Air-Conditioned Nation

Essays about Singapore / Cherian George

Category: Society (Page 1 of 2)



Many Singaporeans want Joseph Schooling exempted from National Service. Can the government bend the rules?

In the wake of Joseph Schooling’s spectacular, surging success in Rio de Janeiro, two-thirds of people I polled said that the young hero should now be excused from his National Service obligation. The inconvenient question of his NS status had been raised by a couple of friends, so I was curious to find out what others thought.

My informal poll results, as at 7pm on August 13. Click through to view the latest numbers.


Admittedly, this was an unscientific survey, probably skewed by post-Rio euphoria, tilted toward the viewpoints of those with time to dawdle over social media, and under-representing men and women in uniform who are too busy keeping the country safe to take part in an online poll.

Nevertheless, I’d wager that most Singaporeans do indeed feel that Schooling should be allowed to continue serving the nation in his swimming trunks instead of a No. 4 camouflage uniform.

Those who don’t know Singapore may think that this reflects people’s indifference toward NS. I doubt that that’s the case. Singaporeans may complain about specific aspects of NS, but there is broad and deep commitment to the institution of compulsory enlistment for all males. NS is regarded as a key rite of passage, and one of the great equalisers in a divided society.

So, when Singaporeans say they are prepared to make an exception for Schooling, you can bet it’s not because they dismiss NS as no big deal, but because they regard his accomplishment as, well, Olympian.

This sentiment may put the Singapore government in a bind. With good reason, the government does not exempt able-bodied males from NS. Every now and then, Singaporeans suggest alternative avenues for service, including through sport. But the government has, correctly in my view, resisted calls to dilute the core mission of NS. It maintains that NS is meant to serve one purpose: defending the security of the nation. You can’t substitute it with other forms of contribution, no matter how valuable they may seem.

To do so would lead to endless bickering over legitimate justifications for being excused from military service. Take, for example, a young technopreneur who has just launched a world-beating startup that could be the next Samsung or Apple. Without the two-year interruption of NS, he could create a homegrown private-sector MNC—something as rare an Olympic medal, and much more tangible in value.

On what basis would this geek get his NS call-up while Schooling is allowed to continue chasing sporting glory?

The main reason I’m opposed to liberalising enlistment rules is that educated, upper middle class families are bound to benefit disproportionately—they are the ones who will be able to find the loopholes and write up convincing justifications. We could end up with a situation where less privileged Singaporeans are the ones compelled to put their lives on the line for the country.

I would not fault the government for thinking through such complications. After all, Singapore did not get to where it is through impulsive, arbitrary decision-making (except, perhaps, when dealing with critics and opponents). Bureaucratic rationality can be a massive turn-off, but with something like NS, the government really has no choice but to take into account boring things like rules and precedents.

And yet.

When we saw that gold medal around a Bedok boy’s neck; when we gaped at our Singapore flag flying higher than the American stars and stripes; when Majulah Singapura played, and we realised that hundreds of millions of people around the world might be listening with us—can anyone fault us for wanting even more?

What makes Schooling’s triumph in the 100m butterfly so addictively sweet is the sense that this is just the beginning. The 21-year-old can keep delivering, and if he is allowed time to sustain and better his world-beating performance, other Singaporeans will follow. This dream is not some mythical unicorn that vanishes into the night, but an achievable goal with the proven nation-building potential of competitive sport.

Schooling’s NS status is a policy dilemma that is emblematic of the times. On many fronts, Singapore’s leaders are called on to balance the hard truths that dictated past decisions with the less tangible needs of a First World society. If they are up to the challenge, they will be able to find a creative way to let Schooling keep swimming, without compromising the principle of universal conscription that underlies national defence.

Then, to quote another champ, Singapore can float like a butterfly and still sting like a bee.




A leader who is dismantling Indian secularism visits a nation built on its legacy.

Read More




Text of remarks at the Singapore Institute of International Affairs’ Future50 event, 25 June 2015.

Read More




An idea whose time has come

Read More





Looking beyond the liberal/conservative divide

Some will see it as a victory for a vocal minority of liberals. Others will declare it a conservative triumph. Perhaps, though, it was never about where the government landed on the left-right spectrum. What was really at stake were the principles by which a multi-cultural nation makes decisions that will inevitably offend one community or another.

