Sunday, June 20, 2010

Religious harmony in a given pluralistic society

(This photo is taken from the Strait Times' website: "New Creation pastor Mark Ng (left) hugging Taoist Federation chairman Tan Thiam Lye.")

I met Mark Ng a few times. He is a nice person. Last week, he was in the news, apologizing for the remark he made on Taoism. Here's's report:
"[T]he Ministry of Home Affairs said: " We are aware of the case. [The Internal Security Department] has looked into it and taken up the matter with the New Creation Church. The church on its own accord contacted YouTube to remove the clip and it has apologised."
Mark went to look for Tan Thiam Lye, the chairman of Taoist Federation, to ask for forgiveness and give the latter a big hug. After that, Mark was glad, "It's good that we had a chance to talk face-to-face. Now we are friends."

If you ask for my opinion over this issue, I would unhesitatingly say that this shouldn't be an issue in the first place, in a civilized society.

Singapore's Constitution Part IV, 14 upholds every citizens' freedom of expression. And by 'every', the range includes all citizens from top to the bottom, from the father of modern Singapore Lee Kuan Yew to the aunties who work as cleaners at food-courts.

At the same time, there is chapter (14) (2) that governs the misuse of the liberty. "Parliament may by law impose on the [freedom of expression rights], such restrictions as it considers necessary or expedient in the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality and restrictions designed to protect the privileges of Parliament or to provide against contempt of court, defamation or incitement to any offence."

If I am not wrong, I may suppose that this chapter (14) (2) also extend to every citizens, ranging from Lee Kuan Yew to the cleaning aunties at food-courts.

If I am not wrong, I think the Internal Security Department (ISD) was interested in Mark's remark due to their conviction of a possibility that what Mark has said may not be in "the interest of the security of Singapore or any part thereof, friendly relations with other countries, public order or morality..."

Of course, there won't be such conviction in the ISD in the first place if they did not received complaints from some Singaporeans.

A few weeks ago, Lee Kuan Yew made a statement on Sri Lanka which was perceived by some as insensitive. I suppose no Singaporeans have written to ISD or the Foreign Minister to complain that such statement may not be in "the interest of Singapore [...] friendly relations with other countries..." And so the ISD has no need to call up Mr Lee for investigation (assuming that the ISD is daring enough). Nobody complained, so no case.

So Mark's case is not a matter of the Singaporean government being bias against his remark. The main cause that Mark was called up by the ISD is not due to the remark he made but due to the bias that some Singaporeans have against that remark. Some Singaporeans, like most of those from Mark's congregation, have no problem with Mark's remark. But some do.

In the same way, some Singaporeans do not have problem with Mr Lee's remark, but some do. But in this case, those who have problems with Mr Lee's remark did not write to ISD or the Foreign Minister to complain, hence there is no problem.

From these events, I see that there is a general sense of bias against religious issue but not international issue among Singaporeans; It is okay to have international strain but not okay to have religious strain.

So, my question to those Singaporeans who wrote to the authorities to complain against Mark is this: Why are you bias against Mark's remark but not Mr Lee's remark? Both issues involve first and foremost the dignity of human persons; unless you think that Sri Lankans are lesser humans and hence they don't deserve the same degree of sensitivity for their dignity? So why one and not the other?

My point is this. I do not have problem with Mr Lee's as well as Mark's remarks. Each entitles to his own freedom of expression. I don't think there should be a problem in the first place. The problem lies in those who wrote to the authorities. They have to justify their biasness.

If not, then their complain is arbitrary and their bias is itself an insensitivity.

"Sensitivity" should not be used so arbitrarily as the excuse to persecute one over the other. We must not instil fear in the name of unchecked sensitivity among the people to curb them from expressing what they think is true to them. Straining the liberty of individual is being insensitive itself and is against the Singapore's Constitution.

When a remark is seen as resentful, then one should be allowed the space to clarify. This opportunity allows individuals, be it Mark or Mr Lee, an opportunity to explain and not be ostracized or denied their civil right. We should allow space for conversation and dialog. This should be the mark of civility.

Add to that, clause (15) of the Constitution protects individual's right to "profess and practise his religion and to propagate it." Singaporeans (especially those who wrote to the authority to complain against Mark and who cannot justify their biasness against religious from international issue) need to read this clause within the local context.

The local context consists of religions that are exclusive in nature. The major religions in Singapore claim exclusivity for their own religious belief. Each religion sees itself doctrinally different from other religions.

In other words, the exclusive nature of these religions are part of what they are. If these exclusive religions are forced to be separated from their exclusive nature, then there is a violation of clause (15) as well as clause (14).

Given this religious context in Singapore, the locals have to understand that clause (15) is not merely upholding individual's right to religious practice. It is precisely in upholding this right that the clause is also upholding the exclusivity of these religions in the same breath.

If the society needs to find out the troublemakers that are raising tension in the community, I would point my finger to those who wrote to ISD and yet unable to justify their biasness against Mark but not Mr Lee.

These troublemakers and their concern for "sensitivity" stemmed from arbitrariness. Since it is arbitrary, then they do not have valid or justified reason to create tension among local communities. If they do, which they did, then they are in fact threatening "the interest of [...] public order or morality..."

Mark is in the same way just as right as Mr Lee. If anyone think that their remarks are wrong, please ask for clarification. Do not start shouting "Insensitive!" like uncivilized hooligans in some fantasy country with major religions or political views that are all inclusive in nature.

Religious harmony in a pluralistic society like Singapore cannot be fostered through complaints or the curbing of individual's liberty to express their exclusive religious and political view. To adopt that is to defeat both the "religious" and the "harmony" in the real sense of the words. Hence the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony and the ISD should not encourage the citizens to cultivate such intolerant attitude by entertaining these petty, unjustifiable and bias complaints! The authorities as representing the sovereign state of the country, that look into the welfare of all citizens, should be objective and impartial in their administration. They should not only investigate those who are being complained but also on those who complain since it can be the case that it is the latter group that attempts to stir social unrest.

Real religious harmony is fostered through an open space for continuous dialog as well as the attitude to accept and understand. Those who so cherish religious harmony should be harmonious in nature in spite of difference in understanding one another's religion or political standing.

"[T]he peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus." (Phil. 4.7)


J Wong said...

Well said, Josh. I think it's getting a bit ridiculous these days how much focus is being placed on so-called religious insensitivity....if only we can be mature enough to discuss & debate & dialogue instead of just complaining about perceived discrimination/insensitive remarks...and thus co-exist harmoniously in our pluralistic society.

kelvintan73 said...

I like your comparison of LKY and Mark Ng.

It also explains one of the many reasons why people want to rise in their career in the civil service.

The higher you are, the more you can say and do funny things and nobody will say anything and they may even praise you.

In contrast, the lower you are, the more land mines you will be facing. A lot of seemingly innocent stuff can bite you.