1. Legal Framework
The Article 15(1) guarantee of religious freedom is qualified by Clause (4), which prohibits acts “contrary to public order, public health or morality.” No explicit clauses refer to religious harmony,104 which may be seen as a subset of public order. The MRHA thus is a vehicle for giving expression to the particular kind of public order advocated by the executive which dominates and drives the legislative agenda.
The MRHA establishes a fifteen-member Presidential Council for Religious Harmony (PCRH) composing religious representatives and other members who have “distinguished themselves in public service or community relations.”105 Through working together and dialogue, this institution facilitates relationship-building. The PCRH reports and makes recommendations to the Minister on referred matters. The MRHA empowers the government to issue restraining orders against religious group leaders or members on four grounds, such as using religion to promote political causes or subversive activities, or “causing feelings of enmity, hatred, ill-will or hostility between different religious groups.”106 While no MRHA restraining order has ever been issued, there is public awareness of this Act: A Buddhist group sees the MRHA as a shield “against insensitive proselytizing.”107
Sanctions for disrupting religious harmony are imposed through legislation like the Sedition Act—which defines seditious tendency as including acts involving “feelings of ill-will and hostility between different races or classes of the population of Singapore”108—and Sections 298 and 298A of the Penal Code relating to wounding religious feelings or acts done to disrupt religious or racial harmony. The Manpower Ministry refuses Miscellaneous Work Passes to foreign religious preachers whose teachings are deemed divisive in advocating “violence or promoted segregationist, intolerant teachings.”109 Burning the Bible or Quran is not protected speech. Thus, a “tough framework of laws” touching on what “you can or cannot say about race and religion” are set in place.110 The underlying principle is: “[D]o not do harm unto others, do not advocate violence, do not put down somebody else’s religion. As long as you keep to that, propagate your faith.”111
Affect and legal sanctions are unhappy bedfellows. While the law can “prevent negative actions” and have an educative effect in “[making] people understand and take care” not to act in an anti-social fashion, law and legal sanction cannot “creative positive feelings” or “a positive community,” which needs efforts that “go beyond” the law.112 Constructing a CCR must be by way of persuasion, as diktat breeds alienation.
The sources for this CCR religion are found in the extra-documentary constitution, the constitution beyond the court. This views the constitution through a realist lens as a living institution; Karl Llewellyn, in analyzing the US Constitution, described it as being “in essence not a document but a living institution built … in first instance around a particular Document.”113 Rather than words, an institution is “a set of ways of living and doing.” Evidence of its existence resides in the fact that people behave “in certain patterns” and “do not behave in other conceivable patterns.”114 A constitution as institution “consists of the ways and attitudes of varied people.”115 To apprehend the “complete” constitution, one must appreciate that political and bureaucratic actors, even civil society, also “interpret important constitutional elements through their beliefs, statements and actions.”116 The CCR operates within the parameters of the Article 15(1) guarantee of religious freedom, subject to the Clause (4) public order qualification, and speaks to the nature of this public order which goes beyond an absence of law and order, to encompassing a relational dimension that seeks to preserve the longevity of social relationships through shared norms and commitments to solidarity-promoting dispute resolution methods to secure the goal of religious harmony.
A constitution is formally changed through constitutional amendment or judicial interpretation.117 The extra-documentary constitution, however, develops differently. In Westminster-based parliamentary systems, unwritten, judicially unenforceable conventions embodying political custom or constitutional morality influence how public power is exercised, evolve out of historical practice. Another important source of the extra-Documentary constitution, particularly within the Singapore context where the parliamentary executive operates within a dominant party state which has not seen political turnover since independence, is soft constitutional law (SCL) norms. Unlike conventions, these are declaratory in nature; these executive-authored SCL norms prescribe standards of behavior articulated in publicly accessible instruments like white papers and declarations. While not legally binding, SCL norms carry persuasive weight, given the political clout of their authors, and play some role in developing the constitution as a living institution in this informal way. A form of quasi-law, SCL norms interpret and may flesh out the content of constitutional provisions, such as what religious harmony as a facet of public order entails. SCL norms generate expectations or express aspirations, which are constitutional interests frequently articulated in constitutional preambles, directive principles and duties. They are hortatory in nature, though they operate within the legal framework with its institutionalized imposition of legal sanctions and rights protection through judicial review. While not permanent, widely known SCL norms118 bear some stability and possess predictive value flowing from their social ordering capacity.
