Where religious freedom ends

One night a few weeks ago in China, our group had dinner in a Muslim restaurant. After we had settled down and ordered from the menu, the staff posed the question: Would we like some alcohol for beverage?

They had a fair selection in their bar. We chose some strong local spirits.

It wasn’t long before the food and drink arrived. So did a dog, which sat at each diner’s feet in turn, begging for scraps.

* * * * *

Would Muslim restaurants in Singapore have alcohol on the menu? Would there be a pet dog having the run of the place?

Evidently, there is religion and there is religion. Singaporeans, particularly Muslims and Christians, seem to prefer strict interpretations. Sure, how one prefers to shape one’s own life is nobody’s business but his own, but especially with exclusionary religions (as opposed to the syncretic ones like Hindusim and Buddhism) that claim a monopoly on a revealed truth, it doesn’t take much for believers of one religion to rub against others.

Thus Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng’s inclusion of religious friction among three serious threats facing Singapore that he chose to highlight recently. The others were terrorism (which is often also religiously-inspired) and cyber espionage.

He too noted that there has been a trend towards zealousness and defensiveness. “Unlike previously, devotees of the different faiths today appear to be less tolerant over perceived slights to their religion, and are more ready to retaliate,” he was quoted by the Straits Times as saying. (Straits Times, 15 April 2010, DPM red-flags religious friction)

Friction is not only between one religious group and another, but also between one or more religious groups and the state. “However, there could be flashpoints when groups go too far in advocating their cause and make unfounded allegations, whip up the emotions of their followers, or mobilise them,” he added. “They could heighten tensions between the religious community and the state.”

Then he pussy-footed around the necessary response. He said the government would continue to ensure it keeps a big enough neutral, common space where different communities can engage, free of religious considerations and sensitivities.

This is an inadequate response. It’s all very well to strive to maintain common neutral spaces where different communities can engage, but ability to engage is not the issue. They can engage, but quite often, they won’t.

It is a well-documented problem. The most extreme religious groups refuse to participate in inter-faith dialogue, for example. Even among those that are nominally participating, I wonder how much substantive dialogue takes place. Another example: The most religious parents prefer either home-schooling or strict faith schools. Religious zealousness typically comes with a desire for isolation, except when the impulse is to spread the faith.

And then when spreading the faith, believers easily slip into the habit of denigrating other faiths, or, even more commonly, attacking secularism.

Wong is right to see this as a potentially serious threat to social stability and the integrity of the State. It’s his response that falls short. Effectively, he’s saying: Be as religious as you want, but don’t fight. Not only was it a weak message, coupled with his mention that the constitution protects the right to propagate the faith, Wong’s was a mixed message.

The developing situation calls for a stronger stand by the government. He should have drawn some red lines in the sand.

* * * * *

To begin with, we need better clarity about the issue. It isn’t faith, it isn’t spirituality. Indeed, one can choose to have as much of those as one wants. The problems begin with public religiosity, which manifests in a number of ways:

1. Demonstrate publicly one’s adherence to the faith — to signal one’s presence to other like-minded believers, to urine-mark the religion’s presence in the community, and to assert one’s right to piety.

2. Proclaim the superiority of one’s beliefs and find ways to obtain recognition of that superiority, for which there are no better proofs than conversion of others and the adoption of the religion by the state as the officially-sanctioned religion.

3. Ensure that nominal members of the same religion are kept in line — this is done either through disciplinary rules and actions, or through internal indoctrination (e.g. religious classes for children) and socialisation (e.g. all sorts of group activities for older members).

4. Modify the environment around the believer so that his living space, not just his private self, conforms to his beliefs; in other words, to shape the laws and axioms of state and society to be consistent with the tenets of the faith.

As you can see, these impulses range from the relatively harmless to the conflict-certain. They are driven more by a quest for power over others than for spirituality within the self. Inevitably, any quest for power must run up against others, and against a state that defines itself as secular,

Wong should have drawn three red lines in the sand.

