Since independence on August 9, 1965, the accidentalFootnote 1 nation of Singapore has struggled with the fissiparous tendencies ethnic, religious, and linguistic diversity pose. Its incorporation into the Malaysian Federation from 1963–1965 failed as Malay elites considered Singapore—where 70% of the population is ChineseFootnote 2—a “stooge for communist China.”Footnote 3
The Singapore political leadership’s vision of a “Malaysian Malaysia” based on civic nationalism was rejected by the UMNO ruling party’s agenda of a “Malay Malaysia;” under this, bumiputeras—Malays and other indigenous peoples—enjoyed preferential rights and affirmative privileges, Malays were politically dominant, Islam was the Federation’s constitutionally recognized official religion,Footnote 4 and non-Malays were treated as lodgers—orang tumpangan.Footnote 5 This Malay-Muslim nationalism continues to trouble Malaysian political and judicial discourse.
Aversive constitutionalism was evident in Singapore’s departure from the Malaysian approach towards questions of race and religion. The Singapore leadership recognized a uni-national state was one doomed for destruction; majoritarian ethnic chauvinism was rejectedFootnote 6 as a multi-racial secular society was a dire necessity to ensure state survivability.Footnote 7 To this end, two extreme government models were rejected. First, a theocratic state which fused political and religious authority, where religious preferentialism exposes religious minorities to unequal treatment. Second, a politically totalitarian state such as communism, which eviscerates civil and religious freedoms.
The Singapore constitution was not a product of a constituent assembly or protracted negotiations with colonial powers. Early plans to draft a new constitution were scuttled.Footnote 8 Singapore’s existing state Constitution was retained and modified to befit the status of independent statehood. Nonetheless, the principle of multi-racialism and secular democracy was affirmed in the report of the constitutional commission convened in 1966 to propose adequate constitutional safeguards to secure the rights of racial, linguistic, and religious minorities.Footnote 9 The constitution guarantees religious freedom under Article 15 while not identifying with any religion; Article 153 provides for some religious group autonomy and legal pluralismFootnote 10 through the Administration of Muslim Law Act (AMLA). This establishes an Islamic religious council (MUIS), syariah courts, and authorizes the application of religious law to a limited range of personal and customary law matters. AMLA “reassures the Muslim community that its religion, Islam, and their Muslim way of life, have their rightful place in plural Singapore.”Footnote 11
While the fundamental liberties chapter contains no minority rights, Article 152 provides for minority protective duties. The constitution establishes the Group Representation Constituency and Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which guarantees legislative minority representation and provides for some legislative oversight respectively.Footnote 12 In 2016, a constitutional commission was convened to recommend amendments to the presidency, including ensuring all races were represented in the office of the head of stateFootnote 13 through a non-quota method.Footnote 14 The symbolic importance of multi-racialism was reiterated as “fundamental to Singapore’s cohesion and survival.”Footnote 15
First Prime Minister (PM) Lee Kuan Yew hoped that Singapore’s individualist equal rights approach “not based on the concepts of exclusiveness of race, language, religion” would assist her neighbors “in reaching similar rational adjustments in their own domestic arrangements” regarding “problems of language and culture.”Footnote 16 Clearly, matters of ethnicity and religion are viewed as belonging to the realm of emotions, “the primordial pulls of ancestry, race, language and religion.”Footnote 17 To distance the polity from such passions, a rational, technocratic, and pragmatic approach towards governance was adopted. In return for living in a disciplined, secure, economically thriving state, the people tolerated the frequently paternalistic style of government.
The lack of affect or emotion, however, could not nurture a sense of solidarity; the bureaucratic view of state-citizen relations was largely transactional, not covenantal. This is reflected in statements made by a defense ministry official before a court that the refusal of Jehovah’s Witnesses to perform military service meant they enjoyed the socio-economic benefits of citizenship without supporting “the very social and political institutions and structure which enable them to do so.”Footnote 18
The Singapore constitutional text is terse, filled with technical provisions unendearing to the layman.Footnote 19 It lacks a preambular historical narrative and explicit vision of justice. It contains little to inspire affect or a sense of political belonging, being an instrument for legal technicians, not lay citizens; it provides too thin a gruel to sustain a localized communitarian version of a Habermasian constitutional patriotism.Footnote 20
In Germany, having shared commitments to liberal constitutional ideals was considered antidotal to traditional nationalism. Constitutional patriotism “promises a form of solidarity distinct from both nationalism and cosmopolitanism.”Footnote 21 It rejects the idea of the volkstum popularized in the 1930s, under which individuals of an ethnic group were considered members of an organic community united by blood, language, and customs, which justified militaristic expansionism. Building political attachment based on constitutional values rather than tribal affiliation within polities having no shared historical past, faith, or tongue is a strategy for attaining solidarity in diversity. Rather than self-evident truths or received tradition, commonality must be constructed.
