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Sunday September 5, 2010

Between ethics and etiquette

More people are taking a stand on what they eat, but where do they draw the line between political correctness and politeness?

SINGAPORE: Whenever Olivia Choong receives an invitation to a wedding, she makes it a point to ask if shark’s fin soup is being served. If it is, she skips the occasion.

Both a vegetarian and an anti-shark’s fin advocate, she made an exception earlier this year when a persuasive bride-to-be begged her to ease up on her self-imposed ban. But she felt torn.

In the end, she presented the bridal couple with a special hongbao at the dinner. Designed by LoveSharks.sg, a local anti-shark’s fin group, a message on it urges diners to boycott the delicacy.

“My friends usually give me a polite smile when they accept the hongbao,” says Choong, a 31-year-old publicist who is the founder of Green Drinks Singapore, a networking platform for environmentalists.

Fellow environmentalist Jaki Teo, 28, a marketing director for a diving company and the organiser of LoveSharks.sg, also finds herself in similar situations.

She says: “If it is a business dinner, I would ask to change the venue. Most business associates are very understanding. They are also afraid to make things awkward so they usually try to remove the awkwardness by going somewhere else.”

Things are a “bit more complicated” if the event is a friend’s wedding.

“What I did the last time was tell my friend that many people these days do not consume shark’s fin and it would be a waste of money for him to serve it,” she says.

“I also made it very clear that he would get a much smaller hongbao if he served shark’s fin.”

Choong and Teo are not alone in their ethical eating approach.

Increasingly, more people are taking a stand on what they eat, in a more environmentally concerned world: from rallying against the slaughter of sharks to abstaining from meat to lowering their carbon footprint.

However, it is throwing up a slew of new social dilemmas about drawing the line between ethics and etiquette.

When does turning down a bowl of shark’s fin soup at a dinner – or in Choong’s case, not attending at all – border on bad manners?

At one end of the spectrum, people whose causes dictate their appetites contend that they should consistently stand up for what they believe in.

At the other end, there is this: between political correctness and politeness, should it not be the latter that takes precedence?

Wealth manager and meat-lover S.K. Tan, 43, attended a wedding where the hosts did not serve meat for ethical reasons. He says: “I didn’t think it was very considerate of the couple. I was hungry even after all the courses.

“People can have their own beliefs but I don’t think they should impose them on others.”

At a recent Chinese wedding, nurse Joanne Ng, 27, was seated with two guests who looked aggrieved when shark’s fin was served.

“One walked out and came back only after the course was cleared, and the other tried to persuade other people at the table to boycott the dish,” she says.

“I felt they spoilt the party and made it about them rather than the couple.”

Because so many of these awkward situations revolve around the favourite Singaporean pastime of eating and dining out, it seems new social minefields are emerging daily.

There are difficult questions, whatever your beliefs: to attend or not to attend, to serve or not to serve, to speak up or to hold your peace.

Etiquette consultant Raelene Tan says friction might occur in communal settings because these days “people are more outspoken and are not afraid to air their views, no matter how controversial they may be”.

“Previously, people were more mindful of keeping the peace and toeing the line.”

As far as dinner party etiquette is concerned, the practical answer is that it all depends, says Tan. She believes it is the prerogative of the host to serve what he wants. Special requests from guests are acceptable for religious, medical or ethical reasons, but “fads and fancies have no place”.

And as for speaking up, walking out or other statements of protest, it is best to do so without any fuss or fanfare. Disrupting the occasion is a big no-no, she adds.

Indeed, mutual tolerance and restraint seem to be the way to go.

Take lecturer George Jacobs, 58, a vegan of 30 years, and his wife, private banker Fong Cheng Hong, 50. After 20 years of marriage, she still loves her meat.

Describing her husband as “very liberal”, Fong says: “By the time I met him, I was set in my ways. I wish I could change but I can’t. All I can do is to try to reduce my meat intake.”

The couple make daily compromises. They have smoothies for breakfast and a simple vegetarian meal for dinner. But at their separate lunch hours, she is free to eat meat.

She does not expect him to prepare meat for her but says: “Even if we invite friends over, we rarely have vegetarian as most of them are meat lovers.”

“We emphasise the social, not the food,” says Jacobs, who is president of the Vegetarian Society.

Researcher Jared Tham, 32, believes in the concept of “virtual water”, choosing what food to eat depending on how much water has been used to process it. He tries to stay away from beef, for example, because too much water – 10,000 litres to be exact – is needed to fuel the production process behind just 1kg of the meat.

Thinking over the ethics-etiquette debate, he says: “My personal preferences should affect just me. They should not go as far as to impact other people. At the end of the day, my relationships with people are more important.”

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