Wednesday, May 27, 2009

No 'bright line' between religion and politics - response to Thio Li-Ann

May 27, 2009

This is an edited excerpt from a speech by NMP Thio Li-ann in Parliament yesterday during the debate on the President's Address.


IN A recent interview, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng reiterated that religion and politics must not be mixed. This is sound, though there are difficulties of definition as no bright line demarcates 'religion' from 'politics'. We need to understand what 'secularism' entails in Singapore for more specific guidance.

[Comment: What is scary is that Thio can see "no bright line" demarcating religion from politics. Does Parliament make reference to religious dogmas and values in its deliberation? Do heads of faiths sit in on cabinet meetings? Or less facetiously, ask anyone to define religion and politics and ask if the line between the two is blurred and lacking in definition? Does she even think before she spews such stupidity?]

A state's attitude towards religion turns upon its model of constitutional secularism. 'Secularism' is a protean, chameleon-like term: what it means depends on the context and who is using it; it can be a virtue or a vice. It is timely to eschew glibness and examine the Singapore model of secularism with precision.

There are in fact many secularisms or degrees of secularity. This complex term needs to be unpacked.

Historically, 'secularism' originates from the Latin 'saeculum', meaning 'temporal', worldly affairs, rather than 'spiritual', other-worldly matters. The word 'secular' is an emblem of intense historical conflict.

Today, in some circles, 'secularism' connotes systematic hostility towards religion, as a synonym for a politicised form of ideological atheism whose creed is that humanity is destined to wholly shed religious conviction. The atheistic word was made flesh in the atheistic state produced by the Russian Revolution of 1917, devoted to Marx's assumption that religion stupefies the masses and must be eradicated to bring forth the new Communist Man.

[From the start she confuses secularism with atheism, simply because she has strong views about atheism, but has no understanding of secularism. Marx was antitheistic. Not sure if anyone ever called him secular. For a primer in secularism read this article by Kishore Mahbubani, a far greater intellect than Thio or her FM mother will ever be.

Thio should also give example of systemic hostility towards religion by secularists in Singapore - if they are systematic, this should be easy. On the other hand, I just read in the New Paper about Church members hanging around outside a school in Pasir Ris and aggressively trying to convert students. The systematic aggressive proselytisation of the Christians (let's get specific here because I do not see aggressive proselytisation by Muslims, Buddhists, Taoist, or Catholics. Only Christians, and not all Christians I may add. I don't believe I've ever been accosted by a Lutheran. But I don't keep track) is more prevalent. Where secularists or rather atheists do respond to religion with hostility is when religion or religious doctrine is thrust unwanted in their face.]

The principle of secularity dates back to the Roman Empire. It derived from the teaching of Jesus to 'render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar's and to God the things that are God's'. This principle of limited government opposed state absolutism in suggesting Caesar did not wield absolute authority: While a citizen was to obey civil authority, he was to enjoy freedom from state interference in matters pertaining to the worship of God. Religious liberty thus limits state power. America first experimented constitutionally with dividing sacred from secular authority, rejecting the European conflation of civil and religious power.

["Render unto Caesar.." indeed. The simple understanding of this is that state and religion should be separate. The pro-religion interpretation that Thio uses here is that religious liberty limits state power. What rubbish! What part of "Render unto caesar..." translates to "Religion trumps State"? And if so, why can't we interprete it to mean that State's authority trumps Religious prescription? After all Jesus said "Render to Caesar" first, before he mentioned God. Surely if God/religion trumps state, he should have said something like "Render unto God what belongs to God and if there is anything left, you can hand over to Caesar if he asks for it nicely."

Or better yet, "Render unto God what belongs to God and... oh wait, He made everything so everything belongs to him. Caesar gets nothing."

But no. He said, "render unto caesar...". And he said it very equitably (as translated), which implies that he did not intend to put one over the other. And even tho as the Son of God, he would know that God made all things and so all things belong to God, he still recognises that there are secular laws and that while we are in the secular world we submit ourselves to secular law. Thio's interpretation is therefore incredibly biased and serves her own agenda to say the least and speaks to her prejudices.

Next she'll be asking us to abolish abortion.]

