The Rony Tan in each of us

By Pritam Singh

It grabbed one’s attention, yet sat very uneasily in the hearts of the Sikhs who read it. Slightly more than two years ago, an article titled “Why Sikhism is the best religion” was uploaded onto the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board (a gazetted statutory board in Singapore) website. Occupying a place amongst other articles that did nothing more than to detail the nature, practices and scholarship pertaining to the Sikh faith, the article in question was unusual in that it ran contrary to the egalitarian basis of a religion whose devotees are not wont to public bouts of chest-thumping and flag-waving in support of their faith, but more importantly, are obliged to respect and protect the sanctity and religious beliefs of others.

The author of the article contended that the Sikh faith did not subject people to “valueless” rituals, before going on to refer to the caste system, bathing in holy rivers, facing a certain direction for prayers, slaughtering animals in the name of God and circumcision as examples of such rituals. Needless to say, this was hardly an oblique reference to our Hindu and Muslim brothers and sisters.

Fortunately, after a complaint by a member of the Singapore’s Sikh community, the Central Sikh Gurdwara Board took down the article without fuss. In fairness to the Board, many of its members had no idea such an article was uploaded in the first place.

Interestingly however, some Sikhs contended privately that the offending article was a response to the increasingly aggressive and sustained attempts at proselytization by some members of cash-rich Christian churches. While the article in question may have been uncomfortable for some, it was a necessary response given the perception of a new climate of insecurity in Singapore’s public space viz. religion, they argued. Sikhism in Singapore needed to imbibe a “coolness” quotient, just like how some Christian ministries had done, so as to inspire and unite younger Sikhs. The way to do it was through a sharper identification of Sikh religious identity. Offence to others was incidental, not their intention, they would erroneously reason.

For sometime now, the increasingly prominent and public expansion of the Christian faith in Singapore has led to feelings of genuine discomfort among members of Singapore’s other faiths. This discomfort is not rooted in antagonism against Christianity or Christians, far from it – but solely in the insensitive proselytizing of a minority of over-zealous and small-minded Christians. Anecdotal evidence suggests that such proselytizing takes on various forms – from aggressive and unsolicited door-to-door one-on-ones with non-Christian HDB flat-dwellers, to unsolicited engagements at bus interchanges and other public places, and to other more subtler techniques. But one of its more painful and blunt manifestations was exposed by Pastor Rony Tan’s now infamous comments about Buddhists and Taoists.

In a country whose citizens live cheek by jowl, remarks like Pastor Tan’s stoke resentment and create a snowball effect, bringing out the worst in each of us. The Sikh who penned the offending article referred to above presents a case in point. The truth of the matter is that Singaporeans do not need to define themselves and their beliefs in reference to ill-conceived ideas of what adherents of other faiths purportedly lack, or do not believe in. To do so would be to exhibit insecurities about one’s own beliefs and convictions.

Separately, the fallout from Pastor Tan’s comments has had the effect of putting Singapore’s Christians in the spotlight – unfairly it must be added. A faith that has inspired so many Christians and non-Christians alike is erroneously cast as disrespectful, insensitive and exclusive because of a misguided Pastor’s callous remarks, broadcast over the Internet. The need of the hour calls for some empathy from Singaporeans of all faiths to assure our moderate Christian friends and neighbours that as a nation, we stand together with them and should put this episode behind us. Singapore’s non-Christian citizens must also remember that like the followers of many faiths (including my own – Sikhism), Christians are not necessarily a monolithic group. Many are not insensitive, but respect the boundaries of multi-racial Singapore. To surmise that the conduct of some misguided believers is representative of all Christians would not only be grossly simplistic, but more importantly, intellectually deficient.

If there is something educative the Rony Tan episode stands for, it ought to be that religious sensitivity and a respect for the secular public space must remain the central pillars of every Singaporean’s religious ethos. Apart from incidences where some members of any faith ridicule the religious beliefs and rituals of others, Singaporeans must be watchful against spreading hate against non-religious communities too, such as gays and non-believers, and call out such improper behaviour before it morphs into something uglier. In addition, our religious leaders must recognise that the advent of internet-based communication technologies have shrunk the concept of “private” space.  The scope of what constitutes as “public” necessitates greater self-policing among members of every faith in order to keep Singapore’s multi-racial landscape as free as possible from religious hatred and bigotry.

On closer scrutiny, it is clear, albeit understated that Singapore’s economic success has been partly underwritten by the leaders and members of our various religious communities who acknowledge the importance of managing inter-racial relations with sensitivity and mutual respect. As a citizenry, we would be turning the clock back if we allow religion to define, distinguish and divide us a nation. We may be Hindus, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists, Taoists, Jains, Christians, Muslims, Sikhs, Baha’is or even atheists, but we must be Singaporeans who acknowledge that the experience of mankind so far has proved that religion is a tinderbox that needs only a small spark to engulf entire communities. There can be no greater motivation to counsel and forewarn the Rony Tan in each of us of this historical reality.


Pritam can be reached at [email protected]

Headline picture from dhammaprotector