Public expression of religious views must be sensitive to others



April 16th, 2010

Extract from the speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng at the Internal Security Department Intelligence Service Promotion Ceremony, 14 April 2010.

With more people having access to the Internet, it has become a convenient and popular platform for individuals to vent their religious hatred and abuse recklessly.

In particular, there is a dangerous tendency among some people to shrug off their social responsibilities when emboldened by the cloak of anonymity of the Internet. They make insensitive, and at times inflammatory and incendiary, postings that denigrate other races and religions. The speed and global reach of the new media technologies mean that such postings are rapidly and repeatedly propagated through multiple websites and social media networks like Facebook and YouTube. These days, public complaints against religiously offensive websites and net discussions are commonplace.

Sometimes, such cyber conflicts can spiral out of control, and spill over into the physical world. As we have seen earlier this year in the incidents of the offensive Facebook postings and Youtube clips, it can easily become another source of inter-religious friction and tension. This increasing potential for friction is compounded by growing religiosity amongst Singaporeans, and accompanying it, growing religious assertiveness.

What is of particular security concern is when religiosity manifests itself in a highly public and assertive manner in a multireligious setting like Singapore, with all our attendant sensitivities. One example is the increase in proselytisation activities. Although the right to propagate one’s faith is enshrined in our Constitution, it becomes problematic when followers become over-zealous and selfrighteous in their missionary activities, and carry them out in an aggressive and insensitive manner, disregarding the feelings of other religions. Unlike previously, devotees of the different faiths today appear to be less tolerant over perceived slights to their religion, and are more ready to retaliate.

The rise in religious assertiveness is also seen in religious groups becoming more vocal and articulate in making their views in public. Some public policies and issues will pose dilemmas for some faiths, and we can expect them to speak up. This development is not a security problem per se. However, there could be flash-points when groups go too far in advocating their cause and make unfounded allegations, whip up the emotions of their followers, or mobilise them. In doing so, they could heighten tensions between the religious community and the State.

Religious groups are also becoming more visible in the public sphere. Religious worship is no longer confined to traditional places of worship such as churches, mosques and temples. The success charismatic churches have had in organising mega-sermons outside purpose-built church buildings have inspired other religious groups to organise similar large-scale worship events at commercial venues such as shopping centres and exhibition halls. Recently, there has also been discussion about the involvement of religions in business. These trends are of concern to Singaporeans as they are seen to be a further encroachment of religion into the common space.

The solution is not to roll-back religion in our society. Singaporeans must be free to practise their faith. However, the Government must continue to ensure that we maintain a big enough neutral, common space in which our different communities can engage in public life and with one another free from religious considerations and sensitivities. We have to find the right balance; we cannot have unbridled freedom of religion, at the expense of nation building and social cohesion; to the extent that it foments divisiveness amongst our people. We will continue to refine our policies to ensure this.

Now and then, this delicate balance will be upset by ill-considered remarks and actions by some groups or individuals. ISD has the responsibility of helping the Government manage the resultant tensions and conflicts in a firm, fair and flexible way. There is no onesize solution. Different responses and measures will have to be deployed according to the circumstances. The bottom line we want to achieve is that we preserve for Singaporeans, for the long term, the social stability and harmony among races and religions that we have enjoyed in the last four decades.

Full speech available at the Home Affairs Ministry website.

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