Nov 20, 2009

Brief Thoughts on Religion in Singapore

An email from an American reader:

Hello Mr. Wang,

My name is Gregory Hoffman, and I am a High School student in Miami, Florida. In the coming weekend, I am representing Singapore in a Model U.N. competition. I will be the delegate for Singapore. In the general assembly, we will attempt to create a resolution on two primary topics: religious intolerance, and the situation in Afghanistan.

In researching I have found very unreliable information throughout the web on religious tolerance(or intolerance) in Singapore. I understand Article 12 of the constitution of Singapore gives equality to all citizens of Singapore, and clearly states that discrimination on the ground of religion is prohibited. Furthermore, Article 15 speaks upon the freedom of religion within Singapore. That said, I am aware in the middle of the 1900's a few riots occurred. Since then( preferably more recently), what has Singapore done to promote religious tolerance? In the model U.N., I must represent my country's interests and work towards a resolution with other countries with similiar interests. Any help you are able to give would be GREATLY appreciated.

Thank you very much,
Gregory Hoffman

Here is the 2-cents-worth reply which I dashed out in a few minutes:

Hi Gregory:

You are referring to the Maria Hertogh riots in 1950. At that time, Singapore was not a sovereign nation yet. Therefore the Constitution you refer to did not exist at that time. Singapore only became an independent nation in 1965.

I might as well add at this time that for any country, what the constitution says and what actually happens in the country can turn out to be quite different. A constitution is a paper document, and while paper documents can espouse high ideals, they cannot actually stop people from physically fighting in the streets.

In general, Singapore has been a very peaceful nation since 1965. There have been no noteworthy incidents of religious violence since then. In fact Singapore is one of the rare places in the world where you will find, say, a church built on the same street as a temple, or a temple next door to a mosque.

The government here is determined to maintain religious (and racial) harmony. It is a point that they have consistently reiterated through the years. It was a point to which the Prime Minister devoted a significant part of his speech in the most recent National Day Rally (which is traditionally one of the most important political speeches that the Prime Minister makes, in any given year).

Having said that, I should add that while the government treats all mainstream religions (Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism) with respect, its treatment of minority groups such as the Jehovah's Witnesses can be rather shoddy. But I will leave you to your own Internet research.

Mr Wang
As an afterthought, I sent the following additional note:
The clue in my earlier email might have been a little too subtle. So here's the main thing - google straight for the PM's most recent rally speech. The PM is quite long-winded, and prone to repeating old news. So his speech will cover your question - "what has Singapore done to promote religious tolerance?" - quite adequately.


Unknown said...

I was in Singapore in 1989 when the government cracked down on various Christian religious groups and put them in jail, on the pretext that they were Marxists hellbent on revolution. I hope you remember that, and the subsequent banning of the Far Eastern Economic Review for their coverage of the incident. Religious freedom is not all that it is cracked up to be in Singapore.

So long as your political or religious beliefs match up with the goals of the Singapore government you are OK. Step over the bounds, and POW!

Your response was lame. I was hoping for better from you.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

What - you're not going to remind me about Falungong?

Anonymous said...

I agree with Carl Parkes, but I don't think Mr Wang was being lame in any way. Religious tolerance or intolerance for that matter, can always be interpreted differently. The state's refusal to allow Muslim schoolgirls to wear their hijab in state schools whereas they allowed Sikhs to wear turbans was used as an example of double standards by many Muslims back in 2001-2002. Was the govt's unwavering decision a matter of intolerance?

I personally take more issue with the amount of freedom the govt provides the various officially-approved religions. For example, a child's religion can be decided by his parents until the age of 18. How is that being fair to the child?

Religion is tolerated to the point that it in itself infringes on individual rights.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

as far as social stability and religious tolerance is concerned, i think that singapore is miles ahead of most other countries. Certainly afghanistan. Don't forget that religious tolerance does not mean just governmental actions, but the behaviour of the people towards each other. It is safe to be a catholic, protestant, hindu, jew, muslim or buddhist in singapore. You won't get beaten up, blown up or beheaded for any of that.

Anonymous said...

hahaha...i felt the part where you hinted on the PM's recent speech was more than meets the eye, and not so much a clue to the answer of the question.

then again, maybe it's just me.

Anonymous said...

The "Marxist Conspiracy" had nothing to do with religious persecution and everything to do with political paranoia.

