Re-evaluating the reasons for our social conventions

The recent uproar brought about by the Ashley Madison website in Singapore did more than unsettle me. Quietly I have been following the news and threads on the dialogue between local netizens, the Government, MDA and Ashley Madison, and I have been reeling back in fear at the various reactions and responses exchanged by all parties. All along we have exalted the family unit as an integral and critical backbone of our Asian society, claiming ownership of strong “traditions” and “moral values”.

This episode only seemed to be unveiled some sort of truth for us – that our society is changing, and being “traditional” and “conventional” no longer holds the same degree of appeal or honour as it used to for the older generations. With this, I believe, comes the need to re-evaluate the reasons for the social conventions and beliefs we claim to hold on to. Do we really have the same convictions? What exactly is it, to be moral, anymore? 

When I shared the news of Ashley Madison to a few of my friends in the workplace, I was surprised (more shocked) that I would actually find people who disagreed with the campaign to block the website in Singapore. What made me more uncomfortable were the reasons cited, and I give my personal take on them below.

It is ‘none of my business’. If people want to sign up for it, why would we bother? 

The fact that we are all living in the same community is reason why it should be your business to care. If this website threatens the home of a friend, a relative or your own marriage, would you live in quiet acceptance of its presence? Furthermore, passively agreeing to welcome this site does make you complicit in its movement – you are passively agreeing to the values it upholds.

Maybe it will help keep families together.

Seriously? What about the families that it breaks apart because of it? How would that come into play?

If I need to hook up with someone else other than my wife or husband to keep me sane and thus “keep my marriage together”, I am not keeping my marriage together. I am probably not even in a marriage anymore. That is, unless your idea of marriage is a legal contract between two persons, which is a really depressing definition of a marriage (and definitely not worth spending tens of thousands on for your wedding). If marriage to you, like to me, is a commitment – physical, emotional and spiritual – to a person you promise to love for the rest of your life – there should not even be any room to negotiate for a any brief, casual encounters with someone else.

Anyway, it is just a matter of time before AM comes into Singapore.

True, even with the MDA ban, people can bypass the ban by using a VPN or logging in from another country. The website is up and running, and there is a network of interested parties building. It is just a matter of finding inconvenient to increasingly convenient channels of bypassing the ban and getting what we want (if that is what you are looking for). But why does this make it OK for them to be in Singapore again? Again, passively accepting this is equivalent to saying you are in favour of the concept and values it is founded on.

People should have freedom to do what they want. Those who values commitment and family will stay away from the site. And those who do not, would have committed adultery with or without AM anyway. Blame the people, not the tool. 

It is said that “AM is not the cause of infidelity” and uses this as reason not to block Ashley Madison in Singapore. True, even Noel Biderman, CEO and founder, said that Ashley Madison ‘“does not aggressively promote extra-marital affairs,” and is merely a platform that “cannibalises” an already existing behaviour pattern.’ There are plenty of extra-marital affairs and broken relationships among us and our family unit is definitely not as stable as we may ideally think it to be. But do we say “OK” to the opening of more channels that encourage infidelity because of what we tout as “freedom”? Why do we make things easier for the Wrong to succeed, when it is already difficult enough to do the Right sometimes?

If it comes down to having to make a choice between laying claim to personal freedom and having my government make a stand on what values we want to preserve and champion (despite an ever-growing number of ideologies that run against it), I would choose hands down the latter. Same logic goes to working in school for me. If you asked me which was more important: protecting my personal voice and freedom, or having school leaders that protect and guard the same values that we hold dear and our community is built on (like resilience, and good character, and confidence), I would definitely want a school with leaders who knew how to safeguard our values and convictions, because those strands make us us. 

I may be an old-fashioned conservative, but I find the self-centred view of wanting freedom (and not restricting our choices) extremely wanton and selfish.

Yes, ultimately it boils down to a fundamentally values dialogue.

Yes, it is all about the values and conventions. Ashley Madison and its varied supporters obviously proclaim a different set of values than what we do (or what we are used to).

