, or is significantly less effective than the mandatory death penalty. It must argue that the death penalty is indeed even necessary, that the punishment fits the crime. It must argue that the life must be taken in the interests of society.

Thus far, Shanmugam has produced a slippery slope and a false dilemma. These are not reasons to take a life. They are excuses to prop up an increasingly unpopular and possibly irrelevant policy. Matters of life and death must be based on reason — not excuses.