Singapore, 30 April 2015—The Human Rights Resource Centre today presented its latest research study, “Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in ASEAN,” at the National University of Singapore. The event was hosted by the Centre for Asian Legal Studies (CALS), headed by Professor Andrew Harding.
During his remarks as Guest of Honour, H.E. Bilahari Kausikan, Ambassador-at-Large and Policy Advisor at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, speaking in his personal capacity, argued for a practical approach to human rights and for the recognition “that not all rights are compatible or capable of simultaneous realization.” He then highlighted the important role of the state in maintaining the balance among conflicting belief systems. He observed that the conception of rights that is predominant in the west is one in which rights are held by the individual against an overly powerful state. “But the essential problem in much of the rest of the world, and in my view certainly in Southeast Asia as regards freedom of belief, arises when the state is too weak to hold the balance between competing belief systems or too timid to be willing to resist political pressures to privilege one belief system over another.” Thus, Ambassador Kausikan said that it is a matter of determining the most urgent priority—which will vary according to specific circumstances. “You cannot—or at least only very rarely can—do everything simultaneously, particularly when the state is weak.”
According to Mr. Eugene Tan, Associate Professor of Law at the Singapore Management University and author of the report on Singapore, the state’s neutral stance in mediating conflicts and its firm commitment to having all parties take part in regular dialogues have helped trust- and confidence-building, ensuring that different beliefs co-exist harmoniously in Singapore. Tan, however, cautioned that intrusive government regulation could stifle religious groups’ ability to engage each other as well as hamper society’s effort to nurture resilience against forces that seek to divide in the name of religion. “Governments have to provide ample space for people to practise their faith as well as be fair and even-handed in how they treat the various religious and belief systems, including those who subscribe to none,” he said.
Dr. Jaclyn Neo, lead researcher of the study, pointed to the implications on regional peace and security of states’ failure to deal with concerns relating to freedom of religion or belief within their respective countries. She stressed the important role of ASEAN, noting positively that the ASEAN Foreign Ministers had committed in September 2014 and again in January 2015 to work with the international community to fight against extremism, radicalism and terrorism and, most importantly, address its root causes. Aside from governments taking a more active role, Dr. Neo said that religious adherents and religious networks could also contribute to inter-belief harmony. “In ASEAN, a religion that is the minority in one country is the majority religion in another. One possibility that could be explored is for religious adherents to assist their co-religionists in another state in bridging disagreements with other belief systems.”
The Study, consisting of 10 country reports and a Synthesis Report, is the product of experts and researchers working in the fields of law, government, human rights, and/or academia, who are mostly citizens of ASEAN Member-States. The HRRC’s regional road show kicked off during the ASEAN People’s Forum in Kuala Lumpur earlier this April. The next dialogues are planned to be held in Bangkok and Bandung on 11 May.