For example, a 1999 white paper on Principles Governing National Reserves119 recorded “agreed rules of conduct” by which the president and government would operationalize the constitutional regime protecting past financial reserves. The “constitutional practice” embodied in the Principles was open to “future evolution and refinement” and would bind future presidents and governments unless both parties agreed to amend or abandon the Principles, or one party formally notifies the other it no longer wishes to abide by them. They are thus stable until altered or abandoned, generating expectations of adherence. These SCL norms also inform public rituals, that is, the evolution of a certain protocol for managing or resolving disputes, thus standardizing desired patterns of action, which is explored below.
The corpus of SCL norms relating to a particular subject-matter may be further developed, not only through public ritual but further authoritative statements by government leaders which may be supported by the verbal or physically expressed agreement of other constitutional actors which solidifies constitutional practice. These may be contained in important, authoritative ministerial statements or speeches at special occasions like the Prime Minister’s annual National Day Rally speech. This bears affinity to the raw material of civil religion in other jurisdictions, which may include historical documents and speeches at national celebrations or remembrance ceremonies.
3. Content of Singapore Constitutional Civil Religion and its Relation to Relational Constitutionalism
Singapore’s CCR is modest and non-evangelical; it espouses no divine mission, consistent with the government’s predilection for pragmatic realism and results over rhetoric and ideology. While not invoking a deity, it bears no general antipathy to religious faith.
The prime directive of Singapore CCR is maintaining racial and religious harmony. This is either an independent quasi-constitutional value or an expansive reading of public order, a permissible basis for limiting—but not eviscerating—religious liberty under Article 15. This tenet is considered integral to the rule of law. Law Minister Jayakumar noted that while different racial and religious communities have disparate values, all had to respect the rule of law which, in its generality, sets forth “common ground rules of engagement and conflict resolution.” Society needs a “large common secular space that belongs to all citizens regardless of race, language or religion.”120 This does not connote an assimilationist ethos but recognizes an irreducible plurality and indivisible unity to be safeguarded and nurtured.
The core texts of this CCR creed are found in the government authored 1989 Maintenance of Religious Harmony white paper (MRHWP) and the 2003 Declaration on Religious Harmony (DRH),121 formulated by religious representatives under a junior minister’s leadership. It is also one of five shared values122 composing a national ideology which “all races and faiths can subscribe to and live by,” as no proposal conflicting “with the teachings of Islam, Christianity, Hinduism, Taoism or Buddhism is likely to gain general acceptance.”123
The MRHWP states that religious harmony is “fundamental” to Singapore’s “long term stability,” that Singaporeans should share a “firm common understanding” of what this required and “abide scrupulously by the ground rules of prudence and good conduct.”124 It identifies threats to religious harmony and guidelines on how to avoid this. The DRH is framed as a code or citizen’s pledge to “strengthen religious harmony through mutual tolerance, confidence, respect and understanding,” to guide religious communities in the enjoyment and pursuit of their religious beliefs and practices. It articulates five commitments to:
Recognize the secular nature of our State,
Promote cohesion within our society,
Respect each other’s freedom of religion,
Grow our common space while respecting our diversity, [and]
Foster inter-religious communications.
While public order relates to the absence of disorder or disturbed public tranquility, religious harmony is a qualitatively different concept, implicating the quality of relationships. This dovetails with the objectives of relational constitutionalism to secure “the relational well-being of individuals and groups and to preserve sustainable relationships,” allowing citizens to “maintain their distinct identities, while being unified by a national identity and a shared commitment to the common good.”125
Religious harmony as a constitutional value is not necessarily a restrictive public order norm oppositional to religious liberty; it can be viewed as integral to religious freedom by securing the rights of others and those conditions necessary for community maintenance. It may be conceptualized as an expansive conception of public order, shaped by substantive commitments to deliberative democratic processes and peaceful coexistence. Harmony is not a synonym for conformity or uniformity, nor does it require silence where human rights are violated; if harmony relates to common welfare, this fuels the importance of speaking out against injustice. Harmony as a way of optimizing liberty, solidarity, and order may be a way to realize rights without rightism, connoting a commitment to a shared life, an ethos of tolerance, moderation, and handling disharmony through civil dialogue and reconciliation.126
The MRHWP considers that if Singaporeans “show respect and tolerance for other faiths, harmony should prevail.”127 Four major threats to religious harmony may be identified—two of which are articulated in the MRHWP—relating to impaired inter-religious group harmony.
