By Lee Wei Fen
In 1966, a year after independence, Muslim organisations had to make unprecedented applications for a permit to hold a parade in celebration of the Prophet’s birthday, an annual procession that usually went unimpeded. For the first time, the procession was cancelled, because the relevant police permissions were not given. Instead, quiet celebrations, including the feeding of school children and religious lectures at the Sultan Mosque, were held.
The Singapore state has never had any qualms in urging and recommending minority religious communities to compromise, tolerate, and even change their traditional practices to suit Singapore’s plural and modern society. Mosques have been constantly urged to use Islam as a means of peace and progress to support inter-racial harmony, and even have centrally-issued sermons, not at all common outside of Singapore.
Hindu temples too, have been urged to merge across religious and cultural traditions to save space in land-starved Singapore, and have been frequently called upon to compromise and tone-down religious processions such as Thaipusam, for the sake of social harmony.
It is this knowledge of the Singapore state’s relationship with minority religion and religious institutions, that makes the recent attention to the Health Promotion Board’s FAQ on sexuality highly disturbing.
Not only has the same call for acquiescence not been extended to the Christian community leaders who have been exceedingly vocal and almost inflammatory about the issue, a Christian community leader who holds political authority on behalf of a constituency larger than the Church has also made strong remarks against the HPB FAQ – remarks that have gone unchecked, and that have been raised again in Parliament on Feb 17.
Mr. Lim Biow Chuan is the MP for Mountbatten and also a leader and occasional preacher in his church. By using his position as MP to articulate opinions on the FAQ that are coloured by religious beliefs, and without completely declaring all the hats he wears in making these comments, Lim has been oddly more activist for his religious constituency than his political one. Reflexivity is important in the degree to which a reader assesses the relevance of a response, and Lim’s response may be easily misconstrued as representing his constituency. Worse still, given the still nascent public consciousness of the divides between government, parliament, and party, his opinions may be taken to represent an official attitude, when he might very well just be representing his church.
Conflating "Asian Values" with religious conservatism
Similarly, Tampines GRC MP Mr. Baey Yam Keng’s comment that the HPB FAQ’s answers lacked a dimension that takes into account “Asian values of family” appears conflated with religious values of conservatism. The murky term “Asian values” have been questioned and challenged, time and again, as to what it really stands for, given the heterogeneity of Asian societies. In this context, it is particularly suspect, as the contentious law 377a was put in place by a British colonial government influenced by Christian law. Ironically, Asian societies have been found to be much more sexually permissive in pre-colonial times, and this example alone makes Baey suspect of using the “Asian values” argument to legitimise religious conservatism.
Outside of larger battles for gay marriage or even the ongoing 377a controversy, it is disappointing that people with political authority such as Lim and Baey, alongside community leaders like Lawrence Khong, would attack the HPB FAQ website for merely being objective in the face of religious conservatism. That neutrality can be perceived as a “concession” of objectivity is precisely because attitudes towards LGBT issues are so highly coloured with ill-informed prejudice – that some might actually deem scientific objectivity a concession.
These careless accusations deny the LGBT community what little space it has amongst our society, tears bridges they have been trying to build with their families down, and ultimately denies them a chance of holding their heads up high as equal and fairly-treated Singaporeans – a privilege which many of us take for granted. If this is bigotry masquerading as religious right, I firmly believe it should have no place in parliament or politics.
The contemporary society that we live in today is not just multi-racial and multi-religious, but multi-sexual too. It is high time to acknowledge that our society consists, not insignificantly, of members of the LGBT community, and that religious institutions should be treated even-handedly when called upon to promote acceptance and tolerance.
The Singapore government has always claimed to be a visionary one; headstrong in its agenda for the sort of society it envisions us to be, and prioritising harmony. In an increasingly plural society, strong leadership and discernment will be more sorely needed than ever. The courage to take a right and fair stance about the HPB FAQ, as well as a call to religious leaders for compromise and tolerance, will be a good and necessary first step towards the reinforcement of secular politics.
Lee Wei Fen is a writer and researcher of South Asian religions, histories and cultures. She recently completed her graduate studies with the National University of Singapore.