This specific controversy was over three children’s books meant to teach kids about non-conventional families. The National Library Board’s professional librarians had earlier decided they were suitable for acquisition, but some parents complained that the books were too soft on homosexuality. As a result, the books were to be discarded. Following a public outcry, the government intervened, in time to save two books from pulping. They will not be returned to the children’s shelves, but will be made available in the adult section.

Compared with the earlier decision, this is a passable compromise. It concedes to the conservatives that the books should not be freely available to all children regardless of the moral objections of some of their parents. At the same time, it does not permit these parents to dictate standards for all library users: adults interested in teaching their own children to be more broad-minded about what constitutes a loving family can still borrow the books.

What was striking about the earlier decision was not so much that it did not conform to liberal standards (nothing new there), but that it deviated from the government’s own principles. For more than 20 years, it has been official policy to avoid censorship when classification would do. A totally laissez faire approach to public morals would fall short of the fundamental societal obligation to protect the young; it would risk treating children like adults. At the other extreme, a crude censorship approach treats adults like children, denying them choices that they are entitled to.

In contrast, classification maximises choice for consenting adults while protecting the vulnerable. NLB’s original response to the conservatives’ complaints was inconsistent with this rational, well-established approach. The latest decision simply brings the practice more in line with the principle. Instituting a proper, transparent review process would have to be the next step. Expert judgments by professional librarians need to be shielded from shadowy complainants who are not prepared to come out to justify their positions publicly.

Even more disquieting was the fact that the decision to pulp was part of a wider pattern, of deciding cultural policy based on how offended people are. It is dangerous for the government of a multi-ethnic country to resolve disputes this way, even if they side with the majority. Once the referee signals that he will side with those who cry the loudest, some players will start outperforming the most talented World Cup actors.

In football, at least, an eagle-eyed referee and slow-motion HD replays can discover the truth: was it a real foul or did he dive? When it comes to religion and morality, however, it is all subjective. No amount of rational theological forensics can establish whether a believer’s outrage is justified. Governments that agree to play this game end up having to take community leaders’ word for it, that they are suffering intolerable indignity.

Around the world, religious leaders use this inherent uncertainty to their own political advantage. Claiming to be offended and then declaring battle against the real or imagined source of that offence is one of the easiest ways to galvanise your followers; gain a higher profile than your competitors; put opponents on the defensive; and play the state like a puppet. It happens in Malaysia; it can happen here.

Indeed, as the most religiously diverse country in the world, Singapore is particularly prone to this risk. There is no limit to the offence that the intolerant can choose to take from what other communities do. Proselytisation by Christians and polygamy among Muslims are just two examples of practices that some consider consistent with their faiths – but that others find upsetting. Thus, restrictions based on the capacity to offend won’t just hurt secular liberals; it will also backfire on the most devout.

In most countries, like Malaysia, the state simply sides with the majority community (it’s wrong, but at least it’s unambiguous). Here, where there is no religious majority, the state will find itself pushed this way and that. And the ultimate result will be the conclusive unwinding of Singaporean experiment in multi-racial, multi-religious harmony.

The only responsible approach for a society like Singapore is for the state to adopt a strong bias for tolerance, and suppress nothing other than the most extreme of speech. Adult Singaporeans need to be educated to look after their own feelings.

After decades of enjoying the dubious privilege of turning to a nanny state whenever one feels offended, many Singaporeans will find this a difficult adjustment. Indeed, by changing tack, the government may lose more votes than it wins. But it is the only viable strategy for a crowded city-state whose greatest asset, as well as its greatest challenge, will always be its cultural diversity.




Let’s stop judging activism in PAP-centric terms

Last month, thousands gathered at the floating stage in Marina Bay for Singapore’s observance of Earth Hour, dubbed the world’s largest mass participation event ever. An offshoot of the nature conservation group WWF, Earth Hour is now headquartered in Singapore, thanks in part to government incentives to turn the country into a hub for international nonprofits. The event was graced by a senior Singapore diplomat and supported by the private sector, including media outlets drawn by the star power of the Amazing Spider-Man cast.

