Monday, August 17, 2009

Race and Religion: Must talk more

From Abdullah Tarmugi to Yaacob Ibrahim, the Singaporean Government has always - well, since 1996 at least - saw a need to look after the minority Muslim community in the country.

The portfolio 'Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs' is not merely a responsibility to "look after" Muslim Singaporeans. To be "in charge", it implies two things, possibly opposing - to care and to listen, versus to monitor and put under surveillance.

It is, to many Muslim Singaopreans, injustice and utter misrepresentation when the world's (Western dominated) media portrays or mention Islam in the same breath with terrorism. Muslim Singaporeans are also victims of history, which is constantly invoked by the government to explain why they do certain things. We have had racial riots and a very very small segment of religious radicalism, radical enough to threaten what we define as 'national security'.

This explains the reality that Muslim Singaporeans face in a country dominated by pre-dominantly non-Muslim ethnic Chinese Singaporeans, most of whom are either Christian or of Chinese religious beliefs (Taoism and Buddhism). Our leaders demarcate positions of responsibility as "sensitive positions", creating the extra hurdle for a Muslim Singaporean to be there. But things are slowly changing and we had our first Malay (and possibly Muslim) General.

The older generation are affected by the history of our bloody riots in the 60s, but the younger generation only have books and constant media and political reminders to understand what on earth actually happened.

As part of the "younger generation", I am very puzzled as to why we need a Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs. The threat of Islamic radicalism is more likely to be external, in my opinion. Maybe I'm wrong.

Our government and the community have been very accommodating and accepting of various religions and faiths (except for the Jehovah Witnesses), providing space for religious worship and processions. To have a Minister overseeing Muslim Affairs indicates the state's presence and intrusion into the domain of religion.

I am curious as to why we do not have a Minister-in-charge of Chinese Religious Affairs, or Christian Affairs? A majority of Singaporeans are Taoists or Buddhists, given that the majority of Singaporeans are Chinese. Should we not take care of them too by appointing a government representative? Do we have one?

How about a Minister-in-charge for Christian Affairs? Seeing how Christian religiosity has enjoyed an increase due to covert and overt conversions of youths and adults for the past 3 decades, often at the expense of Chinese religion and Catholicism, shouldn't we have a Minister to "look after" the Christian community?

Given the presence of certain segments of the Christian community, gaining economic (money and funds) and political power (rising to more influential positions in civil society and public service), as well as the coup of women's group AWARE, there might be a spiritual, cognitive and identity dissonance between one's faith and the way things are run in Singapore. This dissonance might manifest in one feeling it is one's duty to take responsibility, take charge and take over.

How can and how does a secular state and a religion whose one of many aims is to "spread the gospel" reconcile? Of course, by "spreading the gospel", we refer to the engagement of English-speaking ethnic Chinese Singaporeans or people who "look like a Christian" but yet are not.

Just as Islam is intimately entwined with Malay culture for many centuries (although there are a small segment of the Malay population who are non-Muslim), Christianity as a religion intersects many axes of society - that of ethnicity and class. Christianity in Singapore has evolved to accommodate various langauges, obviously driven by the aim of proselytising.

With all due respect to Christians in Singapore, I feel that some segments of Christianity in Singapore poses more challenges for social cohesion. Maybe it's not Christianity the religion, but the segments of people of Christian faith.

For instance, to essentialise, when Chinese "prejudices" combine with Christian doctrine, we may observe further social distancing, to match the ideological distancing, from others in the community. The wonders of monotheism also inspires a follower to believe that its abstract concept of an all-mighty being and lack of animistic rituals easily reducible to irrational superstition, are way superior and more "truthful". Moreover, given there are scriptures in English, a growingly anglicised ethnic Chinese Singaporean population will more likely develop an affinity with the Christian movement and discourse than existing Chinese religion.

In short, I believe that the discourse and values/beliefs of an English-educated Chinese Singaporean dovetails with that of Christianity in Singapore. I have to admit that even some of the values I personally hold dear to me, happen to coincide with Christian doctrine, but then again, some of my values are also similar to that of Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism.

My values aside, I believe that all the religions are simply wasting their time trying to find things they share in common. Similarity is not the only way to cohesion. I believe being fundamentally different can be a strength for cohesion and harmony. Difference is okay, and we need not be obliged to dig for similarities just to show others that we can be together, work together or live together.

Some have told me what they think about Christianity and ethnic Chinese Singaporeans. Ethnic Chinese Singaporeans are generally not expressive, for cultural and perhaps political reasons (see la! What you have done, PAP?!). Christianity provides that empowerment for expression/expressiveness.

That is why we have unabashed individuals, strangers in fact, smilingly approaching you in public places to talk to you about Jesus and the god in the Christian cosmos. The faith instills a senseless of fearlessness, taking away that cultural inhibition that prevents you from engaging strangers. It is seen as a very small duty, to introduce Christianity to another person and let him/her decide whether he/she wants to know more. This is their expansionist policy and there's nothing wrong with it.

