Democracy opens spaces; religions take advantage

Ever since Indonesian autocrat Suharto fell from power in 1998, opening the country to democracy, religious conflicts seem to be taking place with a disturbing regularity. Faith groups appear quick to seize new freedoms in pursuit of their agenda, not only contesting the ground with each other but also applying pressure quite successfully on what is formally a secular state.

As Singapore slowly opens up, will this be our future too? What may be needed to prevent that from happening?

In the years immediately following Suharto’s fall, murderous riots took place in many provinces, particularly in the eastern part of the archipelago. This was in addition to the attacks against the minority Chinese community mostly in the big cities, which I wouldn’t ascribe to religion — it was more a case of some people taking it out on a community that was perceived to have benefitted through collaboration with the Suharto family.

Things quietened down a bit for a few years but lately the temperature has been rising again.  In the Straits Times of 29 June 2010, was this report, for example:

Hardliners call for mosque militias

Muslims in Jakarta suburb urged to prepare for ‘war’ against city’s ‘Christianisation’

Several hardline organisations in Bekasi have recommended that every mosque in the area, an hour by car from Jakarta, form militia units, The Jakarta Globe newspaper reported on its website yesterday.

The Muslim groups also called on local Muslims to prepare for the possibility of ‘war’ against what they perceive to be the Christianisation of the city.

The recommendation was made at the Bekasi Islamic Congress held at one of the biggest mosques in the Jakarta suburb.

It came just days after the city authorities took down a large statue made by a Balinese sculptor following protests by the hardline Muslim groups that it was offensive to Islam.

‘All Muslims should unite because… the Christians are on to something,’ Mr Murhali Barda, head of the Bekasi chapter of the hardline Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), told the daily on Sunday.

‘Apparently they want to test our patience. We are planning to invite them for a dialogue to determine what they really want. If talks fail, this might mean war,’ he said.

These groups were expected to forward several recommendations to the Bekasi city administration to create policies that are compliant with syariah law.


In March this year, hardline Muslim vigilantes disrupted the ILGA Asia conference of gay, lesbian and transgender activists in Surabaya, patrolling the hotel lobby, intimidating and threatening attendees. This was part of a pattern of Islamic groups attacking bars and entertainment places. Even more extreme, there have been sporadic firebombings of churches in a number of cities.

At a national level, religious conservatives largely prevailed over the Anti-pornography Law enacted in 2008 and the Blasphemy Law this year.

The Anti-pornography Law was drafted in broad language such that anything “likely to incite sexual desire” would come under its ambit. This, as you can imagine is highly subjective.

Time magazine reported, on 6 November 2008:

“The law is wide open to interpretation and could even apply to voice, sound, poetry, works of art or literature,” says Kadek Krishna Adidharma, one of many Balinese who see the law as an attempt by the Indonesian Muslim majority to impose their will on the rest of the country. “Anything that supposedly raises the libido could be prosecutable.”

Worse yet, the law legitimises the role of civil society groups in its enforcement. This means religiously-motivated vigilante groups are justified in reporting cases of violation. But where does reporting end and intimidation begin?

Many critics see this is as the thin end of a wedge to impose Shari’a law throughout Indonesia.

The debate on the Blasphemy Law — my understanding is that it’s not a single law but a bundle of old and more recent presidential decrees, legislation and ministerial directives — ended too with a surrender to conservative religious groups.

Despite the country being a secular state in name, Indonesia is quite messy in this area. First, there is a provision in the constitution saying “the state is based on the belief in the one supreme God.” Then six “religions” are formally recognised by the Indonesian government — Islam, Catholicism, Protestantism, Buddhism, Hinduism and Confucianism. The State is empowered to act against “deviant” interpretations as well as any newly founded religions. The power to decide whether something is deviant too lies with the State, which is thus sucked into religioius disputes.

Liberal Muslims had pushed to remove this power from the State in line with the true spirit of a secular state, but conservatives feared that without the coercive power of the State, all manner of alternative interpretations and new religions might take root. So they beat back the proposed changes.