The same month, a group called Maruah marked the International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and International Women’s Day with important statements on how Singapore could make further improvements in addressing inequality. Maruah is Singapore’s human rights NGO. Its causes are not populist. As if it was not difficult enough for Maruah’s campaigns to gain public acceptance, the government has placed extra hurdles before it. Its fundraising is restricted under the Political Donations Act, and it recently had trouble booking even a dosai restaurant for an event, let alone the iconic Float@Marina.

Earth Hour and Maruah represent two faces of activism in Singapore. The people behind them are passionately devoted to making the world better by pushing for changes in values that will ultimately translate into more enlightened policy. But official receptivity towards them could not be more different.

Of course, even liberal democracies do not treat all kinds of activism equally. At one end of the spectrum are causes that enjoy state support. A government may actively facilitate citizen initiatives aligned with its own agenda (e.g. the Canadian government provides subsidies for events promoting intercultural and interfaith understanding, as part of its multiculturalism mission).

At the other extreme, democracies prohibit certain methods of activism. Activists who literally throw stones, destroy property or hack into websites face arrest, no matter how noble their causes. It is also reasonable for authorities to impose restrictions on where, when and how boisterous demonstrations can be conducted. Sometimes, activists’ goals are seen as incompatible with protecting others’ dignity and basic rights and dignity (e.g. Germany bans National Socialism because of its genocidal track record).

Then, there is the large in-between category of activism that is neither positively supported by the state nor treated as illegal. It faces the mixed blessing of benign neglect: the lack of official support means that this zone is often the most creative and innovative.

Singapore approach

Activism in Singapore deviates from these democratic norms in two respects. First, some activism is treated as illegal even though it poses no threat to public order and does not violate the rights of other citizens. One example of this is the banning of video interviews of former detainees, produced in order to present their versions of the Singapore story. The only interest served by such legal action is to protect the government’s ideological control, which is not a legitimate reason for censorship in a democratic society.

Second, the large middle category of merely tolerated activism – permitted but not supported – is further subdivided, with some forced to face more official restrictions and obstacles than others. Unwanted special treatment could come in the form of extra layers of regulation, difficulties in securing venues for events, and blacklisting of volunteers when they apply for public sector jobs.

Such discrimination might be acceptable if the targets were bona fide threats to national security. Often, however, they are at worst inconvenient to government, forcing officials to spend more time and effort defending their policies. Official hypersensitivity to dissent was illustrated recently by remarks made by a senior civil servant to the Straits Times. Warning that policy-making should not be hijacked by what he described by “a very loud and noisy minority”, he cited the example of the campaign against the death penalty. These activists were certainly passionate and outspoken, but they barely registered on the political decibel scale. They could seem “loud and noisy” only to ears quite unaccustomed to hearing dissonant voices.

Where the government draws the line between permitted and restricted activity can be inconsistent. Take its oft-stated position that Singapore politics is a matter for Singaporeans, and that groups that may influence public affairs should be banned from receiving foreign funding. This argument has been used to restrict the growth of Maruah as well as citizen media like The Online Citizen and the Independent. It is also used to prevent some event organisers from bringing in foreign speakers.

Yet, there are much larger and more influential organisations that face no such restrictions. Certain religious groups, for example, have made their presence felt in national debates on contentious issues such as sexuality. The rise of intolerant brands of Christianity and Islam in Singapore can be traced to material and doctrinal support from the United States and Saudi Arabia respectively. Similarly, our cultural and entertainment spaces have given virtually free rein to foreign influences, in ways that have spread consumerist values and the objectification of women. Thus, powerful right-wing religious as well as commercial forces have been allowed untrammeled access to the public mind, while tiny groups of Singaporeans who want to counter these trends by advocating secular, non-commercial, human-rights values face official obstruction. Such discrimination happens because of the arbitrary manner in which some activities are labeled “political”, bearing little relation to what actually does affect political values.

Discriminatory treatment of activists is shored up with highly subjective language. For example, citizen participation is encouraged – but it should not get “political”. We are routinely told that Singapore welcomes criticism – as long as it is “constructive”. We want ideas that are out of the box – but not “adversarial”. Singaporeans should serve with passion,  but without “agendas”. And so on. Such distinctions are in the eyes of the beholder, and in Singapore the only beholder that counts is the government.

