Saturday, July 25, 2009

Foolhardy to take harmony for granted

July 25, 2009

Senior Minister and Coordinating Minister for National Security S. Jayakumar was Home Affairs as well as Law Minister in the late 1980s, when the Government introduced legislation to maintain religious harmony. In an exclusive interview with Insight, he looks back on the tumultuous period - and issues a warning that the tumult can return.

As Minister for Home Affairs from 1985 to 1994, and Minister for Law from 1988 to 2008, you were directly and closely involved in the crafting of the White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony and the subsequent legislation, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA). What was the experience like?

It was personally a challenging experience to work on the White Paper and the Bill with then PM Lee Kuan Yew and other ministers. How to bring out the problems in a way that would not be misunderstood by religious leaders and groups.

I have taken many Bills through second and third readings in Parliament, but the MRHA was one of the two most unique pieces of legislation I had worked on. (The other was the Constitutional Amendments for the Elected President.)

In drafting the MRHA, I worked very closely with PM Lee Kuan Yew and former attorney-general Tan Boon Teik. It was a challenge because we really could not find a model anywhere else in the world for the kind of law we had in mind.

However, it was not the White Paper and the MRHA per se, but the entire process of debate and discussion surrounding them that helped to raise public awareness and sensitised Singaporeans to potential pitfalls always lurking in a society like ours.

In fact, the process started back in 1987 when PM Lee Kuan Yew spoke at length on the dangers of religious extremism and mixing politics and religion in his National Day Rally address on Aug 16. The discussions over the next two years helped raise public consciousness of how fragile our religious harmony was. In 1989 - on Nov 22 - Mr Lee had a frank closed-door discussion with 51 leaders of religious groups.

The MRHA came into being against a backdrop of rising religiosity, not just in Singapore but worldwide. Mr Lee Kuan Yew said in a speech to a Buddhist gathering in December 1988, a year before the MRHA was tabled in Parliament: 'The present phase in Singapore tends more towards intensely held beliefs than towards tolerant co-existence. At a time when Islam is resurgent and thrusting, Christians, especially Charismatics, are in a dynamic, evangelical phase. This has sometimes led to friction, and requires sensitive handling.'

In recent years, do you see evidence of a similar situation building up? The recent leadership tussle at Aware, with one faction coming from a common church background, could, for example, be seen as one manifestation of the resurgence of the Christian right - if it ever subsided. From the Government's point of view, what other indications are there of rising religiosity in Singapore? Is this rising religiosity to be found among all religions?

All religions are becoming more active. But then, this is a worldwide trend. There is greater religiosity across nearly all religions. We cannot be immune from these trends.

Increased religiosity in 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 multiracial and multi-religious society that is extremely important.

Assuming there is again rising religiosity, have the lessons from the 1980s put the Government in a good position to deal with the current situation? What things would the Government do differently this time compared to the 1980s?

The question implies that it is the Government's job. It cannot be the Government's job alone. All parties have a role.

The Government can set certain rules, principles and sanctions. But laws and law enforcement alone are not enough. It is foolish to think that racial and religious harmony can be decreed by legislative fiat.

The Government can set ground rules and OB markers, including by legislation, to ensure that religious freedom is exercised within the context of a multiracial and multi-religious society. It also sets the tone by taking a firm, no-nonsense, impartial approach with anyone bent on creating mischief.

The Government also ensures that the State is secular and even-handed. The Government is not pro-any religion. Nor is it anti-any religion. It believes religion should be a positive factor for our society. We want all religions to co-exist peacefully and continue to do their good work in the community - running schools, doing social work and helping the aged and handicapped.

Religious leaders and followers have a critical role to play. They have the capacity to influence and mobilise their followers. Their activities must not polarise society. They have to be mindful of the sensitivities of other religious groups, and the need for moderation in their activities.

