Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Speak up on science issues? Where are our ethicists when you need them?

Straits Times Science Correspondent Chang Ai-Lien wrote a commentary today entitled "Speak up on science issues before it's too late" in which she bemoans the lack of a public voice with respect to new scientific developments.

A timely piece. And she's absolutely right. (I'm actually quite surprised that over the past less-than-a-year I have posted no less than 19 times on ethics.)

But yes, we are a nation that does not find it comfortable discussing ethics. We prefer things to be black and white. We would actually much prefer to be told what is ok and what not. To a large extent, I believe the gahment has been responsible for this malaise. For a long while, we were 'taught' to be pliant.... and to accept oracles from the Temple of Delphi. Oracles that will tell us what to do about abortion, the death penalty etc. How else could we have so successfully 'engineered' Singapore society, in such a short span of history?

So today, even as our society 'opens up', our people still wait to be told what is right and what not. We wait with bated breath for proclamations from the Ministry of Health about the rightness and wrongness of organ trade, of euthanasia, of embryonic stem cell research and cloning. If the National Medical Ethics Committee (who?) says it is OK, then it must be.

Our ethicists generally shy away from any public discussions where their ideas may be challenged or tested. Instead, they prefer to cloister in hallowed august bodies where they have safety in numbers, and can make wise (and politically correct) pronouncements (advisories).

The lack of a public voice on ethics is unhealthy. It may however, be convenient for the government, because it allows for a relatively unhindered implementation of policies which may be 'gray' with respect to ethics. But this silence is without doubt, unhealthy for the development of our civic society.

So thank you, Ms Chang, for your commentary. But sadly, the cynical in me believes it will likely fall on deaf ears.


Li Sui said...

In Singapore, we don't have ethicists, only religionists.


gigamole said...

naaahhhh......more like non-religious pragmatists.

Anonymous said...

Nahhhh, we do have ethicists, only that they will not surface when it does not suit their interests.

Li Sui said...

Naaahhh, more like we let the gahmen settle the ethics so that, if anything goes wrong, we can point fingers at it.

Anonymous said...

Seriously, the perceived silence from ethicists could be partly due to the fact that many times, when the spoke up, the government does what it wants anyway.

A recent example is organ trading being made legal with scant details/thorough research despite its controversy, and the speedy transplant available to Tang, that raised questions about fairness, transparency and suspicions of under the table deals.

Donaldson Tan said...

Then what is the Bioethics Committee for?

gigamole said...

I think part ( probably a major part) of the problem in Singapore, is that whatever 'ethicists' we have tend to be sequestered into formal groups such as the BAC or the NMEC or sit on various ethics committees.

Once they get corralled into these groups they effectively lose their voice, and consequently their ability to speak out as individuals, in case they appear to break ranks with the consensus views. Views about ethics therefore appear to be monolithic.

One other question I have is, who qualifies to be an ethicists? Are ethicists identified because they tend to espouse similar ethical opinions?