3.1 Aggressive Proselytization
First, one major threat is aggressive and insensitive proselytization. The government urges that the constitutional right to propagate faith128 be “exercised very sensitively,”129 without “denigrating other faiths” or insensitively attempting “to convert those belonging to other religions,” as this could spawn offense. This is an executive interpretation of the scope of a constitutional liberty. Since independence, the government policy is to discourage the evangelization of the Malay-Muslim community.
The government apprehends that “when religious sensitivities are offended emotions are quickly aroused.” As religion is a “deeply felt matter”, only a few incidents could “inflame passions, kindle violence” and destroy “the good record of religious harmony…. ”130 Even without direct proselytization, religious instruction could cause harm. Though it was legitimate to point out divergences with other belief systems in the course of religious instruction, unrestrained preachers denouncing non-believers as “misguided infidels and lost souls” could “cause great umbrage to entire communities.” Trust would be undone if virulent retaliation ensued; attacking persons and places of worship belonging to other faiths131 would generate ill-will and conflict. Religious groups should be cognizant of “the sensitivities” of other religious groups, respect individual freedom of conscience, and disallow their members from “acting disrespectfully” or inciting violence or hostility against other groups.132 These rules of prudence cater to the Emotional Man rather than the Rational Man able to tolerate offensive speech in the interests of free speech and the pursuit of truth. The CCR tenet of religious harmony operates in this instance to balance religious freedoms against religious sensitivities as a facet of public order and relational solidarity; it does not impose a blanket ban on religious propagation but seeks to regulate the style of its exercise.
3.2 Mixing Religion and Politics
The second threat occurs when religion and politics are mixed, specifically when religious groups pursue secular political objectives by using religious authority for political mobilization. If one does this, others will follow and politicians may then try to curry favor with religious groups.
The soft norms in the MRHWP do not preclude citizens with religious convictions from participating in democratic processes, as it is “neither possible nor desirable to compartmentalize completely the mind of voters into secular and religious halves.”133 Religious leaders are urged not to incite their fellow religionists “to defy, challenge or actively oppose secular Government policies” or to perform subversive activities.134 Religious leaders should express their political views circumspectly. So although the fatwa committee considered that Islam prohibited abortion—which Singapore law permits—the Muslim leadership adopted the track of educating the faithful rather than mounting a public campaign against government policy, which could precipitate “disharmony and unhappiness.”135 To preserve religious harmony, religious groups should mutually abstain from seeking “competitive political influence”.136 Social tensions would be heightened if religious groups—and presumably irreligious groups—were to become active political forces seeking to advance their agenda.
The MRHWP does not advocate for a complete separation of religion and politics, which is well-nigh impossible given the absence of objective criteria or a neutral arbiter to delineate these spheres. Religious faiths have informed the social conscience in speaking out against injustice, though there will be clashes in plural societies given disparate views on controversial matters like abortion. Legislatively mandated military service trumps the conscientious objections of Jehovah’s Witnesses, for example.137 Religion and politics are not hermetically sealed compartments; the MRHWP appreciates that not all faiths accept a division between religion and politics; it notes the danger of religious groups seeking to fully implement “their respective visions of an ideal society.”138 Short of divine intervention, such totalizing or comprehensive utopian or messianic visions must be held in abeyance within plural societies to preserve a secular democracy where religious freedom is protected and civil peace maintained. Singaporeans should appreciate that the practice of their faith must take place within the context of a multi-religious society.
