Singapore PM Makes A Strong Case Against Aggressive Proselytising
Posted on September 10th, 2009

Dr Kalinga Seneviratne Head of Media Research Institute – Singapore.

Sept 7, 2009

In his annual National Day Rally Speech it is customary for Singapore’ Prime Minister to praise the achievements of his government in the past 12 months and raise peoples’ hopes for the coming 12 months. But, this year, to the surprise of many, he touched a subject that has been taboo for public discussion in this multi-religious nation of 4 million people for the past four decades “”…” Religion.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, the son of the nation’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew spent more than half of his hour-long speech in English – delivered on August 16th – talking about the dangers to the harmony of the nation from aggressive preaching or proselytising. Though he did not name any religion, it was clear to most people listening to the speech and familiar with modern day Singapore society, that he was referring mainly to Christian evangelical groups, who have increased their numbers alarmingly, in the past decade.

“There is nothing wrong with people becoming more religious because religion is a positive force in human societies” noted Mr Lee. “But, at the same time, stronger religious  fervour can have side-effects, which have to be managed carefully, especially in a multiracial and multi-religious society”.

In a brilliant speech designed not to directly point fingers at any particularly religion, he gave examples from around the world where religious fault-lines have created conflicts and riots. Singapore itself has learned its lessons in 1950 when religious riots took place here over a conversion issue, and this has influenced the country’s internal policies ever since.

Mr Lee admitted that this topic was a serious subject for a National Day Speech, which usually talks about babies and bonuses. But, due to some recent developments the Cabinet has advised him that he should take up this subject this year, which the premier described as a “bonus lecture on a serious subject”.

He warned that aggressive preaching or proselytising causes a nuisance and offence to others. He pointed out two recent events where this happened. One when a Christian couple that distributed leaflets offensive to other faiths, was charged under the Sedition Act and jailed. And the other the takeover bid by a Christian group of one of Singapore’s  oldest civil society organizations.

There are over 50 new Christian churches that have sprung up in this small island nation in the past decade or more, which could be described as born again or evangelical churches. They are believed to have a combined war chest of over $ 100 million annually. Many of them aggressively proselyte among the country’s Buddhist, Taoist, Hindu and Catholic population that has created much resentments among these communities. Because of the taboos on public discussion on religion, particularly in the media, expression of this resentment has largely been restricted to internet forums and private discourses.

In March this year, such taboos were broken for the first time, when Singapore’s media, gave wide coverage to an event where a Christian evangelical group aggressively moved and successfully took over the country’s peak women rights lobby group because they did not agree with the non-government organisations’ s stance on homosexuality,

Association of Women for Action and Research (AWARE), a fiercely secular organization formed in 1984 is Singapore’s leading advocacy group dedicated to promoting gender equality. It has been instrumental in successfully advocating for change in such areas as law reforms to tackle sexual harassment in the workplace, rights of women to sponsor foreign husbands for citizenship and equal rights for women in the workplace.

At their annual general meeting (AGM) in March, the old guard, which has spearheaded these advocacy activities was voted out of office by a new group of women who have joined the association in the previous 3 months. Some 80 of the 120 members who attended the AGM were also new members. Six of the 11 positions in the management committee of AWARE  fell to these new members, who are Chinese Singaporean women with good academic and professional backgrounds, but, all belong to The Church of Our Saviour, which is well-known here as an evangelical church with a strong anti-gay and “pro-family”  stance.

Suspicions of an evangelical takeover of AWARE was further enhanced when the newly elected executive committee immediately made public statements accusing the old guard of promoting homosexuality and declaring themselves as “pro-family” a familiar word used by evangelical Christians worldwide.

There was an overwhelming response to this takeover of AWARE with over 2000 new members joining the organization within 2 weeks of the event and calling for an extraordinary general meeting (EGM).  At this EGM the Christian group was soundly beaten in a no-confidence motion, and  a new executive was elected which is now representative of all religious communities living in Singapore.

Though only a quarter of Singapore’s population are Christians, the number of evangelical Christians among them have been growing, and they belong mainly to the English-speaking elite well represented in politics, medical, legal, financial and academic professions.

Buddhists and Taoists make up over a half of Singapore’s population, while Hindus and Muslims account for the rest. Some 70 percent of Singapore’s ethnic Chinese population are known to be Buddhists.

The Prime Minister spelt out 3 basic problems that could lead to disharmony in the society, giving examples to illustrate his points.

The first was aggressive preaching or proselytising. He said that from time to time the government gets complaints “of groups trying to convert very ill patients in our hospitals who do not want to be converted and who do not want to have the private difficult moments in their lives intruded upon”.

The second Mr Lee pointed out is intolerance – not respecting the beliefs of others or not accommodating others who belong to different religions. “Sometimes, we have parents who have traditional religions (meaning Taoism or Buddhism), and children have converted away. Then when the parents die, and they have asked to be buried according to traditional rites, the children stay away from the funeral or the wake. It is very sad”: reflected the premier.

The third problem he said was exclusiveness “”…” segregating into separate exclusive circles, not integrating with other faiths. “It means you mix with your own people. You do not mix with others. You end up as separate communities” he noted, giving the examples of people not wanting to do yoga or taichi because they believe it has religious meanings, when such communal activities could bring people together. Mr Lee believes that these are secular activities suited to all religious groups as communal activities.

Mr Lee appealed to Singaporeans to keep religion out of politics, to exercise restraint and to up hold sound moral values. He pointed out that all major religions represented in Singapore are free to propagate their teachings on social and moral issues, but within limits of tolerance and respect for each other.

The PM hinted during his speech that the government may invoke the 20 year-old Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which has never been used. Some internet forums and even a few letters published in the Straits Times have called for a prohibition of proselytising in public spaces.

“While evangelists may think they are “ƒ”¹…” helping’ others, what would they think, if others told them they were praying to the wrong god, living life the wrong way and would never find redemption?” asked Harvey Neo in a letter published in the Straits Times. “It is imperative that proselytising in public spaces, particularly in schools, hospitals, libraries and workplaces, be prohibited, or at least strongly and explicitly discouraged”.

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