Secularism and religious tolerance: Singapore vs Australia

Having grown up in a religious minority in Singapore (Catholics form 5.7 percent of the population) and then lived in Australia for a decade, sometimes I wish that irreligious Australians could learn a thing or two about tolerance in a multi-religious society from another erstwhile British colony.

Singaporean secularism: a common ground for all

In Singapore, no political party can be based on religion, although religious leaders may participate in electoral politics provided they remove their religious attire. Religion cannot dictate the formulation of public policy or secular law. However, religious communities are free to voice their opinions on matters of public morality, as they did on the 2010 opening of casinos. Representatives of each religion are invited to officiate at secular events – they blessed the Formula One circuit and prayed together for commuters prior to the opening of a new train line.

Some 83 percent of Singaporeans adhere to a religion, and religion is recognised as an important factor in maintaining social cohesion and virtue. Hence, instead of being an anti-religious arena, the public space is a meeting ground for people of all beliefs, where they can freely share their views without being pilloried for being a member of one religion or another.

It is a crime in Singapore to promote enmity between different religious groups. In 2012, police and the Ministry of Home Affairs became involved when a sacrilegious party was slated to be held in my mother's old school chapel, which is now a function hall in a shopping centre but maintains its Catholic character in its sacred art and architecture.

In 2015, teen blogger Amos Yee was convicted under the Sedition Act for mocking Christianity and Islam. The Minister of Home Affairs can make restraining orders under the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

This does not mean that religious beliefs are held so sacrosanct that they cannot be questioned. The Humanist Society of Singapore notes:

In Singapore, there are many spaces to discuss sensitive topics such as race and religion. It happens daily at think tanks, interfaith dialogues and mediation led by community leaders. These discussions are appreciated for their role in mitigating the country’s fault lines and countering religious extremism. Local humanists have started to participate in these discussions and make our presence felt in the wider society.

On the Internet, the Humanist Society regularly shares videos and posts on our Facebook wall including academic criticisms of religion. A walk into Singapore’s libraries and bookstores and people can find criticism of religion by Richard Dawkins’ “The God Delusion”, widely considered as offensive to many religious people here. One may also find books by Ayaan Hirsi Ali which are critical of Islam.

Singapore's laws regulating public speech are meant to create an environment of civil discourse, where ideas can be freely debated without vitriolic ad hominem attacks stirring up tension.

Each religion is allotted two public holidays, and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth oversees religious statutory boards like the Hindu Endowments Board and the Islamic Religious Council.


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I was amazed upon returning from my first university semester in Australia to find that the National University of Singapore had an “Awareness Week” allocated to each religion, for students to share their faith. Interfaith dialogue was encouraged during each Catholic Awareness Week that I attended. I was also invited to the Singapore Interfaith Youth Movement, where deeply religious participants spoke about the commonalities between our religions while exploring our different traditions and beliefs.

By contrast, the Catholic society at my Australian university was placed on probation by the Student Union for discussing unplanned pregnancies, abortion, adoption and post-abortive care, a move condemned by the atheist student society as an attack on free speech.

Singapore has striven to promote and maintain racial and religious harmony since a deadly riot in July 1964, where 22 people died and 454 sustained severe injuries. At every school assembly and National Day Parade, we recite the national pledge:

“We, the citizens of Singapore, pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, to build a democratic society based on justice and equality so as to achieve happiness, prosperity and progress for our nation.”

According to a 2014 Pew Research survey, Singapore ranks as the most religiously diverse country in the world. This year, a new nationwide interfaith program was launched to promote social cohesion.

Australian secularism: then and now

My Australian History lecturer Dr Stephen Chavura stresses: “Be very careful when people try to tell you that the 1872 Secular Act meant 'no religion'. History teaches us the exact opposite.”

The etymology of the word “secular” has its roots in the Latin saecularis, denoting what is worldly or pertains to an age (saeculum literally refers to a span of time or an age). Hence, Catholics traditionally referred to diocesan clergy as secular priests, as they lived in "the world", not in a monastery or friary.

In 19th-century Australia, Dr. Chavura explains, secularism was “understood as being concerned with the temporal or this-worldly and still very much in accordance with Christianity and religion.” In the following years, secular Australian society maintained an attitude of openness to religion.

It is only of very recent times that secularism in Australia has become equated with being against religion. Now, the Reason Party (founded as the Australian Sex Party in 2009) lobbies against the influence of religion in the public sphere. The party was instrumental in the introduction of buffer zones around abortion clinics in Victoria. I only hope they do not someday emulate the French Revolution's Cult of Reason.

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation, funded by the Australian Federal Government, is routinely deplored for its anti-religion and specifically anti-Christian stance, to no avail. In the last generation, the irreligious increased from one in 100 to one in three Australians.

Tolerance, of course, does not mean that we cannot talk about our beliefs in public – it is a question of “how”, not “whether” – and perhaps Australian Christians have become too reticent in this respect. The American Archbishop Charles Chaput has explained very well, in my opinion, how tolerance fits into a Christian life:

Tolerance is a working principle that enables us to live in peace with other people and their ideas. Most of the time, it’s a very good thing. But it is not an end in itself and tolerating or excusing grave evil in a society is itself a grave evil. The roots of this word are revealing. Tolerance comes from the Latin tolerare, “to bear or sustain,” and tollere, which means “to lift up.” It implies bearing other persons and their beliefs the way we carry a burden or endure a headache. It’s actually a negative idea. And it is not a Christian virtue. Catholics have the duty not to “tolerate” other people but to love them, which is a much more demanding task.

I think everyone, not just Christians, can aspire to that wonderful standard of love, which transforms and unites communities.

Jean Seah is a social media manager and freelance writer based in Queensland, Australia. She is also chief editor of the American site Ignitum Today.

Image: Pexels


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