Normative aspirations and rejecting a racially homogenous state is evident in the broader Singapore constitutional order, beyond the documentary text. An expansive understanding of the concept of the Constitution is noted, encompassing not just the capital “C” text—and how it is judicially interpreted—and small “c” of constitutionally significant legislation,Footnote 22 but also “soft constitutional law,”Footnote 23 which includes executive–authored, widely available norms and precedent setting constitutional practices and rituals which generate expectations between constitutional actors and make powerful claims on citizens. The constitution may be viewed as embodying a type of civil religion in the sense of being “an authoritative regulatory order embodying the supreme law, which seeks to promote national identity and citizen solidarity.”Footnote 24 Concerns about illiberalism attending the concept of constitutional patriotism or a constitutional civil religion (CCR), which may be manipulated as an authoritarian tool of social control, in the name of religious harmony, cannot be discounted.Footnote 25 This fear may be partially allayed if a minimalist thin perfectionism is adhered to—one which focuses on pacific co-existence, not coercive assimilation, where unity does not connote uniformity.
This Article explores the nature, source, content, and role of a CCR within Singapore’s constitutional experiment to manage ethnic and religious diversity. This is constructed as a strategy to secure social harmony within the world’s most religiously diverse polity,Footnote 26 through recognizing an irreducible plurality in ethnic and religious terms while maintaining an indivisible unity through nurturing bonds of solidarity. It entails both a commitment to ethnic and religious pluralism as well as promoting conciliatory methods of dispute resolution beyond legal sanction imposed by the government or resort to judicial review. This dovetails with the integrative function of the constitution, involving regular affirmation of shared community norms and orthopraxical practices as forms of alternative dispute resolution deployed to handle racial and religious disharmony crises. A functional approach towards civil religion and the integrative, legitimating, and inspirational role it may play within a constitutional order is taken.
Part A explores the origins, nature, and typologies of the sociological phenomenon of a civil religion. It considers the utility in speaking of a Singapore CCR and how this may contribute towards solidarity. It reflects on the religious dimension of law and the need for common commitments to secure stability in plural societies. Part B examines the anatomy of this CCR, its norms, processes, rituals, and institutions. It examines how this develops and operates within Singapore’s model of accommodative secularism and services relational constitutionalism which seeks to promote durable relationships and relational well-being between ethnic and religious groups. This includes expectations communicated by the government to religious groups and the harmony-promoting initiatives of religious groups. Part C offers concluding observations on how Singapore’s CCR may contribute to securing solidarity in diversity within a non-liberal polity.
B. Interrogating Civil Religion and its Relation to a Constitutional Order
I. Common Values and Social Stability
Princeton theologian Max Stackhouse observed that “no complex civilization capable of including many peoples and sub-cultures within it has endured without a profound and subtle religiously oriented philosophy or theology at its core.”Footnote 27
Except among advocates of religious theocracies, the once orthodox belief that political unity was predicated on religious unity has lost prescriptive sway. Nonetheless, the debate over religion’s role in shaping national morality and its relation to democracy persists.Footnote 28 Civil religion as an ersatz religion exerts a cohesive force in articulating common values or a mission; these values are sacralized, or accorded a quasi-religious authoritative quality, mediated through rituals, symbols, and ceremonies. Footnote 29
Various types of civil religion exist,Footnote 30 whether state-sponsored or independent, theistic, deistic, or humanist; these may be minimalistFootnote 31 or utopian, in explicitly rejecting established religions, as where Robespierre sought to replace Catholicism with a Supreme Being cult in France.Footnote 32 Other examples include Roman Emperor worship or pre–World War Two Japanese Shinto which venerated the Emperor’s divinity. Secular, anti-religious ideologies like Russian communism had their own saints (Lenin), sacred feasts (May Day), and proselytizing belief in the global socialist revolution.Footnote 33
To Coleman, civil religion operated within “the unique province of neither church nor state,”Footnote 34 expressing collective conscience and communal identity.Footnote 35 For Bellah, one of religion’s social functions was “to provide a meaningful set of ultimate values” to base social morality upon.Footnote 36 A civil religion “embodies the terms of reference in which politics will be justified,” providing a kind of “overarching moral glue” in response to a “problematic pluralism” which “fragmented religious symbolism cannot provide.”Footnote 37
