Should proselytisation by religious groups be allowed in Singapore?
The following is a letter to the Straits Times forum page (21 August 2009).
WRITING this letter has weighed on my heart for a long time, and I cannot agree more with Mr Harvey Neo (‘Timely reminder’, Tuesday).
Like him, I remember my sisters taking me to church to ‘share’ the good news with me in the 1970s. Unfortunately for them, even as a primary school child, I knew I wanted to be a Buddhist. As I grew older, I remember them asking, ‘Why must Muslims eat halal food? Isn’t chicken just chicken?’, to which I shot back, ‘Then why do you not eat food mum has offered at the altar?’ That somehow made them realise – to each his own practice and show respect for other religions.
I am fortunate to be married to an understanding Christian husband, but not before I stated before we married that that he should stop preaching to me and hoping for my conversion. Unfortunately, my other relatives seem a little overzealous and overbearing at times, commenting that I am ‘stubborn’ not to go to church, and since my husband is already a Christian, I should follow as a dutiful wife – ‘so you can be in heaven together’ – even though I have stated I am a Buddhist time and again.
They also have a fear of diluting their children’s faith and will not register them in a Buddhist-associated school, even though it is a few minutes’ walk away. As for my daughter, I had no problem with her attending a Christian kindergarten. I feel it only healthy we should not segregate schools according to their religion.
My mother is likewise not spared by my overzealous siblings. She was hospitalised a few times, and without fail, my siblings will organise church members to visit and pray. Being nice and not wanting to offend, she agreed.
They took a step further and suggested she attend church and convert, but she declined using the excuse that my father would not go. What shocked me was, to them, it was all right if he did not go, it is her choice. Do they not know that is like breaking them up? Does she have to tell them straight to the face, no, she does not want to go? She has since made it clear to my siblings that the church members should not be informed if she is taken ill again. My mother is so fearful of a death- bed conversion – she has witnessed a few – that she has considered booking a niche in a Buddhist columbarium.
As for myself, I have stressed to my daughter and husband that if death should claim me one day, I be given a simple Buddhist funeral and my ashes scattered over the sea. It has become a joke with my best friend, that I should go first as I need her to oversee it!
Jeannie Tan (Ms)
These are some of the comments published by the Straits Times on the issue of religious proselytisation. (Source)
MS CHAN LAI GWEN: ‘It is inevitable that a multi-religious society will see a spike in religious activity spurred by spiritual fervour. Proselytisation, or evangelism, in its mildest form will occur naturally. So banning it is impossible unless one views it as seditious and is quick to invoke the law. Such a measure will be detrimental to racial and religious harmony. We should accept and embrace an exchange of religious ideas and end the discussion amicably if disagreements arise.’
‘Each individual has a right to propagate his belief within reasonable limits.’
MADAM YEO MENG ENG: ‘Mr Harvey Neo’s letter on Tuesday (‘Timely reminder’) objects to Christian teachers, nurses and doctors who proselytise. While we must be mindful of causing undue offence, each individual has a constitutional right to freedom of religion, and to profess, practise and propagate his belief within reasonable limits. A more nuanced approach is not to eliminate all forms of religious values in the public sphere, but to decide what is appropriate.’
So what’s changed?
‘When I was a teenager, my classmates criticised my Catholicism. Recently, my teenage son was similarly criticised.’
MS JENNIFER WEE: ‘When I was a teenager in the 1980s, I was traumatised when Christian classmates at Anglican High School criticised my Catholicism, labelled my belief satanic and showed me literature for good measure. I am sceptical if such evangelism has stopped. Recently, my teenage son was similarly criticised for his Catholic beliefs. There must be something wrong with the view that it is all right to evangelise as not everyone is easily offended. Well, if there is a chance that someone may be religiously offended, then it shouldn’t be said.
‘Proselytisation is most dangerous at workplaces where superiors try to impose their beliefs on subordinates.’
MR WILLIAM TAY: ‘As a student of St Joseph’s Institution in the 1960s, we had prayers in class and Bible Knowledge as a subject. But the LaSalle brothers who ran the school did not proselytise Catholicism to me. My work experience tells me proselytisation is most dangerous at workplaces where superiors try to impose their religious beliefs on their subordinates. It is also sad, as PM Lee noted, that some children stay away from their parents’ funeral because they believe the traditional rites are against their new religion.’