We are fortunate that in Singapore, the religious leaders and majority of their followers are sensible and rational and appreciate Singapore's vulnerabilities. Most Singaporeans are generally tolerant of religious rituals and practices insofar as they do not impinge on their private space.

Individuals and groups, whether they are religious or not, also have roles in fostering inter-racial and religious harmony and social cohesion. They must conduct themselves with restraint and moderation and not impose their beliefs and values on others.

The media too has an important role to play. A responsible media can help to inculcate the right values and messages, and avoid sensationalising or whipping up emotive issues that touch on race and religion.

When the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill was tabled in 1989 and subsequently sent to a Select Committee for further deliberation, religious groups raised many concerns related to the meaning and interpretation of certain terms.

One common fear was that it would curb missionary activity. Some even argued that the Act could breach their constitutional right to freedom of religion.

With the passage of time and the accumulation of more experience on the ground, has more clarity been achieved on this issue? Dare we even hope that a consensus of sorts has been attained on what is permissible and what is not under the MRHA? If yes, how has it been achieved?

Many of those questions and concerns were taken into account when the Bill was revised by the Select Committee.

Do we need more finely calibrated rules and sub-rules? No. What we need is a common-sense approach on the part of everyone, individuals and groups. As a member of a religious group, of course one will want to worship, promote his religion.

At the end of the day, what kind of country and society are we? We are not a country with a single dominant religion. We have many religions. We are one of the world's most densely populated countries, with people of different religions living in close proximity to one another.

How we go about promoting and practising our religion in this multi-religious society is very important - whether we show tolerance, accommodation and a live-and-let-live approach.

If everyone insists on doing things on the basis of entitlement and rights, without regard to the nature of our society and the interests of others, we will have big problems.

So it is important that we must go on a common-sense approach, rather than one of insisting on absolute rights argued from divine authority or first principles. We need to ask: What will work in Singapore, and what will cause trouble in Singapore?

In the United States, both sides have taken hardline extreme positions, arguing on the basis of constitutional rights (to abortion, to gay partnerships, etc) or on absolute scriptural proscriptions. The result is unending culture wars. Why do we want to import them to Singapore? Here, it will not be conflicts and tensions between Christians with different views, but between different religions, and that would be disastrous.

I believe that the way in which the Government has handled the various issues, which have cropped up from to time over the past 20 years, will have shown that (a) the Government is secular; (b) it is not pro- or anti-any religion; (c) we try to nip problems in the bud; and (d) where we resort to laws, this is done only when really necessary.

Another contentious issue concerning the MRHA was that it sought to draw a line between religion and politics - to erect a wall between them, in fact. Mr Goh Chok Tong conceded the difficulty of separating the two halves, but said: 'We must try...for the common good of all Singaporeans.' Christians and Muslims are among those who would argue that separating the two is impossible and indeed contrary to the teachings of their respective religions. What pointers can the Government provide for these religious Singaporeans, who want to do their duty by both their religion and by their country as good citizens? What more can be done to help forge a consensus?

I fully share what Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said in his recent statement (May 15) replying to queries on the Aware saga.

This is an extract from what he said then:

On Rules Of Engagement:

'Religious individuals have the same rights as any citizen to express their views on issues in the public space, as guided by their teachings and personal conscience. However, like every citizen, they should always be mindful of the sensitivities of living in a multi-religious society.

'All religious groups will naturally teach their followers to follow the precepts of their scriptures, to do good and to contribute to society. The groups will naturally have views on social and moral issues. But we are not a Christian Singapore, or a Muslim Singapore, or a Buddhist or Hindu Singapore. We are a secular Singapore, in which Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus and others all have to live in peace with one another. This calls for tolerance, accommodation, and give and take on all sides.

'If religious groups start to campaign to change certain government policies, or use the pulpit to mobilise their followers to pressure the Government, or push aggressively to gain ground at the expense of other groups, this must lead to trouble. Keeping religion and politics separate is a key rule of political engagement.'

