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Singapore Policy Journal

Topic / Democracy and Governance

Separation of Religion and Politics: Pragmatic Policy or Utopic Ideal?

The recent exchange between a Facebook page NUS Students United and Minister Shanmugam has reignited new conversation on the role of religion and politics – chiefly, that religion and politics are separate, and that religious beliefs should not be used as a basis for policy making.

The main controversy that drew the ire of NUS Students United was the fact that Rachel Ong, a prospective PAP political candidate, is also CEO of Rohei, an educational consultancy with religious leanings. While NUS Students United had no problem with politicians of faiths, they took aim at politicians who are concurrently executives of quasi religious organizations, an act which they considered “a subversion of our separation of religion from politics.” In response, Minister Shanmugam lambasted the group for deliberately misquoting his words out of context and sowing religious discord. Said Press Secretary Goh, “The minister did not say that a political candidate running for elections, or an MP, must resign from all executive positions in organisations with religious leanings.” “In fact, he said the very opposite, that they can continue to hold such posts, and as he said, these things must be dealt with wisdom and common sense.” The exchange however misses the heart of the issue – do we think it’s possible for a person to separate their religious convictions from their political duties?

In defending the words of former Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew, Press Secretary Goh argued that “Mr. Lee was actually saying that religious leaders who wanted to make political statements should not do so in their capacity as religious leaders,” he said. “Instead, they should enter the political arena as politicians, and give their views.” Press Secretary Goh’s words suggest that as individuals, we have the ability to inhabit different personas – one as a private individual, and one as a politician. Presumably, it would be alright for politicians to serve as religious leaders in their private capacity, so as long as their religious beliefs do not spill into the public, political arena. Such a view rests on the assumption that people are able to separate their personas, and thus, their implicit biases and values, an assumption which I think deserves scrutiny.

Individuals are not a mix of separate, distinct personas that can be selectively deployed in different settings. The assumption that religious beliefs will not spill into political beliefs also frames this as a matter of choice, when in reality, the person themselves might not even be aware of how religious values predispose us to certain ideological stances. Consider research from the Pew Research Center, which surveyed several different religions in America and mapped out their political ideologies. Of all the religions, Evangelical Protestants and Mormons were most likely to identify as Conservative, whereas Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews were most likely to identify as liberal.


This might be because religions come prepossessed with ideological leanings, and thus tend to map onto our political beliefs and moral sensibilities. “Separation” forgets that one’s religious and political ideologies are often mutually intertwined. For a deeply religious person, their religion is likely to inform their moral and philosophical approaches to life, which in turn necessarily affects how they approach policy, in terms of values and principles taken. An IPS working paper arrived at similar conclusions: that “it is evident that religiosity and religious orientation heavily influence opinions of issues.” Such a view has also been echoed by prominent politicians themselves – a view that extends across party lines. In the recent debate over revisions to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), Workers Party MP Faisal Manap questioned the separation of religion from politics, commenting that “Islam encompasses all aspects of life, including politics and the way to practise politics.” Similarly, Dr. Yaacob Ibrahim, MP and former Minister-in-charge of muslim affairs, has mentioned that the 1989 White Paper on the Maintenance of Religious Harmony itself acknowledged that it is “neither posisble nor desirable” for a person to compartmentalize their secular and religious selves. Thus, Dr. Ibrahim argued that “it is absurd to ask me to decide whether I am first a Muslim or a Singaporean.”

Indeed, it is not merely politicians who have expressed concern about the near impossibility of achieving separation between religion and politics – religious leaders themselves have echoed similar concerns. The Catholic Church in Singapore acknowledges on their website, in a section addressing the separation of Church and State – “The Truth is that all views are determined by certain worldviews, by the atheist, humanist or religious. No one judges things independently of his own background.”

The distinction also rests on the assumption that it is possible to separate when someone is acting as a private citizen or as a public figure. Take the case of the 2015 Jubilee Day of Prayer, for instance. Apart from PM Lee, who was the Guest of Honour, several other “national leaders of Christian faith” were also in attendance – including then President Dr. Tony Tan, Minister of Defence Dr. Ng Eng Hen, CEO of SingHealth Ivy Ng, Minister for Social and Family Development Mr Tan Chuan-Jin, Member of Parliament Ms Indranee Rajah, and Transport Minister Lui Tuck Yew. My concern is that is is not immediately clear whether these individuals were attending the event in their private capacity as “Christians”, or in their public capacity as “national leaders”. Of course, as I have argued earlier, this distinction feels a bit silly, for both religion and politics is embodied in the same person – the politician is simultaneously a member of a faith group. Or as former NMP Thio Li-Ann phrased more eloquently, “Religion is thus separated from politics, but, religion is not separated from public life and culture. Everyone has values, whether shaped by religious or secular ideologies; all may participate in public discourse to forge an ethical social consensus. While religion is personal, it is not exclusively private and has a social dimension which is not to be trivialised.” Yet, despite the inherent difficulties of separating religion and politics, much of the MRHA and the government’s line on religious harmony seems to rest on the assumption that such a separation is possible.

