October 2021 Pulse
In his National Day Rally this year, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong devoted about a third of his speech to the topic of race and religion, citing recent incidents of racial tension in Singapore. The Prime Minister also announced that a new law in the form of the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act will be introduced to encourage tolerance among different racial groups and promote racial harmony.
Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious society. Even though the nation has done well in strengthening relationship among the different races, the fault-lines are still there, and racial harmony remains a work-in-progress.
In his speech, PM Lee highlighted two recent racist incidents.
The first incident has to do with a town council banner which featured an Indian family, provoking an angry response from some netizens. ‘They made very nasty comments, accusing the Government of being a pro-foreigner and pro-Indian,’ PM Lee remarked. ‘Actually, the family is Singaporean, and the son, Thiruben, is a national athlete,’ he adds.
The second incident is the case of former polytechnic lecturer Tan Boon Lee, who reproved an inter-racial couple at Orchard Road, and asked them to date within their respective races.
PM Lee also pointed out that Singapore is ‘highly exposed’ to external political developments and cultural trends, such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Gaza, and the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States. These events may stoke the flames of inter-racial tensions in Singapore.
These incidents and developments have prompted the Government to update its policies on race and religion from time to time. But, as PM Lee has rightly pointed out, these changes must be made on the basis of needs the surface in our local context and not simply in reaction to trends abroad.
How should Christians approach the question of race, and the issue of racism? Should Christians endorse so-called anti-racist movements like Black Lives Matter? And can legal regulations foster or promote racial harmony?
These are huge questions that are impossible to address adequately in this brief article. But in the limited space of this piece, I hope to provide some perspectives and preliminary thoughts on these important issues that may be helpful to Christians who are concerned about them.
THEOLOGY OF RACE
A Christian theology of race must be grounded in the creation narrative that is found in the early pages of the Bible. To put it more explicitly, the Christian understanding of the races must be established in the story of God’s creation of a special species of creatures: the human race.
In Genesis 1:26, we have the marvellous statement that God created human beings to be his image bearers: ‘And God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness …’’’ Only the human species is accorded the privilege and responsibility of reflecting their Creator, and it is this privilege that distinguishes them from the rest of the creation.
The imago Dei has been variously interpreted by theologians throughout the history of the Church. In the context of our present discussion, however, what is pertinent is the truth revealed in Scripture that every human being, without exception, is created in the divine image. This means that in the eyes of the Creator, every human being has equal worth, and should therefore be treated with dignity and respect.
Scripture therefore begins with the unity of the human race, and with the fact that every single one of its members has equal standing and worth before the God whose image they bear. In the heat and confusion of the current rhetoric and debate on race and racism, it is imperative that we never fail to hold up this fundamental truth and consider its many and profound implications.
Now, within the one human race, there is a plurality of races and ethnicities. Whenever the Bible speaks of ‘nations’, it does not refer to political communities or entities but to different ethnic groups. However, although the Bible speaks of the presence of many ethnic groups in the human family, nowhere does it provide an account of their origins – how the different races came to be.
Some theologians have postulated that our first parents, Adam and Eve, must have a distinctive genome that enabled them to produce dark and light-skinned children. However, these theories cannot be regarded as more than speculations as the Bible itself provides no data on which they can be substantiated. Be that as it may, it appears that different ethnic groups (with skin colour variations) could have already existed before the Tower of Babel and the Deluge.
Throughout Scripture, God is portrayed as the God who takes pleasure in diversity. The plurality of ethnic groups that populate the rich and variegated world that he has brought into existence is surely evidence of this. Thus, human differences such as languages, ethnicity and skin colour should never be viewed as the result of the Fall, but as the creational intent of God.
That racial diversity is not the consequence of the Fall is underscored by John’s magnificent vision of the multitudes that stand before the throne of God in worship in the age to come:
After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and people and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. Clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands’ (Revelation 7:9).
All this means that a ‘racist Christian’ is an oxymoron. The Christian who believes that every human being is created in the image and likeness of God, and is therefore deserving of dignity and respect cannot possibly treat some humans as inferior.
This is what racism in the main entails. The racist basically divide human into different racial groups each with its distinct features and customs, and declares that certain groups are superior to others.
Racism can be the outlook and attitude of individuals, such as the case of the polytechnic lecturer highlighted in PM Lee’s speech. But there is also structural racism, which essentially is an entire social system that is established on policies, practices, laws and conventions that support discrimination and perpetuate racial inequality.
