Govt policies on religion need to be constantly reviewed, says ex-minister Yaacob

Professor Yaacob outlined three trends that could impact the existing state of religious harmony in Singapore.
Professor Yaacob outlined three trends that could impact the existing state of religious harmony in Singapore.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - Policies put in place to maintain religious harmony need to be constantly reviewed amid societal changes like evolving views among younger Singaporeans, said former Cabinet minister Yaacob Ibrahim on Thursday (Oct 22).

He added that faith-based debates that arise from time to time - for example, on why certain professions forbid the wearing of a tudung - cannot be swept under the carpet, and have to be managed in a way that does not compromise Singapore's national interest.

Professor Yaacob, who retired from politics earlier this year, was speaking at an online panel organised by the Centre for Liveable Cities and the Institute of Policy Studies.

He outlined three trends that could impact the existing state of religious harmony in Singapore, including the changing orientation of younger Singaporeans towards the notion of religious diversity.

"From their perspective, everyone who professes a religious belief, no matter how different to those in the mainstream, must have a seat at the table," said Prof Yaacob, who helmed several ministries in his career, including communications and information.

The former minister-in-charge of Muslim affairs also cited how segments of the Sunni group - the dominant denomination in Singapore's Muslim community - oppose the inclusion of a "small but growing number" of Shi'ite Muslims.

This new group wants their own "private" space - defined by Prof Yaacob as a place of worship, for example - while sharing the "common" space where all religious communities coexist.

"It cannot be that we are tolerant of each other in the common spaces, and yet despise each other in the private spaces," he said.

Fellow panelist Lily Kong, president of the Singapore Management University, pointed to how different practices of the same religion could lead to "divergent, divisive relations".

She noted the increasing diversity of the Indian Hindu population in Singapore, which started out with predominantly southern influences since colonial times but is now, due to migration, encountering differing northern traditions and practices.

This required "careful management" to mitigate any potential impact on "bonding relationships" within the community, she said.

The social sciences professor then identified the challenges posed by technological change - a trend similarly highlighted by Prof Yaacob earlier.

"We (now) all have greater exposure to what is happening elsewhere. And this means that even without travelling somewhere else, even without spending significant time in some other context, there is the possibility that we will import practices from other contexts into our environment," said Prof Kong.

She cited the emerging phenomenon of "halal-fication" in Malaysia and Indonesia, as well as among the Muslim population in China.

This, she explained, refers to the extension of the halal concept into areas of life beyond food - from daily items such as fridges and washing machines to laundromats, gated communities and even Internet browsers.

Noting that this has yet to happen in Singapore, Prof Kong said: "The ways in which we manage our very delicate religious relations needs to keep in step with these sorts of changes."

She further observed that with Covid-19 preventing people from going to physical religious buildings, there has been a virtualisation of rituals and prayers - with implications on how cyberspace can then be managed in a harmonious way.

Prof Yaacob, meanwhile, cautioned that the spread of misinformation, and rise of "deepfakes", could have "devastating" consequences for Singapore's religious harmony.

Finding resolution

During a question-and-answer segment moderated by IPS' Dr Mathew Mathews, the panellists were asked how the Government could better manage issues such as complaints of seventh month prayers generating litter and pollution to whether front-line officers like nurses should be allowed to wear tudung at work.

The latter topic came to the fore again in August this year, after a woman was asked to remove her tudung to work as a promoter at the Tangs department store.

Prof Yaacob said efforts in this space typically take place behind the scenes, with groups from the religious community in constant dialogue with both the Government and private agencies.

"In the case of the tudung issue, we've had many engagements, many discussions," he said. "We know that this is something we have to continue to work at. I cannot pretend we can solve this overnight.

"If I go to a hospital and a Malay nurse wears a tudung, to me I should judge her not on her tudung but her professionalism and whether she can do the job," said Prof Yaacob, who is now an engineering professor at the Singapore Institute of Technology.

"These are the kinds of things that we need to... have a conversation (so that) people understand that the lady wants to be a nurse but wants also to practice her beliefs. So how do you balance the two in such a way... without undermining whatever concerns that we have in society?"

Prof Yaacob later told The Straits Times that he continues to get questions on the tudung issue after leaving politics.

"You need to explore it... but in a manner that preserves the trust and understanding that the (Muslim) community has reached with the government," he said.

"The more important point for me personally, is that the issue must be alive on the table for some way for us to find a resolution."