Published: 24 April 2021
Rev Dr Edwin Tay
Vice-Chairman, Ethos Institute,
Rev Ezekiel Tan,
Executive Director, Ethos Institute,
Dr Mark Chan
Dr Chiang Ming Hsun
A/Prof Eugene Tan
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am truly honoured to be speaking with all of you today. Thank you for inviting me for this event.
The topic today, on religion and politics, is an extremely important topic. You can say that it is one of the fundamentals of the success of Singapore. So, Dr Edwin Tay, Rev Ezekiel Tan, my fellow panellists, Mark Chan, Dr Chiang and A/Prof Eugene. I am happy that you have all shared your views, and I will set out my views. I want to keep my own remarks very short, maybe 15 minutes, and I will prefer to give more time to question and answer. I will share three aspects with you on religion and politics in Singapore.
II. SECULAR APPROACH
First, we take a secular approach to policy making. What does this mean? First, our policies are fair to all, and aimed at benefiting all Singaporeans. No particular religion is given favourable treatment. Second, we guarantee freedom of religion. Every person has the right to practice his or her religious beliefs. It does not matter who you are. I should have said no particular religion being given favourable treatment is the second point.
III. WORKING WITH DIFFERENT RELIGIOUS GROUPS
Then, we also work with different religious groups. Secularity does not mean that the Government keeps away from religion, or that the Government adopts a hands-off approach. We actively reach out, build ties with different religious groups, and lots of work has been done on this. In a multi-religious society like ours, it is important that the Government and the different religious groups have strong ties and have good relationships, so that when issues arise in community between religious groups, or when laws are passed which affect religious groups, we are able to reach out to the different leaders, explain the position, interact, keep an open channel, make it clear that our aims are common and similar.
One recent example from the Ministry of Home Affairs – when we reviewed the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, we engaged all the religious groups very extensively. And in June 2019, with the support of the Government, our religious leaders worked together on a document called the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony.
To date, more than 680 religious organisations and 73 community groups have affirmed this Commitment, which is a commitment by the major religious groups on the principles of religious harmony. The fact that more than 680 religious organisations including major religious organisations have affirmed the Commitment is to be celebrated, and it won’t happen in many countries. Their approach has underpinned the religious harmony that we have.
The Government has to be in a position, where it is trusted enough to persuade all groups to come together for the common good, and to maintain religious and racial harmony, and maintain a unified, common space. That requires constant effort on all sides. Crucial that we continue to deepen understanding and build trust, so that we can handle sensitive issues effectively.
IV. RESTRICTING HATE AND OFFENSIVE SPEECH
The third aspect that I want to talk about is restricting hate and offensive speech. I spoke at length on this in Parliament in April 2019.
What is hate speech? It is defined as all forms of expression which spread, incite, promote, or justify religious hatred, racial hatred, or other forms of hatred based on intolerance.
Hate speech which denigrates and dehumanises the out-group as it were, and suggests that the out-group is the source of problems, and paints the out-group as sub-human.
One of the most famous examples is of course during the Holocaust, in Germany. White Power music by white racialists to deny humanity of African-Americans in the US has been common.
And, different countries take different approaches in dealing with hate speech.
If you are in the US, speech is prohibited only if it is directed at inciting or producing imminent lawless action. And the speech is likely to incite or produce such action. So, it is a very high threshold. So, you get a lot of speeches that are anti-Semitic, that denigrate African-Americans and others, and even hate speech from groups like the Ku Klux Klan, and all of that is allowed.
You move to Europe, France for example. They have a concept of Laicite, Freedom of Expression. Laicite is their idea of secularity. What that means is the state doesn’t intervene. Freedom of speech means that any publication can publish religiously offensive material, like the Charlie Hebdo cartoons which by the way, are not only targeted at Muslims. There are also many cartoons that are targeted at the Pope, nuns, Christians, every religion, and they are not specifically focused on any one religion. It would have the Pope masturbating, nuns doing all sorts of things which are indecent, in their cartoons.
Their society is able to accept it. We take a different view and we will say no to these things. We recognise that religion is an emotive issue.
Some of you may remember, some years ago in 2005, a 17-year-old student made inflammatory posts on his blogs. One of the posts was titled ‘The Second Holocaust’, and he had advocated the extermination of Muslims and Malays. He was charged. He pleaded guilty. He expressed remorse for his actions. The blogs were taken down. Court sentenced him to two years of probation – not jail, but probation – and he was required to perform 180 hours of community service with a Malay welfare organisation, which in my view is probably the best way to deal with these things, depending on the facts. He was also required to attend counselling sessions with a qualified therapist.
