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Dimensions of Religious Harmony as Constitutional Practice: Beyond State Control

  • Jaclyn L. Neo


Religious harmony is an idea more commonly invoked in Asian countries, many of which are closely associated with non-individualistic or non-liberal approaches to law, ethics, and politics, than in Europe. As a constitutional norm, religious harmony not only directs state action involving the management of religious diversity but also has the potential to legitimate state action. As a result, harmony, including its subspecies of religious harmony, could be and has been criticized for imposing and legitimating an ideology of control over society, particularly over marginalized groups. While this is the case, I argue in this Article that religious harmony can mean many things and can be used in a myriad of ways that go beyond simply as a tool for state control. Religious harmony is not only a legal/constitutional principle, but has also become internalized as a social norm. Its regulating function extends to inter group relations and further grounds group demands on the state, thus imposing state obligations. To draw out the multiple and complex dimensions of religious harmony as a constitutional principle and social norm, I use Singapore, a self-avowed non-liberal communitarian state, as the primary case study in this Article.

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Associate Professor, National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. I would like to thank Daryl Yang and Thaddaeus Tan for their research assistance. Earlier drafts of this Article were presented at a workshop in Berlin on June 2, 2018, and again at a workshop in Singapore on November 2, 2018. I thank all participants at the workshops for their valuable feedback and comments. The workshops and the research in this Article were funded by a National University of Singapore-Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin Joint Projects Research Grant.



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1 Lautsi & Others v. Italy, App. No. 30814/06, para. 60 (Mar. 18, 2011)

2 See also S.A.S. v France, App. No. 43835/11, para 127 (Jul. 1, 2014).

3 Julia Tao et al., Why Governance for Harmony? in Governance for Harmony in Asia and Beyond 3 (Julia Tao et al. eds., 2009).

4 Id. at 4.

5 Const. of India. art. 51(A).

6 Federal Const. of Malaysia, art. 3(1).

7 Const. of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka. art. 15(2) and (3).

8 Const. of The People’s Republic of Bangladesh art. 2A and art. 38.

9 See Indian Penal Code § 8153A.

10 See further discussion on Singapore in Li-ann Thio, Rule of Law, Religious Liberty, and Harmony: Multiculturalism, Legal Pluralism, and the Singapore Model of Accommodative Secularism, 5 J. L. Religion & St. 254 (2017).

11 Melissa Crouch, Shifting Conceptions of State Regulation of Religion: The Indonesian Draft Law on Inter-Religious Harmony, 25(3) Global Change, Peace & Security 265, 265 (2013).

12 Ei Ei Toe Lwin, NLD Considers Religious Harmony Law, Myanmar Times (May 20, 2016),

13 Myanmar: Draft Interfaith Harmonious Coexistence Bill Continues to Endanger Fundamental Rights, Article 19 (Sept. 7, 2019),

14 For instance, the Grand Chamber in S.A.S. v France also referred to another concept-“living together”-which could overlap with, or even be equated with, the idea of religious harmony (supra note 2). See also Shelby L. Wade, “Living Together” or Living Apart from Religious Freedoms? The European Court of Human Right’s Concept of “Living Together” and its Impact on Religious Freedom, 50 Case W. Res. Int’l L.J. 411, 411 (2018).

15 John Locke, A Letter Concerning Toleration (1689), reprinted in John Locke: A Letter Concerning Toleration in Focus 17 (John Horton & Susan Mendus eds., 1991).

16 Claims that the liberal state should be neutral is another key point of divergence between liberal and non-liberal arrangements. Graham Walker, The New Mixed Constitution: A Response to Liberal Debility & Constitutional Deadlock in Eastern Europe, 26 Polity 503, 506 (1994).

17 While there are many variants of liberalism, great importance has been attached to the priority of the individual in many accounts of liberalism. See, e.g., John Gray, Liberalism ix (2nd ed. 1995) (stating four principle characteristics of liberalism as individualism, egalitarianism, universalism, and meliorism); Rex Ahdar & Ian Leigh, Religious Freedom in the Liberal State 53 (2nd ed. 2013) (same).

18 See Jaclyn L. Neo, Secularism without Liberalism: Religious Freedom and Secularism in a Non-Liberal State, Mich. St. L. Rev. 333, 333 (2017).

