Political liberalisation and the risk of religious politics

The other day, a German expatriate — a political scientist — who has lived some ten years here said one of the things he liked about living here compared to neighbouring countries was the way religion played no role in politics and policy. Naturally I couldn’t completely agree: Gay people see the influence of fundamentalist Christianity in the way the state approaches the question of equality for us. However, he was right in that, in the larger scheme of things, it is true that Singapore is relatively free of religious politics.

But I also said to him: “It’s because we have an authoritarian government. If not for that, this place might well be no different.”

He waited for me to elaborate.

I obliged: “Look at Indonesia. Under Suharto, religion was not a significant political force either, but as soon as he was kicked off the stage, Islamic parties came to the fore.”

* * * * *

While there is an eagerness to see Singapore’s political space open up, we need as well to pay attention to this risk. The solution obviously is not to entrench authoritarianism for that would be like living inside a plastic bag (and suffocating) for fear of breathing polluted air.

What we need as we open up, is a shoring up of consensus among citizens (as opposed to top-down fiat) that appeals to religion should have no place in our politics, and citizens themselves have to police this social contract vigilantly. We also need to develop a comprehensive secular discourse on all matters of public interest; there should be no need to resort to religious solutions for public affairs.

In this connection, I was pleased to see two robustly-argued letters in the Straits Times on 4 December 2010. The background is this: There has been some moral panic about youth gangs resorting to violence against each other. Suggestions have been made that solutions to this social issue lay in strengthening the moral fibre of our youths, but, as often is the case in Singapore, once the “moral” word is used, it is equated with religion.

Paul Tobin, writing on behalf of the Humanist Society called them on this intellectually lazy conflation:

The Saturday Special report last week (‘God wants youth’) stated that religious groups were determined not to lose a generation to godlessness, especially now with youth gangs in the news.

It also noted that what is at stake is the potential of losing the youth to cynicism, violence and even fanaticism.

These remarks suggest a prejudice against those without any religious affiliation.


The article essentially suggested that this group, ‘the godless’, are cynical and prone to violence.

As a society for non-believers, the Humanist Society (Singapore) disagrees.

The reality in societies everywhere is that there is no difference between non-believing youth and the religious youth in their propensity towards violence. There are actually higher levels of violence among those who identify themselves as ‘religious’ or ‘faithful’.

As for cynicism, there is certainly no correlation between non-belief and a cynical attitude. Many non-believers are involved in the world around them, trying to make it a more humane, compassionate place.


I know of many non-believers, people who identify themselves as humanists, atheists and agnostics, who regularly donate to charity. Many also do volunteer work for humanitarian causes.

One does not need to have a religion to lead a good, happy and meaningful life and to have compassion for our fellow human beings.

Paul Tobin
Humanist Society (Singapore)

Lee Seck Kay was more blunt, pointing to surreptitious attempts at conversion under the guise of “helping”:

The bad behaviour of many of our youth probably stem from a combination of relentless peer influence and inadequate supervision by their parents or guardians.

This is a social problem and it is presumptuous to suppose that their plight is a consequence of straying from any celestial being and that it can be solved by divine intervention.

The report also gives the impression that godlessness is bad and is responsible for much of the trouble with our youth. It also suggests that something is not quite right with youth who do not believe in a god and must be saved by the mere act of surrendering themselves to a faith.

Nothing is farther from the truth.

The growing number of secular humanists in the world is testimony to the belief that we all can be moral and lead happy and fulfilling lives without belief in a god or dogma.

Mankind is forever indebted to this group, especially the scientists, who have helped their fellowmen conquer ignorance and fear, and taught them to better understand the world. I laud the efforts of the various faiths to lure troubled youth away from self-destructive behaviour.

If such programmes can be implemented successfully without proselytising them, well and good. Otherwise, they will be viewed only as nothing more than surreptitious attempts at conversion, which is not so good.


Lee Seck Kay

* * * * *

Political involvement under the banner of religion stems from two very different motives.


The first is a genuine belief that one has an answer to a particular social problem, an answer which springs from religious teaching. This is characterised by sincerity of belief and the fact that the problem is a real one; even non-believers will agree that there is a problem to be addressed. The difficulty comes from a difference in perspectives and priorities. Believers have different perspectives and priorities from non-believers, and what to the first group is an optimal solution, based on their priorities, is a sub-optimal solution to the second group when assessed according to different priorities.