Faith-based organisations are not only alive and well in Singapore, they've arguably gone overboard in pushing their social agenda in the public sphere (eg on issues such as obstructing gay rights and sex education, steeplejacking a feminist women's organisation)

Hey at least we have never asked our ethnic minorities to sit at the back of the bus, or detained them as enemy combatants! And we know the difference between Sikhs and Muslims, thank you v much!

Anonymous said...

Many, many other countries treat their religious minorities better than we do....

You are right, we do know the difference between Sikhs and Muslims - one group is allowed to wear religious headgear in schools and the other is not.

Anonymous said...

the problem is not govt intolerance.. the problem is govt allowing certain religious elements to run wild with their agenda, hence the PMs speech.

we have pretty open freedom OF religion, but we are slowly losing the right of freedom FROM religion.

Anonymous said...

What about the Christian hardliners IN govt?

Anonymous said...

Anon 0832, I thought the Sikh headgear is a carryover from colonial days. This is where the government draw the line. I don't think the hijab was common in our state schools last time, correct me if I'm wrong.

Anonymous said...

"What about the Christian hardliners IN govt?"

There are none.

LKY is a known atheist/agnostic.

dj said...

i think Anonymous November 21, 2009 11:28 AM means Thio et al in parliament...

Anonymous said...

I always thought Singaporean girls are too good for men, hehe. Proof: Ms. Singapore, Valerie Lim, made it to the Top 16 of Miss Earth 2009. Delayed telecast is on tonight at 10:3oPM. To watch:

Anonymous said...

"What about the Christian hardliners IN govt?"

There are none.



Anonymous said...

The people here don't even stand up for themselves.

At work, we have no independant unions to speak of, locals are steadily being replaced with dirt cheap FTs ,most people have no pension, and hiring part timers has become the norm. We have no National Health Service in place, with medical costs skyrocketing and stagnant pays, a rapidly widening income gap between the upper and lower classes. Education, being the only yardstick to measure a person's worth, has become a business, and fees are increasing almost every year. HDB flats are artifically priced and will never follow the status of the economy. Our elections are a joke, so's freedom of speech.

Through all this, the people have remained dumb( in both sense of the word). You really think it's religious tolerance? It's more of herd indifference to everything. We have given up trying to change the perceived impossible. If Falungong became the national religion overnight no one would even care. Apathy is the Singaporean way

Anonymous said...


Is that funny?
Maybe you should try throwing a pie at him.

There is no religion tolerance in SG.
Only cost-benefit evaluation of beliefs.
Gay Lifestyle (aka pink dollars) is tolerated because it is believed to generate +ve income.
Muslim is tolerated because persecution will cost too much.
E.g FaLunGong, Christian Right(eg christian couple who sent offensive stuff to muslims) is persecuted because of -ve income.

There is only Religion of money.

Anonymous said...

"Apathy is the Singaporean way."

So true, I'm guilty of that too. I accept everything as it is as long as it doesn't affect me personally. I walked away quickly when I saw the chinese nationals showing big cardboards about falungong and avoided them as if they were cockroaches. why? neither belief nor disbelief. I just don't want to be implicated.

Anonymous said...

FaLunGong are a splinter cult being cynically cultivated for political gain. Ever wonder why they are so well funded and connected in the West?

Not all religious groups are benign. History has given us witch hunts and inquisitions and crusades.

Gilbert Koh aka Mr Wang said...

You mean to say that mainstream religions don't get any funding and aren't political? Heheh.

v said...

Mr Wong got it right.

In the entire history of mankind, religion has always been about power and money. It is the most effective way of controlling people without giving back anything physical in return. Think about it: just the promise of a booking in the afterline is enough to pull a sucker in hook, line and sinker. People who wouldn't even bother to look at a beggar would donate tons of money to a religion, without getting anything in return at all.

When there's no proof of god, they call it faith, believing in something that cannot be seen ie; proven. Speaking against a religion is blasphemy. Rival groups are proclaimed as infidels, which led to smear campaigns, holy wars, terrorism, discrimination, you name it, the list is endless. And it affects all social classes, look at the infamous sarin attacks, members of the cult were professors, teachers, university grads, the elites of society. This is how insidious religion can be. Intelligent, otherwise logical people can somehow end up believing the world is ending, hand over all their money and then start kiling their own.

Religions have become absurdly profitable businesses, with almost zero investment and infinite gains. Maybe I'll start one myself one day, be the most succesful entrepreneur in the world, with patents and franchising. Oh wait, someone already did that. Duh!

Anonymous said...

I must say our govt has been rather tolerant compared to some countries. Religion is afterall a personal experience.