Law and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam on Monday (1 Mar) rebuked Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh over the latter’s question on whether the dominant religious beliefs among senior civil servants could influence policymaking in Singapore.
While he branded the Government’s commitment to fighting religious extremism and radicalisation among the youth as “important”, Mr Singh said that it is also crucial to reassure the public that the Government’s secularism will continue to be at the heart of its policies.
“Religious extremism, when exposed, is obvious and rejected by all, including ordinary adherents of their religion. There is no danger that government policy will be anything other than strongly against extremism. But is there a risk of the subtle influencing of policy by religious persons who are not necessarily radical,” said Mr Singh.
The Workers’ Party chief then questioned: “Is there a danger in Singapore that laws and policies could be tilted towards particular religious beliefs, for example, because of the dominant religious beliefs of senior civil servants or people of influence?”
The Aljunied GRC MP further prompted the Government on “whether it intends to roll out strategies to counter such a possible risk to Singapore’s secular principles”.
He cited the 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony, in which one of the key issues was “insensitive proselytisation” — an issue that does not necessarily mean “religion versus religion, but religion versus other communities”.
Secularism in Singapore, Mr Singh said while quoting the White Paper, does not serve to determine “the validity of various religious or ethical beliefs”, but to “establish working rules by which many faiths can except fundamental differences between them and coexist peacefully in Singapore”.
Mr Singh also referenced a viral incident stemming from CCTV footage that showed a man ripping a small Pride flag off the counter of a food outlet, which sparked shock and outrage among many observers.
The man had reportedly angrily told the SMOL staff that “not everybody supports LGBT” and questioning them how they could display the Pride flag at a “public food court”.
He then ripped the flag off the counter and had forcefully flung it against one of the staff members. The man had allegedly told the staff: “You are the kind of people who are destroying Singapore! Go to hell!”
Mr Shanmugam in March last year had announced new amendments to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) which protect LGBT persons against religiously-motivated violence.
While recognising Mr Shanmugam’s stance against such violence, Mr Singh asked the Minister if the Government would “consider a restatement or an update of its working rules and laws to ensure that there is preservation of strict secularism”.
This is so that all communities are reminded that “no one is placed above the other in matters of law, policy and governance in our multiracial and multi-religious society, which also increasingly holds other communities”, he added.
Responding to Mr Singh, Mr Shanmugam said that “leaving the public with that impression about our current top civil servants will be seriously wrong”.
“They are persons who have dedicated their entire lives to public service. Loyally, faithfully. If there is evidence of such lack of integrity amongst current senior civil servants, then I agree. It should be raised stated and we must deal with it,” said the Minister.
However, he added, if Mr Singh’s statement “was meant only to cover a future possibility without any hint or suggestion of a lack of integrity amongst current top civil servants, then that should have been made crystal clear”.
“Let me state the position categorically and quite starkly the basic principle. We follow and apply what Mr Lee Kuan Yew has said in August 1965 and I quote, ‘We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore’. We will set an example. This is not a Malay nation. This is not a Chinese nation. This is not an Indian nation. Everyone will have his place equal,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“We don’t make decisions which favour anyone or other religious groups. Neutrality and fairness are essential. Otherwise, in this small place, we will lose the trust of the people quickly. That goes for Cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, and the public service as a whole. And when these principles are not observed, they must be dealt with,” he added.
Singapore’s secularism, he added, has been “one of the golden threads” in public policymaking.
“For me, when a police officer tends to a call at a house. You don’t want people to think this is a Muslim officer or Christian officer or Hindu officer. You want people to think this is an SPF officer,” said Mr Shanmugam.
The Minister also said that he personally keeps “close track of trust levels” in the Singapore Police Force.
“They are now extremely high, and we don’t want to get to the levels of some first world countries where people march in the streets to abolish the police force because of racial issues,” he said.
However, Mr Shanmugam also noted that at times, “there can be a tendency to see things through a religious lens or a personal perspective, and that can apply to all ministers, civil servants, and ground officers”.
“We have to guard against that. We have to avoid it. Leave personal viewpoints and look at it — when you are making public policy — through a secular perspective. You have to look at the broad majority and see what is in their interest,” he said.
“We have to jealously guard against any such tendency to look through a particular lens, whether it’s Ministers or anyone else, and we have to set the tone from the very top insist on the secular approach and be strict about that,” Mr Shanmugam added.
Despite that, Mr Shanmugam maintained that it is “not a systemic issue”.
“What is the safeguard? It starts with politics. How we conduct it. And religion, how important do we make it in politics? Let’s be honest and ask how often have speeches done that in this House,” he said, adding that it is “a responsibility on both sides of the House”.
“You want an example of why it can lead to such? Look at the United States. How votes are sought along religious lines. If we go down that road, we will be in trouble,” Mr Shanmugam said.
Addressing Mr Singh’s questions on future measures the Government will take to guard the civil service against influences that could threaten the Government’s secularism, Mr Shanmugam said that over the years, it has developed “rules that seek to promote the best officers and weed out those whose integrity is not clear”.
“The assessments are multifaceted and we have safeguarded the independence of the Public Service Commission, because the degradation of the civil service will seriously damage Singapore,” he said.
Mr Shanmugam added that “whether the senior civil servants remain world-class and have integrity depends ultimately on who the ministers are”.
“If the ministers are biased, they lack integrity, then that will spread maybe slowly … But surely the institutions that we have set up can delay the spread. It may depend on how long the top remains bad, but it won’t be a happy situation,” he said, adding that Singapore has “avoided these outcomes”.
Mr Shanmugam also reiterated the MRHA’s role in criminalising violence committed on the grounds of religion against any person or group’s actions, including a non-religious group such as the LGBT community.
“We are all equal, we are not any lesser by reason of our sexual preferences, and if anyone stirs hate speech either for or against [any such persons], we will take action.”
However, Mr Shanmugam stressed that it does not mean action will be taken on every occasion, as the police will use their discretion to assess the context.
“If Mr Singh thinks that there should be any change or variation to this position, I will be happy to hear from him.
“In particular, if he wishes to clarify what exactly is his position on our LGBTQ policies, I’ll be happy to hear from him,” said the Minister.
Mr Singh clarified that he was not suggesting that some civil servants are biased, rather that he was seeking “a restatement of the Government’s commitment towards secularism”.
“What I said in a very detailed way, I didn’t realise the Minister had made this made these remarks nine times since 2015. Suffice to say, I appreciate his 10th restatement — more than anything, the second point.
“I think it was an important remark that Minister made which was with regard to the point on LGBT and non-LGBT persons … It’s a very powerful statement of fairness, and an egalitarian approach to dealing with the matter,” he said.
“I hope all Singaporeans, regardless of race or religion, actually coalesce around this and have reason and respectful conversations on LGBT issues. And I think we’ll be stronger as a nation for it,” Mr Singh added.