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What is your assessment of the position of the Singapore Government concerning the relationship between religion and politics?

THE SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT’S position on the relationship between religion and politics is delineated in the Maintenance of Religious Harmony White Paper (MRHWP) published on Dec 26, 1989. This document is the precursor to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) that came into effect on March 31, 1992.

The MRHWP was issued in the wake of the rise of religiosity in Singapore and worldwide in the 1980s. Locally, a number of incidents involving Hindus, Muslims and Christians necessitated the document. During that period, there were a number of complaints about the aggressive and insensitive evangelistic methods of some Christians.

One of the main catalysts for the MRHA is the arrest of the Roman Catholic Vincent Cheng and his associates for forming a political pressure group with the view of subverting the existing social and political system in Singapore (the so-called Marxist conspiracy).

The basic concern behind the MRHA is clearly articulated by Senior Minister S. Jayakumar in a recent interview with The Straits Times: “Increased religiosity itself is not a problem. I see no harm in religious groups being active and trying to get more followers to increase their numbers. But it is what they do and how they go about it in our multi-racial and multi-religious society that is extremely important.” (ST, July 25, 2009).

The introduction of the MRHA was deemed necessary for the preservation of peaceful relations between religious groups and the prevention of an undesirable alliance between religion and politics.

A thorough analysis of the model adopted by the MRHWP is obvious beyond the scope of this brief article. In what follows, I will discuss the broad issues that are raised in the document from a Christian perspective.

The MRHWP proposes the rigorous separation of religion and politics as a means to ensure the peaceful co-existence of the different faith communities in Singapore (para 13, 14). The document cautions religious leaders or members of religious groups against using religion to promote a particular political party or cause. It also prohibits politicians from using the church, mosque or temple to mobilise support for their political campaigns. The document further advises religious leaders to express their views cautiously.

Archbishops, muftis, abbots and pastors should not use their religious authority to mobilise opposition against the Government and its policies. Paragraph22 expresses the essence of the MRHWP when it states that “Members of religious groups may, of course, participate in the democratic political process as individual citizens. They may campaign for or against the Government or any political party. But they must not do so as leaders of their religious constituency.”

It is clear from this that the MRHWP’s understanding of the separation of religion and politics is qualified and nuanced. The document admits that the model of the relationship between religion and politics it proposes is “a matter of convention” (para 24), and that in reality no such separation is possible: “It is neither possible nor desirable to compartmentalise completely the minds of voters into secular and religious halves, and ensure that only the secular mind influences his voting behaviour.” (para 24).

In his 2009 National Day Rally Speech, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reiterated this point when he acknowledged that it is “natural” for religious people to approach a national issue from their religious perspective. The raison d’être for the “working rules” (para 27) presented in the MRHWP is the preservation of religious peace in multi-religious Singapore. The document offers what social philosophers would call an instrumental rationale for the separation of religion and politics.

The MRHWP does not contradict or nullify the Singapore Constitution that unequivocally states that “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.” This is affirmed recently by PM Lee. In a Straits Times article entitled, “Public debate must be secular, in public interest”, it was reported that PM Lee said that “religious groups are free to propagate their teachings on social and moral issues”. Furthermore, the Singapore Government acknowledges the important contributions that religions have made to public life, and encourages them to continue to do so (para 6). The model adopted by the MRHWP also does not preclude the cooperation between religious communities and the state, and such collaborations have a long history in our society.

Finally, the Government has consistently welcomed the contributions of the different faith communities in public debate on issues that affect the larger society. The National Council of Churches of Singapore has issued statements, submitted papers and participated in numerous discussions with representatives from the Government and religious groups on several issues.
The model presented by the MRHWP is consistent with the doctrine of the separation of Church and State that acknowledges that God has given each institution its specific role to play in society. This understanding is based on Romans 13, which teaches that the State has divine sanction to punish evildoers, and maintain civic order in society. The Church, on the other hand, is called to be God’s prophetic witness in the world. A clear distinction between the two institutions is therefore underscored: the Church is not the government, and the pulpit is not parliament. This, however, does not imply that Christians are not responsible for the social and political life of the society to which they belong. But given the social and political realities, these responsibilities must be discharged in a particular way.

The MRHWP, in my view, provides a balanced and helpful guide to the relationship between religion and politics in a pluralistic democracy like Singapore. Thus, although clarifications on some points must indeed be sought and nuances explored, Christians in my view should have no difficulties endorsing the broad principles enshrined in it.

Dr Roland Chia

Dr Roland Chia is Chew Hock Hin Professor of Christian Doctrine at Trinity Theological College and Theological and Research Advisor of the Ethos Institute for Public Christianity. This article was first published in the Methodist Message.