I personally cannot get past the idea that AM openly claims to reach out to married partners who are looking for brief, casual encounters with another. People justify this as a need which marriage partners are sometimes unable to satisfy – sometimes sexual, sometimes emotional – which explains the warped idea that extra-marital affairs can help keep families together. It pains me to think that what is central to this line of persuasion is that you are the most important person in your life. If you cannot be satisfied, you have the right to look for contentment elsewhere. After all, you may be doing your family a favour.

The images on the website – to “shhh” and keep it a secret – is disturbing. Is it not common sense that when you need to hide something from someone, there is a high possibility that you are doing something wrong? Why does the company choose to feature such images?

AM capitalises on the needs of married persons and their possible weakness towards infidelity, as clients in the running of this website. Yet its founder, supporters and members, do not seem to think that this business concept is very wrong. It is a profit-driven business based on the weaknesses of others – and it justifies itself by apathetically ignoring the issue the morality, and rendering it irrelevant because of the potentially good things it does (like keep families together and satisfy individual needs and … everyone is doing it anyway!)

Not only does it seem to imply that it is reasonable to have an extra-marital affair, it also conversely seems to suggest that a marriage without it will be challenging and impossible. But since when were we told that relationships, marriages and building a family was easy? If commitment was so easy, it would not be called “commitment”.

Take the opportunity to ask some important questions.

Ashley Madison aside, this episode does spur me on to want to ask some important questions like:

Why do we hold on to those values like we did in the past?
Are they still relevant for us today?
How do we know what is right and wrong anymore?

Can we expect to impose our values and ideologies on others in the same community? 

Because honestly, Ashley Madison is going to be just one of those things that digs up our dirty laundry. Once this AM episode cools off and citizens come to accept its place (or lack thereof) in the society, something else is going to come along and jolt us into a string of questions again.

We all join this dialogue with different perspectives and ideas of what values are, how important they are, and why we should or should not fight for them. The Government claims that the site holds a “flagrant disregard for family values and public morality” – laying claim to protect the traditional Asian family values they want (or believe) Singaporeans embody. It is the conservative Asian society they want to preserve, and for many fairly good reasons, political, social, economical. I am not sure how many people actually spoke up against sites like AM because they believe in the transient nature of morality – that there are certain values that time has no bearing on.

There is a certain, definite right and wrong, good and evil, that I believe in, and that is dictated in the Bible. The principles and teachings of the Bible does not change through time – so just like God teaches us to value our loved ones and honour them, to honour the marital vows that were made before the Lord – I believe that those are right things which do not change just because social principles and conventions have shifted somewhat.

“The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever.” – Isaiah 40:8

I believe there is a conscience placed in each of us that gently nudges us to do right and to shy away from wrongdoing. This is how we know that it is wrong to kill a man, betray one’s trust, rob a bank, or turn a blind eye to someone in desperate need. Our conscience may become suppressed into insensitivity and apathy over time, but there is a conscience at work. If we don’t feel good about those extra-marital affairs and feel a need to hide from our partners, we are doing wrong.

The next question is, can we expect to impose our values on the rest of our community, even if out of altruism and goodwill, we believe strongly that it is for the benefit of the people? I believe there is a necessity to stand up for what you know is right, and speak up against what you know is wrong. Of course, not everyone will agree, and some would take much offence at how grandly I appear to boast of my “Christian” moral goodness and integrity when I probably fall short in so many other ways.

Not everyone may understand or appreciate the reasons for your beliefs and convictions, or share your views in morality, but that does not mean that you are wrong to speak up for what you believe in. The Government, MDA, AM, and other bodies speak up about this issue from various points of view. I contribute to the pool of debate as well by speaking up from a personal point of view, and that includes beliefs grounded in my Christian faith.

I cannot condone or accept what Ashley Madison stands for (and of course AM will not the be only thing I frown upon with much disdain), and I want to share a piece of my thoughts if you would read it. In the same way, I hope people reading and exchanging in these dialogue would be able to respect and honour the views of individuals as well – individuals governed by their own set of values, beliefs and convictions.



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