Sunday 21 October 2012

Separation of religion and politics

Robin Chan speaks to Laurence Lien, Ho Peng Kee and Hri Kumar Nair about the separation of religion and politics. Mr Lien is a Nominated MP and deputy chairman of Catholic charity, Caritas Singapore Community Council. Associate Professor Ho is a former senior minister of state for law and home affairs. Mr Nair is an MP and chairs the Government Parliamentary Committee for Law and Home Affairs.
The Straits Times, 20 Oct 2012

Room to evolve the way religion intersects with life

You raised the question of religion and politics in Parliament. Are you satisfied with the answers?

The Government's stand has not changed, so my satisfaction level hasn't, either. I am not blind to the concerns, I know everything that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said. And yes, we want to preserve religious harmony.

But it is not so clear-cut, it is not so black and white. There are clearly areas, especially in a well-functioning democracy, that religion must not cross. We are not talking about the type of political regime, or the choice of political leaders, because politics is much broader than that.

It is not just about policymaking either, it is about expressing your views on issues, and when you express them, you also want to influence the wider group, but that is different from imposing (your views on them).

How can religion cross into the realm of politics without being detrimental to social harmony?

One area is in calling attention to issues and problems. Not necessarily complaining that the Government is not doing enough, but just telling people about the realities on the ground, and that we as a community need to address it. And sometimes that has implications on government policy.

If you take a broad definition of politics, that is stepping into the realm of politics, because you are trying to draw attention, shape opinion and influence the way people think and behave.

When it comes to expressing and acting, people want to know there are other people who are with them, and feeling the same way. And when you come from the same religious group, you naturally find a community of people you have an affinity with because of the faith. The Government seems to be saying that that is not what you are supposed to do.

But I must say sometimes the line seems to have been crossed already. When you look at the casinos, certain religious groups spoke up about it. If we make amendments to the abortion law, for example, do you expect the religious groups to not come out and say anything? So it's not realistic to bottle that.

And it is not unhelpful to express those views as a group, because you do want to know where people are on those issues, rather than forcing those motivations to be hidden.

So how do you think we can better define the boundaries between religion and politics?

I think one place to start is to allow people who come together as groups (to express their views)... if they are as a group motivated by that faith and are expressing it because of their faith. Especially when it pertains to the idea of the common good. But clearly we want such groups to continue to be respectful of other groups.

So the boundaries will be more in the way that people engage, rather than the issues that they engage on. It is not permissible to force your views on, and to intimidate others with your views, if they do not subscribe to it.

Understandably we are quite cautious because of our history, and we are not advocating a major, sudden shift in the way that we do things. But there is room to experiment and evolve the way that religion is intersecting, not just with politics, but with life.

But what if something happens in this liberalising?

What are the things that can happen? What powers do you have? You can't force people to adopt your views, because at the end of the day, laws are passed by Parliament. We don't organise as religious groups in Parliament, that is important.

We have to look at the good that can do. We always think about the most contentious issues, but quite often, there is usually a lot more in common than in conflict. Yes, we need to manage where there is conflict. We mustn't let that evolve into anything that is ugly. We want to manage that without restricting the possible good that could result from all the commonality in solving social issues and problems.

How much of this has to do with us maturing as a society and country?

I think as we mature as a democracy, it is not just about religion or politics, it is about handling diversity. The broader issue is about how we handle diversity, how we handle competing values. It is not just religion that provides competing values - even if you are completely secular, you have competing values.

But how do we deal with the friction, the conflict that might arise from that? This is just one sub-section. We may go overboard; that is when leaders must recalibrate. But we have to try.

Office-holders should take care when expressing views

Religion and politics was a topic of debate in Parliament. What are your views on this?

At the personal level for the ordinary citizen qua individual citizen, he has every right and, thankfully in Singapore, every opportunity to exercise both his political rights, for example, to express his political views, as well as freedom to practise his religion.

It's important, though, that in practising his religion, he does not denigrate other religions or make fun of what other religious adherents do. He is free to share with others how his own faith has impacted him positively and also the key tenets of his faith, but to do so sensitively.

