The Indonesian Anti Discrimination Movement (Gerakan Perjuangan Anti Diskriminasi-GANDI)

Religious harmony in Singapore – a façade? PDF Print E-mail
Written by Terence Lee   
Thursday, 24 March 2011 12:09

THE WORLD watched intently when Barack Hussein Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States of America.

But being a Singaporean, it came to me as a surprise that God was invoked so many times during the ceremony. And I understood that this was cause for controversy among some critics who took issue with how the presidential oath would end with a “so help me God.”

Such a phrase will never be uttered by a Singaporean politician, in any ceremony or tradition. You often hear a minister talk about religion and religious harmony, but never about his own religious experiences. While Obama spoke of the “grace of God” and “may God bless America” in his inauguration speech, Singapore political rhetoric is too often infused with hard facts and GDP figures.

Frankly speaking, when was the last time you heard a Singaporean minister speak about his religious journey? It remains something hidden behind closed doors.

While controversy raged over the selection of Pastor Rick Warren to conduct the opening prayer of the inauguration ceremony, there would be no such controversy in Singapore – we have a staunchly secular government. Politics and religion do not mix, not in the same way that Americans do it anyway.

Too much harmony in Singapore?

Furthermore, religious debate in Singapore is watered down and diluted, restricted to the purpose of furthering political objectives — the maintaining of multi-religious and multi-racial harmony. Terrorism and its ill-effects is much emphasised, and differences between faiths are played down. There is deep appreciation of how cordiality must be maintained between religion, but a distinct lack of understanding on the religions itself.

This “over-harmonisation” of religious debate in political and public discourse will stifle the intellectual and spiritual development of Singapore society.

A survey was done to find out the religious attitudes among 2,779 Singaporean secondary school students, and the results were surprising. While three-quarters of students stressed the importance of tolerating people of other faiths, their definition of “tolerance” is simply “not talking about it.”

I do not think this is the type of society we want to build. Ignorance should not be made to be a trade-off with religious harmony.

I saw in YouTube once a video documenting a debate between a Christian and a Muslim in an American university. Such a debate is unlikely to happen in Singapore, because it would be deemed too “controversial” by the university administration. The argument would go that such debates exacerbate differences between religions rather than highlight similarities, and would be detrimental to the multi-religious harmony that Singapore tried so hard to build up over the years.

But the fact is this: the differences between various faiths are obvious and plain for all to see. While similarities must be emphasised, the differences cannot be ignored as well. Religious discussion should be allowed to flourish with less restraint, as this well benefit Singapore society and its people.

To be sure, an American-style mix of church and state cannot happen in Singapore. For pragmatic reasons, Singapore must remain a secular society. After all, Singapore is not dominated by any one religion, and any emphasis on any one religion in politics is the death kneel for the government. But since when does maintaining religious harmony mean agreeing all the time?

Agreeing to disagree

We have seen how ideological foes can remain united towards a single purpose, as demonstrated by the recent US elections which led up to Obama’s election as president.

Watching the inauguration ceremony on CNN, I was struck by how the incumbent president George Bush and Obama were so cordial towards one another, despite their very obvious differences. Obama was blunt in his inauguration speech about the apparent failings of the Bush administration, but this was separate from his own treatment of the incumbent.

It should be noted that the respect and honour that Barack Obama showed towards George Bush was unprecedented. I remembered how the commentator could not recall any other incoming presidents sending off the incumbents in such a way as Obama did. The scene was memorable – The Obamas and Bidens waved as the helicopter carrying George and Laura Bush ascended, marking an end to eight years of unpopular presidency.

The mark of a man is defined by how he honours his opponents even after a sharp and heated argument.

In a similar vein, Singapore society can display the same sense of unity and honour towards one another while disagreeing on every issue under the sun. It goes for political debate, and it should go for religious debate as well. In fact, highlighting differences could serve the function of strengthening relations as it would lead to a greater appreciation of diversity.

It’s time to loosen up

After almost half a century of development as a nation, Singapore has progressed much economically, but there is some distance to go before we catch up politically and culturally.

The biggest obstacle, however, to such development is found the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which proves to be the biggest bugbear in vigourous religious debate. A restraining order can be placed on any member of a religious institution for the following reasons:

(a) causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups;

(b) carrying out activities to promote a political cause, or a cause of any political party while, or under the guise of, propagating or practising any religious belief;

(c) carrying out subversive activities under the guise of propagating or practising any religious belief; or

(d) exciting disaffection against the President or the Government while, or under the guise of, propagating or practising any religious belief.

The clauses mentioned above are vague and poorly defined. “Enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility” will always exist whenever differences are highlighted, even when it is unintentional. One man’s offense can easily lead to another man’s arrest.

While noble in intent, the Act goes to the extreme of out rightly separating religion from politics, when in reality the two are inexorably linked. It also places the authority of the State above religion, when in fact religion should act as a check on government.

Such a topsy-turvy arrangement is problematic for the well-being of the nation, for if the State rules over the nation, then who rules over the State? Surely not the mainstream media, which has been rendered toothless by the government? Surely not the judiciary, which has been found to be loyal to the State?

It is time Singapore loosen up for its own good.

Religious debate, if correctly regulated, can be rational, calm, and beneficial, much like what the YouTube video has shown. Richard Dawkins argues in “The God Delusion” that the discussion of religion should be treated like any topic – subject to the same scrutiny and objectivity, and I believe he is right.

For if what one discusses has eternal consequences, then should not such debates be encouraged even more?

Terence Lee, Youth Editor,



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