Religion and its discontents

Freedom of religion is one of the fundamental human rights that most of the world has agreed on — at least in principle. In practice, however, people in many countries continue to face restrictions to varying degrees in the practice of their own faith. In this article, we examine the situation in Singapore.

A universal right

Article 18 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) states that:

Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.

The UDHR was adopted by the United Nations (UN) General Assembly in 1948. The UDHR forms the basis for the International Bill of Human Rights which has taken the force of international law since 1976. This means that all 192 member states of the UN are legally obliged to abide by this declaration.

Freedom of religion in Singapore

In Singapore, freedom of religion is also enshrined in our Constitution. Article 15 of the Constitution of the Republic of Singapore states that:

(1) Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it.

Many Singaporeans may not be aware of this, but freedom of religion in Singapore is accorded to every person, in contrast with freedom of speech and expression (Article 14) which is a privilege technically enjoyed by only Singaporeans.

People of faith in Singapore are fortunate to enjoy the freedom to practice their religion, both within the confines of their religious institutions and, to a more limited extent, outside. Singaporeans enjoy a level of freedom of worship of the same — or possibly even greater — degree than in advanced democracies.

That Singapore has managed to uphold religious freedom despite our history of racially and religiously-motivated violence is something that the government and the people must be commended for.

‘Religious touting’

Despite the general satisfaction with the state of religious freedom in Singapore, some rumblings of discontent can be heard on the Internet and in the mainstream media.

In his June 15 piece on The Online Citizen (TOC), Religion and the right not to respect it, Joel Tan lamented that society accorded a lopsided deference to religion, sometimes at the expense of other fundamental human rights.

On April 12 this year, the Straits Times published a forum letter by Wee Feng Yi, who in addition to complaining about the “noticeable trend by Singaporeans to proselytise in public”, proposed enacting a law to ban “religious touting”.

Back in 2005, the Straits Times ran an Insight feature on proselytising in the public sphere. It highlighted public concerns about proselytising in schools and hospitals. The Ministry of Education made clear its stance on the issue.

A common thread in all these articles is the unhappiness in some quarters with unwelcome proselytisation by Christians.

There is usually no shortage of secular viewpoints on this matter. Many secularists clearly relish the opportunity to pummel religion — and Christianity in particular — for bringing their beliefs into the public sphere. It is fashionable for intellectuals to brand organised religion as being backward, intolerant and not given to reason, unlike their more “enlightened” secular world-views. It is not unusual to see religion being held responsible for everything that is wrong with the world. US President George Bush’s much derided neo-conservative agenda is inevitably tied to his “fundamentalist” Christian faith.

It is interesting that — at least in Singapore — the same people who are so open about their criticisms of Christians hide behind the cloak of “religious harmony” to avoid criticising other religions in the same manner.

Fair criticism

Of course not all the criticisms are without merit. As a Christian, I have seen and known a few Christians whose “evangelistic” actions seem motivated more by proving themselves right and others wrong, than by genuine love and concern for those who do not share their faith.

One of the authors of the New Testament anticipated that this would be a problem. In his A.D. 56 letter to the ancient church in Corinth, Paul the apostle warned his flock that: “If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.” Right things must be done in the right way or they will be perceived as wrong things.

Christian teachings clearly instruct followers that love must be the main motivation of everything we do. Evangelising with any other motivation will likely produce a negative reaction — and deservedly so.

In response to the 2005 Straits Times article on proselytising in hospitals, the Christian Medical and Dental Fellowship told the paper that “Under no circumstances should doctors abuse the professional relationship with the patient and compel a patient to embrace a certain faith.”

Methodist bishop, Dr Robert Solomon, who is also a medical doctor, said: “When you’re treating patients, their religious views are important and need to be taken into consideration. That dimension will be cut off from the process of healing if we get to the stage where talking about religion is complete anathema… But if the doctor brings upthe issue, and the patient is uncomfortable, then I think a line has been crossed.”

Not an excuse to curb religious freedom

I agree with this moderate stance on this issue of religion and the public sphere. The vast majority of Christians that I know are extremely sensitive — often even to the point of being fearful — when talking to their friends about their faith. Insensitive Christian evangelists make up a very small minority of the faithful.

