Sunday, January 10, 2010

Secular & non-secular polity vis-a-vis inter-religious relation

Singapore is a state where the government emphasizes clear separation of religious influence from the polity of the state. The government recognizes the important role of religion in the society and hence prioritizes religious harmony among its citizens with diverse religious background. Such harmony is desirable by the state not so much due to the nature of each religions but of their followers that make up a significant amount of the population. In other words, religion is important only because religious people encompasses the majority in the country.

However when there is a clash between religion and the state, the state has the upper hand to rule over the religion. For example in 1972 the government de-registered and banned Jehovah Witness because the religion forbids their members to carry gun, a practice required by the government for all male Singaporeans. Although the religious group is banned, the government does not actively pursue and detain the followers. For a more comprehensive report, please read the International Religious Freedom Report 2006 from the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor of the U.S. Department of State.

Such political framework does not only assume but also necessitate a clear demarcation between the citizen from his/her religious worldview. A questionable attempt at dissolving that which cannot be demarcated so casually in the first place.

With such socio-political background, the National Council of Churches of Singapore provides relatively comprehensive guidelines for their members in matters pertaining to inter-faith relation. One of the matters the council dealt with concern this question, "In what circumstances can Christians give or receive funds from other religious organisations?" The council asserts that Christians can be involved in inter-religious monetary giving or receiving with this qualification:

"Christians, however, should not give to funds that directly promote the cause of other religions (e.g. building of temples or places of worship). This is because such giving is contrary to the Great Commission which calls Christians to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19-20).

Thus, for example, Christians may contribute towards a fund that assists poor families to send their children to school, but not towards a fund to send those children to a religious school."

The secular socio-polity in Singapore has mold the major voice of Christianity in the country to demarcates religious exclusivity (hence threat) in a certain pattern. That pattern is seen by the drawing of line in inter-religious co-orperation: Inter-religious activities for the welfare of the society as a whole is recognized and permitted as long as there is no direct contribution to the immediate growth of the other religion. "Love the person but not his deed" may in this case better translates to "love the person but not his belief." This Christianized proverb goes well with the political framework that assumes and necessitates the shady clear demarcation between the citizen from his/her religious worldview.

Yet we have to ask if that really is the case and what does the welfare of the society 'as a whole' look like?

Across the causeway, there is Malaysia, a country where religious influence permeates every layer of the society. Religion is not recognized by the state simply because the majority of the people are religious. The nature of religion is believed to be intricately intertwined not only in the personhood of each citizens but also in the state as well as the welfare of the society. That is why the first article of Malaysia's Rukun Negara ("National Principle") is 'Kepercayaan Kepada Tuhan' ("Belief in God").

The fact that the National Principle does not list 'Kepercayaan Kepada Allah' ("Belief in Allah") indicates a supra-secular polity that is religiously inclusive. (I term it 'supra-secular' and not 'post-secular' because Malaysia has never been a secular state as compared to countries that find secular polity a status quo like Singapore, or those that are not settled with the status quo like England and the U.S.A.) The citizen's religious belief is not only recognized but assumed by the state. The state's polity is grounded on this assumption and hence religious influence over the matters of the state is common.

Therefore it is remarkable comparing the inter-religious relation of the secular polity in Singapore with the supra-secular polity in Malaysia. While the Christians in Singapore do not contribute to the development of other religion's religious causes, the Muslims in Malaysia are now contributing directly to the immediate growth of the other religion.

This is seen when Muslims are donating and encouraging other Muslims to donate money to repair Metro Tabernacle Church that was vandalized in the midst of the 'Allah' controversy. These Muslims are demonstrating to the rest of the nation that they concern less with the exclusiveness (hence threat) of other religious community, and at the same time making an inter-religious political vision for the welfare of the society as a whole.

