Singapore 'not immune to religious tensions', says Shanmugam

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 2, 2013

SINGAPORE is not likely to be spared as religion-fuelled tensions spread through the region, Foreign and Law Minister K. Shanmugam has said.

Responding to a question at The Straits Times Global Outlook Forum last Friday on rising religiosity in the region, Mr Shanmugam said the flow of funds from international sources to churches and religious schools gives rise to significant issues in the region.

For example, with money flows from the Middle East to Islamic schools which are not always subject to state supervision, "you have to worry about what exactly are the children being taught", he noted.

Mr Shanmugam said two elements - the ethnic mix in the region and the fact that many countries are in a "state of transition democratically" - are factors behind the conflict between Myanmar, Thailand and the Philippines and their Muslim minorities.

Even in Singapore, a stable place where funds from overseas are controlled and the land for mosques is subsidised, "you already see a significant religious debate taking place", he said.

American-style "culture wars" over issues like gay rights and abortion are also beginning to happen here, he added.

"Ten years ago, if you'd asked a Singaporean, do you think a woman should have a right to abort, everybody will have said 'of course'.

It was a no-brainer as far as Singaporeans are concerned, he said.

This is no longer the case today, not just among older people but also for young, religious Singaporeans, he said.

He cited a woman law undergraduate who sent him a paper arguing that Singapore's laws on abortion are too lax. Her legislative views are probably influenced by her religious ones, he noted.

"So society is becoming more religious and I think we will see these debates. Don't mistake me. I think there is a place for these debates but, in my own view, from a secular point of view," he said.

"What should the laws be on gay rights? What should the laws be on abortion? I think there is a framework to discuss this from a secular perspective.

"But inevitably, the arguments within the secular space will be informed by people's religious beliefs. And those religious beliefs are getting stronger and stronger."

This story was first published in The Straits Times on Dec 2, 2013

To subscribe to The Straits Times, please go to