23 November 2006

The Myth of Religious Harmony in Singapore

Yawning Bread is a brave man. Braver than Mr Wang.

Yawning Bread has just written an essay entitled "The Niqab and the Freedom of Religion - is there any logical reason why people speak of the freedom of religion?".

It is written in typical Yawning Bread style - articulate, intelligent and very well-reasoned. Nevertheless it takes a certain degree of courage to write it (even though most of his examples are taken from outside Singapore). For the essay addresses a topic that is quite taboo in Singapore - religion.

Jus think Sedition Act; Internal Security Act; Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act; and the Penal Code. There are probably one dozen different ways you could get arrested or detained in Singapore, for talking about religion in the "wrong" way.

We like to say that there is religious harmony in Singapore. Actually, that depends on your understanding of the word "harmony".

I would not say that there is religious "harmony" in Singapore. I would say that there is religious tolerance. In Singapore, there is undeniably a high degree of mutual religious tolerance, instilled by the efforts of the Singapore government.

Those efforts work on this basic principle - if you offend someone else's religion, you're gonna get it from the government.

Thus there is mutual tolerance. Not harmony. There is the absence of inter-religious violence, but not the presence of inter-religious understanding. Can we make that further leap? It would be a great achievement indeed.
    ST Nov 22, 2006
    Singapore may host world interfaith dialogue, says SM

    SENIOR Minister Goh Chok Tong wants Singapore to be a venue for interfaith dialogue, bringing religious leaders together to promote greater understanding of each other's faith.

    Mr Goh raised the issue of such a meeting with the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Tarcisio Bertone who was 'very supportive' of the idea when they met in Rome on Monday.

    'I suggested that since this is a troubled world, we should think of organising an interfaith dialogue in Singapore,' Mr Goh told Singapore media after the half-hour meeting.

    Standing just outside the Vatican's St Peter's Square, he said Singapore is an ideal venue for such a meeting late next year or in early 2008 as it is a multi-religious society where people live in harmony.

    'If we can have interfaith dialogue initiated by Singapore, the Vatican, plus a few other heads of religion, then we can contribute to a better understanding between people of different religions,' he added.

    Singapore has been spreading the word of wanting to host an interfaith dialogue, an idea that Foreign Affairs Minister George Yeo surfaced a few months ago.

    In his ministry's addendum to the President's address at the opening of Parliament earlier this month, Mr Yeo said Singapore is committed to promoting interfaith dialogue in the coming years.

Technorati: ; .


The Human Battery said...

> Those efforts work on this basic principle - if you offend someone else's religion, you're gonna get it from the government.

I think it also depends on which religion. If it's the religion of some important minority race (Islam), or that which the bulk of the elite subscribe to (Christianity), sure. But if it's the religions of the peasants, I doubt if the govt will step in.

Anyway, nothing for any of us to complain about. Look at me! I am a happy Human Battery living blissfully on my peaceful matrix island, governed by my all-knowing Matrix Master (MM).

Come here and pick the blue pill. You will be happy too :)

leopsyche said...

Then there is the distinction between tolerance and apathy.

And, of course, the religious tolerance/harmony for Jehovah's Witnesses...

Anonymous said...

Maybe one main reason we do not have religious harmony is we got the label wrong right from the start. We may need to replace the word "tolerance" with "acceptance".

Tolerance or tolerate certainly does not convey a positive feel. When someone says "I tolerate you", it conveys a negative feeling. Perhaps it is time we talk and dialogue in religious acceptance rather than tolerance.

angry doc said...

Just to share an article:


Anonymous said...

It seems to be a matter of semantics whether we use the word harmony, tolerance, or co-existence. Whatever the case may be, religions have existed peacefully alongside in Singapore all these years, and I don't see what the issue is about. It may be worthwhile to pay a visit to Waterloo Street (next to the Albert Complex) to see worshippers at the Kuan Im Thong Hood Cho Temple praying and putting joss sticks at the Hindu Temple next to it.

Chris said...


It would be nice to change religious 'tolerence' into 'acceptance', simply because you can dictate how a person thinks. Well, personally I have no problems with the Govt clamping down hard on people who shoot-down other peoples' religions.

Imagine if there weren't strict laws for this, it would be utter chaos. Insulting someones' religion is actually similar to racisim. As for Jehovah's Witness, the Govt had no choice but to ban them because they are politically motivated and opposed NS.