On why the political arena must be secular:

'Religious groups and individuals who hold deep religious beliefs are often active in social issues, and make important contributions to the well-being of our society. Individuals who commit themselves to social or public service are often motivated by their religious convictions. And many religious groups do good work serving people in need, regardless of religious affiliations. We welcome that. They set the moral tone of our society, and are a source of strength in times of adversity.

'However, our political arena must always be a secular one. Our laws and policies do not derive from religious authority, but reflect the judgments and decisions of the secular Government and Parliament to serve the national interest and collective good. These laws and public policies apply equally to all, regardless of one's race, religion or social status. This gives confidence that the system will give equal treatment and protection for all, regardless of which group one happens to belong to.'

Some argue that because no restraining order has been issued under the MRHA, it has been only a showpiece. Others say it worked mainly as a deterrent. What is your response?

Showpiece? Well, when I spoke in Parliament during the third reading of the Bill on Nov 9, 1990, I did foresee 'the best case scenario is that no occasion arises where we need to invoke this Bill'. I also said then that we will exhaust all other remedies, like advising, counselling, etc. So the best scenario has happened: We have not had to issue a restraining order under the Act.

That does not mean that we have no problems but rather that we have been quick to defuse the problems through active management, mediation and, where necessary, admonition, sometimes working with religious leaders.

So non-invoking of the MRHA does not mean that it is a white elephant or showpiece. It is part of our suite of tools to maintain law and order and communal harmony.

Take the Sedition Act: We rarely use it but it is available when we need it. There are also provisions in Penal Code and other laws. But prosecution is resorted to only in serious cases.

Could you give us examples of cases that could have been dealt with under the MRHA since 1990?

If you look at the 1989 White Paper, there was an Annex setting out actual instances around that time where inter-religious tensions could arise through actions which did not adequately take into account sensitivities of other groups.

I can tell you that even today, 20 years later, we do have from time to time such incidents. I cannot go into the details but examples would be cases involving insensitive proselytisation or denigration of other religions or even misunderstandings and quarrels which, if not handled properly, can lead to emotions and cause tensions.

Our approach is to nip these problems in the bud. How do we do that? By counselling, advising and, where necessary, by warning that the Government will act under the MRHA if they persist in their conduct.

Occasionally, in serious cases, the Attorney-General may decide to bring criminal proceedings, such as the recent case against the couple found guilty of distributing seditious material under the Sedition Act.

Some say that when government statements about racial and religious harmony are made too often, there is a danger that they become taken for granted. How real is this danger?

Twenty years have passed, the problems are still here. They will never disappear. We must view religious harmony and racial harmony as constant works in progress.

I worry that an entire new generation which has never experienced communal conflict may believe that we have nothing to worry about, that our present religious harmony is a natural state of affairs and will never be under threat. I worry that people don't realise how fragile racial and religious harmony is. It is foolhardy to take these things for granted and become complacent.

The greatest danger to racial and religious harmony is complacency - to believe that all will be fine always; that we have arrived.

The reality is that maintaining religious harmony will always be a work in progress. It requires active monitoring and intervention when necessary.

You ask me if government leaders are making statements about racial, religious harmony too often? And people will become jaded and take it for granted? I do not think so. I worry that some of our people are taking racial and religious harmony for granted, and that is why we need to periodically remind ourselves.

In 2002, in the wake of 9/11 and the Jemaah Islamiah arrests, then Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong said 'it is time to give Singaporeans a jolt, to remind them that they are living in a multiracial, multi-religious society'. Is 2009 time for another jolt?

Go back to 1987. We foresaw the problem in 1987 and decided to bring it out in the open. Indeed, over the last two decades, the worldwide trend has been towards greater religiosity, and Singaporeans have been carried along by this. So we must be aware of the stresses and strains, and continue to work hard to maintain our racial and religious harmony. We must not think that after 20 years without incident, we can afford to relax.

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