In fact, the specific spiritual purpose of the Jubilee Day of Prayer was billed as an event “to thank God for blessing the nation the last 50 years, to pray for unity among churches and unity in the nation, and to bless the next generation that they will continue the legacy.”  What this raises is that even if the state were to advocate for a complete State-Church separation, what happens if the Church itself resists this separation by invoking the nation in their sermons? This would not be unthinkable, particularly in Dominionism movements that argue that regardless of theological camp, means or timetable, God has called conservative Christians to exercise dominion over society by taking control of political and cultural institutions. Analysts have argued that former Republican Presidential Candidate Ted Cruz’s campaign was fuelled by the dominion theology. Might the same brand of politics emerge in Singapore? Where do we draw the line? Would it be acceptable, for instance, for religious leaders to be seen endorsing specific political parties or political figures? This concern is not new – Workers’ Party MP Sylvia Lim has asked if it would be appropriate for a religious leader to encourage congregants to “vote for stability” during a general election, or be seen in a political uniform on nomination day.

Therein lies the challenge for Singapore, where the government valiantly tries to keep religion and politics separate, even in the face of inherent challenges to such a proposition. The heart of the issue is that Singapore, while avowedly secular, does not actually enshrine secularism in her constitution. Instead, the government practices a form of “accommodative secularism” that aims to be equidistant in accommodating the special needs and interests of various religious groups, while also giving some space to religion in the public square without causing disharmony. This is in contrast to other countries such as France, Belgium and Turkey, where the doctrine of laïcité explicitly forbids government involvement in religious affairs and religious influence in the determination of state policies. Laïcité is so ingrained in French ideology that it has become almost taboo to talk about religion in the public sphere, to the extent that even religious symbols are targeted: the law forbids the wearing of all “ostensible religious insignia” in state schools. Yet, the French laïcité system is not without controversy – critics have argued that extreme secularism also infringes on the individual’s right to religious expression. In Singapore, this right is protected under Article 15 of our Constitution, which states that “every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it”. However, even Singapore’s particularly unique brand of accommodative secularism has come under attack by academics such as Thio Li-ann who argue that the unwritten principle of secularism has trumped the constitutional protection of freedom of religion. Indeed, the debate so far has circled around the question of whether a separation of religion and politics is possible – but a larger debate might consider whether such a separation is desirable. As Ambassador Mohammad Alami Musa has asked, does the state feel comfortable allowing religion to contribute to the substance of what constitutes Public Reason? Can religious language and narratives be allowed within the common space in public discussion that involve moral issues and have a bearing on policy-making, decision-making, and lawmaking? 

Currently though, it appears that the separation of religion and politics is likely to remain the primary ethos governing our policy on religious harmony. However, unlike countries that practice constitutional secularism, Singapore’s version of accommodative secularism makes this separation much harder to enforce at the individual level. Chiefly, how can we tell if a politician’s views are influenced by their religious beliefs or not? And if their political views are influenced by religious beliefs, would that necessarily be a bad thing?  If we think that religious beliefs predispose us to certain political convictions, would we be comfortable with a parliament that is disportionately represented by a one religion, regardless of what that religion is? (For instance, Christians are overrepresented in the United States’ Congress). Regardless, how might the religious representation of parliament or civil service affect policy discussions on queer rights, sexual education, and abortion? Would a politician of say, Christian faith, feel comfortable advocating for a law repealing 377A? Of course, not all Christians are anti-repeal; many Christians have come up to explain why they support repeal despite – or perhaps even because – of their faith. What about a politician who is not simply a Christian, but a Christian religious leader of a prominently anti-377A repeal group? These are questions with no easy answers, in part because we have little research to draw from in Singapore’s context, and also because draconian laws like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act curtail discussions on religion in the public sphere.