To this end, the MUIS produced a “Risalah For Building a Singapore Muslim Community of Excellence”139 with ten Desirable Attributes to help the community be “religiously profound and socially progressive,” adapting religious teachings to modern exigencies and charting “our own path in living Islam today” as loyal, contributing citizens who uphold the CCR tenet of religious harmony. Credible Islamic scholarship supports the view that Muslims can coexist with other communities in diverse societies, while provocative doctrines like ISIS’s view on hijrah (migration to Islamic lands)—which holds that Muslims cannot live under non-Muslim rule—is rejected.140 An organization of Islamic teachers took the position at a 2003 conference that, because the possibility of implementing comprehensive Islam was remote, they could “accept Singapore being a secular state,” provided the government continued to be religiously non-partisan and ensured religious harmony and the reasonable enjoyment of religious freedom.141
3.3 Extremist Religious Teachings Advocating Violence
A third threat to religious harmony is extremist religious ideology advocating terrorism. After 9/11, the government is ever wary of radicalized Islam, where groups such as the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI)—which had Al Qaeda links—seek to establish a sultanate in Southeast Asia. This threat came to the fore after a failed JI plot to bomb the US embassy and MRT stations in Singapore in 2001–2002.142 The conspirators were preventively detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) and a white paper on the Jemaah Islamiyah Arrests and the Threat of Terrorism was issued in 2003 containing evidence of the conspiracy. The government adopted a relational approach in seeking to assuage the fears of a beleaguered Muslim community by convening public meetings and closed-door consultations with religious and community leaders. The conspirators’ families were assured that their relatives were being treated well. Damage control extended to conducting school briefings to calm the situation. The JI white paper referenced the Maintenance of Religious Harmony white paper (MRHWP) principles of religious toleration and moderation, as well as keeping religion and politics separate.143
As terrorism conducted in a religion’s name can fundamentally impair inter-religious ties and deplete the national store of “psychological strength,”144 the white paper sought to characterize the terrorists as a “small and isolated group of misguided Muslims with no support from the community,”145 manipulated by radical foreign teachers who exploited “the deeply-felt sense of Islamic brotherhood” and traditional respect accorded to religious teachers. These were contrasted against the vast majority of “moderate, tolerant and law-abiding”146 Singapore Muslims. The government also worked hard to ensure that Muslims “understood that the JI arrests were about terrorism and not about anti-Islam.”147
Articulating a dichotomy between both the militant and the moderate, and the local and the foreign, was an attempt to provide a framework for the public to approach the issue of religious extremism and to preserve trust with the moderate and local. Indeed—cognizant of sensitivities—government leaders urge the disassociation of terrorism from any one religion.148 The government was careful to note “it must not disrupt the legitimate practices and peaceful activities of the local Muslim community”149 in seeking to identify radical teachers and neutralize foreign terrorist operatives. The government urged the Muslim community to develop a self-regulatory mechanism to monitor religious education. The relational route of building a cooperative relationship with the Muslim community was taken—to promote their sense of belonging and stakeholding in Singapore—urging the community to be an exemplary role model.150 There is some state regulation of religious doctrine, cast as localizing religious teachings to adhere to the CCR tenet of racial and religious harmony: Under Section 87 of AMLA, all Islamic teachers must be registered with MUIS. Religious teachers need a basic competence based certificate and must comply with the Asatizah Recognition Scheme (ARS) Code of Ethics, which requires asatizahs to recognize the plurality of opinions within Islamic teachings and to teach in a manner consistent with maintaining “the well-being and harmony of the society.” This requirement involves not denigrating anyone or advocating extremist ideas,151 with the goal of guiding Muslims “to live in harmony with other Singaporeans of all races and religions.”152 Like all citizens, religious minorities owe a duty to uphold social order; guidelines in this regard are easier to swallow than binding regulations that augment state power.
The JI white paper also provides soft norms urging Singaporeans to see religious terrorism as a national—rather than Muslim—problem.153 This view was later repeated after two auxiliary Malay policemen were detained for terrorism-related offences under the ISA. The government stressed the need for “parents, religious teachers and the community at large” to look out for each other and “report any signs of radicalization” to the Islamic authorities or police, while the Muslim Affairs minister denounced those who abused Islam by espousing extremist ideology to justify terror.154 The Prime Minister warned against anti-Muslim sentiment taking root, equating Islamophobia with radical terrorism;155 to manage the fallout, the Prime Minister met with Muslim and non-Muslim community leaders to hear their concerns, underscoring that “we are all in this together.”156
3.4 Islamophobia, Isolationism, and Interfaith Interaction
The historical record reveals that the terrorist threat and continuing problem of self-radicalization has been associated with groups or individuals who identify as Islamic, the faith of the vast majority of Malays. The perennial fear is that if negatively stereotyped, Malay-Muslims will become isolationist. This effect could cause a backlash when non-Muslims view Muslims “in a negative light,” precipitating Islamophobia.157 The government has long implemented policies promoting inter-racial integration, such as through schemes requiring that each racial group may take up a certain proportion of flats in a HDB block and precinct to prevent race-based ghettoes.