Robert Powell explains the difference between individual and structural racism in this way: ‘Structural racism is not a few racist people doing bad things here and there but a system that has been set up for organising human life in the collective for the advantage of some …’
While race and ethnicity are not the consequence of the Fall, racism clearly is.
Christians should have not truck with the view which says that certain racial or ethnic groups are inferior to others and therefore should not be accorded the same rights and dignity as other groups. This is because the Christian is commanded by Christ to love is neighbour unconditionally and indiscriminately – ‘regardless of race, language or religion.’
ANTI-RACIST MOVEMENTS AND IDEOLOGIES
In his speech, PM Lee mentioned the Black Lives Matter movement as a possible external development that we should watch. Should Christians support this movement that purportedly seeks to stamp out racism and promote racial justice?
In my view, Christians should not affirm the Black Lives Matter movement. Let me explain why.
As a fact or even a slogan, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is profoundly true. Christians should have no difficulty whatsoever affirming it. For Christians, however, black lives matter because every human life matters. As we have seen, every human being is created in the image of God, and should be accorded full dignity and respect.
However, as a movement, ‘Black Lives Matter’ is driven by ideologies and forces that Christians should be very wary of. Principally, it is shaped by Marxist ideology which is aimed at radically revolutionising culture and society.
The movement came into being through the work of three African-American women: Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi. Graza is the chief spokesperson of the movement, and Cullors has recently dissociated herself from it.
The movement, which began in 2014, was motivated by the protests of the death of Michael Brown in Fergusson, Missouri and Eric Garner in New York City. These protests, which to the coinage of the hashtag #blacklivesmatter, very quickly evolved into a well-defined political advocacy movement which included influential organisations, politicians and corporations.
The statement of the organisation is found on its website, and a careful study of this document will help us to understand the true scope of its agenda. The statement states that the Black Lives Matter Global Network is a:
chapter-based, member-led organisation whose mission was to build local power and to intervene when violence was inflicted on black communities by the state and vigilantes. In the years since, we’ve committed to struggling together and to imagining and creating a world free of anti-Blackness, where every Black person has the social, economic, and political power to thrive.
But the website quickly expands the scope of the movement’s interests. These include championing the rights of trans people and dismantling the traditional family structure, as the following extracts from the statement make clear.
We make space for transgender brothers and sisters to participate and to lead. We are self-reflexive and do the work required to dismantle cisgender privilege and uplift Black trans folk, especially Black trans women who continue to be disproportionately impacted by trans-antagonistic violence.
We build space that affirms Black women and is free from sexism, misogyny, and environments in which men are centered … We make our spaces family-friendly and enable parents to fully participate with their children. We dismantle the patriarchal practice that requires mothers to work ‘double-shifts’ so that they can mother in private even as they participate in public justice work. We disrupt the Western prescribed nuclear family structure requirement by supporting each other as extended families and ‘villages’ that collectively care for one another.
The BLM movement is riding on the waves of the sexual revolution and openly promoting trans agenda and the shift away from the traditional nuclear family. It states clearly that it seeks to ‘foster a queer-affirming network. When we gather, we do so with the intention of freeing ourselves from the tight grip of heteronormative thinking, or rather, the belief that all in the world are heterosexual.’
BLM is associated with Movement for Black Lives (M4BL), a coalition of more than 50 groups representing the interest of black communities in the United States. On its website, M4BL makes the following radical and disturbing policy demands:
The retroactive decriminalization, immediate release and record expungement of all drug-related offenses and prostitution and reparations for the devastating impact of the ‘war on drugs’ and criminalisation of prostitution, including a reinvestment of the resulting savings and revenue into restorative services, mental health services, job programs and other programs supporting those impacted by the sex and drug trade.
Mike Gonzalez and Andrew Olivastro are therefore right to point out, in their article entitled ‘The Agenda of Black Lives Matter is Far Different from the Slogan’ published on the Heritage Foundation website that:
The goals of the Black Lives Matter organisation go far beyond what most people think. But they are hiding in plain sight, there for the world to see, if only we read beyond the slogans and the innocuous-sounding media accounts of the movement.
The group’s radical Marxist agenda would supplant the basic building block of society – the family – with the state and destroy the economic system that has lifted more people from poverty than any other, Black lives, and all lives, would be harmed.
Gonzalez and Olivastro end their article on this grave note: ‘Theirs is a blueprint for misery, not justice. It must be rejected.’
