The Myth of Religious Freedom in Singapore

21 Dec
An essay written to debunk the myth that there is considerable religious freedom in Singapore:

While mainstream media voiced the official Singapore and US government stance on “militant” Islam, they also amplify and play on society’s fear towards the religion. Muslims are forced to openly take either of two positions – denounce these terrorists and their activities or face the prospect of being labeled as one of them or their sympathisers. An uncanny rehash of the red scare in the US or the Communist threat in the region during the 60s and early 70s

That the Singapore government has a questionable history in persecuting or banning certain religious groups and placing restrictions on religious debates is rarely openly debated or discussed, even amongst intellectual circles.Part of that reluctance or silence from the academe is derived from a common shared understanding that pre-independence Singapore was rocked with racial riots. This has translated into a wary Singapore government that has placed a high premium on maintaining racial and religious issues amongst the different communities. To the extent that critical debates involving these issues have been tightly controlled. Moreover, racial and religious differences which have sparked off social divisiveness and wars in other parts of the world (e.g. Muslim unrest in Southern Thailand or the Israeli Occupation of Palestine) were also a dominant consideration factor for a naturally authoritarian government to impose such controls.

Despite the assurances to the general population that they are free to practice their own religion, the government has come down hard on those that question the state and its authority.

As early as 1972, the government de-registered and outlawed the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses on the premises that they were “prejudicial to public welfare and order.” The ban also criminalizes the possession of any Jehovah’s Witnesses literature, which has also been invoked over the past years.In 1996, the then 72-year-old grandmother, Yu Nguk Ding, was imprisoned a week for violating the Undesirable Publications Act by owning four prohibited books of Jehovah’s Witnesses. A former nurse and a Jehovah’s Witness for more than 40 years, she had served 5 days worth of jail time in April for a similar offence. A year before, human rights NGO, Amnesty International, also reported that more than 60 Jehovah’s Witnesses were convicted of membership with the group or possession of these banned literature in November. The police discovered these members after a series of raid in February that year. Most of those found guilty, and sentenced to fines, chose imprisonment on conscientious grounds. The investigations included holding suspects overnight for interrogation without allowing them access to legal representatives and depriving them of sleep. Amongst the teenagers in the group, they were refused permission to inform their parents that they had been detained for questioning.

The threat, if any, from Jehovah’s Witnesses, comes from their deeply held religious conviction that believers do not hold arms or swear the oath of allegiance towards the state. Hence, male members would refuse to serve their compulsory two-year military service, which is considered a ‘sacred’ duty to the nation. As Singapore laws does not recognise conscientious objectors or non-punitative civilian service, those who refuse to comply would be subjected to martial court and detention.

The appeal from Amnesty International Canada in 2007 this year to commemorate International Human Rights Day, stated that 22 Jehovah’s Witnesses members are currently under detention for refusing to serve their military service. Conscientious objectors are normally subjected to a 12 – 15 month military detention, often followed by a second term of two years if the person continues refusing to serve. Those who served military detention for this offence complained that during the initial period of detention and interrogation, they were deprived of sleep, denied access to legal representatives, or subjected to humiliating treatment.

Even within the context of debates on issues related to major religions, the Singapore government can be overbearing, to the extent of criminalizing activists who brings up seemingly innocuous concerns.

In 2002, Opposition politician, Dr Chee Soon Juan, delivered a speech at Speakers Corner, touching on the issue of 4 Muslim girls who were suspended from public school for wearing their tudung. The tudung is a hair clothing which Muslim girls and women wore to cover their head. Chee was subsequently fined $2,000 for touching on a religious issue, which was expressively prohibited at Speaker’s Corner. The government said that wearing headscarves would lead to religious and social divisiveness amongst impressionable kids. This was a decision made post 9/11. Dr Chee argued the reverse is true, and that children should learn to recognize and accept religious differences at a young age.

In the same year, another Muslim activist, Zulfikar Mohamad Shariff, escaped Singapore for fear of political persecution. He was under police investigation for defaming Singapore’s leaders, had been vocal on Muslim and Malay issues on his website and group, Fateha.com, and had touched on the tudung controversy. He had also crossed an overly sensitive line by accusing the government of imposing systematic controls, which were racially discriminative towards Malays, whom he considered, were the indigenous people of Singapore. He also questioned the Malay leadership in the government, whom he said, were not pursuing the genuine interests of the ethnic group.

Even when religious groups do not challenge the hegemony of the Singapore government, they could easily find themselves at the wrong end of the stick. The persecution of Falun gong members in China had been publicized worldwide but when its Singapore- based members tried to do the same locally, they were brought to court and harshly dealt with. With such high profile cases publicized in the media, Falun gong, which was initially fast becoming a popular ‘martial-arts’, and taught in many local community clubs were closed and membership rapidly dwindling.

In December 2000, police arrested 60 of them for illegal assembly and protesting without a permit. The protestors argued that they were denied a permit and were merely trying to publicize the arrest and killing of Falun Gong members in China. In March 2001, 15 within this group were charged. Seven of them were sentenced to 4 weeks in jail for refusing to hand over the placards to the police. The other eight were charged with assembling without a permit, and fined $1000 each. Most of those who took part in the protest were Chinese citizens who had their immigration status cancelled and made to leave the country.