I recall I had said as much in my second-reading speech when explaining the rationale behind the new Section 298A in the Penal Code amendments in October 2007.

(Section 298A criminalises the deliberate promotion by someone of enmity, hatred or ill will between different racial and religious groups on grounds of race or religion.)

Where should Singapore draw the line between religion and politics?

When someone holds some sort of office, especially in a religious organisation, that is where care has to be taken. Members of the public who hear you speak or read what you write may not be able to discern whether the views you are expressing are your private/personal views or views you are holding or reflecting as an office-holder (with the concomitant authority and prestige of the office).

When that happens, not only may the public be confused, but your own members may also be confused. Among these members - for example, congregation in a religious group - some will not subscribe to the view held by the office-holder. That will also cause some unhappiness within the group.

It is best that if such an office-holder finds it necessary to express his personal views, he makes it clear that he is doing so as such. And even then, it is best to do so in such a way where he will not be misrepresented or misunderstood, for example, sharing only with his own members or a group of friends. I think the setting and context are important.

How difficult is it to keep religion and politics separated?

This is not to say that religious groups cannot express views on policies when they feel that these policies are underpinned by values which these groups feel are detrimental to our society.

After all, all Singaporeans want Singapore to be a righteous, fair and just society. So, for example, religious groups have sent submissions to the Government and spoken up on issues such as our laws on abortion, the decision to build our two casinos and retention of Section 377A in our Penal Code. Government considers these submissions carefully.

In these situations, their positions were undergirded by their faith's teachings and their motivation for speaking up was to add positively to the national discussion. Nevertheless, ultimately, they were prepared to abide by the Government's decision, when made.

In making submissions to the Government, in my view, it is best to keep them private, or at most, shared only with the group's members, so that others may not latch on to the views expressed and use them to advance their own causes. Also, I would suggest that the language used in these submissions, which can be forcefully and clearly set out, be respectful in tone and temperate in language.

How do you think the issue of Archbishop Nicholas Chia's letter was handled? Do you think Singaporeans accept it?

I think, in the circumstances, it was handled by the Government the best way it could. Given the manner in which the contents of his letter came out, the Government had to handle the emerging situation - which was potentially explosive - deftly, firmly but fairly. I think it struck the right balance. I believe that most Singaporeans understand the need for the Government to act the way it did.

'No right to impose my personal beliefs on others'

Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean made it clear that religious leaders should not get involved in politics. But do you think the line between religion and politics is so clear?

It is impossible to draw up clear lines or definitions to deal with every conceivable issue and situation. Dealing with such issues will require good judgment.

However, in most cases, I believe the line is clear. A religious group can, for example, carry out its mission to help the poor without politicising the issue. Where the area is grey, the answer is for the religious group and the Government to have a full and frank discussion about it.

Mr Teo referred in Parliament to the many official and unofficial lines of communication between religious groups and the Government. These would include involving the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which is chaired by a retired Supreme Court judge and comprises members who represent the major religions in Singapore and other members who have distinguished themselves in public service or community relations. These channels should be used if there are any doubts.

Mr Teo also explained that there is a difference between an individual asserting his political rights, and a religious organisation or person using religion to advance an agenda in politics. Do you think this is necessarily the case? As a Catholic, do you find it difficult to draw the line when you engage in politics?

I agree with Mr Teo that there is a difference. It is sometimes difficult to draw the line because faith is a powerful force which often drives what a religious person says or does, both in his private and professional capacities. I abide by the simple rule that we are governed by secular laws and I have no right to impose my personal beliefs onto others.

As civil society seeks to play a greater role and the Government encourages greater civic action, do you think there is more room for religious organisations to play a part, and will the line be increasingly blurred? How do you see this separation of religion and politics evolving in the future?

Religion and religious groups have been the force of much good in society. There is no reason why they cannot continue to contribute positively without getting involved in politics.

However, as society evolves and more of us take an active interest in Singapore's progress, I think it is inevitable that there will be instances where the two may overlap.

What is critical is how the players involved and the rest of society react when that happens. How such issues are resolved will depend less on what laws we have, and more on the strength, character and judgment of our political and religious leaders.

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