Chris said...

I'm sorry my comment made no sense i meant to say "It would be nice to change religious 'tolerence' into 'acceptance' but the reality is that you can't change the way people think.

My apologies.

Eeps & Weexy said...

The unfortunate truth is - religion divides.
Most would say all roads lead to Rome. Indeed all religions (I prefer belief) are about the same - superficially, but fundamentally different. All claim to have THE truth and, as we all know, TRUTH IS divisible.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

Well, Cool Insider:

I think that religious tolerance means that tolerance will continue only so long as the authorities have the power to maintain it.

Without real harmony or acceptance or understanding, the risk is that as soon as the authorities lose power and slip in their vigilance, inter-religious strife / violence may break out.

To use a simple non-religious analogy, it is like how Saddam Hussein maintained a relative state of peace in Iraq via his warlord methods. The moment Saddam falls out of power and his troops are no longer there to exert his will for him, the different ethnic groups in Iraq start killing each other. That's because there never was harmony between them in the first place; merely tolerance imposed through fear.

The analogy is inappropriate in some ways, but you get the idea.

Anonymous said...

Dr Chee Soon Juan's statement on his imprisonment

The Tarot Apprentice said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

I do not like the term "tolerance": it's the idea of "not fighting something unpleasant". Tolerance is the enemy of understanding.

As a Christian, I'm willing to pray in a mosque .... I won't offer joss sticks to anyone but I would still like to have a good talk without having these walls of non-interaction.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for your response! Certainly I agree that Saddam's reign of fear resulted in an uneasy truce amongst his people.

Personally, I do have faith and confidence that most Singaporeans are happy and harmonious when it comes to embracing a multi-religious society. There may be occasional rotten eggs here and there, but these are really the exceptions rather than the norm.

Harmony comes from tolerance and acceptance, plus the recognition that we are all much more similar than different. The thing that I would like to emphasise in whatever way I can is that people are very similar no matter what our religions, cultures, ethnicities, and nationalities are. We should not let age-old prejudices and stereotypes get the better of us.

Maybe one idea is to get everybody to visit each other's places of worship. As part of my job, I have been to temples, mosques, churches, synagogues and shrines, and have always left each place completely fascinated and deeply appreciative.

Anonymous said...

It has been said before, and let it be said again:

Give me liberty or give me death.

Why do I need a government to intercede on my behalf in order to judge whether information is suitable for me? To me, the government is doing me a disservice. For any religion, if someone had a concern about it, I would not want it to be silenced: let him speak, so that I may have the chance to address his grievance.

Saddam's totalitarianism openly repressed the Shias and the Kurds in favour of the Sunnis: it was hardly an "uneasy truce".

Harmony does not come about through tolerance: it comes about through diffusion and exchange of ideas. Harmony can only exist where the state does not have to intercede between individuals in order to maintain goodwill between cultural groups. Otherwise it is not harmony at all, but tension.

If we have to watch our words in order not to "upset the racial harmony and balance in Singapore", there was never any harmony in the first place.

If cultural ties and cooperation are so fragile as to burst into riots by the blogs of a few people, one wonders what kind of harmony it is if it's so fragile in the first place.

Nay, what kind of "balance" is it when cultural hegemony dominates the others? This seems more akin to Saddam's repression: peace exists because the other cultures are repressed. Surely this cannot be harmony.

And furthermore, even if it was balance, one wonders if playing off factions against one another is harmony at all. That would be akin to saying "the Soviet Union and the United States" are in harmony.

But I do believe we have harmony. The fault as I see it, lies in the backward ways and the massive bigotry of the older generation, specifically the older Chinese who still believe that if the ratio drops below 75%, apocalypse will come.

Why is it so important to maintain a majority? Better a mixture of pluralities, where there will be no hegemony.

Overthrow the Old Dynasty and restore some Sanity.

KiWeTO said...

To Chris,

why is there the presumption that being a Jehovah's Witness is politically motivated?

If one believed as his religion that to bear arms is wrong in the eyes of his god, then that is a belief.

The political angle comes in only because SG has mandatory conscription, and a JW's beliefs is directly contradicting that rule.

I find it intriguing that you see it as politically motivated first and foremost then the 'opposed NS' line of thought. Has SG propaganda of the 'approved story' been so successful that one determine for oneself there is a political motivation iself in framing the JW's as anti-NS rather than anti-violence.

