What the Religious Harmony Debate has missed out thus far

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Written by Ng E-Jay
13 Feb 2010

As a week of heated discussion over religious harmony in Singapore draws to a close, with an avalanche of attention focused on the pastor who denigrated another religion and the three teenage boys who were arrested for racist slurs, I cannot help but ask myself: what is missing from the debate thus far?

Everyone is fervently and almost unanimously behind the idea that racial and religious harmony must be preserved, and that all individuals and organizations must watch their words carefully lest they offend the sensibilities of other races and people of different faiths.

I applaud the good sense of Singaporeans to stand on the side of justice and tolerance, especially in a time of global geopolitical turmoil.

Yet I cannot help but wonder why the debate has missed out on the rights of minority groups like gays and lesbians to be free from bigotry.

What recourse do the sexual minorities have if, for example, a religious authority started to castigate them as “abominations”, and proceeded to tell them openly that if they did not mend their ways and become straight men and women, their souls would rot in hell?

Unfortunately, the sexual minorities will have no recourse under the law no matter how deeply hurt they are, because the law as it currently stands protects religion from being offended by individuals, but does not protect individuals whose sensibilities have been offended by religion.

During the AWARE saga last year, a group of women hijacked a secular organization and attempted to impose their bigoted beliefs concerning gays and lesbians onto others, and indirectly, onto society as a whole. As the debate grew more heated and intense, fault lines were revealed and it seemed for a moment that society would become deeply divided.

Fortunately, the brave women of AWARE stood up for their rights and vigorously defended the tenets of tolerance and respect for individual differences. Today, citizens like myself can sleep in comfort knowing that the voice of reason has not been extinguished from our shores.

Unfortunately, the current debate surrounding racial and religious harmony in Singapore has focused exclusively on preventing one religion or one race from insulting another religion or race, but has totally neglected the rights of minority groups like sexual minorities to be free from persecution.

I find this double standard deeply disturbing.

Another issue that troubles me

There is a very stark contrast between what happened to the 3 teenage boys who were arrested for the racist remarks they had made on Facebook, and what happened to Pastor Rony Tan of Lighthouse Evangelism Church.

In the case of the 3 boys, a police report was filed by a person who was offended by the racist comments. The police investigated and arrested the boys under the Sedition Act, an extremely draconian law that was originally enacted to preserve the hegemony of the British Colonial masters.

If the 3 boys had been subsequently charged and convicted under the Sedition Act, their future careers would most certainly be completely ruined. Their once promising lives would forever be consigned to the rubbish bin.

Fortunately, the intense debate in cyberspace resulted in the 3 boys being let off with only a police caution. In previous times, the state would most likely have come down very hard on the 3 boys, in an attempt at scaring a hundred monkeys by killing a single chicken, so to speak.

In the case of Pastor Rony Tan, his address was made to a congregation of hundreds of followers, and the videos were subsequently uploaded onto the church website as well as Youtube where they could be viewed by literally thousands if not tens of thousands of Singaporeans. Clearly Pastor Tan had far more outreach than the 3 teenage boys, and was in a position to do far more damage to our social fabric and hard-earned racial and religious harmony.

The Pastor was given a mere slap on the wrist and made to endure a few days of public humiliation that in no way jeopardized his career or professional life, unlike the young boys who could be denied job opportunities in the future had they been charged and convicted of a serious criminal offence like sedition.

DPM Wong Kan Seng said that interrogation by ISD is not less serious than arrest. [1]

However this does not change the fact that the Ministry of Home Affairs could have easily referred Pastor Tan’s case to the police for investigation and follow up action, like what happened to the 3 boys. Why the difference in treatment for the pastor?

I think the answer lies in the fact that the government wanted to make an example out of the pastor, to elicit responses from various communities and religious organizations, and showcase the act of contrition and apology on the part of the pastor.

Over the past few days, the mainstream media has done their job admirably — providing extensive commentary on why religious harmony is important, and articulating how major religious leaders have accepted the pastor’s apology.

The government wanted to use the pastor as an example of how a case of religious insensitivity can be identified, properly handled, and safely diffused, with all sides reaching an amiable conclusion. This orchestrated act is possible only because the pastor is an opinion-maker and has some influence on his congregation.

The 3 boys by contrast are certainly not opinion-makers and have no influence beyond their small Facebook presence. Is this why they were summarily dealt with using the strong arm of the police and of the law?

If so, I am gravely disturbed by this discrepancy, because it would imply that how one is treated before the law depends on one’s station in society, and not whether the act itself is deserving of such treatment under the law.



[1] Straits Times, “ISD investigation not less serious than being arrested: DPM“, 10 Feb 2010.

4 comments on What the Religious Harmony Debate has missed out thus far

  1. Actually the Sedition Act can be used to tackle anti-gay hate speech. The Act prohibits speech that promotes “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore”. Sexual minorities can form a “class”, even if they are not a “race”. A lot of our other hate speech statutes are also similarly general in their approach, and are not restricted to race-based or religion-based hate speech. The issue, therefore, is whether the authorities want to prosecute or not.

  2. Many Singaporeans are now concerned whether a mere “tap on the wrist” is adequate in what is a clearcut case of blasphemy of Buddhism & Taoism by a very experienced senior Christian pastor. I concur with Ng E-Jay that “…the Ministry of Home Affairs could have easily referred Pastor Tan’s case to the police for investigation and follow up action..”
    Even Mr Tan Tarn How, Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies, said that a mere “warning” for such a serious breach of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act is inadequate.

    Pastor Rony Tan had openly denigrated Buddhism and Taoism in front of an audience who regaled in laughter at his unsavoury remarks. The sermon was posted on YouTube for a world audience….
    Isn’t this more serious than the racist remarks made by three naive teenage boys on Facebook?

    The govt is doing a good job in ensuring that S’pore stays peaceful, but it must be mindful not to set a wrong precedent whereby the offence does not commensurate with the punishment.

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