By Invitation

Faith in the public domain

Asia has always been a vast and complex region where diversity and pluralism were and remain the norm, but are we able to cope with the realities of such complexity today? Of late, there seems to be the growing tendency among some who wish to claim that public domain as theirs to define and police, ostensibly for the sake of a higher, transcendental moral good; but does that mean that the sacred is incompatible with our present-day understanding of diversity and difference?


That religion, and in particular the vocabulary and symbols of religiosity, permeates Asian society today is not a quirky thing that is incomprehensible. If we were to look back at the region's history, we can see that from ancient times to the colonial era, that was indeed the norm. In our politics and language of governance, a sense of the sacred has always been present: In almost all the local languages of South-east Asia the words for "king", "ruler", "government/governance", "authority", "power", "treason", et cetera have connotations of the sacred - pointing us to a pre-modern past where power was not simply a worldly instrument to be wielded for worldly ends, but something that was imbued with elements of the metaphysical and transcendental.

Likewise the material culture of South-east Asia also indicates the extent to which our ancestors lived in a world where the mundane and the metaphysical often overlapped and cross-fertilised each other: The maps that were produced in mainland South-east Asia - present-day Thailand, Burma/Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos - all present a view of the human world in terms of a horizontal plane, sandwiched between a transcendental cosmos above and a hellish underworld below; and what these maps did was to locate human beings and human society in between the realm of the divine and the hellish.

However, it is vital for us to realise one particular feature of our pre-modern past that is relevant to our concerns today: That even at a time prior to the colonial era when Asians were actors and agents of change in their own right, our societies were religious but not sectarian or exclusively so.

There existed Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist polities that were defined by the dominant religion of the majority group, but were nonetheless able to live with and accept religio-cultural diversity as a fact of life. In the images from the work of the European cartographer Theodore de Bry (1601), we see that Banten - a famous and important port city in West Java - was already a Muslim kingdom but one where Burmans, Siamese, Chinese, Indian, Persian and Indian communities lived side by side with each other, and where the urban landscape was dotted by not only mosques but also temples of every kind. Thus religion was never a barrier to ethno-religious complexity and pluralism in the past, so why on earth should it be one now?



The kingdom of Banten - like the other kingdoms of South-east Asia in the pre-colonial era from Mataram to Srivijaya - were complex things, with complex societies. Though they were dominated by majorities that belonged to singular faith communities, their social landscapes were plural and diverse, long before those words became fashionable.

Historians sometimes wonder how these societies remained cohesive, and how diversity in terms of religious beliefs and value-systems was maintained without social conflict or centrifugal forces coming to the foreground. The answer seems mundane enough: By and large, such societies thrived as a result of a give-and-take attitude where people went about their lives without forcing their beliefs on others. The marketplace was a crucial levelling point where the different communities would meet to trade, and by doing so, come to realise that they needed each other to survive collectively.

In the pre-modern era where the modern state had not yet arrived, with all its capabilities in terms of social policing and monitoring, societies had to evolve their own norms and means of conflict resolution. None of these pre-modern states had anything that would be the equivalent of the modern police force, or a modern standardised education system. And yet they did not fragment or experience the kind of sectarian conflict that the world witnessed during the crisis of the Balkans in recent times.

If inter-religious dialogue andco-existence has becomea problem for somecountries today, it is partly the result of the rise of sectarian identity politics where communitiesnolonger mobilise in terms of ideology or class, but in terms ofcommonshared identitiesandvalues.

Today, however, we live in modern societies whose parameters have been circumscribed by the state, and with that has come the public domain of politics as well. If inter- religious dialogue and co-existence has become a problem for some countries today, it is partly the result of the rise of sectarian identity politics where communities no longer mobilise in terms of ideology or class, but in terms of common shared identities and values. And when such forms of identity politics play themselves out in a contested public domain, led by communitarian leaders who foreground only the values and agendas of their respective communities, then contestation would invariably be the result. This holds particularly true when communitarian politics slides back towards a simple form of identity formation, and when identities - be they ethnic, cultural or religious - are seen in simplified, homogenous terms.

Suddenly the Asian region has become witness to all kinds of communal demands in the public domain that are exclusive in nature, and this has become worrisome in many parts of Asia in particular. Countries that have been complex and plural for centuries are now witnessing the rise of groups that wish to deny their complex history and who wish to impress upon the nation as a whole a singular ethno-religious stamp in no uncertain terms. Monuments, historical sites, texts, myths, songs and bits of material culture are now being claimed as being "exclusively" that of particular groups; while in some countries ethno-religious tension is on the rise as sectarian-minded adherents to the faith reject all forms of contact with other communities.

These are not problems affecting a single country or a single faith community in Asia today, but is sadly something that we see in many parts of Asia, as identities are configured along narrow and homogenous terms, often as part of a sectarian religio-political project driven not by the faithful per se, but rather their political leaders.


We tend to overrate the charms of modernity and applaud developments in domains like communication technology, while forgetting to ask if we are really communicating with each other in the first place these days. Meanwhile, we tend to underrate the achievements of the past and look at the pre-modern era through the lens of the exotic and unfamiliar, and sometimes fail to note that older societies were perhaps better able to cope with things like diversity and difference because they were societies in the first place: shared spaces where individuals and communities could come together in a meaningful way without negating the presence of others or denying their particularities.

Asia's past points to a time when diversity was the norm, in the context of sacred spaces where religion and cosmology were not absent. If that be the case, we need to ask what our ancestors got right and where we have gone wrong. Living with pluralism, hybridity and complexity did not make our ancestors less religious - if anything, their sense of the sacred may well have been more profound than ours today.

What differentiates us today from the Asia of the past is the absence then of the kind of narrow and compartmentalising identity politics that has now become the norm in so many parts of the world.

The public domain is something that we need to share together, and today's equivalent of the marketplace of the past would be the mall, the media, the Internet. Being able to enter that public domain without donning the armour of an exclusive identity is the challenge we face now; to be able to see the public domain not as a threatening domain to be dominated and conquered, but as a shared space where our particularities and vulnerabilities are sometimes exposed, along with others. If our ancestors could live in such complex societies without having to force their beliefs down the throats of others, it may be because they did not see the need to turn the rest of society into carbon copies of themselves. That in itself requires some degree of courage and self-confidence; as well as the belief that the public domain is also a space that should be kept open for all - which, by the way, happens to be a matter of faith as well.

  • The writer is an associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 19, 2016, with the headline 'Faith in the public domain'. Print Edition | Subscribe