Guess that's a missing gap in our education system. We aren't supposed to question, just accept that something is bad.

Sounds like totalitarianism to me.


Chris said...

Hmm, it seems I was misunderstood. Jehovah's Witness is not a politically motivated group, but the very fact they publicly opposed NS obviously didn't sit well with the regime. Unlike Malaysia, Singapore keeps religion and politics two seperate issues.

As soon as religion begins to creep into politics, the alarm bells go off, which explains why they were banned.

And to explain further what i mean about Singapore being in chaos if there weren't any laws to control people from criticising other religions, what i actually mean is: Racism and criticising religion both discriminate against certain groups of people. If you can simply say what you wish about Islam, Christianity or Buddism, its a vantage point for discontentment to creep into our society.

Do we want that? Hell no. If we can have some RJC kid making a joke out of the normal working class, we definately have some idiots who simply open their mouths to criticise religon, that would be a much bigger problem

Chris said...

It is bad to criticise religion because you are discriminating against a certain group of people. If you have your own personal views of which religion is wrong and which is right, then so be it.

There is no end to the debate about which religion is the best and which isn't. Personally, I feel no good can come out of it because it is difficult to ascertain many assertions using basic logic.

Discussing religion is not like discussing a GST hike. Religion can be many things to many people. I rather be reading about general politics anyway.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

It is of course not a new issue. The Renaissance scientist Nicolaus Copernicus was killed for suggesting that the earth revolves around the sun.

That was because the religious belief of that time and age was the earth stood in the centre of the universe, and it was the sun which revolved around the earth.

I'd give more recent, and detailed, examples, but I'm afraid someone might kill me too. Or at least report me to the police.

angry doc said...


Why should any group of people be beyond criticism, based purely on the fact that they hold certain beliefs? Should, for example, JC students who despise the working class be beyond criticism, purely because they belong to 'a certain group of people' and hold certain beliefs?

From a practical point of view, I can understand why you will want to ban criticism of religion to avoid open conflict. However, you yourself noted that it is "difficult to ascertain many assertions using basic logic" when it comes to the bases of religions. Given that, what is there to prevent me from starting a religion which has amongst its requirements the practice of, say, requiring all children in the faith to wear a "I'm Stupid" T-shirt, and then claim offence when the rest of society objects to it as being degrading?

From a practical point of view one can argue for a law that prohibits criticism of religions, but intellectually, it is dishonest. Moreover, we should look at whether it is offence we are trying to avoid, or the violent expression of those who have taken offence we are against. If it is the latter, then why should we not simply legislate against violent expression (which we do)? If it's the former, then I suppose we can never succeed, because you cannot control what people choose to be offended over.

Trebuchet said...

Well, Mr Wang, there are serious doubts that Copernicus was a) revolutionary, b) revolutionary enough, c) revolutionary enough to have inconvenienced the church, d) revolutionary enough to have inconvenienced the church enough to want to kill him.

You could start here, and work towards this for a more balanced view. Then again, you might just be confusing Copernicus with Galileo, who royally (or catholically?) pissed people off by his very nature.


Anonymous said...

Hi Chris and angry doc,

Chris wrote that "it is difficult to ascertain many assertions using basic logic". Well, for that we have the theologians. For practical reasons, I think you are right to err on the side of caution as we cannot be sure that there is true understanding or tolerance between the adherents of different religions. But I may be idealistic to think that it is better to have everything in the open so that there cannot be any misunderstanding festering somewhere hidden to catch us unaware. Better the devil you know than a devil you don't. :)

angry doctor wrote, "Given that, what is there to prevent me from starting a religion which has amongst its requirements the practice of, say, requiring all children in the faith to wear a "I'm Stupid" T-shirt, and then claim offence when the rest of society objects to it as being degrading?"

Well, the problem is that you do not have a long history on your side. This is why new cults often claims its roots in established religions. But more seriously, I am for your view that nothing should be above criticism. The more you legislate against it the more infantile the people would be and take any comment, even a reasonable one, as an insult.

The problem is how people interpret their religions. Some have a rather exclusivistic view, making any discussion with them potentially explosive. But can anyone confirm that inclusivism or pluralism has prevailed sometime in human history? I would be really happy to hear.

angry doc said...

Actually, isn't a legislation mandating 'religious harmony' in a way discrmination against exclusivist religions? :)

Anonymous said...