This seemingly positive inter-religious relation does not come out from vacuum. It depends on the assumption of personhood that underlies the state's polity as well as the socio-political condition of the nation. The current state of affair in Malaysia, as a supra-secular state, offers the tensed world a trans-exclusive approach to inter-religious issue. This trans-exclusive relation affirms the exclusivity of each religion while offering a more inclusive welfare for the society which is more holistic than that provided by secular polity. Much to be thought through and learned from what have happened since 31st December 2009 when the high count came out with the ruling. There is a tidal pessimism sweeping among local and diasporic Malaysians, and across the country, under the current sub-performing UMNO-BN, yet "Out of the eater, something to eat; out of the strong, something sweet." (Judges 14.14)


akikonomu said...

I'll take your bait ;)

Are you making a point that, somehow contrary to common sense, Muslims in an Islamic state make "better neighbours" and are more willing to help other faiths financially, than Christians in a secular state?

One thing you have to note about using Singapore as an example is:

The National Council of Churches of Singapore issues guidelines that are not legally or religiously binding or compulsory on member churches or Christians. It is not the paramount representative or ruling body of any Protestant church or Protestants in Singapore.

That the NCCS is against donating or receiving monies related to other faiths and cites the Great Commission does not represent a binding theological truth that its member churches have worked out in the manner of the Council of Nicaea, for example.

As I've pointed out in my blog's literature review of local and historical research - the leaders and senior clergy of Singapore's Anglican and Methodist churches have in the past 30+ years, taken an increasingly hard-line against inter-religious dialogue.

These two denominations abandoned institutional participation in the Inter-Religious Organisation and issued public statements distancing themselves from the Anglican and Methodist pastors who continued to be IRO members, could only do so in their own personal capacity.

Lai Ah Eng has done a paper on the history of the IRO. I think it's quite clear just how neighbourly Singapore's Protestant leaders are to other faiths.

Now let me put out my own bait to you: Will a Christian Singapore be more harmful and unfriendly to its minority faiths than a Muslim Malaysia is to its minority faiths?

reasonable said...

About one religion helping the other religions:

In Singapore, one famous Buddhist organisation-cum-temple, The Buddhist Lodge, has donated millions of dollars to other non-Buddhist religions. Several non-Christian religions have accepted their donation.

When they approached Christian organisation(s) such as Trinity Theological College to donate one million or so to them, the Christian organisation(s) rejected the donation.

In the end, it was a relatively small Christian welfare organisation that accepted the donation from The Buddhist Lodge.

The Buddhist Lodge is known for its generosity in giving help to others and in promoting inter-religious harmony such as inviting a Christian to give a talk about Christianity to an event in that temple. During the recent financial crisis, the newspaper run an article reporting the Buddhist Lodge having to take money out of its reserves to fund its daily free-lunch given to anyone (mainly the poor and elderly turned up) who needs their free-lunch (in business cycles, people usually repeat the mantra "there is no such thing as free lunch). They need to use their reserves as the number of people turning up for free lunch has increased during the financial crisis. Apparently their vegetarian food taste good because it attracted also some executives (when interviewed, one said he actually give back a donation so he is not taking advantage of the benefit meant for the poor). This serving of daily free-lunch has been around for some time even before the financial crisis.

reasonable said...

Hi akikonomu,

"Will a Christian Singapore be more harmful and unfriendly to its minority faiths than a Muslim Malaysia is to its minority faiths?"

My opinion is, given the nature of the kind of Christianity we have currently in Singapore among the majority (or rather, majority of those in powers in Christian institutions and informal groups), the answer is yes, it is probably potentially more harmful and potentially more unfairness will be manifested towards people of other religions and other worldviews (e.g. New Age people, atheists, agnostics, Jehovah Witness, Mormons) and other values (pro-choice people, gays & lesbians & bisexuals and transsexuals, commercial sex professionals, casino gamers and so on).

But it will be a different story if I become the president of the NCCS, haha... But seriously, though I am a Christian, I prefer Singapore to remain secular as a state, and to remain pluralistic as a society.

We should meet up for a chat over tea or coffee or whatever drink, akikonomu :)

Sze Zeng said...

Hi akikonomu,

Thank you for your thoughtful comment and question.