The religious freedom of small, unorthodox religious groups such as the Ahmadiyahs are now at risk. The secular state is unable to protect their freedom to worship in the way they wish. The picture below, for example, shows a demonstration against Ahmadiyahs.

What is obvious from the Indonesian debate is that involving the State in religious disputes should be avoided. So long as there is a chance that the coercive power of the State can be deployed to aid one side against another, religious groups will focus on putting pressure on the State, with its opponents responding likewise. Religions then become more concerned with temporal power (and seeing it as a zero sum game) than with their spiritual mission, which in turn encourages escalation of religious conflict.

Are we sure that the Singapore government doesn’t do something similar? OK, maybe they don’t get involved in theology, but when they adopt language and “moral positions” associated with one religion over others, are they not in effect doing something similar? So, despite their claim to be the actively working towards religious harmony, this failure to be very strictly neutral, may in fact be encouraging one or more religions to try their hand at influencing the government, thus escalating conflict.

But why is the State seen as amenable to influence? That question leads us to the root of the problem:  In the midst of competing religious claims, if a state fails to articulate a clear, courageous secular position, it signals “pushability” and effectively invites religious groups to muscle their way forward.

* * * * *

More specifically, in Singapore’s case, I fear there are three points of weakness.

The first is our State accepting the notion that morality is largely indistinguishable from religious teaching, and thus in any act of the State where morality is a consideration, it invites religious references. But no two religions agree on what exactly morality encompasses, so inevitably, there will be a contest among religions to speak louder than others, even to the point of trying to discredit each other, with the aim of getting its version of morality accepted as normative.

Secondly, our State applies the “no offence” rule too broadly.  As I have pointed out before, it is essentially a subjective measure, and contains a bias in favour of the most thin-skinned, sensitive listeners, however few they may be. By rewarding complainants with action against their critics, we are in reality promoting a race towards heightened sensitivity.

I realise it is difficult, at least in the English language, to formulate a more objective rule, but it should be one that recognises the value of criticism while respecting others’ feelings — within reason. It would be better if we understood the rule to mean no baiting, no goading, no insults that are empty of serious argument. And no incitement to others to do likewise. “Offence” alone is too broad a term, for otherwise no one can ever engage in anything but ossified politeness. There should be a right to “offend”, if it is in the nature of fair comment.

Thirdly, our State’s attention has been focussed too much on the risk of religions fighting each other, neglecting the challenge of religions trying to capture the State. We speak mostly about maintaining common space, urging various groups to get along. And on the whole, we have been successful, but this success, as with our message, is only in the arena of religion versus religion. In the arena of religion versus secular State, the record lately has been poor. One religion has gradually infiltrated the State; testifying to it is the way our ministers and civil servants use references and codewords that spring from this religion’s agenda.

We’ve let our guard down, but more importantly, we never quite built defences in the first place. Our problem is that we’ve never articulated  secular values with robustness, precision and in a comprehensive manner; in their absence, religious groups will attempt to articulate values for the State.  Nature abhors a a vacuum, and if our secularism is largely empty, we’re just inviting religions to push in.

Being a multi-faith society, a greater complication can then arise. If any one religious group gains traction, inscribing its values onto the State’s blank slate, at some point other religions will respond. This can only lead to religious conflict. In other words, just policing the common space and the “no offence” rule is insufficient in the long term. A secular State must articulate secular values — what do we mean by morality, by equality, by liberty? — and defend them, or else “secular” will end up meaning little more than opening the door to a scramble for influence.

9 Responses to “Democracy opens spaces; religions take advantage”

  1. 1 Mat Alamak 8 July 2010 at 19:47

    That’s why the ISA is needed to be used against religious and extremist groups who incite hatred and violence in furthering their ends. Despite whatever its other weaknesses, the PAP govt is right and firm on this. I am sure all right thinking citizens will agree on this.

    Also Singapore is not Indonesia. The demography of the two countries are as different as heaven and earth. Even Singapore is differnt from Malaysia. And Malaysia is also very different from Indonesia, although the majority in each came from the same ethnic stock. When was the last time large scale riots broken out in Singapore or even Malaysia?