Senior Minister of State Zainul Abidin Rasheed described Singapore secularism as 'secularism with a soul'. This deft juxtaposing of the material and the metaphysical speaks to the cooperative relation between state and religion.

The Constitution does not forbid the state to lend financial or other support to a religion; thus we have the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore as a statutory government body serving the Muslim community.

[Oh yes. Need to assure the public that you are not just presenting the Christian perspective. But is that a sly dig at MUIS? Which is the only statutory body for any religion.]

In 1989, Foreign Minister George Yeo observed the Government was 'secular but it is certainly not atheistic'. This evinces a rejection of a thick, atheistic version of secularism.

[No. George Yeo makes a distinction between secularism and atheism. If he meant to say we reject atheistic secularism (if there is even such an animal), he would have said so. It is clear that Thio does not even have a fundamental understanding of secularism as defined or operationalised in Singapore. The govt has always said that religious values will shape and guide your values, but in public policy and public space you need to translate those values into secular arguments and rational logic, not use faith-based dogma and doctrine as a replacement for reason and rationality. To confuse secularism and atheism shows a poor understanding of these two terms. One can be religious and apply secular arguments or processes. But one cannot be religious and be atheist at the same time.]

Secular humanism, which posits a morality independent of God, is a comprehensive anti-theistic world view. Some courts recognise it as a religion. It dogmatically asserts the absence of God, without any empirical evidence. We know from elementary logic that it is impossible to prove a universal negative. Whether God exists or not cannot be proved or disproved by evidence or logic.

[Straw man red herring. We are not promoting secular humanism and it is irrelevant in the Singapore context. Nor are we as a society concerned with proving or disproving the existence of God. Secularism is not about that. And yes, it is impossible to prove a universal negative. That means God's non-existence cannot be proven. But if God exists, there should be some way to prove it. Since it is impossible to disprove God's existence, then the burden of proof falls upon the faithful.]

It takes faith to believe or not to believe in God or gods. A lot of faith is needed to believe there is no divine. As Turkish journalist Mustafa Akyol wrote: 'It is the atheist's opium to regard that unsubstantiated faith as established fact.' Thick secularism is thus an anti-religion religion.

[No it is not. Continued confusion between secularism and atheism. Oh but bravo for quoting a non-Christian to leaven your argument. How inclusive!]

Secular democracies should be neutral not only between traditional religions but also regarding modern religions with atheistic foundations.

[There is no "modern religion with atheistic foundations". This is the imaginary creation of Thio and confused christians. Atheists are not the opposite of theists. Religion is organised. Atheists aren't... except when you push them too far. Then they organise for self-defence. Religion is a religion. Not believing is a not a religion. It is the inflexible mind of a theist that would need to pigeonhole atheist in the same mould as a theist and atheism with the same structures as religion.]

What is the situation in Singapore? DPM Wong emphasised the secular nature of the political arena and how keeping 'religion' and 'politics' separate was a key rule of political engagement.

What this means specifically is that laws and policies derive their legitimacy not from divine sanction but from a democratically elected government. Law generally applies to and equally protects all citizens, regardless of race, religion or social status. Clearly, the Singapore model of secularism is anti-theocratic in that religious tenets and secular law are separated, not conflated.

While anti-theocratic, the Singapore secularism is not anti-religious. This is a vital distinction.

["Anti-theocratic"? No. What you are comparing is a Theocracy vs a Democracy. Please figure these two concepts out for yourself. Wong Kan Seng is not so stupid as to attempt to explain that Singapore is not a theocracy. The secular nature of politics in multi-religious Singapore means that while anyone can have views and positions based on their religious beliefs and the teachings of their religion, it is insufficient to proffer religious dogma, doctrine or values as the sole justification (or in fact as the basis of any justification) for a political decision. Against homosexuality? Don't say the bible says so. Explain in biological, sociological, economical terms why it should not be accepted.

For now the govt has accepted prima facie a sociological argument - that conservative Singapore society would not accept homosexuality. However, when it comes to hard science, the govt is not going to entertain religious views. So creationism will have no space on the science curriculum. Nor will Singapore cripple our own bioscience R&D by prohibiting stemcell research. If Singapore ever tries to restrict abortion, it may be an attempt to reverse our TFR, not out of a religion-driven need to respect unborn life.]

