NMP Walter Theseira: Promote and enlighten secularism to protect the public space in the interests of all

On Monday (1 April), 16 Members of Parliament (MPs), including political office holders and Nominated MPs debated Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam’s ministerial statement on hate speech in Parliament.  

The debate lasted for four hours, with many of the MPs in support of prevailing laws regarding offensive speech while making suggestions to strengthen these laws in order to ensure racial and religious harmony in Singapore.

One of them was NMP and Associate Professor Walter Theseira who reinforced his stance on the need to promote an “enlightened and neutral secularism that respects all religions and races” to protect the public space in the interests of all.

Mr Theseira began his speech by supporting the ministry’s statement: “Singaporeans should be united in standing against hate speech for the protection of religious and racial harmony in Singapore”.

He mentioned the basic “contradictions between the great and historic truths embodied in different religious and cultural traditions” that may pose an offence to others when the principles from great truths are put into practice.

“Consider the following: Christianity will not exist if Jesus had not driven out the merchants and the moneychangers from the temple and created the conditions for social revolution. The Protestant churches would not exist if Martin Luther had not published 95 theses against the abusers of (the) medieval Catholic church. Islam would not exist if the Prophet (Peace be upon him) had not put divine revelation into practice by mobilising society against the injustice of his time. All of these acts, while creating great religions, would have caused great offence to the entrenched communities of the time”, he explained.

He also went on to discuss how the world’s great religions guide modern lives, citing examples like the religious or cultural prohibition on certain consumption of food that would contradict with “entrenched interests in different ways of life”.

Mr Theseira believes that “the State should reinforce a secular public policy space” due to the different ideas each of the communities have about the public space in their multiracial and multi-religious society. “Our society must keep that common wellspring clear. If we each seek to dye the water according to our own particular persuasion, we will soon find that there is nothing but darkness there,” he observed.

He urged the State to directly monitor and “reject unnecessary attempts by religious and ethnic groups to advance public policies based on their own versions of the truth”, especially when several religions or groups share a common cause. He gave an example of a current issue in which many Singaporean Christians and Muslims are offended by homosexuality due to their ideals of what the public space and the family should be”.

“The point is, what is offensive to one group may not be so to another. To advocate public policy on the basis of shared religious interest or common feeling of offence across groups, risk normalising a dangerous principle that religiously or racially held interests can shape the public sphere. Once that principle is normalised, no single religion or racial group can feel safe,” he emphasised.

Mr Thereisa also brought up the role required by religious and racial communities to balance the public exercise of their faith. He asserted that “our laws should not be based on religion, personal conscience matters”. He referred to the The Private and Public Spheres by Mathews, M., Lim, L. and Selvarajan, reporting that “nearly 2 in 3 Christians, Catholics and Muslims claimed they would follow religious principles over a conflicting secular law” and that “a substantial minority of Muslims, Catholics and Christians believe it is acceptable for religious leaders to speak on changes to the law which are in conflict with religious principles”.

“Any assertiveness based on religious principles must be matched by an equal open-mindedness to accept honest disagreements without taking offence,” he surmised.

Mr Theseira then raised the essential question of “who gets to decide if something gives offence?” He offered two principles; one of which, “the question of offence cannot simply be left to community views given the strict laws we have in place”. He quoted Professor Cherian George’s argument that “this may lead to the weaponization of the law against other communities and the public space”.

The second principle is that “intent must be considered together with the question of (the) offence”. He commented that some “honestly held views today are considered so offensive that I do not think we will see them contested openly in the near future”, like the deeply sensitive issue of convergence. Still, he says that it does not mean that the offence should take precedence over the matter at hand.

“Singapore’s racial and religious harmony is not a natural product. It is the result of careful cooperation between the State and society but we should go beyond just taking community views or considerations as given. To do otherwise would be to seed the public space slowly over time as each community uses their power to shape the public space in accordance with their own way of life”, Mr Theseira propounded.

He concluded the speech with a reiteration of the motion and reminded everyone that even though “each of us belongs to minorities of our own, we share a common spirit as human beings and as citizens of Singapore”.

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