In 2005, the Singapore government convicted two Falun Gong members of “illegal assembly and distribution of video compact disks that had not been certified by the Board of Film Censors”. Instead of paying the fines of $20,000 and 24,000 respectively, they chose a prison sentence and went on a hunger strike to protest against the decision.

Six Falun gong members were taken to court again in January 2007 for illegal assembly and distributing flyers at a busy shopping district, Orchard Road. The initial trial, held in a small room, accommodating only 8 seats, prevented family members of the accused and the media from entering the courtroom, and as such, prevented proper news reporting.

Persecution towards religious beliefs took on a new and twisted form post 9/11. As America declares its war on terror, shared intelligence amongst the different regional governments led to an active witch-hunt against “fundamental Muslim terrorists”, accused of threatening national order and destroying social stability. This came in the form of “detention without trial” under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in Singapore, not dissimilar to what the American government was doing with its secret CIA renditions and Guantanamo Bay detentions.

In February 2007, the Ministry of Home Affairs invoked the ISA by arresting a Singaporean, Abdul Basheer, whom they claimed was “self-radicalised” with plans for militant jihad against the Americans in Afghanistan. This was alarming news for the society as Basheer was an A grade student and a highly educated lawyer. Prior to him, back in 2001, alleged local Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) members who were detained under the same legislations and accused of plotting to destroy US and local installations were mainly blue collared workers. The impact of Basheer’s detention renewed the “fundamentalist terrorism” debate, which was beginning to lose its consciousness on Singapore society, 4 years after the invasion.

While mainstream media voiced the official Singapore and US government stance on “militant” Islam, they also amplify and play on society’s fear towards the religion. Muslims are forced to openly take either of two positions – denounce these terrorists and their activities or face the prospect of being labeled as one of them or their sympathisers. An uncanny rehash of the red scare in the US or the Communist threat in the region during the 60s and early 70s.

By painting Islam into a simplistic two-tone religion of just black and white, and categorizing its believers into dual separate camps of moderates and fanatics, the underlying issue of what drives ordinary sane and thinking people to advocate violent terrorism is swept under the carpet.

In addition, ISA creates a heightened sense of fear that pervades the nation and prevents people from engaging in more in-depth, intellectual and logical debates on contemporary Islam. This problem is further compounded by an autocratic government who has a history of banning religious debates it deems as controversial.

In a rare diversion of government’s policy, a minister was quoted on the national paper, Straits Times, that the authorities would allow more leeway in the future for more controversial debates on religious issues.

In October 22, 2007, Ho Peng Kee, Senior Minister of State for Home Affairs told the Parliament “words that are carelessly spoken will not be caught”. He also added, “It is not likely too that a journalist writing an article based on facts, notwithstanding that it may be racially or religiously sensitive, will be caught. A critical but rational and objective discussion of religion and religious principles will also not likely be caught.” This was in response to his colleagues who were concerned with the revised penal code amendments in 2007 – Sections 298 and 298A, of the legislation, which explicitly deals with racial, religious, and hate speech.

Given that the government has hardly practiced much tolerance towards controversial religious debates, and with the lingering memory of recent persecutions, such verbal assurances do not necessarily assure Singaporeans and its critics.

Singapore law books are still armed to the teeth with criminal legislations that could penalise anyone for crossing the line. The Sedition Act, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (which is under the purview of Internal Security Department, also responsible for the Internal Security Act) and various sections of the penal code, can all be used to penalise free speech, peaceful assemblies and writings.

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2 Responses to “The Myth of Religious Freedom in Singapore”

  1. Robert HO December 22, 2007 at 7:59 pm #

    RH: BRILLIANT WORK! I SALUTE YOU! UNFORTUNATELY, HAVE TO RUSH. WILL COPY AND PASTE YOUR EXCELLENT ARTICLE TO MY ~50 EMAIL GROUP. THANKS.

  2. Jo September 7, 2010 at 4:15 am #

    If u mean ‘freedom’ in terms of being able to do anything and everything under the sun, then yes, you are right. But i disagree calling it a ‘myth’, since Singaporeans are generally not blind to our restrictions, and we do have some form of freedom, even if it’s not by many Western standards of definition.

    No nation can possibly function in that kind of absolute freedom without some form of law, since there will always be humans who will abuse it and consequentially harm others who happen to be their target victims, or ‘in the way’. Even the US still needs law to maintain a place where people can live in…

    The Singapore Government takes a pragmatic stand on ruling the country, and in its decisions it makes. As a island nation that is not even half the size of New York City with no natural resources and powerful neighbours, we cannot afford to let problems that spring up in other countries affect us the same way, it will be a country-destroying disaster ‘overnight’… Its reaction to the certain religions or activities is understandable, if in light of its fear for its nation in the long run.

    It’s a price i believe the majority are willing to accept since it has brought us stability, security, etc… there will always be some things we will complain about and disagree with our government, but we’re at peace enough to go about our lives without life-threating fears and other stuff… We may not have the kind of freedom the West has, but the majority have freedom enough to meet our needs and etc….

    But if one wants more options of choices, then feel free to move out of the country. Singapore just can’t afford to have certain things within its border for the sake of the lives of the majority, at least at this point in time.

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