While “civil” refers to society or the political community, “religion” in this context is to be understood not as a belief in spiritual beings,Footnote 38 but in the Durkheimian sense of “a unified system of beliefs and practices relative to sacred things … things set apart and forbidden – beliefs and practices which unite into one single moral community … all those who adhere to them.”Footnote 39 For Durkheim, “the cohesion and shared values fostered by religion” was essential to social order, as a healthy society depends on “affection and respect towards the collectivity fostered by religious sentiments and rituals.”Footnote 40
The classic concept of civil religion has its roots in Rousseau’s Social Contract (1762);Footnote 41 Rousseau considered civil religion necessary to supplement the national order, even within humanistic, strongly anti-clerical post-revolutionary France. While propagated by the state, civil religion was “not a distinct church but merely a statement of faith all citizens must affirm,”Footnote 42 to nurture patriotism and the virtuous republic. A “purely civil profession of faith” was needed to discipline society, constituting “a body of social sentiments without which no man can be either a good citizen or a faithful subject.”Footnote 43 Rousseau identified a few dogmatic tenets the state was to espouse, essentially a bland form of deism, such as belief in the existence of God and the afterlife, the reward of virtue and the punishment of vice, the sanctity of the social contract and laws, and excluding religious intolerance. This ersatz religion “was to be constructed and imposed from the top down as an artificial source of civic virtue.”Footnote 44 The Indonesian Pancasila and Malaysian Rukunegara, statements of national ideology within Muslim-majority plural societies, represent attempts to unify a diverse population and promote broad social cooperation.Footnote 45 Religiously-based civic religion attempting to connect the present with the past is found in Thailand, where Buddhist teachings as a major pillar of Thai civic religion are presented both as supporting traditional values and democratic changes.Footnote 46 Attempts to revive Japanese Shintoism sought to bolster Japanese social identity and destiny.Footnote 47
Other accounts of civil religion are more experience-based and bottom-up, a form of vestigial faith transmuting into a cultural tradition,Footnote 48 a religion serving not otherworldly but secular ends. Popularized by Robert Bellah in the 1960s, American civil religion,Footnote 49 absent an established religion, entails the nation’s subordination to transcendental ethical principles not specifically identified with a sectarian religion beyond a diluted Protestantism. Its norms and rituals are found in sources such as solemn presidential statements like Lincoln’s Gettysburg address, the idea of manifest destiny as God’s chosen agent, and national political ceremonies like presidential inaugurations. While secular in nature, they carry sacred connotations.
Whether organic or constructed, civil religion may be seen as a project of affect, of sustaining loyalty beyond particularistic tribal identities. It resonates with the idea of constitutional patriotism, of promoting solidarity through shared constitutional norms. A civil religion to which all citizens can subscribe transcends religious nationalism. The CCR seeks to promote social integration, a precondition for collective action within a plural polity. This involves invoking what Berman terms “the religious dimension of law,”Footnote 50 in the form of “legal emotions, legal passions,” which is reflected in the sacred nature of the state which demands our loyalty, beyond its bureaucratic nature in promising to deliver goods and services. The former is illustrated where elected officials engage in the quasi-religious ritual of swearing an oath of office to bear “true faith and allegiance” to the Republic and to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution.
The Singapore CCR is a constructed one; the analysis here does not concern itself with definitional questions, but adopts a functionalist approach in terms of the role CCR has played—particularly, its ability to integrate and unify a religiously and ethnically diverse population—to nurture civil societal values and to cultivate expectations of social behavior among citizens. It considers whether it can play the priestly role of celebrating national ideals already achieved, as well as the propheticFootnote 51 role of calling the nation–state back to those fundamental principles animating the constitutional system, to renew the project of realizing them.Footnote 52
C. The Anatomy of Singapore Constitutional Civil Religion and its Relation to Relational Constitutionalism
A primary imperative of a young plural nation-state is “to foster and nurture the sense of national identity,” such as through “rituals and invented traditions” which “sustain the common interest of heterogeneous groups” and their belief in the legitimacy of the nation.Footnote 53 Kong has demonstrated how civil religion in Singapore has explanatory force in understanding how states build national identity. This involves examining how “civic rhetoric makes use of religious symbols and the way in which civic practices resemble ritual practices.”Footnote 54 In the absence of shared history, unity may be nurtured by a vision of a common future.