It becomes slightly contentious when affairs of the state do not go down well with Christian communities in Singapore. For the moment, the concept of "(Christian) sin" and "godlessness" have yet to permeate the domain of politics, given the almost invulnerable PAP forcefield erected around it. Civil society, having a lower level armour with smaller hit points, finds itself susceptible to the invasion of Christian doctrine.

The issue with monotheistic religion (not faith, mind you), is that it seeks homogeneity, in the form of the total recognition and worship of the same god or deity. There is nothing wrong with this model, because it is a harmonious thing. However, this scenario is especially difficult to achieve given the presence of other religious establishments and the different faiths of different individuals (theistic and atheistic).

Since death and persecution are now the politically incorrect things to exact on those who do not want this homogeneity, conversion and subtle introductions to religious doctrine are the way in modern society. This poses a threat to any government wanting to remain secular and multi-cultural/religious, and wanting to always improve the economy to appease both the elites (it's true) and the working class.

To speculate, I believe our leaders got wind of how potentially disastrous it might be if religiosity entered more domains of social and political life. For example, they encourage more inter-religious/cultural mingling, perhaps as a reaction to the isolation that some groups consciously and unconsciously practice. I mean, if you have more than a thousand friends from church, why the need to mingle outside it? And to be a little bit more politically incorrect, why mingle with others who faith might be allegedly "less rational", "less truthful"? Ouch. I sometimes get that vibe, but maybe I am too sensitive and my judgment is wrong - quite subjective.

Singapore is already highly stratified and segmented. English-speaking/educated ethnic Chinese versus Chinese-speaking/educated ethnic Chinese. Feel free to create another column for Christian versus non-Christian versus Chinese religion. This is diversity at its best, but it is tainted by respective communities wanting to keep to themselves and propagate nonsense and ill will against one another, knowingly and unknowingly.

Imagine a Chinese-educated ethnic Chinese of Christian faith saying something about an ethnic Indian worshipping at a Hindu temple. You will probably get a fine example of "axes of oppression".

The way we treat our Muslim friends is like they're some mystical creature that needs to be handled with care. I am sure some of my Muslim friends feel that is a bit ridiculous - knowing how Muslim affairs are often handled with extreme care and caution, inadvertently implying that something bad might happen if we didn't.

That is why I always joke that to be a good government, you must adopt the "don't piss off the Malays/Muslims" policy. Seriously, I do not speak for my Malay and/or Muslim friends, but I feel that they want integration, not bubble-wrap.

Maybe I am fortunate to know friends and acquaintances who are either ethnic Malay or Muslim, but they are apparently more open-minded than some people I have met in my life who identify as Christian (not Catholic by the way). This is not to put down my Christian friends by the way.

Growing up, and being English-speaking ethnic Chinese, I am bombarded with the rhetoric of "racial and religious harmony". Mind you, how an English-speaking ethnic Chinese understands "racial and religious harmony" is way different from how a non-ethnic Chinese understands it. For me, I used to internalise the "don't piss off the Muslims/Malays" idea of racial and religious harmony, because that is how I identify with the message as an ethnic Chinese Singaporean.

And that is why, till today, I am still very cautious when blogging or talking about Muslim affairs and what I thought about it. Some people (Malay and/or Muslim) have told me that it's ok. I later realise that non-Muslim and non-Malay discourse and engagement is also important to integration of Malays and Muslims in Singapore, but the idea of "don't piss them off" has often resulted in conscious silence and non-engagement. It is basically a fear to talk about it.

With regards to Christianity in Singapore, I feel it is not as protected as Islam, despite Christianity's economic and political growth and influence in the country. You criticise Islam and someone blows the whistle, you will be in hot soup for stoking racial and religious tension. When you criticise Christianity, the effect is assumed to be smaller, but mind you, people do get hurt too.

And given that Christianity is rather intertwined with race and class in Singapore, wouldn't it create more problems should there be some critical amount of Christian-bashing? This is why I believe Christianity should be protected, along with other religions in Singapore, given the same attention as Islam.

"Racial and religious harmony" in Singapore often invokes, for me, the imagery of the Malay Muslim population. Take the agent out of me and you will see how the discourses of the Chinese elite and PAP government have infiltrated my mind and influenced how I think.

Speaking of discourse, have you notice how little I talked about ethnic Indians and Hinduism? They are truly the forgotten people in Singapore, a Singapore that assumes that all Indians are Hindu and all of them speak Tamil. Culturally relative, but with an economic imperative to focus our attention on, which Chinese person will care?

With state involvement in Christian affairs, as in Muslim affairs, as least there is a direct and public consultation with those of Christian faith. Lines can be drawn clearly and the community will understand where secular politics begin and end, and where religion begins and end. Faith on the other hand, will be a private matter, without the obligation to penetrate the mind of a non-believer.

