Religion's place in Parliament, politics and policy

The crossing of swords in Parliament last month between Minister Masagos Zulkifli and opposition MP Faisal Manap on a religious issue (wearing of tudung by nurses and uniformed officers) provides an opportunity to reflect on the appropriateness of bringing religion into parliamentary debates.

"Mr Masagos pointed to his (Mr Faisal's) practice of subtly and frequently bringing issues that are sensitive to the community, knowing (they are) not easy to resolve and cleverly turning them into state-versus-religion issues… He (Mr Faisal) disagreed he was sowing discord and said that as an elected MP, he had the right to voice the concerns of his community in Parliament." (The Straits Times, April 5).

The question to deal with is whether issues of religion can be raised in Parliament, which is the apex political institution that defends the secular nature of the Singapore state.

The above question seems easy to answer but it is not so. This is due to the complexities of Singaporean society that is religious in character. Eighty-three per cent of the populace have religious affiliations and the remaining 17 per cent have moral sensibilities, although they do not profess any religion. Religion is central in the lives of a majority of Singaporeans; it is intertwined with many aspects of life and cannot be ignored even within the secular setting.

One response is to address the above question from the perspective of politics and policy. In his National Day Rally speech of 2015, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spoke of the 2Ps of politics and policy and reiterated that the Government must get them right to secure people's trust and confidence.

One important way to ensure that Singapore gets its politics right is to ensure that there is strictly no mixing of politics with religion. Raising issues of religion in Parliament for the sake of winning political support or gaining political mileage is politicising religion and this is against secularism.

Nevertheless, secularism is more than the simple separation of politics from religion or the neutrality of state towards religion. Secularism is essential because it is only with a secular state ideology that tolerance of differences in beliefs and persuasions can exist. Furthermore, a state that does not show any favour to a religion or belief can better arbitrate among the many contending interests, wants and needs of various groups in a religiously diverse society.

The nature of politics is that it is likely to be contentious. Its mix with religion will make politics even more contentious. Politics is the exercise of power, and the pursuit of religious demands or goals through politics in Parliament will give rise to a clash of interests and conflict among diverse religious groups. This can lead to disharmony and disunity.

REGULATING RELIGIOUS PRACTICE

However, it is recognised that religion is important to Singaporeans. In a religiously diverse country experiencing rising religiosity, the Government cannot be indifferent to religions. It has to assume stewardship over religion with regard to the social and political implications of rising religiosity. The Government does this through the lever of policy to ensure that the religious practices of any community do not contravene public order, public hygiene, national security, public safety and good governance requirements. Examples include the practice of ritual slaughter, playing of musical instruments during a street procession and the soliciting of public donations for religious purposes. The state must regulate these and many other aspects of religious life to the extent that they affect the general well- being of Singaporean society. As the state is involved in these matters, issues of religion will find their way into Parliament, either as policy pronouncements by the Government or as points of debate among parliamentarians.

The state's commitment is to secure the overall well-being of society through maintenance of public order, social stability, defence against external threats, enforcement of contracts and long-term economic prosperity. The Government has to be fully in charge to deliver all these "public-interest goods". This means that all institutions and groups - temporal and spiritual - need to accept the reality that they have to be subordinated to the state. Nevertheless, the Constitution upholds the freedom of practice of religion and beliefs.

Singapore's secularism is unique in many ways. While it curtails the encroachment of religion into politics, as institutionalised within the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, the state accommodates the need for religion to assume a public presence to a certain extent. As many aspects of religious life have implications for society, the Government needs to be in charge through the instrument of policy to ensure the well-being of all citizens, regardless of faith or persuasion.

The main argument for religious communities to leave to the Government of the day judgment calls on specific requests is that only the Government is in a position to decide which of these would not cause a pushback or adverse reactions from other religious communities. This is a delicate matter as each community has its own expectations that its requests be fulfilled.

The state has been judicious in maintaining an "equidistant" position in relation to all religious groups and not showing favouritism to any particular group. In this regard, the state adopts a number of approaches, including that of accommodating all religious groups. For example, the state accommodates the request for space for places of worship for many groups by allocating parcels of land for religious purposes. Another approach is equal recognition of needs. This is illustrated in the equal recognition of religious celebrations and the declaration of public holidays for them. At the same time, as the third approach, the state had also in the past turned down requests but it did so with fairness, as illustrated in the refusal to allow religious groups to broadcast religious programmes over national television.

Hence, the Government adopts an even-handed approach to all religious groups and it will decide how and when requests of various religious communities can be acceded to. In this way, the Government maintains its neutrality towards religion to secure the trust and seek the buy-in of all stakeholders. There is no benefit for religious communities to pressure the Government directly or indirectly, through proxy in or outside Parliament. To do so is to politicise these religious requests and it may result in an impasse. The ultimate loser will be the religious community concerned.


  • The writer is Head of Studies in the Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies Programme, S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University .
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2017, with the headline 'Religion's place in Parliament, politics and policy'. Print Edition | Subscribe