Enhancing Singapore's secularism

Singapore practises a separation of religion and state in which no political party that is religion-based is allowed, and religious leaders who wish to participate in electoral politics must first "remove their religious garb".

Furthermore, no community can use its religious stance to dictate affairs of the state, be it in the formulation of public policies, making of decisions or enactment of laws. Singapore is guided by what philosophers like John Rawls and Jurgen Habermas call Public Reason - reasons that all citizens share and which are not derived from any particular scripture subscribed to only by adherents.

In turn, the state is obliged to treat all individuals as equal citizens regardless of religion. The rights and duties of citizenship are not distributed on the basis of affiliation to any specific religion. The state's role is to ensure the moral and material well-being of its citizens and not to be involved in matters of the soul. It does not institutionalise or enforce any specific religion or take instructions from any religious body, as otherwise its sovereignty will be heavily compromised.

The Singapore secular state staunchly subscribes to all these cardinal principles. And due to this steadfastness, it is able to create the conditions conducive to harmonious multi-religious living where there are guarantees for freedom of conscience, equal treatment of religions, existence of public order and positive civic relations amongst its citizens.

Religious communities are free to give voice to their conscience in matters that have moral impact. A case in point is the expression of disapproval by several religious groups on the introduction of casino gambling in Singapore.


In the celebration of religious festivals in Singapore, exceptions are given to specific religious communities for street processions (Thaipusam, above), import of livestock for ritual slaughter, open burning of sacred paper, release of animals into waterways or conducting prayer sessions in aided schools. ST PHOTO: ONG WEE JIN

More importantly, the Constitution provides for freedom to practise religion and recognises the equal standing of all religions, including those whose membership constitutes a minuscule percentage of Singapore's population. Nevertheless, the freedom has to be exercised with prudence so as not to disrupt social harmony. This is where the state plays its custodial role without fear or favour.

The uncompromising side of Singapore's secularism is balanced by its gentle side. As a very significant proportion of Singaporeans (83 per cent) embraces religion , the state has been pragmatic with regard to its interaction with religion within the common space. In the embrace of secularism, there is no hard and fast rule as to the definition of common space. This then explains the diversity in models of secular state that one finds in the world today. The uniqueness of Singapore's practice of secularism lies in its clever application of the principle of being equidistant in accommodating the special needs and interests of the various religious groups, as well as in giving some space to religion in the public square without causing disharmony.

The question is whether the state feels comfortable about allowing religion to contribute to the substance of what constitutes Public Reason. In other words, can religious language and narratives be allowed within the common space in public discussions that involve moral issues and have a bearing on policymaking, decision-making and lawmaking?

Singapore fulfils the unique needs of religion through the three approaches of manifesting the principle of equidistance. First is the approach of equal treatment. This is where Singapore builds in the provision of equal privileges to all religions, by means of either legislation or policy. An example is the declaration of public holidays in conjunction with religious celebrations. The other is the state's policy of allocating land on lease for the construction of places of worship.

Second is the approach of equitable treatment and recognition, which is not straightforward and requires judicious management. Religious communities are given privileges according to their unique circumstances.

For example, in the celebration of religious festivals, exceptions are given to specific religious communities for street processions, import of livestock for ritual slaughter, open burning of sacred paper, release of animals into waterways or conducting prayer sessions in aided schools.

Third is the approach of establishment where the interests of minority religious communities are taken care of through the setting up of statutory boards and the Presidential Council of Minority Rights to ensure that any legislation passed by Parliament does not jeopardise them.

Singapore's brand of secularism is "religion friendly" and, because of this, the state and religion have enjoyed a generally amicable relationship. This is exceptional in the world today, a world that is seeing increasing tension between religion and secularism because of a big religious resurgence which has at times manifested in furious ways. Religious communities deem that humankind is facing many crises today due to the failure of the secular state. They feel obliged to put things right as they believe that the role of religion is to alleviate suffering. On the other hand, states have resisted religious intervention in their affairs and invoked as reasons past religious wars - notably in 16th- and 17th-century Europe - that caused the loss of millions of lives.

This contestation has moved scholars on both sides of the divide to a rethink.

Rather than confront and clash with one another, there have been calls for collaboration between secular and religious groups with the aim of tackling together the many issues facing humanity.

This new dynamic can enhance the well-being of society, provided the secular state remains in charge. The question is whether the state feels comfortable about allowing religion to contribute to the substance of what constitutes Public Reason. In other words, can religious language and narratives be allowed within the common space in public discussions that involve moral issues and have a bearing on policymaking, decision-making and lawmaking?

On its part, can people of religion have the discipline to leave the running of the state and decision-making to those in the realm of secular politics?

Can Singapore's model of secularism, while safeguarding the fundamental principles that have made it successful, evolve to allow religious communities to articulate their views on matters of public interest that have moral impact? In doing so, religious communities must be able to use resources and ideas found within their religious traditions.

There are two benefits. One is that religious communities will be challenged to offer ideas that are not exclusive but shared by many, to strengthen societal interests and expand common space.

Second, Singaporeans will have the opportunity to be enriched by the ideas of different religions as expressed in these discussions. Such ideas can also help to enhance the quality of public discussion on religion and to forge greater interreligious literacy that in turn strengthens Singapore's religious harmony.

Religious harmony based on knowledge has a better prospect of being sustainable than harmony based on uninformed tolerance, for it is the former that can withstand testing in situations of crisis.

  • The writer is Head of Studies in Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 04, 2016, with the headline 'Enhancing Singapore's secularism'. Print Edition | Subscribe