Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ker-Yu's "Common Decency"

The Straits Times, faced with decreasing readership (don't worry, I'm still a subscriber), can always bank on a few things to ensure a glimmer of hope for survival in changing media landscape.

Other than it being almost a monopoly of the English daily market (hence the boast of being the most widely read English daily. Hey, one out of one is still one), it has the propensity to publish flame baits of letters from members of the public.

I refer to latest letter by Ong Ker-Yu. She writes:

I am writing to request the removal of an indecent, giant poster plastered across the new Knightsbridge mall building along Orchard Road.

It not only makes no sense as an advertisement for a clothing brand (the man in it has virtually no clothes on), but it is also plain lewd.

A girl gets berated for letting slip the F-word in a speech ('NTU regrets use of expletive during speech'; Aug 1), but it is all right to plaster the giant picture highlighting a part of the male anatomy that should remain private, on the busiest shopping stretch on the island!

I have stood at the crossing between Ngee Ann City and Paragon watching passers-by as they catch sight of it, and every single person I have noticed has either looked away quickly, in what can only be embarrassment, or pointed it out to a friend for a quick giggle.

And let me pre-empt the usual counter eagerly dismissing Singaporeans for being so 'sexually repressed' as to tear it down.

This is a matter of common decency, plain and simple.

I will categorically and unequivocally state that Ong Ker-Yu is a jerk, plain and simple, and I am fine if there isn't any consensus on that.

I only respect her statement that she feels the advertisement is "plain lewd". That is her opinion, and that is fair enough. She further provides an assessment derived from her non-participant observation qualitative research to justify her statement. Fair enough, as she was in fact sharing her opinion.

But the statement that pisses me off the most is the last one "This is a matter of common decency, plain and simple".

Maybe the editors might have done some corrections, but I will assume with such a flame bait oozing utter selfishness and self-righteousness, its pristine form would not have been desecrated by the Straits Times.

There are people who fear their opinion alone cannot change things (to change the world and shape it in a way that's in line with their subscribed ideology would be the "common" scenario because it's rather rational to live comfortably without much opposition, right? Ask Lee Kuan Yew). And they eventually resort to the atomisation and simplification of diverse society, stuff their imperialist supremacist ideological catchphrases into every orifice of its, make the eventual proclamation of universality (it's good to show that your beliefs and views are aligned with yours idea of universalism).

It is a fair approach to discuss the limitations and implications of an issue, but Ker-Yu's sweeping statement is "plainly and simply" contrary to that. At least moral crusaders will hide behind their fragile idea of what the institution of children and family should be, and terrorise us with their "think about the children" rhetoric.

It is not about sexual repression, a point well and critically thought through by a possibly well-educated Ker-Yu, but about what I read to be the selfishness and arrogance in her concluding statement.

It is universalist claims like hers that further divide society, privileging those who happen to fall under the same ideological specifications as the claims, and marginalising the rest who may happen to have, in the case of the advertisement, a different opinion, morally and aesthetically.

The male form is often observed to be more offensive than the female form (historically too, due to physicality and sexual violence), hence (and ironically) the greater attention on how male bodies are to be presented, while gratuitous sexualisation of female bodies remain the default in our society. Even renowned self-righteous George Lim Heng Chye looked at boys and penises and wrote about them in his famous letters to the Straits Times. I'm probably more conservative than him and wouldn't do such a thing in my forum letters.

Coming back to Ker-Yu. I believe she probably represents a segment of Singaporean society, ready to assume and embrace the role of the moral police, because any one can safely assume she would be the among the "good guys" (sorry, can't find a gender neutral term.. "folks"?).

This is where educated people become divided. Some abuse their privileges to further their ideological cause or, often times, the cause of the socio-religious groups of which they are members, at the expense of people who have other beliefs. It is all about creating a bigger space for comfort, and arming yourself with people who think like you, so you can conquer and colonise the minds of others who don't.

Perhaps it is far too deep a reading into Ker-Yu's letter, but it has made me angry enough. I feel misrepresented and insulted every time someone publicly expresses a point of view and passes it off as universal or as part of the "majority".

