religion and politics in singapore

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Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.




1 July 2011

religion and politics in singapore

In 1990, the Singapore Government enacted the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the only specific piece of legislation to date addressing interfaith relations. The Act was introduced in the wake of rising religious activism that began worldwide in the 1980s. It stated that in order to maintain harmony among the religious communities in Singapore, ‘religion and politics must be rigorously separated’ (para 14). Along with the separation of religion and politics, it also stressed that the Government or the State must remain secular. In a 2009 interview with The Straits Times, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng summarised the essence of the Act: ‘We are a secular Singapore, in which Christians, Muslim, Buddhists, Hindus and others have all to live in peace with one another … Keeping religion and politics separate is a key to political engagement.’

What does the ‘secular State’ mean in the context of Singapore politics? And how should we understand the separation of religion and politics enshrined in the Act? What should be the Christian response to the Singapore Government’s concept of the relationship between religion and politics?

The secularism espoused by the Singapore Government may be described as ‘modest’ or ‘accommodative’. It is a form of secularism that recognises the place of religion in society but which rejects the political dominance of any particular religious tradition. The most important document that endorses the place of religion in Singapore society is the Singapore Constitution. Article 15(1) protects the religious freedom of citizens by stating categorically that every person ‘has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it’. Prof. Jayakumar, in an interview with the Straits Times affirmed the importance of religion in society when he said that the Government ‘believes religion should be a positive factor in society.’

While this form of secularism recognises the role of religion in society, it seeks to restrict its role especially in the arena of politics. In Singapore, the government has advocated an institutional separation between religion and politics. It prohibits religious groups and leaders from participating in politics in their capacities as religious groups and leaders.

According to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony White Paper, ‘The social fabric of Singapore will … be threatened if religious groups venture into politics, or if political parties use religious sentiments to garner support’ (para 28). The White Paper therefore urges religious leaders to express their political views circumspectly. ‘They should not use their religious authority to sway their followers, much less actively incite them to oppose the Government’ (para 23).

It is important to note that the institutional separation between religion and politics advocated by the Singapore Government does not forbid the involvement of religious citizens in the political life of the nation. It recognises the positive contributions that religion could make to civic life. Professor S. Jayakumar asserted: ‘We want all religions to co-exist peacefully and continue to do their good work in the communities – running schools, doing social work and helping the aged and the handicapped.’ It is equally pertinent to note that the Government recognises that the political views of citizens cannot be divorced from their religious commitments. Thus para 24 of the White Paper admits that ‘It is neither possible nor desirable to compartmentalise completely the minds of voters into secular and religious halves, and ensure that only the secular mind influences his voting behaviour.’

Broadly speaking, Christians should have little difficulties with the separationist model espoused by the Government. The institutional separation between religion and politics can be understood in terms of the separation between the Church and State. There is sufficient Scriptural warrant for the relationship between the two institutions to be understood in this way.

However, while Christians can generally support the Government’s position, they must critique it at various points. The first has to do with the myth of secular neutrality. Modern secularism often presents itself as philosophically and ideologically neutral. But this is clearly false as secularism in fact conceals a series of metaphysical and moral commitments. In short, like religion, secularism has a particular view of reality, a worldview. Furthermore, in good governance, what must be sought is not neutrality but justice and fairness.

The Government need not be philosophically neutral (even if that were possible) in order to be fair. Neither is a secular Government or State made necessarily just or fair because of its secular outlook. Equally fallacious is the idea that religious reasoning has little sway in public discourse because such discourses must appeal to ‘public reason’ (John Rawls), which must necessarily be secular. Given the religious nature of our society, it is more natural to hold that in our context ‘public reason’ is profoundly if subtly imbued with religious sensibilities.

The vagueness of the language of the Act must also be addressed. The Act asserts that religious leaders ‘should not use their religious authority to sway their followers, much less incite them to oppose the Government’. Ambiguities abound when we examine the possible implications of this injunction in relation to the work of bishops and pastors as teachers of the Faith. As preachers of the Gospel, these religious leaders must speak out against injustices for the sake of the common good. Based on the wording of the Act, which is open to different interpretations, these activities can easily be politicised. This means that while the Church can broadly support the Government’s policy on this issue, she must address the imprecise language of the legislation.

As we have seen, in spite of the institutional separation of religion and politics that the Singapore Government advocates, there are many available avenues for Christians to contribute to the political life of the nation. Christians should take their involvement in public life seriously. Social and political engagement must be seen as part of Christian discipleship and witness. By working towards the common good of society, Christians are obeying the command to love their neighbours. They are imitating their Lord, who came not to be served, but to serve.

Author: Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine and Dean of the School of Postgraduate Studies at the Trinity Theological College, Singapore.

First published in The Courier, July 2011.

About the Author

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Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College, Singapore.