Hi angry doc,

Yes, you are sharp to point out that the law would gag the exclusivists' attack of other religions.

However, it is a double-edged sword as Yawning bread has pointed out:

What our Penal Code does is to stay silent on the punch but come down hard on the counter-punch. A religion can attack a target group (so long as it isn't another religion or race), but when that group shouts back, it risks breaking the law.

If correct the exclusivists could hide behind the law when it attacks an entity that is non-religious. Of course there might also be trouble for victims whose "religion" is some form of vague syncretism between religions and cultures, e.g. Chinese folk religionists.

I think this is an example of too much of a good thing, don't you agree? :)

angry doc said...

To my knowledge, the Bill was first mooted with the intention of countering anticipated (at that time) inter-religious conflict.

As usual, there are always unintended consequences, which are not always unwelcomed by some... :)

Chris said...

Well, I concede that some people use religion as a shield of immunity, which is bad. I concur that no one should be above criticism. But you must remember, laws are still laws and if you break it, no religion will save you, especially in LKY land.

Maybe I can offer a different perspective on the matter. I'm still adamant you shouldn't criticise religion, simply to preserve the harmony (*cough*)that we have. BUT, sometimes criticising the actions of a certain religious group should still be ok, especially if their actions are disruptive.

For example, so-and-so religion advocates violence in an attempt to get their POV across. Well obviously criticising their actions is fine and I believe the law will step in anyway.

Criticising their doctrine, hmm, that's really another issue don't u think? Yeah, so there are theologians, who cares. Thelogians can come to a general consensus, but each and everyone has his own version of truths, sorting all of them out is just going to be one big headache.

Anonymous said...

I tend to believe the amount of "harmony" or "tolerance" is directly related to amount of space everyone has got.

It's like, you can do your things and I can do mine, as long as we do not interfer with each other's faiths we are good friends. But if space is limited or one tries to convert from another, that's where anarchy, anger, violance sets in.

It is also the "absolute" and "only" of some religions which makes it difficult to have "harmony" but easier to compromise at "tolerance" level. Way I see it, as long as we continue to scratch each other's back, I don't care which path you take to meet me at the halfway house.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris,

I understand that you are making two points:

1. Strong fences make good neighbours, thus the law is necessary.

2. Religion is a personal matter.

On 1. my question is when fences are too strong, will it promote neighbourliness. My guess is no. With exchanges obstructed, misunderstanding could only grow. That is why I guess the alternative saying, "Strong fences make neighbourly neighbours", never caught on. Though, I would concede that good fences are good for keeping violent neighbours away, could not a more specific and less catchall and stiffling law be drafted for that?

On 2. I fully agree that religion is an intensely personal matter that even the theologians cannot readily have a handle on. What I profess to be my faith may not completely circumscribe my set of beliefs and that may not coincide completely with the orthodoxy supported by any group of theologians.

To complicate things it is possible that a central authority deciding on the doctrines does not exists for some religions. In this case, it is even harder for anyone to criticize any codified beliefs don't you think? Thus, a reasonable person would never see questioning of another's beliefs, even that done in an unfriendly way, to be equated with criticizing a theology if that is what you meant by doctrine. Therefore, I would not expect this reasonable person to try to cause offense or be offended by a less enlightened questioner. He might even try to broaden the latter's perspective.

If 2. is really understood, no one would be overly righteous about needling someone for his beliefs. Any question posed to a person of another faith would be done to satisfy one's curiosity about what he professes and reflect on what oneself believes. More importantly the information gleaned cannot be used to stereotype that religion, much less attack it. Of couse, you would have noticed that I left out the more scholarly arguments of the theologians, as I assumed that the general population (me included) cannot yet aspire to be so well-learned to go into really deep discourses and the happenings in the ivory towers would have little direct impact to the general population.

I hope for 2. to be taken to heart but I do not see 1. as the necessary condition for it to happen. We cannot assume that Singaporeans have really given 2. much thought to conduct themselves in an civil way, the more reason why I should thank you for bringing this overlooked point up. :)

Chris said...

Budak, you said:

"Why can't doctrine be criticised, whether by theologians or other people, since such beliefs are the underlying drivers for people who do such things as preach violent jihad, discriminate against homosexuals or propagate abstinence-only sexual education programmes?"

