By Benjamin Goh
I refer to Prime Minister Lee’s comments in his interview with Time Magazine published on Thursday, July 23rd. The Prime Minister was quoted in a CNA article for saying “Overall, we think religion is a good thing. I mean, if we were [a] godless society, we would have many other problems, the communists found that out”.
As a multi-racial and multi-religious country, religion has been an important part of our national consciousness, and religious stories have formed an important channel for us to better understand different faith structures.
Secularism, the principal on which Singapore was founded, was not predicated on being “godless” but to govern through logic and empathy rather than appeal to the narrative of different faith groups. Religious groups are allowed their space to practice and propagate their ideas, but these ideas should not extend to national policies to guard against religious lobbies imposing their will on the rest of the population. The state was to be agnostic, not atheistic.
It is surprising and slightly disappointing that the Prime Minister has decided to contrast religious tolerance against being “godless”. Embracing diverse religious views within a secular framework has been—and will continue to be—a major ingredient in Singapore’s successful national policies in the past. A secular, “godless” government is not immoral; it respects the view of the religious but makes decisions based on values, not religion. Societies do not degenerate when they become more secular.
More worryingly, the term ‘godless’ hijacks the approach to religious freedom in Singapore, presenting a particular view of religious practices primarily informed by Abrahamic traditions. While some religions view morality to be derived from a god or gods, this perspective is not shared by the multifarious religious practices of Singaporeans. Taoists pray to gods but primarily worship the Tao, their worldview of cosmic balance. Many non-denominational Singaporeans also engage in ancestral worship—not god-centric—that has shaped filial piety in Singapore when familial love is accorded divine primacy.
A secular state is not godless, neither is it immoral. To preserve religious harmony in Singapore, it is prudent to appreciate the diversity of religious experiences and faith structures (including atheists and agnostics). I agree with the Prime Minister that excessive proselytizing causes harm, but reducing the influence of religion does not make us “godless”; it instead provides institutional support to embrace diversity and become a more respectful and tolerant society.