19 Graham Walker, The Mixed Constitution after Liberalism, 4 Cardozo Int’l & Comp. L.J. 311, 319 (1996).

20 See, e.g., Laura Nader, Harmony Ideology, Justice and Control in a Zapotec Mountain Village (1990).

21 Joyce Bourne, The Oxford Dictionary of Music (6th ed. 2012).

22 Harmony, Oxford English Dictionary.

23 id.

24 Li Chenyang, Harmony as a Guiding Principle for Governance, in Governance for Harmony in Asia and Beyond 38, 38 (Julia Tao et al. eds., 2009).

25 See generally Tao, supra note 3, at 3.

26 Chung-Ying Cheng, Toward Constructing a Dialectics of Harmonization: Harmony and Conflict in Chinese Philosophy, 4 J. Chinese Phil. 25, 27 (2006).

27 Li, supra note 24, at 38.

28 Sidney Zink, The Good as Harmony, 53 Phil. Rev. 557, 560 (1944).

29 Cheng, supra note 26, at 28.

30 Li, supra note 24, at 38.

31 id. at 37.

32 Laura Nader, Coercive Harmony: The Political Economy of Legal Models, 80 Kroeber Anthropological Soc’y Papers 1, 1 (1996) [hereinafter Nader, Coercive Harmony].

33 Zink, supra note 28, at 565.

34 See Iza Hussin, “The New Global Politics of Religion”: Religious Harmony, Public Order, and Securitisation in the Post-Colony, 4 Religion & Pol. Prac. J. 93, 104 (2018).

35 Id. at 94 (emphasis added).

36 Iza Hussin, The Politics of Islamic Law 73 (2016).

37 Hussin, supra note 34, at 100.

38 Stephen C. Angle, Human Rights and Harmony, 30 Hum. Rights. Q. 76, 79 (2008).

39 This understanding of harmony has also been discussed in the context of the American constitution: Jesse M Cross, National Harmony: An Inter-Branch Constitutional Principle and Its Application to Diversity Jurisdiction, 93 Neb. L. Rev. 139 (2014).

40 Angle, supra note 38, at 77.

41 Randall Peerenboom, Confucian Harmony and Freedom of Thought: The Right to Think Versus Right Thinking, in Confucianism and Human Rights 234, 235 (William Theodore de Bary & Tu Weiming eds., 1998).

42 Cheng, supra note 26, at 45.

43 Id.

44 Angle, supra note 38, at 77.

45 Li, supra note 24, at 38.

46 Id.

47 Id., at 41.

48 Id.

49 Amitai Etzioni, Communitarianism, in International Encyclopedia of Political Science 327 (2011).

50 Id.

51 Mark Bevir, Communitarianism, in Encyclopedia of Governance 125 (2007).

52 For a detailed examination of the diversity of voices, positions, and sentiments in the making of the MRHA, see generally Vineeta Sinha, Theorising ‘Talk’ about ‘Religious Pluralism’ and ‘Religious Harmony’ in Singapore, 20(1) J. of Contemporary Religion 25 (2005).

53 Sing. Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act § 8(1).

54 Singapore Parliamentary Debates (Oct. 6, 1989).

55 This is especially true because the minister is granted wide discretionary powers to define what would constitute an act falling within the prohibited sphere of action. See Thio Li-ann, Human Rights Watchdog: Ousting the Judiciary, in Managing Political Change: the Elected Presidency of Singapore 129 (Kevin YL Tan & Lam Peng Er eds., 1997).

56 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, 54 Singapore Parliamentary Reports, at cols. 1050–52 (Feb. 22, 1990),

57 Among the examples raised by the Minister are these:

[S]hould one say that another person’s religion is a greater threat to mankind than communism? Would you expect the leaders of that religious group to take it calmly? Again another example. To say that the head of the Catholic church, the Pope, is the anti-Christ, will that not upset and provoke strong emotions amongst Catholics?

58 Id.

59 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Bill, supra note 56.

60 For instance, Dutch law even forbids the police from disrupting a church service to make an arrest, and this was recently invoked by a church in the Hague to prevent an Armenian immigrant family from deportation. Francesca Paris, Months-Long Dutch Church Service To Protect Migrants Ends After Policy Shift, NPR (Jan. 31, 2019), For a discussion on sanctuary claims in the United States, see Thomas Scott-Railton, A Legal Sanctuary: How the Religious Freedom Restoration Act Could Protect Sanctuary Churches, Yale L.J. 408, 408 (2018).