Religious doctrines are sacred and infalliable to strong believers. Believers may choose to adhere to their religious laws or not. If their actions go against the law, the police will deal with it. If their underlying beliefs cause them to discriminate against gays/lesbians, then that is unfortunate. Your child can be discriminated at school for having a dorky haircut, that's life. I don't believe any religion is going to amend their doctrine just because of criticism, especially if it has a history of afew thousand years.

As for the jihad violence you mentioned, it is safe to say Islam is not a violent religon because you have Muslims who by their own admission, do not believe in killing. By criticising the religion, you criticise both violent and non-violent parties. I hate violence as an effect, but doctrines are not simply the cause. Discourses from both religous doctrines and personal feelings mix to produce an effect, desirable or not.


Thanks for taking an interest in my personal opinion. It may be ideal for no.2 to be understood, but lets not be idealistic. Let's not even talk about how draconinan the law is for now.

Christians don't believe in Buddism for blah blah reasons and vice versa. Muslims don't believe in Taoism for blah reasons and vice versa. Free-thinkers don't believe in all religions beause of how they feel personally. If you like casual sex you're not going to like Christianity and if you love Kway Chup you're not going to like Islam. It's complicated.
People are going to sterotype whether they believe in God, Buddha, Allah or even none of the above.

True, a big fence isn't really going to encourage "harmony". To many it looks like damage control and the fence is slowly cracking, so they reinforced it with concrete and CCTV Cameras. But there hasn't really been a sure-fire solution that will ensure one big happy nation. That's because any solution that has been put forth so far is theoratical and risky. And we know how much the PAP hates risk. Unless it's punting in Thailand of course.

Anonymous said...

I am an ardent believer that religious tolerance is only the furthest that we can go, given that the doctrines of certain religions dictate that they will try to evangelise whenever possible.

Other religions make it sacrilegious to denounce their own faith, which makes religious harmony a mere utopian dream.

Tolerance is just as far as we would be able to go. Acceptance will only come if we are mono-religious. And that is not taking atheists into the picture.

Chris said...

To pkchukiss:

I agree with you 100%. Religious harmony is a myth in every country except mono-religious ones. I would hope for complete religious harmony in Singapore, but I'd rather avoid being delusional.

To budak:

You are slightly misunderstanding me. My main point is that we are unable to change the fact that religious groups will use their doctrines as a vantage point to exert some influence, their beliefs are they're beliefs. We cannot change anything and if its not illegal, neither can the Gahmen. Anyway, if the PAP doesn't agree, they can just do what they're so ept at doing over the years: to not listen.

Take heart though, I believe the situation is not beyond reprieve in Singapore. In other countries, religious bodies wield much stronger powers than Singapore. They interfere with the running of the country and complicate matters by instilling religious principles.

Religion and politics remain two seperate entities in Singapore. Which is a very good thing, IMO. Usually if one religion wields influence over the running of the state, that results in the marginalisation of other groups of people. (But lets not go into that)

The best the Gahmen can to preserve of strengthen boundaries to ensure the running of the state is not affected. You argue that criticism of religions should be allowed to keep them in check and prevent any miscarraiges of justice. Relax man, let the Gahmen deal with any travesty of justice that might erupt the manipulation of doctrines.

No one is going to win by criticism in this particular aspect of religion. It's too touchy and its not worth risking my neck.

Anonymous said...

Hi Chris and budak,

Pertaining to chris:

I am willing to concede that your practical-mindedness makes good sense. I admit on this matter I, and others who are in a similar idealistic mood, may see a better alternative but surely that should not be confused with seeing a clear path to it. To act as though we know better may be downright dangerous.

Pertaining to budak:

Pardon me for pointing out that you may be talking both chris and yourself into a corner by assuming that religions are immutable. People change their minds often with better information. When this happens in a religion new denominations or schools upholding slightly different creeds arise. However, change should not always be thought badly. It may be for the better. Just ask the Protestants about the Reformation. No offense to the Catholics of course who have also changed since then.

May all of us breath easier knowing we have more room than we realize.

Cheers :)

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

I would also say that religions (and their practices) are not immutable. If you even look at the Bible itself, you can see the change in its depiction of God - from some kind of rather scary, fearsome and angry entity quick to inflict terrible punishments (Old Testament), eventually to a loving, forgiving God (in New Testament).

Finally I am pointing out the Singapore government is indeed aiming for religious Harmony. Starting with interfaith dialogue between leaders of different religions. In other words, getting them to talk, instead of just getting each other to pretend that the others don't exist.

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