This is compounded by the tendency of religious groups to rank other-worldly considerations high among their priorities, but these considerations are neither rational nor meaningful to those who do not subscribe to the same other-worldly goals.

An example of this would be the influence of the Roman Catholic Church on the policies of countries where Catholics make up a large percentage of the population (e.g. Ireland and the Philippines)  with particular respect to state policies on abortion.  Here is an issue which even non-believers may agree is a moral hazard, but a blanket ban is only optimal when seen in relation with the absolutist demands of Papal teaching. When balanced against other considerations, e.g. maternal health, the economics of population control — and it’s a pressing problem in the over-populated Philippines — a blanket ban looks horribly misguided.

Another example, again from the Roman Catholic Church, but this time springing from its grassroots and disavowed by the Vatican, is liberation theology. In this movement, the religiously-minded see their calling as one of helping the downtrodden and disempowered cut the social and economic chains that tie them down. But from the perspective of those committed to “stability”, the rights of the privileged classes or the capitalist system, this kind of religiously-motivated politics can seem dangerous and threatening.


The second motive is a lot more sinister. It occurs when some people, in their quest for power, see in religion a useful mobilising tool to achieve their ends. Organised religion is, for them, a ready-made booster to temporal power. Emotive appeals can be made to identity and solidarity, the web of churches / temples / mosques a ready money-raising and mobilising resource. To use this resource effectively though, the power-hungry tend to create issues that capture attention and heighten a sense of threat to the religious group.

These therefore are the characteristics of this second motive: the social issues didn’t exist, or were not important until they were manufactured; they tend to be articulated in language that is divisive and combative.

For many readers, I’m sure the gay issue comes to mind. But more pertinent to the opening paragraphs of this essay, I’d say look at what is happening in Indonesia. On the extreme, fringe (and I stress: fringe) Islamist groups in Indonesia are stepping up attacks on Christian communities. On a broader front, there is an increase in Muslim political rhetoric (e.g. the “Anti-pornography” law — a manufactured issue), boosting Muslim-based parties, which in turn has meant that President Yudhoyono does virtually nothing to stop the steady descent into sectarian violence.

* * * * *

As Singaporeans take political space back from the government, it is important to engage in a debate about the boundaries of politicking. I lean towards a heightened watchfulness over religiously-motivated politics, though I would make a distinction between the the first motive and the second. With the first, engagement and dialogue is called for, even as we gently point out that scriptural or other-worldly biases can skew their response to social problems. With the second, an open society should be as tough as an authoritarian one is nipping such efforts in the bud. Attempts to manufacture divisive issues that did not exist, or to carve fault lines where there were none before can do no good. Openness, inclusiveness, rationality and tolerance must be defended against those whose chief objective is to capture the state and close off society.

Inevitably, I will be called a “militant secularist”. So be it. Militancy is necessary when the other side would resort to religious militancy with no hesitation at all.

15 Responses to “Political liberalisation and the risk of religious politics”

  1. 1 ~autolycus 14 December 2010 at 23:15

    Why would you be called a ‘militant secularist’? Secularism is the default (even from a Christian perspective) behaviour for the world. You might be considered one if you adopted an extreme anti-religious stance or an extreme materialist stance. But your opinion here (apart from tiny pimples of rhetoric) is sound and useful.

  2. 2 yuen 14 December 2010 at 23:29

    do people in singapore take religion that seriously? I am skeptical; I know City Harvest and New Creation attracted tens of thousands of members in a few years, but see this more like Raffles Town Club getting 19000 members at $28K each in a few months – people go more for social reasons (networking.. pop concert like sunday sessions..); I know members of some churches are taken very serious, but this is more a class phenomenon because they have particularly wealthy members; in other cases, religion and ethnicity are so closely linked that the issue is identity rather than spirituality

    in any case, the largest religious following is supposed to be buddhism 42.5% according to en wikipedia org/wiki/Singapore; I have however seen very little of this reflected in social/political attitudes

    • 3 Interesting 16 December 2010 at 00:44

      Yuen, is it not a concern that despite the Taoist/Buddhist bloc comprising almost 55-60% of the Singapore population, the number of MPs who are Christians/Catholics are more than 50% (I dun have the exact numbers but it can be easily obtained from the government website).