61 Maintenance of Religious Harmony White Paper (Paper Cmd. No. 21 of 1989) (Dec. 26, 1989) [hereinafter MRHA White Paper].

62 Akhtar Rasool Bodla, Genesis of Blasphemy Laws in Colonial India, XXXVIII Pak. Hist. & Cult. J. 140, 152 (2017).

63 See Sing. Pen. Code § 298A(a).

64 See Sing. Pen. Code § 298A(b).

65 Note J (On the Chapter of Offences Relating to Religion and Caste), in John Macpherson Macleod, Notes on the Report of the Indian Law Commissions on the Indian Penal Code (1848).

66 See Sing. Sedition Act.

67 The lack of a constitutional challenge could be because the law has never been actually invoked. It is also because the Singapore courts have adopted a narrow position on standing, requiring litigants to have either a private right implicated or to have suffered special damage where public rights are involved. Accordingly, there is little scope for public interest litigation in Singapore. See generally Tsun Hang Tey, Limitations on public interest litigation in Singapore: Internalizing political ideology and institutionalizing judicial self-restraint, in Public Interest Litigation in Asia (Po Jen Yap & Holning Lau, eds., 2010).

68 Public Prosecutor v. Koh Song Huat Benjamin, [2005] SGDC 272 [hereinafter PP v. Koh Song Huat].

69 Id. (emphasis added).

70 Id.

71 See Sing. Sedition Act § 3(1)(e).

72 One had parodied the halal logo, placing it next to a pig’s head, and compared Islam to Satanism. Another put up a post entitled “The Second Holocaust,” advocating genocide against the Malays. A third individual was charged separately but on the same offense, having made a range of offensive remarks against the Malay-Muslim community, including comparing them to “rodents” and claiming that he wanted to blow up Muslim holy sites and that “the Malays must be eliminated before it is too late.” Chong Chee Kin, 2 Charged With Making Racist Remarks on Net, Straits Times, Sept. 13, 2005; Third Racist Blogger Sentenced to 24 Months Supervised Probation, Channel News Asia, Nov. 23, 2005; Just 17, Hate Blogger Charged, Today, Sept. 17, 2005.

73 PP v. Koh Song Huat supra note 68, at para. 7.

74 Id. at para. 9. Reference is often made to two racial/religious riots in pre-independence Singapore as cautionary tales for the need to closely regulate inter-religious, inter-racial relations.

75 Constitution of the Republic of Singapore, art. 15 and art. 14 respectively.

76 For a critique of the lack of a clear exposition on the public order exception to constitutional right to freedom of speech in the cases, see Jaclyn L. Neo, Seditious in Singapore! Free Speech and the Offence of Promoting Ill-Will and Hostility Between Different Racial Groups, Sing. J. Legal Stud. 351 (2011).

77 Linette Lai, New Law to Make Sites Accountable for Fake News, Straits Times (Mar. 30, 2019),

78 Fabian Koh, Religious Leaders ‘Play Vital Role Fighting Fake News Online’, Straits Times (Dec. 20, 2018),

79 Neo, supra note 18.

80 In Singapore’s context, see Barry Desker, Guarding Singapore’s Unique Religious Harmony; Republic’s Landscape of Hard-Won Religious Freedom Needs Constant Maintenance, Straits Times, Dec. 13, 2016.

81 The French ban on the wearing of a face veil has been upheld by the European Court of Human Rights. See SAS v. France, 2014 III Eur. Ct. H.R. 341 (2014). For an overview of European jurisprudence on the veil, see Sitai Kalantry & Maithili Pradhan, Veil Bans in the European Court of Human Rights, 21(15) ASIL Insights (Dec. 12, 2017),

82 Jeevan Vasagar, German Court Strikes Down Headscarf Ban, Financial Times (Mar. 13, 2015),, Cf. Berlin Court Bars Muslim Teacher From Wearing Headscarf, BBC News (May 9, 2018),

83 Austria Proposes Headscarf Ban for Girls Under 10, BBC News (Apr. 4, 2018),

84 See, e.g., John Bowen, Why the French don’t like headscarves: Islam, the State, and public space (2007).

85 See, e.g., Patrick Weil, Why the French Laicite is Liberal, 30(6) Cardozo L. Rev. 2699, 2699 (2009). C.f. Cécile Laborde, Critical Republicanism: The Hijab Controversy and Political Philosophy (2008).