    So what happen in Indonesia is unlikely to be the case with Singapore, even in the post LKY era. For as long as PAP is still in power, which I think they will, partly by default due to no credible alternative, as well as a consistently sizable middle and upper middle class.

  2. 2 Beast 8 July 2010 at 19:53

    I firmly disagree with the use of ISA.

    Firstly, current existing laws are more than adequate without the need for an unseen “third” hand, i.e the ISA.

    Secondly, as we have seen in the past (as the blog owner has highlighted in a previous post), the ISA can easily be exploited by the powers that be to manipulate, manhandle and eviscerate its political opponents. Without a proper trial, anyone deemed dangerous can be jailed indefinitely without trial. This is a very dangerous law indeed.

  3. 3 KiWeTO 8 July 2010 at 22:53

    ISA = hammer.

    Defense of Secularization = nail.

    Hammer —meet>>>> nail.

    Problem solved?


    [wrong tool? no tool?]

  4. 4 Becca D'Bus 9 July 2010 at 01:46

    Part of the issue appears also to be voice.
    How are people with secular opinions organized?

    We know they tend to outweigh religious fundamentalists in terms of intellect, ie, the religious argument is frequently illogical and not altogether intellectual, but how many people will stand for this together?

    What is the show of force?

  5. 5 Sheng 9 July 2010 at 15:39

    The ISA is a tool. However it is a very hard and blunt instrument with serious repercussion on whoever it is applied on.
    It is good only when the intentions of the enforcer is for the good of the rest of society(even this is subjective).

    Over the last 15 years, this tool was used to conveniently ‘fix’ opponents of political texture rather than for internal security and religious peace.

    Go figure – is our great leader so bnevolent – or is he just a oppressive bastard??? intent in maintaining his grip and power

  6. 6 twasher 9 July 2010 at 20:44

    Another weakness is that I do not think our citizens are equipped to adequately deal with challenges to their religious beliefs. The “no offence” rule has meant that very little critical discussion of religious issues takes place, whether public or private. Our schools are not geared towards helping students learn the rudiments of critical thinking and argument. Not even in the humanities courses, most of which degenerate into spoon-feeding the way the science courses do. Critical thinking skills are not just about learning how to tear down positions you disagree with. You learn that if you want to show that someone is wrong, you have to first try to see things from their point of view, figure out what their best arguments are, and anticipate those in your own argument. Thus, a certain amount of empathy is involved. You also have to anticipate what people are likely to think are the biggest weaknesses in your argument. I do not think our citizens are equipped with such powers of empathy or self-reflection. Already on non-religious issues on which there is more public debate, I see way too many knee-jerk, emotive, ad hominem attacks. (One outcome of this is that the government gets slammed on anything that causes personal inconvenience). I think our education system and the stifling of public discourse has led to a populace that is easy prey for religious dogmatism. We have not equipped our citizens with the skills to resist dogmatism.

    • 7 Beast 9 July 2010 at 21:06

      The problem with our government is that they hold a rather backward, Confucian-style view in terms of governance: There is the Emperor (Lee), and then there are the eunuchs, the ministers, and the subjects. It is a very patriarchal kind of government, based on piety and propriety.

      In sum, there is really no free speech to speak of. Anything you do which is deemed to threaten the social fabric of a strictly controlled society will be deemed deviant and unlawful. As time passes, people clam up, refuse to engage, and their social and political ineptness drops.

      You can get all the best scholars in the country, but if they are not going to be able to think critically (you know how our scholars are) then surely and slowly we will be starved intellectually.

      • 8 twasher 9 July 2010 at 23:01

        Actually, Confucius himself was against the use of laws to govern, because that would cause people to lack a sense of shame. He thought that the leaders should themselves behave with propriety, and the people would then order themselves in response.

        The emphasis on use of laws is instead due to Legalism.

  7. 9 Xinyuan 9 August 2010 at 15:49

    Alternately you have the government’s farcical Asian Values narrative haha. Well personally I quite like the French ideals of the Revolution.

    And I love their idea of laicïte.

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