In a parliament session on Monday (7 October), Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam and Worker’s Party MP Faisal Manap were involved in a heated exchange during the debate about the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MHRA).
Mr Faisal uttered that he did not quite agree with the idea of keeping religion and politics separate, and this did not go down too well with the Law Minister.
Speaking in Malay on the changes of MHRA, Mr Faisal said: “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.”
Upon hearing his statement, Mr Shanmugam asked WP’s MP to clarify what he meant, and the duo went back and forth on this issue with Mr Shanmugam repeatedly asking Mr Faisal if he agrees that religion and politics should be kept separate.
After a prolonged debate, Mr Faisal eventually said, “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.”
In attempt to clarify what his fellow party member meant exactly, WP chief Pritam Singh commented that, “In Singapore, as a minority MP for any party, you represent not just members of your community, you represent members of other faiths. And I think the only way to move forward is to accept that there has be a certain degree of understanding towards other faiths and move forward in a way which accepts that we must be mindful of introducing religion into politics,” he said, noting that he is speaking for himself.
“I think ultimately for a Member of Parliament of any political party in Singapore, I think it is important that you remember that you have to represent the interests of every community, not just yours,” Mr Singh added.
The video of this intense debate was uploaded on Mothership’s Facebook page which garnered strong reactions from online users. Many of them slammed Mr Faisal for his opinion and felt that religion and politics should always be separated. Citing Malaysia and Indonesia where politics and religion are intertwined, they noted that “countries which religion is involved in politics ended up the religion being abused for the individual gains which ultimately destroys that country”. Even the national pledge stated that religion should be separated from politics in order to ensure harmony, some netizens said. They added that religion should only act as a guide in politics.
However, a bunch of online users felt sorry for Mr Faisal as they felt that his language barrier hindered him from articulating his thoughts properly. “I think what Mr Manap was talking about is certain values that is carried forth in whatever he (a Muslim) does in life, hence it cannot be separated,” said Darrell Foam Man Lim.
Others applauded Mr Singh for stepping in and helping Mr Faisal to state his points clearly. “Mr Pritam responded well and gave a very clear explanation on how to move the discussion forward,” wrote Yao Weixiong Shem. They added that he showed a lot of “tact and grace in answering honestly and plainly what the right way forward should be”.
Although many agreed that politics and religion should be separated, however others opined that consideration of all faiths must be there when making policies in order “to ensure that the policies would not be leaning to the benefit or loss to any religion”. Kenneth Koh felt that “religion can serve as a moral compass which underpins the values of an individual which in turn produce the desired outcome in the form of sound decision and contributions to our society at the family level or at societal level.”
Separately, a group of online users also criticised Mr Shanmugam for “deliberately making it difficult” for Mr Faisal by asking him to answer “yes or no” for such a complicated and sensitive question. “Attempting to trap with a yes no, agree disagree question which is not simple and or applicable in every scenario where religion and politics are concerned,” Darren Yong said. Some even called the Law Minister as “spineless bully” and a “snake”.