DPM Wong welcomed the public service of individuals inspired by their religious convictions; they also 'set' society's 'moral tone'. He affirmed that religious individuals had the same right as other citizens to 'express their views on issues in the public space' guided by their beliefs.

Religion is thus separated from politics, but, religion is not separated from public life and culture. Everyone has values, whether shaped by religious or secular ideologies; all may participate in public discourse to forge an ethical social consensus. While religion is personal, it is not exclusively private and has a social dimension which is not to be trivialised.

[This whole speech/essay is a strawman exercise of putting up false constructs to knock them down. In the first place Thio conflates atheism with secularism. Second, she imbues atheism with the same set of structure as theism. Third she proclaims atheism as an "anti-religion religion" (a false construct). And fourth, she assumes that atheism is homogeneously one cosmology of thought, just as she blithely imbues religion with a singularity that ignores fatal and fundamental differences.]

Thus, Singapore secularism is 'agnostic' and 'thin'. The Government does not favour or disfavour any particular religion. We practise 'accommodative secularism' described by the Court of Appeal as removing restrictions to one's choice of religious belief. Religious values do have a role in public debate.

Agnostic secularism of this sort is a virtue; it is a 'framework' which facilitates the peaceful co-existence of religions.

Conversely, militant secularism is an illiberal and undemocratic vice in seeking to gag religious views in the public square and so to privilege its atheistic values, as in communist states.

[Please give example of militant secularism in Singapore. Define "militant". But good tactic to tar it with communism.]

Secular fundamentalists are oppressive where they seek to mute religiously informed convictions in public debate, by demonising a view as religious.

[Another false construct! Secular fundamentalist! Come on! Bring on the Secular Terrorist!]

Militant exclusionist secularism is thus a recipe for social disharmony; it feeds the 'culture wars' in the US and provokes those it seeks to exclude. It will not promote unity in diversity.

[What is more likely to sow disharmony? A secular approach, or a religious approach in a multi-religious society. What is the common ground? If religion is the common ground, why are there so many religions. Why is it even in the same religion we can have sectarian divisions like the sunnis, the shias, the wahibs, the anglicans, the lutherans, the baptists, the presbytarians, the methodists and so on?

Unity in diversity? What about unity within the same religion?

The so-called culture wars began when the Christian Right started their undeclared war on the more progressive Christians.]

When it comes to moral disagreements and public policy, the press is powerfully positioned to promote informed debate. However the press may, by biased and selective reporting, misrepresent, distort or obscure an issue. We need to broaden our understanding of responsible journalism in Singapore, which rejects the extremes of an adversarial American watchdog and a Pravda-like lapdog, or running dog.

The feedback I received from friends and strangers on the reporting of the Aware controversy was that much of the reporting, particularly in one paper, was biased. It largely lacked a diversity of views in singing the same chorus that religious groups should not get involved in secular organisations. Some spoke of their new lists of 'fair' and 'unfair' journalists.

[By that token, Wong Kan Seng is also unfair because he also agreed that religious groups should not get involved in secular organisation. Sometimes when everyone seems to be out to get you, you may simply be paranoid. Sometimes, they really don't like you. And sometimes, it may be because you did something wrong.]

Responsible journalism should extend to covering a diversity of views, not a journalist's preferred view. It should include the accurate representation of differing viewpoints, and not paint the fringe as mainstream or the pathological as normal. Readers may then see all sides of an issue and decide what is true.

[In part it is a problem of Josie & the pussycats own making. By keeping silent, by not commenting, by being isolated, by being secretive, they created their own hell. And while a lot of the reports were not flattering, ST did try to present the other side, with even an interview with Josie. (addendum: ST Editor subsequently explained that it was in fact a problem of the secretive new ex-co's making.)]

This is important given the near monopolistic position of Singapore broadsheets. A lawyer recently returned from London wrote to me expressing horror in finding local papers apparently had nothing better to report than the AWARE saga, as opposed to the more interesting British papers which offered a lot more variety.

This made me somewhat nostalgic for my student days in Cambridge, where I could, with chocolate croissant and Nescafe coffee in hand, survey a range of perspectives from The Times, Guardian, Independent or Telegraph.

[Yeah. You should go back there.]

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