      The disdain that the Christians have for non-Christians have bubbled again and again in recent years. It has always been there but with the internet, the Rony Tan and AWARE incidents get magnified.

      I would not be surprised if these blocs felt the need to exert their “political right” in getting more MPs of their religion.

      Yawningbread is right that it is urgent to build in a DNA in Singaporeans to expect a secular government.

      • 4 yuen 16 December 2010 at 01:17

        as I already said “members of some churches are taken very serious but this is more a class phenomenon”; members of a particular religions group happen to be more wealthy, education, connected… and they are more likely to be invited to recruitment teas; it does not in itself indicate a desire to promote a particular religion nor voters being religious/spiritual; the Rony Tan and AWARE incidents clearly show that the government does not want groups to become too ambitious and wants to maintain a secular society

        I am not sure “it is -urgent- to build in a DNA in Singaporeans to expect a secular government” nor “the secular humanist case” can be easily pushed. However, I feel it is valid for other religious groups to work for greater representation in parliament; how to do this within the singapore political system in a non-disruptive way is of course an intriguing question

    • 5 Fox 18 December 2010 at 02:53

      The vigorous opposition to the decriminalization of homosexuality in Singapore is largely religious and circumstantial evidence suggests that this opposition is from the conservative religious bloc. Afterall, homosexuality not illegal in Taiwan, HK and China, so it can’t be due to Chinese traditional values. It hasn’t been illegal in Indonesia for many years, so I don’t think that Muslim-Malays are strongly against it. By elimination, you can guess which group is supplying most of the vitriol.

  3. 6 yawningbread 15 December 2010 at 01:55

    autolycus – the religionists aim to cast secularism as another form of religion, and in their view, society should not be defined by secular mores, but by a balance/compromise/combination of various religious views (including the “secular religion”). Those who argue that secularism should be supreme are, in their view, unreasonable and therefore “militant”.

    yuen – it isn’t mainly a numbers game. Religious politics is lobby politics. It’s got to do with who shouts loudest, or who has political leverage (influence/money/connections/power broker status). The risk lies in issues where the religious point of view is systematically argued, but the secular response is poorly conceptualised. Then there’s a tendency for policy to default to the wishes of the religious lobby groups.

    The vast majority of Indonesians for example are tolerant folks with progressive tendencies, yet the Islamist case is gaining traction politically. Ditto with Malaysia. The reason in my view is that the secular humanist case has not had the same case-building. It further suffers from the fact that people motivated by religion tend to be more passionate and less doubting about their cause than those who see the world in less black-and-white terms.

    • 7 yuen 15 December 2010 at 06:18

      〉The reason in my view is that the secular humanist case has not had the same case-building.

      I dont think it is possible to propagate the humanist case the way religions are done – worship sessions, rituals, chants, catechisms… that meet the needs of the primitive human psyche, basically modernized shaman practices – it is a more intellectual exercise, and intellectual exercises are very much out of fashion these days – just look at our university students’ “learning” behaviour

      there can only be well organized secular efforts on specific issues that people feel strongly about; SIAS is one successful example, arising from popular concerns on the closing of CLOB; but when issues unrelated to money arise, organized efforts arouse both official and unofficial suspicion

  4. 8 thomas 15 December 2010 at 02:07

    i agree with you to a point. if your militant secularism wishes to eliminate religion from political discourse or censor any religious contributions in political discourse then i have to disgree. (though i think youre generally a libertarian so you don’t lean towards that extreme.)

    there is one aspect of US political culture that i appreciate; there is an enduring public conversation about the role of religion in society. progress might be stymied at times by religious politics but with a public conversation the consensus eventually favours progress. see the example of gay rights in the US.

    yes, european politicians made the right decisions a long time ago and have effectively secularized governance. but as a consequence the europeans are unsuccesful in integrating a growing turkish and north african minority who see their religion as an important facet of their identity. i attribute part of the failure of integration as a refusal to be tolerant of religion in european politics, which is anathema in the US.

