State’s decisions threat to secular society

Indian economist Amartya Sen in his book Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny argues that we are becoming increasingly divided along lines of religion and culture, ignoring the many other ways in which people see themselves, from class and professions to morals and politics.

“Our shared humanity”, he writes, “gets savagely challenged when the manifold divisions in the world are unified into one allegedly dominant system of classification – in terms of religion, or community, or culture, or nation, or civilization.”

Our humanity here in Singapore is in danger of being ‘savagely challenged’ by two recent developments.

First of these was MOE’s choice of vendors to teach sex education in schools. Four of the six approved are known to be part of conservative Christian groups.

Then there was the National Art Commission’s decision to cut the funding of theatre group Wild Rice because, the Commission said, it would not fund “projects which are incompatible with the core values promoted by the government…”.

It seems to me that the State, which had declared its determination to protect the secular nature of our society, is privileging one system of values over other value systems and in so doing is in danger of subverting the very nature of a secular society.

What do we mean when we talk of a secular society?

The British philosopher Stephen Law, editor of the Royal Institute of Philosophy journal Think, defines a secular society as, roughly, one that is neutral between different views about religion.

He writes: “It protects freedoms: the freedom to believe or not believe, worship or not worship. It is founded on basic principles framed independently of any particular religious, or indeed, atheist, point of view: principles to which we ought to be able to sign up whether we are religious or not.

“Because you live in a secular society, your right … is protected from those atheists, and those of differing religious views, that might want to take that freedom from you.”

It follows then that one of the responsibilities of a secular state is to maintain the neutrality of all public space. These spaces include institutions of a public nature, such as schools, government offices and government-linked companies.

The choice of conservative Christian groups to teach sex education in schools is a curious choice for the government of a secular society.  It is like letting a fox loose in the chicken coop!

The anxieties and fears about social breakdown, marital instability, and teenage pregnancies are real. They should be acknowledged and addressed.

But repression of alternative views and values does not work and has not worked to counter these social problems. Compromising the values of a secular society with political enforcement of conservative values, especially religious conservative values, has to be challenged.


This article by Constance Singam first appeared on AWARE and we thank her for granting us permission to re-publish this here


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