A group of moderate Muslims in Singapore have come forward to critique the law under which teen blogger Amos Yee is being investigated, saying that it contradicts the principle of secularism in Singapore.
Singapore Muslims for Secular Democracy (SM4SD) wrote in a statement that Section 298 of Singapore’s Penal Code, which covers actions done “with deliberate intent to wound the religious or racial feelings of any person”, curbs freedoms in Singapore.
“Section 298 trades freedom for peace. Freedom of thought and expression – including the freedom to criticise ideas and the choice to be free of superstitions – is exchanged for social harmony in Singapore,” said the group.
“From a purely secular perspective: religion and therefore, religious feelings, should not be part of the affairs of the state and civil law,” the statement added, emphasising the role that constructive criticism can play in responding to “negative religious feelings” and extremist interpretations of theology.
The Singapore Police Force said on 12 December that a 17-year-old teenager was under investigation for allegedly making religiously offensive remarks online. Amos Yee later confirmed on his public Facebook page that he was being investigated for comments he had made on a blog post, presumably the one in which he had responded to former Nominated Member of Parliament Calvin Cheng’s argument that the children of terrorists had to be killed.
The full text of SM4SD’s statement can be found below:
SM4SD finds that Section 298 contradicts the underlying principle of secularism.
If religious feelings are wounded, and this is something that people in Singapore may be punished for, wouldn’t it be fair – if the justice system is based on reason and evidence – for the feelings to be measured in order to verify the existence of wounds i.e. injuries which would normally create some form of pain or damage?
How tarnished one’s reputation is may be measured, for instance, by the prospect of unemployment or actual job loss which can monetarily harm the victim. However, reputation is not an emotion. So, can and should religious feelings be measured? Emotions can be measured, thanks to scientific technology such as the fMRI machine that can correctly identify human emotions and if such technology is highly accurate, then feelings should be measured. If people are willing to file police reports because religious feelings are wounded, we might as well go all out and get our brains scanned!
But it is not just the emotional wounds that we have to pore over if we insist on retaining Section 298. We also have to cross-examine religious feelings. When we studied the wheel of emotions constructed by Robert Plutchik – who was a professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and whose research interests included the study of emotions – we asked ourselves what exactly are ‘religious feelings’? Based on the wheel of emotions and our lives as Muslims, Islamic feelings vary from submission and love to optimism, and even ecstasy (attainable by Sufi twirling, etc.). Needless to say, there are negative emotions (for instance, some Sunnis feeling disgusted by other sub-sects) created due to beliefs and cultural upbringing. The feelings of contempt and aggressiveness within Islamism may be attributed to the Islamic war history and the failure to separate the religion of Islam from state (just look at the history of Persia – circa 3,400 B.C. up to yesterday). Everyone, including religious followers such as Muslims, may experience one or more feelings at a time, sometimes even a mixture of emotions from both the positive and negative spectrum. In retrospect, being penalised for wounding religious feelings obstructs our society from attacking the negative religious feelings which create greater terror, oppression and ruthlessness.
Zooming out from our scrutinisation of the terms ‘wound’ and ‘religious feelings’: Section 298 trades freedom for peace. Freedom of thought and expression – including the freedom to criticise ideas and the choice to be free of superstitions – is exchanged for social harmony in Singapore.
On the other hand, what would happen if people are allowed to criticise any theology without repercussions, and only people who utter profanity or commit misrepresentation are penalised? Can this be Singapore’s pathway to create a more open environment and pragmatic nation by encouraging intelligent and honest discussions?
From a purely secular perspective: religion and therefore, religious feelings, should not be part of the affairs of the state and civil law. Conversely, legal matters and politics should be kept out of religion. Failure in the former dimension results in a superstitions-fuelled autocracy and / or high corruption (eg. Malaysia, the Philippines, Ottoman Empire, India, Pakistan) while failure in the latter dimension results in inhumane treatments and worst of all, radicalisation of our youths to explode themselves in the name of religion, perhaps, because their theologies such as Islamism or Zionism which include ridiculous interpretations of ancient texts are sheltered – by penal codes such as Section 298 – from (constructive) criticism.
Yours sincerely, SM4SD