Friday, January 13, 2006

The opium of the people

I have been in Singapore for three days this week, visiting our office and when I could, eating at my favourite sushi bar where the prawn tempura maki are out of this world. (This is posted at the lounge in the world's most efficient airport, as I wait for my flight back to HK.)

We ate at a halal Turkish restaurant last night with the entire team (nearly 30 people now) - a completely indifferent meal, laden with bread, which suited the Singaporeans no better than it suited me (we'd all prefer rice). But we had to eat there because one member of the team is a strict Muslim and she insisted that we eat somewhere where the food was not only halal but certifiably so (which was rather difficult to find) and with absolutely no alcohol being offered or consumed on the premises, to the great disappointment of everyone except M, who said she would not be comfortable with eating anywhere else.

I think it's important that we respect M's religious beliefs, but this should be seen according to J.S. Mill's utilitarian precept that each person should be guaranteed the greatest possible liberty that does not interfere with the liberty of others. Next time I think we will tell her that we can't let the choice of venue be dictated by one person.

This seems clear cut, but I am more conflicted about Muslim women wearing headscarves (which is a much more common sight in Singapore due to the different cultural mix here). At worst it seems to me to be a potent symbol of oppression, yet it doesn't affect me directly, so according to Mill's precept it's not interfering with my liberty. But it is creating a division between women and men and I can't help thinking that is extraordinary that women have to make such a public statement of their obedience to their religion - and by extension, to the men who run it.

1 comment:

the letter b / breanagh mc.t said...

hi there - dropped by from headcase's.

i'm surprised that your Malay colleague insisted that everyone go to a halal establishment just because. i must be severely out of touch as the malays i knew since school weren't as aggressive or extreme. they'd at the very least compromise to buy halal meal if the rest are celebrating in a non-halal establishment for instance.

i may sound extreme by saying this, but i reckon it's the current climate of ultra sensitivity whereby alot of people are making an effort to understand islam that perhaps your colleague's taking advantage of.