Singaporeans have internalised these ideological categories. Critics deploy the same language to plead that their own comments should not be mistaken as destructive or adversarial. For example, after the website Breakfast Network chose to shut down rather than comply with the government’s new registration requirements, its founder objected to a report stating that it “refused” to register, saying that “declined” was a better word because “refused… makes us sound like rebels”. Similarly, civil society groups bend over backwards to avoid the accusation that they are “political”. Such sensitivity to semantics is a learnt response to the government’s “OB” markers, but it also legitimises and perpetuates those same divisions.

Activists at the other end of the political spectrum can be equally susceptible to these mental divides. They display a kind of reverse snobbery, pooh-poohing activists who are not as anti-government as they are. No doubt, certain causes require more political courage than others – with, say, disability rights lying at the less politically-contentious end of the spectrum, civil and political rights at the opposite extreme, and nature and heritage conservation somewhere in the middle. Surely, however, the respect that we show one another within civil society should depend on one’s sincerity, knowledge, wisdom, selflessness and hard work; I am not sure why being anti-government should be the only badge of honour.

Anti-ISA event at Hong Lim Park.

Like its critics, the government should stop judging activism in PAP-centric terms. Yes, activism needs to be regulated. But, the test should not be how much a cause deviates from official positions. Yes, government should protect public order and the rights of others. But, there is no need to protect Singaporeans – least of all public servants – from discomfiting ideas.

We are about to celebrate 50 years as an independent, citizen-governed state; recently, we have been congratulating ourselves on the quality of an education system that is producing young people who are apparently world beaters in problem-solving and coping with complexity. Policies that do not trust citizens to make their own judgments about which activists to side with make a mockery of these milestones.

This article was prepared for a panel discussion, “The Turning Tide: The State of Activism in Singapore”, held on 17 May 2014 at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, NUS, as part of its Angsana Evening series.




Racial riot? Really?

London’s Financial Times headlined its online story “Riot tarnishes Singapore’s image as place of ethnic harmony”. A Forbes Asia blog claimed that the incident “highlights ongoing tensions between the ethnic groups that call Singapore home”. Al Jazeera did not go that far, but hinted at it by presenting data on Singapore’s ethnic mix. And a reporter with a leading global news broadcaster prefaced her request for an interview with me by referring to “racial riots”.

The instinct of some foreign media to frame the Little India Riot as race-related may reveal more about their own prejudices than about the reality of what happened on Sunday evening. It is of course true that ethnic minorities here occasionally face subtle and not-so-subtle discrimination, but it would be a stretch to assume that the riot had much to do with that. The existence of racism doesn’t mean that the racial lens is always the right one through which to view events. If the riot reveals any deeper divisions – and most reasonable Singaporeans know that it does – those divisions are probably ones of nationality and class, not race. Not that this would be a less serious social ill; but it is important to get the diagnosis right if we are to treat it effectively.

A racial explanation of the riot implies that if it had been a crowd of mainland Chinese construction workers who saw one of their countrymen killed by a bus driven by a Chinese Singaporean, and if Chinese Singaporean police and civil defence personnel had arrived at the scene, the absence of the race factor from the equation would have resulted in a peaceful resolution of the situation. One just needs to consider the daily incidence of uprisings among Chinese workers in China to be disabused of such a fiction.

But the misunderstanding is not surprising. After all, if an editor on the other side of the world receives news from majority-Chinese Singapore of a riot breaking out in “Little India” involving only South Asians – what else would he think?

It takes local knowledge to understand that Little India is not an ethnic ghetto in the mould of those in Europe and the United States where riots have broken out in recent decades. Most Indians don’t live there, but (along with other diversity-loving Singaporeans) love visiting it as a cultural haven. It is the place to go for the best Indian food, clothing, groceries and goldsmiths, and its higher than usual concentration of Hindu temples.