86 Robin Chan, DPM Teo Responds to Calls on Hijab, Explains Need to Maintain Social Harmony, Straits Times (Nov. 5, 2013),

87 In the instance of Singapore, see Charlene Tan, Creating ‘Good Citizens’ and Maintaining Religious Harmony in Singapore, 30 Brit. J. Religious Educ. 133, 133 (2008).

88 Id. at 136.

89 Office of the Mufti, Majlis Ugama Islam Singapura, Risalah for Building a Singapore Muslim Community of Excellence (2nd ed. 2006),

90 Id.

91 Laura Nader, Harmony Coerced is Freedom Denied, in Anthropologists in the Public Sphere: Speaking out on War, Peace, and American Power 252, 254 (Roberto J. Gonzalez ed., 2004) [hereinafter Nader, Harmony Coerced].

92 In her specific study of justice and courts in Zapotec mountain villages in Mexico, Nader identifies harmony ideology as a legal model that is used to “suppress peoples by socializing them toward conformity in colonial contexts.” Nader, Coercive Harmony, supra note 32, at 2.

93 Nader, Coercive Harmony, supra note 32, at 2.

94 See, e.g., Laurel Rose, The Politics of Harmony: Land Dispute Strategies in Swaziland 94 (1992).

95 Nader, Coercive Harmony, supra note 32, at 12.

96 Nader, Harmony Coerced, supra note 91, at 252. What is further fascinating is that Nader sees Americans as being more concerned about harmony than say, Europeans are.

97 Rajah calls this “authoritarian rule of law”: Jothie Rajah, Authoritarian Rule of Law: Legislation, Discourse, and Legitimacy in Singapore (2012).

98 Judith Beyer & Felix Girke, Practicing Harmony Ideology: Ethnographic Reflections on Community and Coercion, 21 Common Knowledge 196 (2015).

99 Id. at 233.

100 Id.

101 As an example of an approach that sees law and social norms as co-evolving, see Shitong Qiao, Chinese Small Property: The Co-Evolution of Law and Social Norms (2017).

102 Amitai Etzioni, Social Norms: Internalization, Persuasion, and History, 34(1) Law & Society Rev. 157, 167 (2000).

103 The debate over socialization and internalization involve divergent views about the internal capacities of the individual and the external influence of the environment, as well as the relationship between the two. Scholarship on socialization in particular involve different models of the learning process. For a discussion and critique of the different models, see Ellen S. Cohn & Susan O. White, Legal Socialization: A Study of Norms and Rules (1990); Robert D. Cooter, Book Review: Against Legal Centralism, 81 California L. Rev. 417 (1993); and Tom R. Tyler and Rick Trinkner, Why Children Follow Rules: Legal Socialization and the Development of Legitimacy (2017).

104 Emanuela Carbonara, Law and Social Norms, in The Oxford Handbook of Law and Economics: Volume 1: Methodology and Concepts 466 (Francesco Parisi, ed., 2017).

105 Cass R. Sunstein, On the Expressive Function of Law, 144(5) U. of Penn. L. Rev. 2021 (1996).

106 Id. at 2031.

107 Id.

108 King Abdullah II of Jordan delivered the Keynote Address: Gwyneth Teo, Risk to inter-faith harmony ‘single most important threat’ to the world now: Jordan king, Channel News Asia (Jun. 20, 2019),

109 Linette Lai, International Conference on Cohesive Societies to discuss issues surrounding faith, identity and cohesion, Straits Times (Jun. 19, 2019),

110 Ministry of Culture, Community, and Youth, National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony (2019),

111 Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs), About Us,

112 Melody Zaccheus, More than 250 religious organisations commit to safeguard religious harmony, Straits Times (Jun. 19, 2019),

113 For a closer examination of the organization, see Lai Ah Eng, The Inter-religious Organization of Singapore, in Religious Diversity in Singapore 605 (Lai Ah Eng ed., 2008).