Having said that, it is also unfair to label any Christian who makes the effort to tell others about their faith a religious tout. Religious faith is something that is intensely personal. It is impossible to compel someone to embrace a certain faith. No one can be forced to genuinely believe in something against one’s will.

Many secularists have argued that there should be a thick wall of separation from religion in the public sphere. The Straits Times forum writer mentioned above had even argued for proselytisation to be banned, despite the right to “propagate” one’s religion being codified in our Constitution.

This is sadly misguided.

Secularists have often charged that Christians hold an exclusive world-view and expect others to conform to their views. In doing so, they have failed to recognise that they too are expecting people of faith to unquestio
ningly accept their concept of keeping the public sphere free of religion.

The way forward

I believe freedom of religion, freedom of speech and religious harmony can all co-exist. We can have all three without impinging on each others’ rights.

Evangelists of all religions need to always respect others’ deeply-held beliefs, learn when to draw the line and always let their actions be motivated by love and concern for their fellow man, rather than self-seeking pride.

Liberal secularists on the other hand, would do well to apply their same standards of freedom of political and artistic expression to the realm of religious expression.


Author: Gerald Giam

Gerald Giam is the Member of Parliament for Aljunied GRC. He is a member of the Workers' Party of Singapore. The opinions expressed on this page are his alone.

4 thoughts on “Religion and its discontents”

  1. I think that many secularists have a misconceived idea of their own viewpoint, believing it to be ‘neutral’, and thus, beyond religious discourse.

    In turn, this stems from a narrow definition of “religion” as a “belief in a personal god” (incidentally, this definition fails to include such faiths as Taoism).

    In reality, a religion is best defined as any comprehensive system of belief about the point of life and the Universe. Secularists thus have their own religion (perhaps some kind of atheism or agnosticism), which in turn is protected under Article 15 of the Constitution. Like any other religion, a secularist’s religion is not neutral, but takes up a definite position on moral issues, exclusive of all other positions.

    Secularists have therefore to be wary that, in condemning aggressive proselytization, they may be engaging in that very same activity too — since they are trying to persuade everyone else not to express theistic views that they disagree with.

  2. Hey Gerald, UNGA resolutions are not binding as a matter of international law. Under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, however, UNSC resolutions are legally binding. This is not to deny that the UDHR is now “universal” in the sense that it is widely accepted and recognised by UN members (including Singapore) as the basic referent of what constitutes fundamental human rights. Yet for lawyers, at least, it is still legally significant if a document is not binding.

    Whether the UDHR is wholly or partly customary international law (i.e., it binds all States under international law even if they didn’t sign up for it), this must be considered in the light of the International Bill of Human Rights (ICCPR & ICESCR), a treaty that only binds signatory States. Singapore is not a party to the ICCPR or ICESCR.

    Also noteworthy is that although the Singapore Constitution is the supreme source of law compared to Acts of Parliament, the force of Article 15 is mitigated by several pieces of legislation such as the Sedition Act, Internal Security Act and Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act. Moreover, in interpreting Article 15, the Singapore appellate courts have in several judgments recognised the State’s central role in restricting unfettered expression of religious freedom.

    Finally, I should add that there is an established rule of international law that domestic law might not be invoked to circumvent a State’s legal obligations under international law. But this remains a rule of international law, with uneven application within the domestic legal systems of a sovereign State. Imagine that pursuant to Chapter VII the UNSC issued a binding resolution that recognises the sovereignty and State of Kosovo. What would this legally binding resolution mean for the domestic legal order of Serbia, whose Constitution entrenches the unity of the Serbian State?

    – Dan

  3. As a secular humanist and atheist, my views are very, very simple.

    1. You can preach in public places, such as parks, void decks, etc, but do note that if someone makes fun of your religion then they should be entitled to do so because these are considered public forums.

    2. No proselytizing in public schools and govt institutions. We can all agree to that.

    3. Religion should be confined to religious institutions. After all, you guys can pray in tax free buildings. So stop complaining.

    4. We secular humanists, atheists, and other non believers respect your right to belief, but that doesn’t necessarily mean we have to respect your beliefs.

    You can believe the moon is made of green cheese. I respect your right to belief. But don’t expect me to respect your belief because it is so freaking absurd.

    Same thing goes for virgin births, global flooding (Noah’s Ark story) and other fantastical tales from religious texts.


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