It already says a lot on how we see/envision multi-culturalism/religionism and pluralism when we appoint a Minister-in-charge for Muslim affairs. We live in a country that should also have that level of engagement with Christian affairs, Chinese religious affairs, Hindu affairs, etc. Maybe not practical enough I guess, because they'll have to justify it by raising the wages of Ministers to ten million Singapore dollars every quarter or something like that.

I feel that Singaporeans should be open to answering questions about their faiths and religion (faith, a personal thing, is always the gatekeeper of religion, a social and institutional thing), and not be open to hardselling their religion at the expense of others' faiths (the faith and faithless included).

Equally as important are those Singaporeans who choose not to have any religious affiliation. I think they are horribly silenced and misrepresented, probably sitting baiting Christian conversion, especially if they appear to be English-speaking middle-class ethnic Chinese/Eurasian.

The Christian population may be a numerical minority, but they are not a political minority. They have considerable political (over-representation of Christians in Parliament), legal, cultural and economic influence. Most of the community have the privilege of relatively higher education, job opportunities and income. So shouldn't we have a Minister-in-charge for Christian affairs?

Our brand of pragmatism should have some foresight. Currently, we only practise a pluralism that matters to the economy (via social harmony and cohesion). We should be forward-looking and see to what extent our pluralism can be accommodating and inclusive. Our multiculturalism and multi-this-and-that is not only about our "don't piss off the Malays/Muslims" policy, but should accommodate and represent other ethnicities and faiths, whether they are numerical minorities or not. Our pluralism should not be measured by how well we integrate and how considerate we are to the Malay-Muslim population, but also to other people and communities.

We should not fear having an open dialogue concerning race and religion. And should not only look to the government to lead the way on discourses on racial and religious harmony. Let us talk more about race and religion and learn more. Along the way, we can humbly and honestly say "thank you" or "sorry", and we learn from it. If we do not talk about it or be more open, stereotypes and prejudices will dominate our minds.


Add: Oweing to poor health and some sleep problems, I will be making changes to my lifestyle. Yes, that's poor dietary habits, irregular and insufficient sleep, inability to sleep, constantly falling in and out of sickness, sometimes feeling my head is going to explode, feeling fatigued, and all that for almost a year. And the sad fact of life is that suffering is either alone or shared between a very small exclusive group, unlike inspiration, humour and fun, where everyone will get involved. So, priorities have to be reevaluated.

Changes include blogging less often for the time being, among many other things. I must listen to my body as I try to get things and priorities in my life in order again. I need to make the necessary investments and take time off from other investments. No, I'm not trying for a baby, although that will be nice too, but the maternity leave is too short and there is literally no paternity leave in Singapore. Some more, given my annual National Service reservist training, I worry that the absence of the father figure might result in my child becoming transgendered or gay, according to popular medico-psychiatric discourses that are so obsessed with paternal absence.

I will aim to update the blog with the same amount of humour, nonsense and discussion as I did before, but less frequently.

Take care.


Tan Wee Cheng said...

I like your blog. Have been following it from time to time. Intellectual stimulating. Keep it up.

-ben said...

Feel better soon, Sam!


Nat Tan said...

Thanks, Sam. Just to say that the profile of Christianity seems more complex than the way you have sketched it. For example, there are many Chinese-language churches (many started as Cantonese, Hokkien, Foochow, etc. churches), Peranakan Malay and Tamil churches. Christianity in Singapore does not necessarily mean English-educated Chinese.

Zeenath said...

Hey there,

Just stumbled across your blog. Good post you have there, very insightful!

Hmmm while reading, I get the impression that the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs is in place simply to make sure that the "don't piss off the Malay/Muslims" policy is taken care of (in your own words). Rather, I think that portfolio is concerned with things much more than that. For example, the Muslims have a Shariah Court in Singapore...this is a legal entity under the government. Perhaps this is the main reason why we need a Ministry for the Muslims. There are also some buildings in Singapore (e.g. the mosques) which are on 'Waqf' properties. Under Shariah Law, waqf is a voluntary, permanent and irrevocable dedication of a portion of one’s wealth to an asset. Such things need to be tracked by the government and it needs to be led by someone who understands the Islamic rulings. I see the Minister-in-charge of Muslim Affairs as the one who takes care of all those. I am not sure if other faiths have such legal implications with the government as well...maybe that is the main reason why there aren't any for Christians, Buddhists or Hindu. Their spiritual practices do not involve the law.

Just my 2-cents =)

Sam Ho said...


nat, it's more like my referring to the main demography at the receiving end of proselytising.

yes, zeenath, i totally forgot to mention the syariah courts. it was pointed out to me by a colleague. but i believe the appointment of minister-in-charge for muslim affairs cannot be solely for this area.

Fahim's Blog said...


Really liked your post. It is intellectually stimulating. As being a Singaporean Muslim and not Malay, I find some of the policies a bit puzzling. Furthermore I do endorse your view fully that we should not shy away from candid and honest discussion on religion/faith in our society.