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Politics At 50

In face of rising religiosity, keep faith with the secular state

The push and pull between the state and the religious authorities is normal for a healthy, diverse society

For those like me who believe that rising religiosity is the greatest pressure on the status quo in Singapore now, and for decades to come, the City Harvest trial has been a bellwether saga.

Since its start in 2012, the criminal investigation and judicial proceedings against six leaders of one of the largest and most powerful churches in Singapore have been a delicate balancing act for the secular state.

Can it punish the City Harvest Church (CHC) leaders while reaffirming the church's freedom of worship? Can it hold its religious leaders to account and persuade their flock, 30,000 Singaporeans at its peak, to accept the legitimacy of secular judgment?

The verdict last week that found all six guilty, capping a 140-day trial that lasted two years, has answered some questions while making others more urgent.

The words and actions of current and former CHC leaders in the aftermath of the verdict have raised eyebrows among many secular observers.

As many have noted, in the matter of the misuse of $50 million of church funds, Kong Hee has persisted in referring to himself and the other five as "accused" persons rather than convicted ones; his apology to his congregation last week was for the "pain and turmoil" caused to them in the form of external criticism - not for his criminal actions.

CHC pastor Aries Zulkarnain, in explaining the verdict to the congregation, said the church leaders were saddened by the verdict, but "respected" it.

This word choice is significant and deliberate: respect is not the same as acceptance.

As the six have yet to be sentenced, let alone indicate whether they will file an appeal, expressing an acceptance of the guilty verdict may thus be premature at this stage.

But some see the public statements made last weekend as an implicit challenge to the secular judiciary's judgment, through a differentiation of said judgment from the moral judgment of the church's belief system.

Such a dynamic emerges from another recent collision between the state and the religious authorities.

In 2012, the Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC), led by Pastor Lawrence Khong, fired a member of the church staff because of her adulterous relationship with a married church worker.

Because she was seven months pregnant at the time, then Minister for Manpower Tan Chuan-Jin said the church should pay her $7,000 in salary and benefits.

This was premised on the Minister's judgment that the worker was sacked without sufficient cause. Under the Employment Act, an expectant mother from her fourth month of pregnancy must be paid benefits if she is sacked without sufficient cause.

Mr Khong's counter was that since the church is a moral body, persistent adulterous behaviour was "sufficient cause" for dismissal.

The church petitioned the High Court for a legal review of the Minister's decision, a challenge it unexpectedly dropped earlier this year. It said it had come to understand the rationale for the Minister's decision and now "accepted" it.

It is important here to understand why these two cases differ in kind, not just degree, from other recent headline-making incidents involving religious or racial groups.

Petitions for the Government to allow the hijab, the Muslim headdress, to be worn by nurses in public hospitals who wish to do so, or petitions for musical instruments to be played during the Thaipusam procession are seen as challenges on the "common space" the Government believes must be kept race- and religion-neutral.

This common space is fundamental to the peaceful functioning of Singapore's multiracialism - a founding principle of Singapore's secular state.

The aforementioned groups want the secular state to carve out concessions from the common space to fulfil their desire for religious self-expression. The Government has hitherto, citing the pressures of snowballing demands, declined. This push and pull is the normal, healthy workings of a diverse society.

But the FCBC case is not a challenge on the common space. It challenges the authority of the secular state - whether the political leaders or the judicial authorities - to determine the perimeters of the common space.

The implicit argument it posed was that the morality of its belief systems stand equal, if not above, secular judgment.

Ultimately, its church leaders decided not to pursue that argument but to cede to secular authority.

In the CHC's case, the legal process is ongoing but the six leaders have submitted to the workings of secular law.

So the status quo can be said to have prevailed in both cases.

But it would be naive to think that the rising religiosity, demonstrated in these cases, has not detracted from the secular state's authority over the common space.

In recent years, for example, there has been an assertive religious campaign to keep in place the section of the Penal Code which criminalises gay sex, Section 377A.

This assertiveness has sent the signal that any repeal - rightfully a decision solely of the elected legislature - will lead to aggressive pushback against secular authority.

To avoid such a collision, it is likely the Government will not consider repealing the law for, perhaps, at least one generation.

This is yet another occasion in a long journey of rising religiosity finding an equilibrium with the secular state.

Two major reasons give me optimism that secularism will prevail. The first is that Singapore, as befits its youthfulness, is starting this chapter later than other advanced economies with secular governments.

What has emerged elsewhere is not pretty. Whether political gridlock in the United States driven by the growing influence of the religious right in the Republican party, the emergence of racial and religious enclaves in many parts of Europe or incidents of religion-related violence in many parts of the world, these trends should push popular support here behind a strong, secular state.

The second and more important reason is that Singapore is, by default, multiracial and multi-religious.

Few places in the world started off heterogeneously and have entrenched heterogeneity.

Philosopher John Rawls made his name with a thought experiment that imagined a group of people designing the rules of a society they would live in, without knowing who they would be- rich or poor, male or female, Christian or Hindu, able-bodied or disabled.

He argued that this ignorance would lead to a societal design that gave everyone the most liberties possible without infringing on the liberties of others - because who would take the chance of ending up at the mercy of a skewed system?

Singapore's mix of religions and races could be seen as a real-life corollary of this thought experiment.

No one can imagine themselves out of their identities. But living with those of other races and religions can be a daily reminder that the only thing that guarantees your own choice of god and good is a secular state that stays silent on the merits of that choice.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 01, 2015, with the headline 'In face of rising religiosity, keep faith with the secular state'. Print Edition | Subscribe