Urban geography, not race, explains why the riot was an all-South-Asian affair. On Sundays, Singapore’s hundreds of thousands of migrant workers gravitate to particular neighbourhoods that have evolved organically into gathering spots for the proletariat from different parts of Asia. If a similar incident had erupted in the Beach Road area, it would have been an all-Thai affair. Around Peninsula Plaza, it would have been all-Myanmar. And if a migrant worker riot ever broke out around Lucky Plaza on Orchard Road, you can bet that it would be a Filipina expression of People Power.

Fortunately, Financial Times and company were the exception. Most foreign media reports correctly framed the riot as a by-product of the country’s dependence on low-cost foreign labour and a possible symptom of their discontent. These included international news organisations (Reuters , AFP , AP, the BBC and CNBC) and – critically for Singapore’s relations with India – Indian media such as the Hindu and the Times of India.

A Wall Street Journal blog – written by two local staffers – stated:

“The riot has sparked concerns of festering unrest amid the large foreign workforce, numbering about 1.3 million as of June, in this island state of 5.3 million people. In recent years, some foreign laborers—particularly low-pay unskilled workers in construction—have resorted to protests against alleged exploitation by employers, including a rare and illegal strike last year by about 170 public-bus drivers hired from China.”

The writers understood that the size of the migrant worker population was more relevant to the story than Singapore’s ethnic composition. And, they recognised that the most closely related precedent was not the race riots of the 1960s but the Chinese bus drivers’ strike – which of course destroys the theory that such incidents have much to do with race.

If anything, Singaporeans’ determination to preserve the nation’s multi-ethnic identity is shining through. Ethnic Chinese Singaporean Adrianna Tan, for example, plans to organise a monthly walking tour of Little India to share her love for the neighbourhood. I know some journalists who might find the experience educational.




Singaporeans are torn between seeking retribution and wanting to understand.

Whenever a society is beset by mob violence, opinion is almost always divided between demands for uncompromising punishment, and calls for empathy and self-critique. It should be no surprise that our own Little India Riot has provoked a similar spectrum of responses.

The tension between retribution and compassion, between blaming the outlaw and blaming the system that made him an outcast, has been investigated in the world’s greatest literature, its major religions, and its systems of justice – but never conclusively resolved. So, as passionately as we hold one or another point of view, nobody should expect our debate to be settled by a soundbyte, a tweet or Facebook post.

What we can safely say is that neither extreme works. To excuse all wrong-doing as the product of systemic injustice is to invite chaos and negate humans’ capacity to use their conscience. For the authorities to take that view would be shirk the number one job of any state, which is to maintain the orderly conditions for peaceful social life.

However, to respond to criminality only with force – and, when so many individuals are involved, never get round to asking “why?” – would be bad policing, at the very least. The riot seemed like an isolated event, but it would be irresponsible not to look deeper. Uncovering contributory factors and addressing them could avert the next such event.

Mustering empathy for the perpetrators will be difficult if we buy into the comforting illusion that there is only one “Singapore” with one set of norms – the ones we are familiar with. In that Singapore, our Singapore, we take for granted that we can count on those in authority to help us in a life-threatening emergency. But, within our borders are separate Singapores for foreign workers. One of the documented dysfunctions of these other Singapores is the existence of rogue employers who do not treat injured workers in a particularly humane way. Might this warp the judgment of workers who see a comrade fatally injured? This is just one of questions I hope will be answered through sober, fact-based analysis.

The debate that is commencing is an important one; it deserves to be conducted in a healthy fashion. Reliable information is vital. It was reassuring to see that, at the height of the emergency, the Police understood the importance of effective crisis communication, using Twitter and Facebook to give timely updates. Let’s not underestimate how challenging that must have been – they had their hands full trying to deliver a decisive yet measured response (evident from the fact that they sustained more casualties than the rioters). The effort paid off. The information the Police provided ensured that unfounded rumours did not take root for long enough to do any damage.

Equally positive was the role played by many netizens to urge calm, and to blow the offside whistle against irresponsible and tasteless speech.

In the weeks that follow, one hopes that this commitment to transparent and responsible communication is maintained both by official sources and ordinary citizens. It cannot be anything other than a controversial and heated debate. Already, the cheap point-scoring has commenced, linking the riot to various pet peeves. Differences in viewpoints are inevitable and necessary; but whether they end up being divisive is up to us.




Not all worthy causes are vote-winners; that’s why politics shouldn’t be left to political parties.

August 28, the day that Vincent Wijeysingha announced his resignation from the Singapore Democratic Party to devote himself to the struggle for civil liberties, happened to mark the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have A Dream” speech, addressed to the largest civil rights demonstration in history. Whether this was pure happenstance, a conscious nod to history, or ordained by zodiacal forces – I have no idea. In any case, the coincidence does inspire reflection on the role of such activism in modern politics.

In normal countries, it is unremarkable to see individuals pass back and forth through the revolving door between electoral politics and civil society activism. Several politicians come from civil society in the first place and quite naturally return to their roots. Ralph Nader continues to work as a consumer rights and environmental activist in between US presidential bids. In Malaysia, many leading lights straddle party politics and civil society. Irene Fernandez, for example, is a council member of the opposition PKR, but is better known as a human rights defender and the head of advocacy group Tenaganita.

In Singapore, few politicians come from civil society, and the little traffic there is tends to be one-way. PAP ideology prefers political beings to go through a life cycle with distinct stages, culminating in elected office. It’s like metamorphosis. A caterpillar is allowed to transform into a butterfly, but while it’s just a caterpillar, it should know its place, keep its head down, and never act as if it has the right to flaunt its colours or to fly – that’s butterfly territory.

Over the decades, the government has reinforced this order by restricting societies’ establishment and operation. It also sticks on troublesome groups and individuals such labels as “political”, “agenda” and “partisan” (pap for short; you could say that big PAP is not fond of little pap’s), which basically means that they will be treated as akin to national security threats.

The logic of these labels is questionable: after all, any intervention in the public sphere is at some level “political”. And when does a passionate interest in issues (something that the government says it wants to encourage through initiatives like the proposed Youth Corps) become an “agenda” deserving of its proverbial knuckle-duster treatment? As for partisanship, not even a constitution that disallows it from affiliating itself with any political party was able to save the human rights group Maruah from being subject to the Political Donations Act, which was ostensibly meant to keep money out of the electoral system.

But so overpowering are these labels that most of their targets usually scramble to live them down, rather than trying to challenge the assumptions behind them. Most civil society groups tend to err on the side of caution rather than risk being called “political”. And the SDP took pains to stress that it did not have a gay “agenda”, whatever that means.

Twenty years ago, a bunch of political kaypohs (including this one) got together to form a group called the Roundtable. It challenged the government’s position that individuals with a political agenda should only work through political parties. We felt differently: that it was the right and responsibility of citizens to be engaged in our nation’s civic life, and that non-partisan engagement was both necessary and legitimate.

The Roundtable managed to get registered as a society and operated for a few years before it ran out of steam. It would be nice to believe that the group pushed back the “OB” markers, staking out a bit more space for civil society.

However, the ruling party’s ideology still has a strong hold. To see how deeply entrenched is the PAP’s life-cycle view of political participation – that  individuals who are serious about their causes should come out from civil society, join political parties and not turn back – look no further than some of the comments that greeted Wijeysingha’s announcement. “If you want change, join a political party, rally people to your cause, get into Parliament – and change things,” went one.

Clearly, the significance of that day’s worldwide remembrance of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement was lost on such commentators.

The simple reason why civil society activism is a vital complement to electoral politics in a democratic society is that not every worthy cause is a vote winner. Often, it takes time for the majority to get on board. Sometimes, they never do. Government leaders then have to decide whether to do the right thing even though most voters remain nonplussed or outright opposed to change.

In proportional-representation systems, parties can win seats despite championing minority causes. Green parties in Europe are a case in point. But in a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all electoral system like ours, it is unlikely that any political party will push issues supported by only a minority of voters. Invariably, civil society activism is needed to give governments a nudge.

As necessary as electoral democracy is for a country’s well-being, it is not sufficient. Consider some of the principles that today’s Singaporeans benefit from. The right of women to vote; or of Asians to govern their own societies. The moral unacceptability of putting children to work instead going to school; or of enslaving adults.

We now take these for granted as fairly basic requirements of a civilised society. Yet, these principles did not always enjoy such common-sense status. In an earlier time in many societies, even many victims who stood to benefit from enlarged rights and liberties did not consider their lot as an abomination but as the natural order of things. Changing people’s attitudes and lawmakers’ calculations took decades of consciousness-raising by activists, writers and other people of conscience who were focussed on winning the favour of history, not conforming with the flavour of the times.

Let’s not kid ourselves that we – in Singapore or anywhere else – have already achieved a state of civilisational perfection. Future generations will be contemptuous of some of today’s social mores and public policies, just as we look down on our forebears for practising or condoning what we in a more enlightened age know to be wrong. It would be hubris to expect otherwise. The only uncertainty is what exactly history will judge to be the greatest injustices of our time. For those who would like to know sooner than later, history shows that the clues are more likely to come from civil society than from political parties.




Speech at the Community Leaders’ Conference 2010, organised by OnePeople.SG.

I must begin with an apology. I have been introduced with my academic credentials, which may give you the impression that I am an authority on the subject that I will be talking about. In fact, my academic specialisation has little to do with this topic. I will be speaking to you not as an expert, but as a fellow citizen and journalist. I publish a newspaper for children that is dedicated to what we call ‘values-driven journalism’. One of our key missions is the promotion of multi-culturalism. It’s in this context that I have had the opportunity to pay close attention to issues of integration.

As an observer and not an expert, I will share some thoughts about relations among religious communities in Singapore. Let me summarise what I’m going to say in three points before I elaborate on them. First, I believe that Singapore has a healthy environment for inter-faith relations, because we have arrived at a pragmatic set of working principles to manage these relations. Second, however, this formula does not protect us completely from friction; the arrangements that we have devised will continue to come under a certain amount of strain. Third, managing these strains is not just the government’s responsibility; it is everyone’s job. I will try to explain why it is so important that citizens, especially community leaders, take ownership of the inter-faith agenda.

Let me start by introducing you to Sam, a hypothetical Singaporean. There is probably no such thing as an average Singaporean, since we are such a diverse society, but imagine Sam to be representative in many ways. Incidentally, I have chosen the name ‘Sam’ for this character very deliberately. Sam could be the Chinese surname of a Taoist or Buddhist Singaporean. Or maybe Sam is short for Samsuddin, a Malay Muslim. He could be Samynathan, a Hindu. Or a Sikh named Samir Singh. Or Sam could be a short for Samuel, a Christian or Jew, or an agnostic. Of course, Sam could be a woman, Samantha or Samah or Samara. But that could get confusing, so with apologies to the female gender, let’s leave Sam as a man,
with a very beautiful and intelligent wife.

Sam has a religion (I’m not saying which, because what I’ll be talking about could probably refer to any of them), and over the years he has been taking his religion more seriously. He has realised that there is more to life than just material success, and he thinks his religion gives him and his family a moral compass, something higher to live for. Religion has also given Sam an identity and a sense of community, because when he meets up with his fellow believers, he feels comfortable, as if he belongs. Sam believes religion is a very personal matter. His attitude is, ‘live and let live’, and ‘mind your own business’.

So, Sam doesn’t really see the point of inter-faith dialogue. It even makes him feel a bit uncomfortable. He fears that inter-faith projects would open the door to others to pry into his life and try to influence his personal beliefs. Furthermore, Sam realises that different religious groups are not equal in power. Some have more resources or have better connections, or are more aggressive and mobilised; and some groups don’t mind their own business but try to change others. So, even though Sam is not naturally paranoid, he feels slightly threatened by the idea of inter-faith projects. He really would prefer to be left alone to do his own thing. Besides, Sam feels that inter-faith initiatives are a solution without a problem. He doesn’t really see the need for them because Singapore already seems to be managing fine.