Ministers have given public speeches about combatting terrorism while guarding against Islamophobia.158 For example, a madrasah student recounted at a dialogue session how a joke about Muslims being terrorists had hurt her feelings, whereupon Home Affairs Minister Shanmugam declared that the 85% of Singaporeans who were non-Muslims “have an obligation to reach out to the Muslim community and make sure the bonds are strong.”159
Government ministers have articulated the specific responsibilities expected of different actors. For example, the government would act strongly against acts flowing from anti-Muslim sentiment. Muslim communities had to rebut the association of Islam with extremism to advance “the right approach and the right interpretation” to assure themselves and other non-Muslim communities. Non-Muslims bore the “absolute duty to stamp out xenophobia, stamp out Islamophobia and reach out across to our Muslim brothers and sisters.”160 Everyone should unequivocally condemn terrorist acts to facilitate the on-going project of working for “a united tolerant multi-racial multi-religious society.”161
Optics are important to promote CCR tenets and signal best practices, such as a photo on the Prime Minister’s Facebook page showing the Rabbi and Mufti together with a Sikh Leader, not letting their different dietary rules stop them from “having a meal together and being friends together … Only in Singapore!”162
Religious leaders are now expected to actively champion interaction, integration, and religious harmony for the common good163 to ensure their flock was tolerant, “that we greet each other, that we celebrate each other’s festivals.”164 This goes beyond prohibitive rules to positive duties.
The Inter-Religious Organization (IRO) plays a leading role in this regard. Formed in 1949 to promote peace and religious harmony, its members represent ten major religions. Thus, when the Jewish community publicly celebrated Hannukah, the IRO Chair was invited to light the Menorah,165 an example of how religious leaders “give blessings on one another’s milestone celebrations.”166 This promotion goes beyond tolerance to actively sharing religious life. While Indonesian Islamic authorities167 issue fatwas against inter-faith prayers, the IRO often prays together publicly for safety before F1 races or at the opening of MRT stations, dressed in their religious accoutrements, a symbolic rejection of exclusivism.168 Foreign preachers with divisive messages—such as Ismail Menk’s view that it is “the biggest sin and crime” for a Muslim to wish a non-Muslim “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Deepavali”—were denied work passes. MUIS was consulted and did not support these applications to preach as the applicants’ teachings “run counter to the values Singaporean Muslims uphold dearly that can contribute to a progressive and thriving religious life in Singapore.”169 In 2018, the Mufti publicly and proactively sent Chinese New Year (CNY) greetings170 to the Chinese community, which demonstrated that Malay-Muslim leaders were contributing towards nurturing and enhancing “the harmonious social environment that we all enjoy today;” as “part of the larger Singapore family,” he declared the Muslim community stood united with other communities to continue “to build a cohesive and thriving Singapore for future generations.”171 This builds on the inter-faith initiatives, such as that of Ba’alwie Mosque, which hosts community groups to share about Islam and build friendships.
To promote goodwill, various mosques distributed oranges and greeting cards to Chinese residents in their vicinity. One also delivered rice and groceries to sixty elderly and less privileged households.172 The Masjid Yusof Ishyak organized a CNY celebration on its mosque premises where one hundred elderly nursing home patients enjoyed lunch, a song and dance, and gifts of oranges and hongbaos. Education Minister Ong Ye Kung attended and praised this event as exemplifying living together “in harmony as a nation.” The mosque staff also attended a Chinese monastery’s CNY celebrations, which was praised as promoting inter-religious and cultural understanding.173
The government exhorts religious leaders to pursue inter-faith interactions as a curative to segregationist tendencies; to promote mutual understanding and respect, “we cannot treat other groups as infidels.”174 Practicing faith in a multi-religious context requires nurturing relations which are “tolerant, give-and-take, respectful, [and] warm.”175 The CCR tenet of racial and religious harmony promotes the pursuit of friendly relations and goodwill between religious and racial groups. This tenet stands in contrast with the agonistic relations associated with polemical political contestation, identity politics, and the cultural Marxist tactics used in the culture wars to demonize and intimidate political opponents.
The government conceives of the relationships between ethnic and religious communities as one “essentially about emotions,” whether people from different races and religions trust each other, feel comfortable living in proximity, and interacting. Law and policy alone in the endeavor of maintaining racial and religious harmony is insufficient, as what is required is “winning hearts and minds” and “influencing the people’s emotions.”176 Important work has to be done at the grassroots level where citizens interact with the government and each other. Like any religion, CCR must be nurtured in community life—which we now examine—as the security for harmony lies in sustained efforts “to strengthen the friendships and develop trust among Singaporeans from different cultures and religions.”177