    Singapore as well has effectively sterilized politics. but only due to the policing of the governing party. this unfortunately will only last as long as the governing party replaces its leaders with those who believe in secularism. even then the policing and secularization of public discourse hasn’t eliminated the tensions that religious values generate. it merely has swept any tension under a rug. sometimes (for example the “aware saga”) tensions generated by religion boils over and surfaces. the governing police then post fact attempts to elminate the tension.

    the US may seem messy but its a system in which i have long term faith in. religious bigots should not be silenced so that people can witness their bigotry and they can be shamed publicly.

    ultimately we need to build up policing elements in civil society and that will only happen if the government cedes some space for a public conversation to occur.

    • 9 the unnamable 16 December 2010 at 00:31


      You make an unwarranted leap of logic in claiming that the integration of migrants in Europe is a /consequence/ of secularized governance. How does secularizing governance–the discounting of religious considerations in the government’s decisions or in political discourse–/lead to/ or /cause/ the difficulty for migrants to integrate into society? I can perfectly well imagine a government decision or statement in public discourse that is made independently of religious considerations, despite these considerations being heard or well-known, /without/ ‘suppressing’ or censoring these religious viewpoints or voices. When you claim that the problem of integration is a consequence, you imply it is /necessary/ to suppress ethnic, religious or national differences if governance is to be secularized. But I fail to see this necessity. Yet, even if we grant your point (the ‘consequential fact’), why do the existing European religious communities not face these same ‘problems’ of ‘integration’? How have these deeply-religious Europeans ‘integrated’ despite the progressive secularizing of governance over many decades?

      I think the ‘problem’ of ‘integration’ is really a red herring. There are many gravely suspect and ideologically-invested assumptions in raising this ‘problem’ of ‘integrating’ North Africans and Turkish migrants in Europe. Much sociological and cultural anthropological analytical work remains to be done to expose the unarticulated terms of this discourse of ‘integration’, to show that the problem is very much more with those who formulate it as a problem as such. (For instance, what do we mean by ‘integration’? When is integration finally achieved? Who decides when a certain race/ethnicity/religious group is finally integrated? When will these people singled out for ‘integration’ no longer be targetted for such especial attention? Why are some differences more important than others? Why can’t we leave differences well enough alone, since we know for a fact that even ‘identical’ twins are different? Why can’t we be indifferent to the brute existential fact that everyone MUST be different–i.e. be indifferent to differences–and not come to grief over it?)

      Let me suggest (somewhat naively and simplistically) that this is a problem of Euro/ethnocentrism and racism. Despite years of paying lip-service to “multiculturalism” and calls for “dialogue with others/the Other”, many Europeans still unconsciously and disavowedly suffer from racism, of a much subtler and insidious form (than, say, a few decades ago).

      As for the US, there may well be a lively and ‘progressive’ debate going on regarding the place of religion. But how progressive is it really when someone as professedly ‘religious’ as George Bush Jr. can get elected to office for not one, but two consecutive terms? In what sense can one speak of progress arising from lively, progressive debate when one observes the never-abating rise of influential religious political lobby groups in the US?

  5. 10 Perception 15 December 2010 at 02:55

    Sometimes I feel that the secular state of affairs is responsible for the rise in well-meaning and self-serving reasons to use religion as a basis for politics and expressions.

    There is greater inequality and the awareness of it, helping to fuel discontent. There is a shift towards individualism as bureaucracy and official institutions such as the school are not automatically given as much compliance/deference as before. Life is now more fast-paced, giving rise to the compulsion of questioning the meaning of life and one’s identity.

    These, amongst other causes, can and have led to religiosity and will continue to do so.

    I hope to put forth an alternative perspective whereby the divide between religious and non-religious people and groups does not necessarily have to be one of conflict. It may also serve as a celebration of diversity, akin to multiculturalism. I feel that both secular and non-secular realms have their own imperfections and that both sides can learn from each other to improve and help each other. Note that there are many good-natured people on the entire spectrum of religiosity from the humanists as mentioned above to Mother Theresa.

    Hence the deeper issue here may not be religion, but the maturation of society.