LEGISLATING RACIAL HARMONY?
As we turn our attention back to Singapore, I mentioned earlier, in his speech PM Lee announced that in his speech PM Lee announced that the government plans to introduce the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act.
This Act will ‘collect together in one place’ the Government’s powers to deal with racial issues by consolidating existing laws and enacting new ones. But the Act will also include gentler measures to deal with racial offenses. Therefore, this new Act will be quite similar to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which was enacted in 1990 to provide the Government with powers to maintain religious peace in Singapore.
On September 4, 2021, The Straits Times published an article with a title which asks the question: ‘Can Racial harmony in Singapore be fostered by law?’ Some people will doubtless answer this question in the negative because they are of the view that racial harmony can only be achieved if there is a strong social compact which must come from the ground up.
Singapore Management University’s law professor Eugene Tan, for example, said that while he thinks that the introduction of the Racial Harmony Act is laudable, the Government cannot deal with inter-racial prejudice and conflict through legislation alone. In an interview with the ST, he observed:
The bottom-line is this: Governments do not defeat race bigotry and chauvinism and racism; it is the people who will ultimately determine whether a society is resilient and cohesive enough to withstand the divisive effects of those who seek to divide.
I couldn’t agree more with Prof Tan. That indeed is the bottom-line. It should also be our goal as a multi-religious society.
But I’m sure that Prof Tan will also agree with me that the law plays an important role in changing people’s attitudes and shaping their behaviour. As such, the law has a role to play in helping a society like ours to achieve that goal and realise that bottom-line.
At the very least, the law can serve as a deterrent against anti-social and racist behaviour. For instance, the introduction of laws that punish racist conduct could go some way to curb such behaviour, at least in public.
But some writers believe that the law can accomplish even more than this.
By regulating certain behaviours, the law can in fact effect positive changes in attitudes about those behaviours. As Kenworthey Bilz and Janice Nadler explain:
Indeed, standard economic analysis assumes that questions about the effect of law in human behaviour both begin and end with the assumption that behaviour responds to rewards and punishments. At the same time and in parallel, law forthrightly attempts to shape citizens’ moral beliefs. When the law forbids murder, this is because murder is evil, and the language of the law sometimes makes explicit the moral implications of the prohibited act.
Furthermore, the law can change the way in which a particular behaviour is morally and socially evaluated by changing the social meaning of that behaviour. Thus, a behaviour that is unsavoury or hurtful but tolerated can be checked when its social meaning is changed with the introduction of a new legislation.
For example, in prohibiting certain forms of speech – e.g., hate speech or racial slurs – the law changes the social meaning of these forms of speech. This in turn will influence the way in which these forms of speech are morally and socially evaluated by the general public.
Ubi societas ibi ius (‘where there is society, there is law’) – this ancient maxim maintains that the purpose of the law is to make social life possible. The purpose of the proposed Racial Harmony Act is to make social life in a multi-racial society like Singapore possible.
According to Law and Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam, the Racial Harmony Act will introduce new sanctions, including non-punitive ones, and that its main purpose is to try to shape social behaviour.
Thus, measures will be put in place in order to help offending parties to achieve a ‘greater understanding – without being punitive, and without having criminal records, and without shaming people’, says the Minister. ‘The focus must really be to try and get people to understand each other better, and get on better’, he adds.
The laws and sanctions are not primarily aimed at punishing offenders. Negatively, we may say that the laws are introduced to dissuade people from inducements to contra bonos mores (contrary to good behaviour or morals). Positively, they are put in place to help people to understand the importance of racial respect so that we can build a resilient and cohesive society together.
The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which was passed in 1990 and which took effect two years later, has now been in force for 30 years. In all that time, the Government has never once invoked its powers under the Act. This is not because there were no incidents of inter-religious conflict. It is because the leaders of the faith communities were able to resolve those conflicts in an amicable fashion before they were given a chance to escalate.
It is my hope that twenty or thirty years from now, we can say the same thing for the Maintenance of Racial Harmony Act. That we can say although there were incidents of friction among the racial groups in Singapore from time to time, the Government never had to invoke the powers of the Act. And that this is because the various racial groups and society as a whole have the maturity to resolve these tensions without legal intervention.
That would indeed be the sign that Singapore is becoming that resilient and cohesive society that Prof Eugene Tan had envisioned!
Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor at Trinity Theological College (Singapore) and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity.