Friday, July 17, 2009

Beware enclaves of the like-minded

July 17, 2009

Closed communities have no place in multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore
By Lydia Lim

I PATRONISE a heartland beauty salon in Hougang where the soothing music streaming through the speakers is invariably Christian.

The salon's owners are a pair of Singaporean sisters. They are Christian and conduct Bible study sessions at their shop once a week. Their three staff, one local and two mainland Chinese, often talk about going to church.

I do not recall religion being discussed at places like beauty parlours when I was young. Is that evidence of growing religiosity here? It is difficult to say.

Shortly after the recent leadership tussle at women's group Aware, one of my colleagues, who is not religious, said she was worried about religion's growing influence in workplace interactions.

Did I not agree, she asked, that a boss who is Christian would be more likely to promote a fellow Christian rather than a non-believer?

Such sentiments may underlie the Government's recent expressions of concern over what it perceives as growing religiosity in some quarters, and its potentially adverse impact on social harmony.

The most recent expression of concern came from Minister without Portfolio Lim Boon Heng. At a People's Association event last Sunday, he observed that the current economic downturn has led many to turn to religion for solace and guidance.

'It's not a bad thing,' he said. 'I think all religions teach us fundamental values and across the religions, the values are largely similar...But there is a danger, as we see in different countries, that the practice of religion can make a community become closed.'

'We are a multi-racial and multi-religious society,' he emphasised 'and our harmony depends upon people of different races and creeds interacting with one another and sharing common interests.'

There is no survey that has tracked the changing levels of religiosity over time in Singapore. What we know from the population census of 2000 is that 85 per cent of Singaporeans profess a religion, a figure that has remained largely unchanged for decades. But that tells us little about the extent to which religion guides people's lives.

In 2005, The Straits Times tried to gauge the level of religiosity in a poll of 622 Singapore residents aged 15 and above.

The survey found that among those with a religion, half devoted time every day to prayer, meditation or the reading of religious books. Close to half of this group would not marry someone of a different religion and one in 10 would consider going into religious service full-time.

Those polled, however, differed on whether Singaporeans had become more devout over the years. Some 23 per cent said yes, 49 per cent detected no change and 27 per cent said people had actually become less religious.

What needs emphasising is what Mr Lim warned against: Not growing religiosity per se, but religious practices that leads to closed communities.

Some - especially those who are not religious or are only nominally so - may confuse the two and perceive religious devotion itself as a threat.

Every society has its share of people who are more religious than others. The overwhelming number of them are hardly social threats. On the contrary, their religious convictions may inspire them to do good works that benefit society.

But I agree with Mr Lim that community, as lived out today, is a double-edged sword: it both draws people in and keeps people out.

The communities that threaten social cohesion are the ones that are closed because they insist on 'purity' - whether of religious beliefs, ideology or race - as the measure of a person's worth.

Such groups want to draw in those who are the same ('pure') and keep out those who are different ('impure'). That is the path to segregation, not integration.

So it was indeed worrying when in a recent survey of the views of 183 Christian clergymen here, sociologist Mathew Mathews found that close to 50 per cent of them feared that inter-religious dialogue would compromise their religious convictions.

Some 41.5 per cent of them also said they would find it difficult to collaborate with a non-Christian religious leader in a charity drive because they feared it might lead to the perception that all religions are equal.

Dr Mathews, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore and a Pentecostal church pastor, commented that Christianity here tends to be conservative and evangelical, 'embracing an exclusivist stance' towards other religions.

Some scholars of modernity, such as sociologist Ziygmunt Bauman of Britian's University of Leeds, argued that the uncertainties of modern society tend to push people towards communities of the like-minded. There is 'the impulse to withdraw from risk-ridden complexity into the shelter of uniformity', Professor Bauman wrote in his 2000 book, Liquid Modernity.

It is this flight to uniformity that we must resist. In a sense, that struggle is not new. At the birth of our multi-racial, multi-religious nation in 1965, the Government made a radical decision to break up the old enclaves where people of the same race and dialect group congregated. Many people lived in the safe embrace of those who spoke the same language, ate the same food and worked the same jobs as they did.

And as Singaporeans were resettled in public housing estates, the Government enforced a racial quota to prevent such enclaves from re-forming.

Today, we have to make a conscious effort to resist enclaves of the like-minded. But this time, the barriers are not made of bricks and mortar but spring from our most deeply held beliefs and values.

The challenge we face may thus be greater than it was in the past.

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