Religion in the public sphere

April 19, 2010

In most areas of national life, the PAP government has done exceptionally well. Whether its material accumulation, urban planning or resource allocation, this government has done better than most in the region. However, among its many flaws, one of its most serious is its flagrant disregard for public intelligence. Whether one attributes it to the logical conclusion of treating meritocracy like an extreme sport or a deep sense of security over one’s grip on power, it is undeniable that the PAP-citizen relationship is a profoundly paternalistic one that patronises more than it engages.

The latest example of this were Law Minister Shanmugam’s remarks on the encroachment of religion into public space. According to TODAY, “Interaction in society…  should be based on secular values and arguments, as it would be difficult for people to accept arguments based on another person’s religious beliefs. But, Mr Shanmugam added, “if you put forward that argument on the basis it is in the best interest of the community and put it forward on a logical secular basis, then people can accept it”.” []

Now, all this sounds rather reasonable. When in public it’s better to speak with a secular vocabulary than a religious one because you reach more people. However, this becomes somewhat hollow when one recalls the 2007 debate of 377A. PM Lee Hsien Loong observed then in Parliament:

“People who are presently willing to live and let live will get polarised and no views will change, because many of the people who oppose it do so on very deeply held religious convictions, particularly the Christians and the Muslims and those who propose it on the other side, they also want this as a matter of deeply felt fundamental principles.”

In other words, because the religious folks (Christians and Muslims) feel so strongly about it, we should leave 377A alone. I followed the debate closely and no where did the religious conservatives present their arguments in purely secular terms, unlike the anti-377A camp which offered arguments based on social history, logic, ongoing medical research, economics and cosmopolitan human rights discourse. The religious conservatives, meanwhile, based their arguments on “values” found in their holy scripture.

So what does this mean for local political discourse? It seems like the government seeks to promote secular values when religion becomes too aggressive, and yet turns to religion as imprimatur when it’s politically convenient. This is, of course, a no-win situation. It turns off religious people who believe that religious values cannot help but underpin their political and social views, while also alienating secularists when exclusive religious views are given priority over inclusive worldviews.

In the end, because of its unintellectual and patronising delivery of message, religion, in the hands of the government, becomes either a bogyman to worry over or a spoilt child who must be appeased. And while many times it is indeed both, it does absolutely nothing for a more sophisticated public culture.


4 Responses to “Religion in the public sphere”

  1. yapphenghui Says:

    welcome back. miss your intelligent posts.

  2. sloo Says:

    How very true. And the govt themselves have conveniently forgotten their own missteps, contradicting themselves when it suits their needs.

  3. chemgen Says:

    “So what does this mean for local political discourse? It seems like the government seeks to promote secular values when religion becomes too aggressive, and yet turn to religion as imprimatur when it’s politically convenient.”

    The PAP wants to woo both the religious and the secular constituencies. That is what any political party in power does especially when there is a public expectation of an election coming – being nimble and saying the right things in front of the right crowd but not really committing to any solid action.

  4. Nick Chui Says:


    While I disagree with your characterisation that religious persons can only make their arguments retaining section 377A by quoting scripture and appealing to divine revelation without the use of reason, a case can be made and you can check, out this article and disagree if you like.

    Nevertheless you are right about the tendency for religion to be instrumentalised by the government sometimes to the delight of so called secularists and sometimes to their dismay. I am sure certain secularists (not all) would be delighted for example that the government allows abortion on demand up to 24 weeks and who dismiss persons who think that this should not be the case and who marshal the requisite rational apparatus which you enumerated ( i am one of them and you can my article and comment if you disagree) as merely employing “religion” in their arguments. I have seen that happen over and over again, the Casino debate, embryonic stem cell research for example.

    And it is true, this satisfies neither secularists and those who hold to a religion (like i do) and it does not make for a more sophisticated public culture.

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