Liberalism and conservatism should not be viewed in a binary manner

Liberalism and conservatism should not be viewed in a binary manner

Recently, there were some letters (“S’pore should not fall prey to demands to be ‘liberal’”; Feb 25, and “Best defence against liberal ideas is proper nurturing”; Feb 26) that warned about liberal “attitudes” in Singapore. These views, which imply liberalism as a decadent concept, are most curious.

There is nothing inherently good or bad about liberalism or its antonym, conservatism. At the broad level, liberalism favours openness, individual agency and progressive change, while conservatism prefers the status quo, collectivism and preservation of tradition. The extent of which a person is liberal or conservative is influenced by his or her culture, family, life experiences, values and religion.

Sometimes, it is possible to empirically prove whether a liberal or conservative approach reaps the best outcome. For example, multiple studies have found that comprehensive sex education (a liberal approach) which includes the teaching of contraceptive use, to be more effective in keeping unwanted pregnancies and sexually transmitted disease rates low amongst youths, compared to abstinence-only sex education (a conservative approach).

Other times, when the issue is more amorphous, it is not easy to use empiricism to test the superiority of one view over the other. The recent brouhaha over Madonna’s concert in Singapore is one such good example. Detractors of Madonna claim that those who attend her concert run the risk of walking away morally corrupted, while her fans and casual observers dismissed such conservative concerns as mere paranoia. Since the character-altering effect of attending a Madonna concert cannot be measured, we just have to let and let live and allow people to make their own judgments and decisions.

Lastly, it would be naïve to assume that people subscribe to liberalism and conservatism in a binary manner. A person can well be both liberal and conservative at the same time. One can be liberal in supporting generous social redistributive policies, but conservative in supporting tough stances on crime. Or one can be liberal in supporting LGBT rights, but hold conservative views towards embryonic stem cell research.

It is reductionist and lazy to object to an issue by simply repeating the idiosyncratic “liberalism-is-bad” chant. Whether one is putting forth a liberal or illiberal thesis, it would be more intelligent, constructive and convincing to buttress one’s stance with evidence and logical argument.