Keeping religion separate from state

The religious harmony Act came into being 25 years ago - and has stood Singapore in good stead.

This year marks the 25th year in which the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) has been in effect. While the Act has never been enforced on any individual, this does not mean there has been no episode that could have adversely affected religious harmony.

There were such occurrences, though not many, and they were mainly resolved through the preferred non-adjudicative means, especially those of dialogue and reconciliation.

The Act came into effect in 1992. It aims to maintain religious harmony and ensure that religion is not exploited for any political or subversive purposes in Singapore. The Act empowers the Minister for Home Affairs to issue a restraining order against any leader, official or member of any religious group or institution who causes ill feelings between different religious groups, promotes a political cause, carries out subversive activities, or excites disaffection against the President or the Government under the guise of propagating or practising a religious belief.

In September, Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam announced that the MRHA will be further strengthened next year, in the light of "experiences we have seen in the region".


The MRHA was the key outcome of a White Paper entitled Maintenance of Religious Harmony, presented to Parliament on Dec 26, 1989. This was at the close of the 1980s, a decade which saw a huge comeback of religion in the world. Before then, scholars and thinkers had declared that religion had lost its significant role in society due to a seemingly unstoppable wave of secularisation.

However, not only did religion come back in a big way, it did so, in the words of global scholar of religion Peter Berger, many times in "furious" ways.

The rise of religion in Singaporean society in the 1980s as part of this global trend created tensions caused by aggressive proselytisation, competition for converts, disturbing changes in religious demographics and the significant foray of religion into politics and social activism as well as the affairs of the state.

The decade of the 1980s was a watershed in terms of the impact of religion on interfaith relations and religions' encounters with the state. It led to a major assessment of the influence of religion on society and its impact on social peace, political stability and religious harmony.

This was the overarching theme of the White Paper. One historic recommendation which became the central plank of the MRHA was the separation of religion from politics and the separation of religion from the state.

These policy decisions and the institutionalisation of the secular state 25 years ago were spot on and futuristic then, considering the increasing trend of religious-based conflicts in recent times.

A study by Pew Research Centre on 159 countries in 2006 found that 20 per cent encountered religious-based conflicts. The figure for the same list of countries increased to 33 per cent six years later in 2012. Many of these conflicts were due to the politicisation of religion or the "religionisation" of politics.

One need not go far to make quick observations that radicalism or extremism in many religions today is on the rise.

Its forms include Hindu nationalism, Buddhist nationalism, Muslim radicalism, Jewish fundamentalism and the Christian right phenomenon in America and Europe.


Singapore had the good fortune of a founding generation of leaders who foresaw that a mix of religion with politics and a fusion of religious and political power could lead to tragedy.

Europe provides a painful lesson on the pitfalls when both religious and political power resides in the authority of the Church. The period when this took place saw many religious wars, mass killings and horrific torture, all in the name of religion. Consequently, it brought about an intense social response starting from the Renaissance, through the Enlightenment and finally to the modern era.

One significant response was the exclusion of religion as the basis of social and political orders.

Ideology, defined as the science of ideas, replaced religion as the foundation of public morality and the basis of social order. Religion was excluded from politics and affairs of the state. Thus the world had secularism, born of modernity.

Another lesson from the history of Europe is that the separation of religion from the state can prevent religious governance from becoming an instrument of dictatorship and a threat to religion itself. This is because human agency is an important functional part of religion.

Through this agency, humankind defines what it means to be religious, to believe in religion and to practise it through rituals, personal conduct and social behaviour.

If religion is not separate from politics and state, this human agency will be the monopoly of the ruling elite who will employ both religious and political power to enforce their own definitions of religion and religious life. People are then forced to comply and in the name of God, the authoritarian regime may suppress dissent, oppress freedom and pervert religious truths.

Paradoxically, the mix between religion and state affairs may lead to endangering and denigrating religion as well as the loss of life's sacredness.

These are important lessons from history, but there is another compelling argument for the necessity of the secular state. It is about how the modern nation-state has evolved to become very diverse culturally and religiously due to the global flows of humans, capital and information.

As a result, the political structure adopted by states today needs to be efficacious to organise such diverse societies. From the historical experience of Europe, secular state ideology can provide the basis for such a political structure. It rests on the major principles of tolerance of differences, equal respect of all cultures, freedom of conscience to believe in any religion and equality of citizens regardless of their beliefs.

The neutrality of the secular state to the different religions, beliefs and cultures should protect all communities, especially minorities, from being suppressed by the majority religious community. This is because discrimination based on religion is not tolerated; laws and national policies do not favour one particular religious community.

In short, the secular state will have the credibility and support to unify the diverse religious communities, and achieve social peace and religious harmony.

It is a good time for Singaporeans, after 25 years of the MRHA, to reflect on lessons from history and the conditions of present times to stay rooted in the ideology of separation of religion from politics and the affairs of the state.

• The writer is the head of Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies (SRP) Programme 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 December 14, 2017, with the headline 'Keeping religion separate from state'. Print Edition | Subscribe