1. No religion may contest the secular foundations of the state, and “secular foundations” should have a broad meaning. All actions of the state shall be based on secular public reasoning. Wherever, for example, the state has to adjudicate between good and bad, right and wrong, prohibition and permission, such judgements shall be free from any religiously-motivated inputs. This is a necessary clarification of the “no religion in politics” rule.

2. No religion may carve out more and more public space for itself, where “public space” again has a broad meaning. This means that taking over other civic groups, buying over commercial property, muscling in on education services or dominating airwaves will be considered beyond the pale.

3. Any religion or member of such who goes out to propagate hate, discrimination and ill-will against any other group of people, will be considered to be challenging the secular principle of equality and non-discrimination, and the human rights of the target group, and will be dealt with with the full force of the law.

And for good measure, Wong should not only have mentioned that the constitution protects the right to propagate one’s faith (Article 15 clause 1), but that clause 4 circumscribes this right and more generally, the freedom to practice one’s faith. Clause 4 says: “This Article does not authorise any act contrary to any general law relating to public order, public health or morality”.

Clearly, religious freedom is not an unlimited freedom. In fact, I would argue that it should be seen as limited only to a freedom of conscience and a freedom to worship. Public religiously has to be conditional and subject to the imperatives of public order and civil peace in the context of a society with diverse beliefs, including atheism.

Wong should have said so without mincing his words.

6 Responses to “Where religious freedom ends”

  1. 1 Chris Hansen 16 April 2010 at 15:58

    I was once in a restaurant where I ordered a pork chop. When it came time to clear the used plates, the waitress asked me to clear the bones off my plate myself, as she was a Muslim and was forbidden to touch pork.

    While I didn’t make a complaint at the time, I think I should have. I don’t believe that Muslims are forbidden to touch pork, just eat it. In addition, how strange is it that the customer is forced to cater to the beliefs of the staff of a shop.

    If someone is working at a shop or restaurant where some of the fare on offer is forbidden to them, then perhaps they need to reconsider whether to work there.

  2. 2 yuen 16 April 2010 at 17:27

    >Demonstrate publicly one’s adherence to faith

    what about Demonstrate publicly one’s adherence to sexuality?

  3. 3 Raphael Wong. 17 April 2010 at 00:36


    The dictator over all religion strikes again! Let’s call a spade a spade: It’s not secularism you want, it is the dominance of atheism in the public sphere. Your ability to lampoon religion all you like while forbidding them from lampooning you because it will offend “secular space”. Youa re muscling religious opinion out with an overly-narrow interpretation of freedom of conscience (seriously, what conscience are you actually permitting religious people to express?) and a beautiful reliance on the state (Big Brother anyone?) to control your enemies.

    Faith groups stay out of inter-faith dialogue because of people like you who wish to get them to compromise on their convictions, although you claim that you are still recognizing their “freedom of conscience”.


  4. 4 Kenneth 21 April 2010 at 14:30

    I agree generally with your points except two points.

    One about “Wherever, for example, the state has to adjudicate between good and bad, right and wrong, prohibition and permission, such judgements shall be free from any religiously-motivated inputs.”

    The difference between good and bad, right and wrong is religiously-motivated for the vast majority of humanity. It is unrealistic to ask that a law-maker divorce his sense of morality from his religious beliefs entirely.

    Perhaps it would be more realistic to say that a balance is necessary, and that no legislative or administrative judgements of the government should be solely or narrowly based on religiously-motivated inputs.

    And the second is defining public space so broadly as to include buying commercial property. While there should certainly be protection for our public space, pure investments should not be limited in this manner without some evidence of undue influence being exercised by a group, based on religious motivations.

  5. 5 Sacha 21 April 2010 at 21:27

    Once again, Mr Au, an excellent article.

  6. 6 WS 24 April 2010 at 10:30

    Thought-provoking points raised. Even as clear boundaries are drawn, I’m wondering how to address the problem of “They can engage, but quite often, they won’t.” lest we end up in a situation of hidden hostilities between groups.

    Have you read Cass Sunstein’s book “Going to Extremes”? He describes in some detail social science experiments and findings on how people become more entrenched in their views when they are with like-minded people, and this was found even in US federal judges.

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