The Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MHRA) was updated in Parliament on Monday (7 October) after an extensive debate on the Bill of proposed amendments which was introduced in September.
During the debate, three Worker’s Party (WP) politicians raised several questions relating to religion and politics, specifically if politicians should be seen with a religious leader and whether religious bodies should be allowed to support to criticise government policies.
Religious leaders making public appearances with politicians
First up was WP leader Pritam Singh who expressed his party’s broad support for the Act which is intended to protect religious harmony in Singapore and safeguard the separation of religion from politics.
Mr Singh noted that maintaining religious harmony now is just as much of a concern now in the age of social media as it was back when the law was first introduced in 1990. However, he added that back then, religious leaders were apprehensive about the law and there was little consensus event from the administration at the time.
“Even Minister Shanmugam’s speech, in his capacity as a backbencher then, was noteworthy because it raised fundamental points about the separation of powers and the potential for an irrational exercise of executive power,” Mr Singh said.
Back then, Mr Shanmugam has asserted that the power to decide whether politics and religion should be kept separate was for the courts, not the executive. He had said that if the MHRA gives ministers this ‘absolute power’, then there is a risk that it may be abused in the future.
However yesterday, Mr Shanmugam said that his views have changed from then when he believed that the legal process could resolve all disputes, adding that 30 years of experience and perspective has led him to realise that this doesn’t always hold true.
Using the Bali bombings and religious strife in Pakistan as examples, Mr Shamugam said in his closing remarks that the people responsible for those conflicts faced the consequences in court but that it ended up ‘deepening the fault lines’.
“It can even be counterproductive — the alleged offenders become martyrs for their communities, inflame tensions even more,” he said.
Mr Singh, in his speech also raised the issue of religious leaders appearing next to political figures.
Citing the 2016 General Election as an example, Mr Singh noted that a prominent religious leader with links to the People’s Association who also happened to be a senior PAP member actually served as the Prime Minister’s election agent.
Mr Singh said, “To that end, how would some members of the same religious group with a different political view from that espoused by their religious leader or elder feel if they openly support another political party?” he asked.
He later continued, “I would argue respectfully that the selection of established and well-known religious and even community personalities — who are probably forces for good in their own stead — in party politics in capacities such as election agents, notwithstanding their secular appointments, muddies the already difficult distinction between religion and politics.”
He explained that when politicians attend religious events, especially when close to election time, it could signal to worshippers that they should support this politician.
Responding to this, Mr Shanmugam countered that religious leaders have civil and political rights and are free to exercise them under the law. He also noted that there have been a number of MPs in the past and present who hold positions in religious organisations.
He said, “You can’t be saying they cannot exercise their rights.”
However, he did concede that religious leaders should look at these issues with care and not through a party lens but instead think about what’s good for Singapore.
“We must handle these issues with sensibility, with care and with wisdom,” he said.
He also said that it wouldn’t be wise for the government to cut ties with religious leaders, as such ties are extremely important in building trust and bonds that are important for society as a whole, and allows issues to be dealt with in an atmosphere of trust.
He also noted that government has to be fair and neutral in this area.
Religious groups openly supporting or criticising government policies
The other WP MP who spoke on the issue was party Chairman and MP of Aljunied GRC Sylvia Lim who noted how the ground sentiment showed that religious institutions “are developing a reputation for being supportive of certain political parties”.
She pointed out that after the Bill of amendment was introduced in the previous parliamentary sitting, a number of religious leaders and organisations have stepped up to openly support the bill.
She questioned if that is a mixing of religious authority with politics and wondered what the government would have done if those leaders had opposed the bill instead.
“As far as I know, the Government has welcomed this open support. But if the religious leaders had instead gone the other way… expressed concern or opposition to the Bill, will the Government have put its foot down and issued an order requiring them to stop?” she asked.
In his remarks, Mr Shanmugam said that the Act is not designed to curtail the views of religious leaders, but that even so, they should know not to engage in general political discourse.
“Religious leaders in Singapore know they should not be engaging in general political discourse… The question is what is good for Singapore? What is doable?” Mr Shanmugam said.
However, he said that there have been times when religious leaders have openly opposed government policies. An example given was the issue on casinos and online gambling where the National Council of Churches in Singapore opposed the building of casinos and the government’s approval of online gambling, adding that the government didn’t censure them.
He later conceded, “I think for the good of Singapore, we do not want religious leaders to get into the (political) arena and become partisan,” but added that no lines have been crossed thus far and that religious leaders have exercised a lot of care when making statements.
The separation of religion from politics
One comment that seems to have taken Mr Shanmugam aback was something Worker’s Party MP Mr Faisal Manap said about the separation of politics and religion.
Mr Faisal, another Aljunied GRC MP, said in his Malay speech, “I do not quite agree with this principle. As a Muslim, Islam is understood as a way of life. Islam encompasses all aspects of life, including politics and the way to practise politics. And I understand that Christianity also believes that it is unlikely that religion can be separated from politics.”
Mr Shanmugam highlighted this remark made by Mr Faisal, saying that he was surprised and couldn’t believe that he heard Mr Faisal saying he doesn’t believe in the separation of politics and religion, adding that it has serious implications.
“It’s a very surprising statement. It’s a very serious statement and a statement with serious implications. And it contradicts everything that we hold as central and important in Singapore and it’s a fundamental value,” he asserted.
“I will leave the chambers with those statements ringing in my head,” he declared.
Mr Shanmugam said, “Assuming that I heard him right, if we do not separate religion from politics then whose religion comes into politics? Inevitably, if you allow religion to play a significant role in politics, then those who are part of the majority religion must have the bigger say or plurality, at least, will have the bigger say? Do you think the position of religious minorities will be better or worse?”
In an exchange during which Mr Faisal attempted to clarify his statement several times, Mr Faisal said his comments were taken out of context by Mr Shanmugam. He reasserted that he doesn’t “fully agree” with the principle and that his stand is religion and politics cannot be separated in the context of Islam.
“It encompasses every aspect of life. That’s what I meant that as a Muslim, I can’t separate the two entity of politics and religion,” said Mr Faisal.
But after being pressed by Mr Shanmugam repeatedly on whether he agrees that religion and politics should be separate, Mr Faisal eventually conceded that he does, saying “I do agree that religion needs to be kept aside or apart from politics so that the religion won’t be used to gain personal benefit or the benefit of any political party.”
Following the back and forth between Mr Faisal and Mr Shamugam, Nominated MP Mohamed Irshad said he was troubled by the exchanged. He asked Mr Shanmugam if engaging religious bodies was a worthwhile method in driving across the point that secularism in Singapore should be safeguarded, and that religious values could be held as a personal view.
Mr Shanmugam responded that he has never heard anyone put it the way Mr Faisal did.
“Everyone would say their personal views will be and can be influenced by religion. Many in Cabinet, many MPs, are deeply religious. We don’t hide that,” he said.
“When we meet with the Muslim leaders, when we meet with the Muslim clerics, when we meet with the Mufti, when we meet with the Christian leaders, they understand and they accept (the principle of separating religion from politics) and they say it is the only way in which we can proceed with governing Singapore and living in Singapore.”
Mr Shanmugam said Mr Faisal introduced ‘a new element’ in the process, something for “him and others around him to think about”.