Here, it might be interesting to compare our conversations on race with conversations on religion. In the case of protecting racial harmony, the government has not hesitated to unilaterally impose structures that guarantee representation to all ethnic minorities. Why not extend this system of guaranteed representation to religions as well? If we think that religious harmony is important, and if we think that some form of guaranteed representation is important for harmony in the case of race, why should the same system of guaranteed representation not extend to religion as well? Under such a system, mechanisms would be introduced to ensure that the religious composition of our political leaders are roughly in line with the demographics of Singapore. This approach has been adopted by countries like Lebanon, where Article 22 of their Constitution requires that all religious communities be represented in the Senate of Parliament, and Article 24 requires the Chamber of Deputies have equal representation of Christians and Muslims and proportional representation amongst the confessional groups within each religious community (Fox, 2008: 245). Lebanon’s system of formal religious representation extends to the civil service, and not just politics – Article 95 states that grade one posts in the bureaucracy should be distributed equally between Christians and Muslims (Fox, 2008: 245). However, Lebanon’s system of proportional representation emerged out of a particular historical context designed to enforce power-sharing for warring factions in their civil war, in order to to make peace in a country where factions were divided along religious lines. Singapore has, thankfully, not inherited such a fractured religious history, and thus has not had to legislate religious representation.

Independent of historical context, there are several other reasons why formal religious representation might be untenable. The analogy of race and religion work to the extent that both identity markers are sacred cows in national rhetoric. But whereas race is easily assigned and categorised according to one’s ethnic phenotype and  thus permanent and inherited, religious identities are much more fluid. A person has the power to change and choose what religion they want to affiliate with, whereas the choice to change our race is not ours. Practically, what representation should look like is also ambiguous – would it be based on proportional representation according to the country’s demographics, or would be a system of minimum guaranteed representation suffice (that at the very least, all recognized religions are represented in parliament?) Further, how would such a system account for the considerable diversity of traditions within a single religion itself, as well as the different degrees of religiosity within a religion? What about representation of atheists, or those generally unaffiliated with any religion? Finally, any system of representation might inadvertently reify the identity marker they are supposed to protect, which may paradoxically exacerbate the kinds of identity politics the Singaporean government presumably hopes to avoid.

Despite these flaws, I think a system of representation is one worth exploring, particularly if we think that representation of diversity – whether in race or religion – is key to safeguarding our harmony. Regardless of the system of representation, ensuring that all religious communities feel represented might help us avoid the kinds of resentment religious minorities might develop in the face of continued underrepresentation in parliament, as in the case of the Sikh community in the United Kingdom. Of course, formal religious representation is by no means the only, or even the most important, way of doing so. Absent of constitutional mechanisms, civic organizations and religious communities play an important role in encouraging dialogue and  foster trust and build bridges between and within religions. Organizations such as the IRO, and IRCC are both  examples of spaces that help encourage inter-religious confidence and understanding.

Accepting that the separation of religion and politics is extremely difficult – if not downright impossible – opens a can of worms. From this perspective, I can understand why the government might think it might be easier to avoid opening this Pandora’s Box altogether by using various instruments like the MRHA to police and regulate public discourse on religion. This might explain the seemingly knee-jerk and perhaps occasionally disproportionate reaction the government takes towards any religious conflict that comes to their attention. While this policy might work in the short term, it is hardly sustainable in the long run. Unless the citizenry is capable of thoughtful discussion within and between religions, the government would have to continue being the primary arbiter of religious conflict, a position that requires significant labour and resources. With the advent of social media and digital media, the government would have to hire an ever-expanding army of intelligence officers just to scrawl through the web for potentially “disharmony inducing” posts, and limit their “damage potential”, a difficult thing to do given the speed and scale at which such posts travel. The metaphor that comes to mind is Whack-a-Mole – where the swift containment of one episode only leads to another, and the government is left with the unenviable position of having to constantly be on the lookout.

In the long run, what we need is more open and honest civic discussion on religion so that inter-religious trust and harmony is built not just at the level of religious leaders, but members of different faiths as well. This is precisely what groups such as Roses of Peace have been trying to do, and their work should be supported. Perhaps schools can also consider integrating lessons on world religions into the Social Studies curriculum, for without an understanding of other religions, it is easy to misrepresent and stereotype faiths not belonging to our own – precisely the behaviors that the government seeks to avoid. Questions surrounding religion and politics are complicated.  The answers to these questions cannot be given by individuals alone. They require a collective conversation across a diverse range of publics who may hold completely different, and at times mutually exclusive, views. Given the heterogeneity of views out there, it is unlikely that conversation alone will suffice, but it remains a necessary if insufficient step. To this end, perhaps the government could consider loosening up some of the OB markers around religion to facilitate the kinds of difficult, sometimes awkward, but ultimately crucial dialogue needed to answer these questions.

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