My point is that the supra-secular polity of Malaysia has affected the inter-religious dynamic in the country. And when compare that with Singapore's secular setting, the inter-religious relation of exclusive "by the book" religions such as Islam and Christianity are rather not as dynamic.

I didn't mention the qualification that I was having the "by the book" religions (those with canonized scripture) in view as these religions are more exclusive in nature compared to other religions such as Buddhism and Taoism.

Yes, I am aware that NCCS' statement is NOT the paramount representative voice of Prostestant Christianity in Singapore. Yet its stature as a consultative and authoritative national body in the country in regards to Protestant Christianity is undeniable. Hence its guidelines have weighty influence on its members.

Now to your question whether "Will a Christian Singapore be more harmful and unfriendly to its minority faiths than a Muslim Malaysia is to its minority faiths?"

I don't know as I'm not sure how you meant by 'harmful' and 'unfriendly' (by what degree in what way?). Currently, as I have tried to show in my post, the major Protestant Christianity in Singapore has been molded by Singapore's secular polity to adapt a certain approach to inter-religious relation.

You may want to consider to satisfy my curiosity about you: Are you contemplating theological studies to pursue it as an interest or for (Catholic's) vocation?


reasonable said...

Nevertheless, akikonomu, I think a Christian Singapore would not be much worse than a Muslim Malaysia. But a secular Singapore base on rational humanistic values is still the best. If really there has to be a religious Singapore, a Buddhist Singapore will be next to the best though I am aware that in certain Buddhist countries things are quite ugly.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi reasonable,

Thank you for sharing.

I've been to the Buddhist Lodge a few times. Visited their library and found out that the only materials they have on Jesus are gnostic gospels and books.

I dont know why TTC reject the donation. Probably because of the way that TTC and the wider Protestant Christians in Singapore has adapted a certain approach to inter-religious relation molded by the secular polity of the state.

I would argue that the inter-religious approach adapted by the Buddhist Lodge is also a product of the secular polity of the state. But why these two religious groups, though molded by the same force, yet differ in their approach to inter-religious approach? That has to do with the nature of both religions themselves. In Singapore, the Protestant Christianity is clearly an inheritance of western Evangelicalism that emphasizes a certain exclusivity in a secular setting, while Mahayana Buddhism (exemplified by Buddhist Lodge) has developed trans-exclusivity given its flexible nature, which contrast western Evangelicalism, coupled with the secular setting.

The point is that each religion has been molded by external forces like the state's polity as well as internal forces like the religion's own doctrines. And these forces affect one another dialectically. And the current religious setting in all countries is the product of such dialectic.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi akikonomu and reasonable,

If you are interested, let's meet up for a chat. There is a new cafeteria at Trinity Theological College. They serve good food and coffee :)

reasonable said...

I am interested to meet @ Tea-Tea-C's nu(de) cafeteria.

Akikonomu? ^_^

akikonomu said...

Let's be more precise with our terminology.

By "western Evangelism", you mean "American Evangelical movements", right?

As a member of a Protestant church in Singapore from the early 1980s up to 2000, I'd say that "western Evangelism" didn't make inroads into Singapore's Christian denominations equally, and that if you compared Protestant Christianity in Singapore in the early 80s to its current form, you might say it's become far more reactionary and conservative now (or if you like, that it was far more liberal in the past).

So I'm not sure if our characterisation of Christianity in Singapore as an 'inheritance of western Evangelism' is accurate or useful.

Some Protestant denominations here have an inheritance from Chinese missions - like the Presbyterian Church, whose Mandarin Synod I think is still larger than or equal in size to its English Synod?

by the way:
Yes, tea some day would be good.
And no, I only intend to make that decision 10 years down the road.

Sze Zeng said...

Hi akikonomu,

I meant it more as 'Anglo-European Evangelical movement' rather than 'American' per se. Hence I used 'western'.

The characterization is accurate as i didn't meant 'inheritance' merely in the historical past but also currently from time to time through literatures and media local consumption as well as church-planting efforts came and still coming from the west.

How should I get in touch with you to arrange for a meet-up? You may email me at