And indeed, Singapore’s formula for managing religion has been quite robust. It has the following key pillars. First, we have freedom of religion; everyone can choose his or her own faith. As a result, people feel they can be themselves, and that the state will not discriminate against them based on their beliefs. Second, we are secular, but not in the sense that we regard religion as unimportant or an illegitimate part of public life. Instead, secularism in Singapore means that the state stays separate from religion and keeps a fair and equal distance apart from all religions. Third, the state protects religions from offence, even occasionally using censorship when there’s a danger of words and actions causing hurt. Fourth, there is an effort to encourage mutual respect, through observation of religious festivals in the media and schools, through regular dialogue among religious leaders and, of course, through the work of the Inter-Religious Organisation, and other such bodies.

Most Singaporeans recognise our record of inter-religious peace as one of the republic’s shining accomplishments. However, it is also clear that our current state of affairs is not without friction and frustration. We have probably all encountered some of these disputes in our lives, and occasionally they are ugly enough to make it into the national news. I know many Singaporeans who would like to think that the solution is just for everybody to be reasonable, live and let live and mind your own business. I actually don’t think it is so simple. Religion can never be totally privatised.

Let’s take the example of our hypothetical friend, Sam. Sam wants to mind his own business, but he cannot live in a bubble. He wants to bring up his children according to his religious values and he can control his environment at home (when the TV and computer are off) but outside and on the media, there are influences from people with different values, and he is not happy about all of them. His children are influenced by what they see and hear in school, on television, in shopping malls and so on. So what happens in the wider society affects his ability to raise his kids according to the values that he believes in. He relies on public space and public resources – the media, schools and so on – and these are vehicles for values that affect his family.

Furthermore, religious rituals and practices can never be completely confined to the grounds of one’s place of worship or home: they will spill out into the streets, void decks, parks and even work places, entering the consciousness of others and sometimes inconveniencing them or making them feel uneasy. It is difficult to resolve some of these disputes, because the resolution may involve adjustments on both sides. One may need to be considerate, while the other may need to be more tolerant. It’s easy to say things like ‘let’s meet half-way’, but in practical terms where is half-way? There is no formula for these things.

I think Singaporeans can do more to create a healthy environment for Sam and others like him to live. For too long, we have left it to government to handle such matters, perhaps because we think it’s something too sensitive and we’d better leave it to the authorities, or perhaps because it is just easier to be lazy. The problem with this vertical approach, reaching up to higher authorities (I mean government, not god), is that it doesn’t do much for building horizontal trust, that is, trust between citizens across religious divides.

Horizontal trust is important, because that is what helps us put things in perspective when we face provocations. If you think about it, most of the ugly incidents and disputes that have a religious dimension are not, by themselves, large or threatening. Religious insults, a blasphemous work of fiction, even the very sensitive issue of religious conversion – each act by itself is not powerful enough to do damage. And, these are almost always exceptions, and not the rule.

However, mistrust acts like a multiplier. We have a very human disagreement with another individual, and suddenly we see him as a representative of all that we fear in the other, and we see ourselves as having to stand up for our entire religious community. A relatively minor and isolated incident grows in our minds and plays on our fears; we then see them as symptoms of a much bigger threat and we treat each incident as if it were a skirmish in a battle that is part of a great war.

Usually, when we face provocative words, the text by itself is not explosive. It is the context of fear and suspicion that multiplies the effect of the words. We cannot control the text. But we can influence the context. Build  horizontal trust, and our society will become more resilient against the inevitable frictions and frustrations of living among people of different cultures.

This is why inter-faith efforts are so important. Although we want to keep our religious lives personal and private, we must also cultivate the public space, making it an environment that is tolerant and hospitable towards differences. Advocates of inter-faith work say that it’s not about trying to reconcile differences in theology or doctrine. It’s not about confronting one another. It’s about standing side by side, and cooperating in joint projects such as community work.

Each of us has multiple identities. We are simultaneously people of faith, and family members, and citizens and so on. Inter-faith projects to me are simply an opportunity to activate those parts of our identity that we share with people of other religions. We may disagree about religion, but we can agree that there are certain social problems in our community that needs fixing, so why not work together to solve them. We can do so as individuals, but it is even more powerful when religious organisations come together. The symbolic effect of seeing religious leaders come together is hugely important. In doing so, we won’t just address real social needs, we will also build the horizontal trust that protects our public life in Singapore as a place where people of all faiths can continue to feel at home.


Page 1 of 2

Powered by WordPress & Theme by Anders Norén