So, we don’t tolerate hate speech in Singapore. We protect everyone, majority or minority, from hate speech, threats and violence. That is our approach to hate speech which I think is relatively uncontroversial. So, if you move one step lower, what about offensive speech?
Sometimes, there’s no bright and clear line between hate speech and offensive speech. What happens, if we allow offensive speech to enter mainstream discourse?
Let me give some examples. There’s a famous ventriloquist, Jeff Dunham, in the US. One of his more popular acts – he works with puppets – is Achmed the dead terrorist. So, you can imagine. He peddles in offensive views of various races and religions. He performs to sell-out crowds in America, and is one of the highest paid comedians in the world. His audience are mainly white Americans.
But ask yourself, if such expressions about Muslims or Christians or Hindus or Buddhists or atheists becomes common in public discourse, what happens? It’s quite easy to work out. The tone and texture of public discourse will change. Giving offence to others will become normalised. And in the long run, that will only exacerbate the fault lines, create tension, jeopardise social harmony.
If you look at another example – a US pastor, Terry Jones. He, in the name of freedom of speech, was burning the Quran. We will not allow this in Singapore. If you burn the Quran or the Bible or any holy book, you will be arrested and charged.
On the other hand, around, in our region, you see what’s happening, in Indonesia, there are prominent radical preachers whose preachings are on Youtube. They talk about the “infidel jinn (genie) in the crucifix”, the Shias are “a danger to Muslims … like a poison that has entered many Muslim hearts”, “Ahmadiyah is a rape of Islamic teaching … and should be dissolved”. So, Christians, Ahmadiyahs, Shias, and very inflammatory language. And when you use such language, you can imagine what happens when you use religion in this way.
We have seen what happens in other societies, so in Singapore, we take action against both hate speech and offensive speech. And we do not allow any race, or religion to be attacked or insulted by anyone else. So, the same rules for all. For us, free speech stops at the boundary of giving offence to others. You can say good things about your own religion, but you certainly cannot denigrate or give offence to other religions.
Those are the three points I wanted to share today, on religion and politics.
Today, I’ve rushed through a little bit, because I looked at your programme, it started at 10 in the morning, I don’t think you really want long speeches. But I’ve made several speeches both in and out of Parliament on this topic, and it’s a very, very important topic for us, because many of us are religious. It will be absurd to suggest that we will not be informed by our faith when we analyse issues or assess opinions. But it is very important for policymakers, whether Ministers or civil servants, to leave the religious skin out, and always bear in mind that you are making decisions for the whole of society, for the majority. The policies must benefit the majority of society. That is extremely important.
That is the approach we take, and we support religions, support religious practices in the sense that we give a framework, a strong framework – freedom of religion – and we prevent attacks of one religion on another, or on any religion, by people who may not be of a religious persuasion.
Our approach thus far has worked, and we work closely with religious leaders, as I’ve said. If you look at the 2019 Gallup World Poll, 95 per cent of respondents in Singapore found the country to be a good place for racial and ethnic minorities to live in. The global average is 70 per cent.
In Singapore, it is completely normal for let’s say the Minister of the Ministry of Community, Culture and Youth, who is a practicing Roman Catholic, to participate in a Hindu, Thaipusam festival, as the guest-of-honour.
At the same time, people see that we act, and we take fairly strict and decisive actions, when people cross over the line and threaten violence. In the last few weeks, you would have read, a 16-yr old boy was detained for planning attacks on a mosque, and a 20-yr old was detained for planning attacks on a synagogue. You saw Christian leaders going to the affected mosque to meet Muslim leaders. You saw Muslim leaders going to the affected synagogue to meet Jewish leaders. They reaffirmed their mutual trust and strong relationship that exists across religious boundaries and condemned the hatred and violence. You don’t see much of this happening in many other places.
But we cannot and should not take this religious harmony and understanding for granted. This has been built up over many years. Religious leaders, government working together to maintain a unified common space and safeguard our societal harmony.
Our assurance – Government will be fair to everyone, guarantee freedom of religion, protect everyone from hate and offensive speech, and continue to work with all religious and non-religious groups.