Workers' Party MP Faisal Manap was put in the hot seat yesterday after he said that he did not quite agree with keeping religion and politics separate. Speaking in Malay on changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, he said: "Islam encompasses all aspects of life, including politics and the way to practise politics."
As such, while he agreed religion should not be used to gain political advantage, he did not fully agree with the principle of the separation of religion from politics.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam expressed surprise and concern that Mr Faisal held that view, and asked him to clarify what he meant.
In a protracted exchange, Mr Faisal said his comment was taken out of context. People "shouldn't use religion for the benefit of politics", but it was inevitable that in the formulation of policies, there would be an "intertwine between politics and religion", he said.
Asked by Mr Shanmugam if he would state whether he believed that religion should be kept separate from politics, the MP answered: "To cut it short, can you please refer to the Hansard, the speech that I have delivered?"
After 15 minutes, he finally said: "I do agree that religion needs to be kept apart from politics, so that religion won't be used to gain personal benefit or the benefit of... any political party."
This led WP chief Pritam Singh to jump in. "In Singapore, as a minority MP for any party, you represent not just members of your community, you represent members of other faiths. And I think the only way to move forward is to accept that there has to be a certain degree of understanding towards other faiths and move forward in a way which accepts that we must be mindful of introducing religion into politics," he said, acknowledging that he was speaking for himself.
"I think ultimately for a Member of Parliament of any political party in Singapore, I think it is important that you remember that you have to represent the interests of every community, not just yours."
The exchange between Mr Shanmugam and Mr Faisal also drew a response from Nominated MP Mohamed Irshad, who said he was "very troubled" by it.
He said he felt it was important to state that while it was fine for a Muslim to hold the personal view that religion encompasses his or her lifestyle, "as a secular nation, we cannot impose our religious values on the common spaces of everybody".
He called on the Government to work with religious bodies to drive across the point that Singapore's secular spaces must be safely guarded.
Responding, Mr Shanmugam said most people would readily admit that their personal views can be influenced by religion, including many MPs and Cabinet ministers who are deeply religious.
"We don't hide that," he added.
"When you make your decisions, you cannot put aside your religious self, but you must take into account everybody else and you act neutrally, and you take the position for the benefit of all Singaporeans, even if you believe that that may not be consistent with your religious beliefs."
The minister said this position is accepted by religious leaders of all faiths, including Muslim leaders, clerics and the Mufti.
"They accept it, and they say that is the only way in which we can proceed with governing Singapore and living in Singapore, not just for us as a government, but for them as religious leaders," he added. "So, Mr Faisal has introduced a new element in that process today. I think that is something for him and others around him to think about."