    Personally I am an agnostic. One may call me a fence-sitter with no guts to have an affirmative standpoint on religion and I am fine with it. This is because I understand why an individual would believe in a God, many Gods or no Gods at all. On an philosophical basis, I see no reason for the exclusion of God/s (Here, I emphasize that I am not concerned with the religious-fueled debate between creationists and evolutionists and the scientific authenticity of various religious texts/interpretations but more with the inherent existence of God/s). On the other hand, I believe in science and how it vigorously explains a lot of things to such an extent that there may not be a need for any God at all. In addition, there are other perspectives on religion such as a God of Harmony by Albert Enstein and futurologist Michio Kaku, whereby God and the natural laws of physics are one and the same, neither one having predominance over the other.

    On another level, I concede how religious-secular co-existence can be so hard to maintain. Here is an example.


    To end off, I agree to a small extent with “secular militancy” (YB’s standpoint) But it must be carried out with the right spirit and with accurate intelligence. If a child responds to the soft approach, don’t use a hammer to get the point across. If a child is defiant, use tough love but never close off the soft approach. Hence, it is exemplary to separate well-meaning and self-serving reasons behind religiosity so as to give the diverse connotation of religion proper study. However, it would be equally important, even magnanimous, to genuinely accept people who just happen to share entirely contradictory religious viewpoints. The resulting consequences (which secular militancy might be justified for) should be judged not primarily on religious affiliation but on unique circumstances surrounding them.

  6. 11 Tan Ah Kow 15 December 2010 at 07:40

    YB you said “While there is an eagerness to see Singapore’s political space open up, we need as well to pay attention to this risk.”

    The question I posed to you is this? Who do you mean by “we”?

    Isn’t there a contridiction in your plea to the “we” especially in the context of a society the “we” is going to include let’s just say strong religious believe?

    Are you saying that people with strong religious believe are not entitle to their opinion and thus not be allowed to shape public policies?

    Who amongst the “we” should be the ones be determine who in your words the well meaning or self serving?

    If you are expecting one group of your we to discriminate against another group are you not in effect wanting an authoritarian regime?

    The fact to the matter is that we live in an imperfect world and there will be those that will take an extreme view point. Your argument that in an open society “we” should take a tough stand on such extremist but what if the majority “we” are extremist? What then?

    The point is if as you claim Singapore is moving to an open society than clearly it is a sign that a majority of the “we” already rejecting extremism? In which case isn’t your plea well really a plea to the coverted?

  7. 12 Sloo 15 December 2010 at 17:24

    I have always had a problem with religionists or secularists who argue for a more open society where extremists are given the freedom to express their views on the open public space. They argue that by exposing their views, rational and civil society would be able to react and contain then harmful consequenceds without the nannying control of our authoritarian govt.

    My issue is that with extremists is that you never know exactly how and what their words and actions would be and before anyone can raise a hand to contain the harm, the rot has already set in, the consequences devastating. And extremists are never obvious and open with their intentions or motives, as we can see from the aware incident. I have manyissues with our govt but I agree with their kiasu policy of dealing with extremists – prevention rather than then the cure.

  8. 13 Robox 16 December 2010 at 03:30

    PART 1

    Some points I wish to make. (Sorry, I know that is probably as long as the article.):

    1. Religious sentiment is a ground reality. Thus, that particular ground reality is taken into account in political considerations whenever relevant; it’s only democratic.

    2. Religion was conceived of as a force for good; we don’t object when a religion-based opinion reflects that. An example would be ‘Thou shalt not kill” (even if this is also an injunction that is made in natural law/ rights/justice which secular humanism draws heavily from).

    3. We do tend to have a problem when religion-based opinion does the opposite and instead proposes harm on others. This is usually the position of religionists with conservative and fascist political leanings. All social groups have their fair share of them. Hence, the term “Islamofascist/Islamofascism” though Christian fascism – as opposed to Christian fundamentalism, evangelical Christianity, or even more specifically Pentecostalism – would be similarly appropriate.

    4. Thus, it would seem obvious that the solution to religious fascism is analogous to the solution to fascism in general: a good healthy dose of both religious and political liberalism. (I include religious liberalism as a solution because religionists tend to attach greater significance to wisdom drawn from religious sources; it makes for good strategy.) And I do agree with you that it needs to be a tough talking liberalism, a trait that unfortunately does not come easily to liberals and would therefore need to be consciously nurtured as a strategy.