115 Id.

116 Id.

117 Lai, supra note 113, at 625.

118 Sinha, supra note 52.

119 Id. at 608.

120 Beyer & Girke, supra note 98, at 231.

121 Thio Li-ann, Contentious Liberty: Regulating Religious Propagation in a Religiously Diverse Secular Democracy, Sing. Legal Stud. J. 484, 488 (2010).

122 Id. at 490.

123 Chua Beng Huat, Being Chinese Under Official Multiculturalism in Singapore, 10(3) Asian Ethnicity 239, 245 (2009).

124 See e.g. the debate that came up in 2016 in Singapore: Muslims may not eat all food offered by non-Muslims, Independent SG (May 21, 2016),

125 For example, in Malaysia, there is an ongoing debate as to whether Muslims are ‘allowed’ to say Merry Christmas: Prem Kumar, Saying ‘Merry Christmas’ only a greeting to Christians, FT mufti tells Muslims, Malay Mail (Dec. 5, 2018), This strict refusal to wish persons of other religions has also been observed in Singapore: K. Shanmugam, Religion, terrorism and threats to Singapore, the region, Straits Times (Jan. 20, 2016),

126 Etzioni, supra note 102, at 159.

127 Tracey Meares, Drugs: It’s a Question of Connections, 31 Valparaiso Rev. 579, 594 (1997).

128 Robert Ellickson, Order Without Law, 167 (1991).

129 [2009] SGDC 163.

130 Id. at para. 10.

131 Id. at para 11.

132 Id. at para 13.

133 MHA Statement in Response to Media Queries on the Lighthouse Evangelism Videos and Comments Made By Pastor Rony Tan of Lighthouse Evangelism, AsiaOne, Feb. 8, 2010.

134 Pastor Makes Personal Apology, Today, Feb. 10, 2010.

135 Pastor: I’ve Let Many People Down, Asiaone (Feb. 16, 2010),

136 Cherian George, Hate Spin: The Twin Political Strategies of Religious Incitement and Offense-Taking, 27(2) Comm. Theory 156, 156 (2017).

137 Id.

138 Id.

139 Siau Ming En, Greater Number of Singaporeans Not Identifying with Any Religion, Today (Mar. 9, 2016),

140 Louisa Tang, Many Christians Were ‘Very Concerned and Offended’: Shanmugam Explains Reversal of Decision Over Metal Band Concert, Today Online (Apr. 1, 2019),

141 Id.

142 Black-Metal band Watain’s Gig Cancelled, After MHA Raised Security Concerns, Today Online (Mar. 7, 2019),

143 Id.

144 Id.

145 Eddino Abdul Hadi, Parliament: Two Out of Three Singaporeans Back Government’s Move to Cancel Watain Concert, Straits Times (Apr. 1, 2019),

146 Beyer and Girke, supra note 98.

147 Id. at 218.

148 Id. at 219.

149 This debate concerning social hierarchy has emerged in Singapore with respect to race, whereby the idea of Chinese privilege has become a source of contentious disagreement. These issues were again surfaced in a recent controversy over ‘brownface’ and casual racism in Singapore. See e.g. Ruby Thiagarajan, Brownface and Racism in Singapore, New Naratif (Aug. 1, 2019),; and contrast: Adrian Lim, Allowing offensive rap video calling out 'brownface’ ad would worsen racism: Shanmugam, Straits Times (Aug 22, 2019),

150 Chua, supra note 122, at 245.

151 Adrian Lim, Changes to 30-year-old religious harmony law to be introduced in Parliament next week: PM Lee Hsien Loong, Straits Times (Aug. 26, 2019),

152 Id. See also Tham Yuen-C, Singapore to update law on religious harmony to address spread of hate speech, identity politics, Straits Times (Jul. 24, 2019),

* Associate Professor, National University of Singapore Faculty of Law. I would like to thank Daryl Yang and Thaddaeus Tan for their research assistance. Earlier drafts of this Article were presented at a workshop in Berlin on June 2, 2018, and again at a workshop in Singapore on November 2, 2018. I thank all participants at the workshops for their valuable feedback and comments. The workshops and the research in this Article were funded by a National University of Singapore-Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin Joint Projects Research Grant.


Dimensions of Religious Harmony as Constitutional Practice: Beyond State Control

  • Jaclyn L. Neo


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