The dangers of pushing for a uniform society

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…those who advocate for uniformity mistakenly equate uniformity with discipline, and discipline with progress.

Two pieces of news have stirred plenty of discussion among Singaporeans this past few days. What does the proposal for a dress code in universities and an announcement by the Singapore government that “deliberate parenthood by singles at odds with Singapore’s stand” have in common? They both insist on uniformity, even when it comes to personal choices that do not affect the wider community. My opposition towards this mindset can be summarized in this way: those who advocate for uniformity mistakenly equate uniformity with discipline, and discipline with progress.

The Straits Times forum writer who proposed a dress code for university students in Singapore wrote that “by implementing a dress code, we would be demonstrating to the world that we are a disciplined society.” Similarly, the Ministry of Social and Family Development, by stating that there is one correct way to build a family, is signalling to other government institutions, medical institutions and the general public, that they ought to fall in line with this official position. The Ministry probably believes that such a uniform position is good for Singapore. However, that might not necessarily be the case.

I argue that there is no direct correlation between uniformity and discipline, with the mere exception that to enforce uniformity probably requires disciplining people who break the rules. But surely we are not trying to say that the more people are disciplined (as in, punished) the more ‘disciplined’ a society is. Instead, a disciplined society in the more desirable sense is (paradoxically) one where people follow its rules without being constantly watched or disciplined. It is unclear how creating more rules encourage people follow existing ones.

uniformity and discipline does not necessarily lead to progress when it comes to the making of personal choices

In any case, I further argue that even if uniformity leads to a disciplined society, this does not necessarily lead to progress. Of course, there are cases where uniformity and discipline are required for society to function. For example, in the pursuit of equality, we must all be subject to the same laws and regulations, and a society is better off when people exercise self-discipline in not harming one another, and instead unite to look out for one another’s interests. However, I argue that uniformity and discipline does not necessarily lead to progress when it comes to the making of personal choices, such as deciding what clothes to wear, or what sort of family unit to raise a child in. There are two reasons why.

First, restricting people’s personal choices can harm their well-being and those around them. In a society where the government forces the public to accept its version of the ‘correct answer’ to complex personal questions, people are unable to take decisions for themselves in spite of being in the best position to determine what is best for themselves and the people around them. For example, a single parent may have the resources to adopt and raise a child. Denying them the opportunity to do so not only denies them the desired experience of parenthood, but also denies what would otherwise be an orphan child the opportunity to grow up in a loving family unit.

Second, controlling every aspect of a people’s lives, including their personal lives, may hamper creativity and self-expression, leading to the development of a culture based on blind rule-following out of a fear of sanctions. This, in turn, is damaging to a society’s vibrancy, flexibility and its ability to deal with challenges.

If these arguments still do not convince you that uniformity and discipline do not necessarily lead to progress, then let us take the example of North Korea. North Korea is probably the most uniformed and disciplined society in the world. For example, it has rather extreme public dress codes, where people are ‘encouraged’ to pick from 18 different state-approved hairstyles. Is this something that North Korea should be proud of?

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In response, one might argue that while as a whole uniformity may be undesirable, it is necessary when it comes to certain sensitive personal choices, because of the need for unity and stability in society. For example, one might argue that a uniform policy towards what sort of sexual intercourse is permitted in our society (in that only men and women can have sex with one another, and not men and other men) is important for society to stay united, since any non-uniformity will lead to tension and instability, especially among conservative groups.

uniformity is not the same as unity… unity is about society coming together… in spite of the differences between people. 

In response to this, I argue that uniformity is not the same as unity. Uniformity is about everyone in society behaving and thinking the same way. Unity, on the other hand, is about society coming together as a cohesive group in spite of the differences between people. Society can be united without being uniform, and those who threaten to de-stabilise society unless it conforms to their uniform vision of an ideal world are the very people who threaten unity.

In summary, we need to be more careful when we advocate for uniformity in our society. We must never advocate for uniformity for the sake of it, but instead consider the wider impact of enforcing conformity on society, especially on minority groups that will be affected by such policies. While Singapore needs to be united to be strong, uniformity is not the same as unity. Furthermore, uniformity is not the same as discipline, and discipline does not necessarily lead to progress.

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, sociology, legal theory and political philosophy.

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