  9. 14 Robox 16 December 2010 at 03:31

    PART 2

    A problem with this solution – I will confine this comment to the Asian context – is that “liberalism” is used by politically naïve conservatives and fascists as code for sexual permissiveness and its promotion. I will not be surprised if that’s the reason that you find Marina Mahathir cringe at the suggestion by the host of this TV show that she espouses a liberal view of Islam. She even goes on to eschew the ‘label’.

    Yet, liberal, characterized by the insistence on facts and evidence, and most of all, the respect for the rights of others, is exactly what Marina Mahathir is.

    One example of liberal Islam I might use is in the context of gay rights. I was alerted to this Quran-based quote:

    “O mankind! We created you from a single (pair) of a male and a female, and made you into nations and tribes, that ye may know each other (not that ye may despise (each other). Verily the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is (he who is) the most righteous of you. And Allah has full knowledge and is well acquainted (with all things).” (Quran 49:13)

    (There are slightly different translations of the above, a problem I think that is inherent in translating anything from any one language to another.)

    The above quote has been used as evidence that Islam forbids sexism and racism. Yet, even that interpretation seems too literalist for me. Can it not be seen as a PRINCIPLE against ALL discrimination, including discrimination against LGBTs? Then add to that Islam’s many exhortations to its followers to educate themselves, and always towards the goal of furthering their understanding on as many matters as possible. Wouldn’t that also have to mean that educating one’s self on same sex attraction is a religious obligation?

    5. This brings me to my next point: the phenomenon of political Islam – Islamofascism, the ideology that spawns terrorism by dressing up criminal acts as a religious obligation (jihad) – tends to be treated as if it is a different occurrence from #3 above. It actually isn’t. However, worldwide it would appear that entire Muslim communities have been under the sway of their fascists, which seems to be the only factor distinguishing Islamic religious fascism. (Of course, the more widespread phenomenon of terrorism in the Muslim world is also a distinguishing factor, but I treat it as a by-product of an unchecked religious fascism.) Indeed, liberal Muslims are guilted into silence by Islamofascists when they are called ‘bad’ Muslims for not espousing views that are congruent with those of the fascists.

    How bad can a ‘bad’ Muslim be if s/he quotes from the same Quran?

  10. 15 KiWeTO 17 December 2010 at 10:57

    The reality is that religion influences, and in many cases, dominates societal politics.

    It is a numbers game; whether economic progress, or societal progress because the mosque/church/synagogue/place tends to be a gathering for the more powerful in any society. People just want to be like other successful people.

    The only thing the state can do is to limit/moderate the dominance of the majority so that all are (somewhat) equal in interacting with the state. Theocracies are examples of the failures of such, for religiosity has generally shown itself to be intolerant of any other religion (“they are not like us”).

    Fear of the other. Continued need for self-affirmation (or other-affirmation). Religions just tend to devolve into holding on to the most extreme views as members try to outdo each other in expressions of faith (until only extreme views are left to be held as shared values.)

    Humanists/Atheists/Agnostics lose out when they do not have sufficient societal mass to affect their own imprint on societal politics. Just a little hard to come together on the basis of an “absence of faith”. a void identity is difficult to define or pin down. There is nothing ‘shared’ in extreme values besides the absence of other religions’ values. (like local opposition, who define themselves as not-PAP, atheists are not-faith-ed, a very empty state of identity).

    Then again, being in a city where there is continued mix and exposure of ideas, we are not a rural country where extreme views and the lack of exposure to others-not-like-us is the norm. (though I still personally find Africans here to be not the norm in SG… hopefully that will change as Africa evolves.)

    The imbalance of our MP representatives’ religious beliefs vs the general population is a fact. However, since the state has been doing its best to keep religion out of politics (beyond personal beliefs), it hasn’t been too bad a job (compared to religious intolerance in theocracies). There are plenty of worse examples of state & religious balance.

    Things could be worse. Whether it is within an average Singaporean’s societal DNA to be forever against the concept of faith-politics, you never can say forever.

    All YB is rallying is that one should not take status quo for granted – as someone famous once said “eternal vigilance is the price of peace”.
    [or to that effect anyway.]


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