In short, if you have a problem with something, say it in a personal capacity first and foremost. When you respect your boundaries, and the boundaries that separate you from people who may think differently from you, people will respect you for that.

You can have the right to be sexually repressed (if so), but your self-righteousness is more in my face than the advertisement is in your face. Not cool.


lee said...

guys to me is a neutral term,so no worries.
yeah if that is to be banned,many posters of women in undergarments need to be taken off too

keryums said...

Dear Sam,

Just fyi, the editor of ST Forum did in fact edit, in my opinion, rather heavily, my letter - not only replacing my use of the word "crotch" with "a part of the male anatomy that should remain private", but also leaving out one of my central points that "For a media advisory board that censors the word "whiskey" from a song on radio (Lady Antebellum's Need You Now), the permission of said poster seems to me inconsistent to say the least."

As for your qualm with "plain and simple", my concluding sentence was originally, "And let's have no defenses in the form of Singaporeans' being "sexually repressed" or what not - this is just a matter of common decency."

I can't decipher from your post whether you disapprove of the word "common", or the phrase, "plain and simple", but if this makes any difference to you, there you go.


Kenneth said...

Ker-Yu I think you need to go public with your original letter, put them side by side with the letter that went to print, then demand an explanation from ST Forum as to why they edited your letter.

Sam Ho said...

Ker-Yu, thanks for clarifying.

The edit did make you come across as arrogant with the "plain and simple".

I still disagree with "common decency", because there are people like myself who are trying very hard to prevent a monopoly of the boundaries of obscenity and decency, and dictate moral discourse, at the expense of other views.

If you're going to go public, properly quoted or not, and engage everyone on issues of decency, I hope you'll not take for granted we're a homogeneous society.

I personally find the poster questionable, like you.

But not on grounds of what I would define "decency", but on the grounds of continual sexualisation and glorification of male bodies, affecting the esteem and body confidence of young males in our society.

Keep the moral crusading for a community that's more receptive to it. If it's in public, heavily edited or not, I would feel misrepresented by this taken-for-grantedness and address it.

I still don't like the contents of the letter, and we can complain about the Straits Times another time. I'm glad you cared about a differing view to engage it.

Sam Ho said...

ker-yu, you may also be interested in alex's blog post.

keryums said...

Dear Kenneth,

Thank you for your advice, I may or may not take it.

For while doing so may appease people like Sam, who take offense with particulars like the wording of the letter, others will continue to hurl insult, lacking any degree of substantial counterpoint, my way, just for voicing the opinion that I have, namely, that the image is inappropriate and should be removed.

A part of me thinks there is little point in adding fuel to a senseless fire.

I suppose if I do decide to follow up on your suggestion, it would be to raise an entirely new issue.


keryums said...

Dear Sam,

To be honest, I bothered to respond at all simply because I don't like being called a jerk.

And fyi, to make a categorical statement and then admit even the possibility of a lack of consensus is an oxymoron.


Sam Ho said...

the responsibility comes with the privilege of writing.

you're still a jerk to me. it doesn't matter who agrees on that. and while you are brave and strong charactered, i think you're not a good person, either that, or it's just poor AQ. but life goes on.

otto fong said...

While I respect Key-Yu's right to express herself, I fully agree with Sam that this is in no way "plain and simple". Orchard Road is not Disneyland. It is a commercial shopping district. It has to be interesting, though not obscene, to young people and adults too. The poster, while pushing the envelope, has not crossed the line of decency in my view. It shows no more (actually less) than a Statue of David. It made me think about my own stance of what is art. It asks me what is the difference between objectifying women and objectifying men in commercial ads. Only it is doing so in a public space instead of a museum, hence giving all an opportunity to ask and debate. For that alone, I think it should stay. I won't insist that my views are plain and simple and should be accepted by everyone.

Co.Will said...

Have to agree with Sam, the definition of jerk is totally apt here.

Who give her the right to define 'common decency' on my behalf?

Having opinion is fine, but imposing it on others is NOT.

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