S’poreans ‘risk taking religious, racial harmony for granted’

(Reposted from TodayOnline, 1 May 2015)

SINGAPORE—The state of religious and racial harmony in the Republic may result in Singaporeans “sleepwalking to complacency”, with many taking for granted their right to profess and propagate diverse beliefs.

Such a risk was raised by Singapore Management University law lecturer Eugene Tan yesterday, as he shared findings on the Republic’s religious landscape as part of the ASEAN wide study, Keeping the Faith: A Study of Freedom of Thought, Conscience and Religion in ASEAN.

“We must guard against complacency and (the belief) that what has worked will continue to work well … that will get us into trouble if we are not careful,” cautioned Associate Professor Tan, who was the sole researcher for the Singapore leg of the study.

For instance, while the conventional use of a coercive legal framework to deal with threats to public order has helped maintain stability and uphold religious freedom, the Government has increasingly introduced “soft laws” that regulate without sanctions.

“You can’t legislate tolerance, accommodation, and understanding that is sustainable because people comply for fear of being punished … The softlaw approach is better able to mould behavioural norms and right-size attitudes,” said Assoc Prof Tan, who cited the Declaration on Religious Harmony launched in June 2003 as an example.

The non-legislative document was crafted together by various religious leaders in an effort to develop a “code of conduct” for religious harmony.

However, hard laws are still necessary in clamping down threats that may result in severe consequences, said Assoc Prof Tan.

Calling on Singaporeans to refrain from “knee-jerk responses” of turning to the authorities to resolve disputes, Assoc Prof Tan said dialogues across different faith communities are part of a longer-term approach to preserving religious diversity.

Responding to a question from the audience on whether the “apparent religious harmony” in Singapore is a result of a lack of engagement, Assoc Prof Tan noted that there is room for greater “horizontal engagement” among religious groups here, as well as between believers and atheists.

“We certainly need to get away from the view that we shouldn’t talk about religion … but we need that graduated pace,” he said, noting that much of current discourse takes place through state-led mechanisms, such as the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles.

In times of conflict, civic loyalties must take precedence over religious loyalty, Assoc Prof Tan said. On other occasions, Singaporeans must learn to live with “deep differences” as part of a diverse society.

Citing ongoing skirmishes between the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community and religious groups as an issue where the “live and let live” maxim should be applied, he said: “These are issues that I don’t think we can ever resolve.”

“Both groups have a right to their identities and to feel secure. We just have to learn to accommodate and live with those deep differences,” added Assoc Prof Tan.