Patriotism can be nurtured through reciting the national pledge, singing the national anthem, or national songs like “One Nation, One People, One Singapore”Footnote 55 retelling the myth of founding and commemorating great leaders and events. The nation thus is conceived as “a sacred communion of its members” who share the same values and moral faith, and who “participate in shared rituals.”Footnote 56
The constitution may develop national identity through historical narratives and visions of justice. These are usually found in preambles, directive principles, fundamental duties, and bills of rights. Constitutions may also specify a national flag, anthem, language, and day, an official religion(s), and thus have a hortatory function in promoting a certain moral or spiritual ethosFootnote 57 among both governors and governed; they make no pretense at liberal neutrality in imposing positive duties, such as assisting accident victimsFootnote 58 or requiring that the parliamentary opposition provide “constructive and responsible debate.”Footnote 59 The Singapore constitutional text has none of these features.
Two major steps are involved in the deliberate construction of a CCR: First, to articulate its content, a key tenet of which in Singapore is maintaining racial and religious harmony. Second, promoting this CCR to gain widespread acceptance and internalization and as a resource for managing crises.
I. Setting the Context: Accommodative Secularism and Pragmatic Realism
1. Religion and State
The genesis of Singapore was found in its shock exodus from the Malaysian Federation. Early imperatives included tackling the communist threat, ethnic and religious chauvinism, and economic development. A hard-nosed pragmatism drove realist policies, such as trading with everyone.
Singapore’s religious freedom guarantees were more liberally framed at inception than the Malaysian Article 11 equivalent. Article 15 protects the rights of every person to “profess, practice and propagate” their religion; the 1966 constitutional commission explicitly rejected the Malaysian ban against religious propagation to Muslims as incompatible with secular democracy.Footnote 60 The Constitution does not establish a religionFootnote 61—there is no invocatio dei. The Proclamation of Singapore of August 9, 1965—unlike the Malaysian Proclamation on SingaporeFootnote 62 invoking the Muslim deity—rests on a people’s “inalienable right” to be “free and independent”—an expression of popular sovereignty.
There are no apostasy laws, as Singapore’s model of accommodative secularism as religious freedom “is premised on removing restrictions to one’s choice of religious belief.”Footnote 63 The Constitution does not have the Malaysian equivalent of defining “Malay” as someone who practices the Muslim religion—Article 160—even if 99.4% of Malays are Muslim. The government seeks not to engage in questions of theology or religious doctrineFootnote 64 and tries to be impartial between the various religions and to uphold a framework for the pacific co-existence of the many faith communities.Footnote 65
A strict separationist religion-state model seeking to privatize religious faith and unjustly discount its social dimension is eschewed; citizens with religiously-shaped convictions may freely participate in democratic debate.Footnote 66 The Singapore model of secularism is agnostic, not anti-theistic, and secular fundamentalism associated with laik states is rejected. The degree of entanglement between religion and state exemplifies the co-operative government–religious groups partnership in promoting social welfare.Footnote 67 In institutional terms, the Singapore president has a role in appointing the president of the Majlis under Section 7 AMLA. The violation of halal certification laws under Section 88(5) AMLA is a generally applicable offense, and the power of MUIS to collect fines for this offense reflects the “unique role of MUIS in a multi-racial, multi-religious society” and the government’s commitment to “fostering respect for important religious practices and safeguarding the interests of minorities in Singapore.”Footnote 68 Singapore practices a brand of “secularism with a soul,” which is “uniquely Singaporean, our own style of racial and religious harmony,”Footnote 69 quite “unlike secular states in the West” and Muslim-majority Turkey.Footnote 70 Here, religion is recognized as having a role “in forging a harmonious and cohesive society in our Singapore.”Footnote 71
In contextualizing religious practice within Singapore’s unique circumstances, such as its dense population, the Muslim call to prayer—azan—through mosque loudspeakers was modified to placate non-Muslims in the vicinity. Loudspeakers were first turned inward and the government later allocated a dedicated radio frequency over which the azan was broadcasted. Taoists have had to stop burning giant joss sticks in open areas, confining this religious practice to temple precincts. Social cohesion rests on reciprocal understanding and sensitivity, as where non-Muslims provide halal food for their Muslim guests at events, or where workplace arrangements are made to facilitate Muslim colleagues going on Hajj.Footnote 72
2. Evolving Governance Styles: From Third World to First
The style of Singapore governance has evolved over time and provides context for understanding how solidarity in diversity is managed.
The first Prime Minister (PM) Lee Kuan Yew ruled with an authoritarian hand, scorning populism as “leaders should be feared and not necessarily liked or loved.”Footnote 73 Good governance rested on the pillars of meritocracy and anti-corruption ethos, and the economy was founded on a legal system anchored in a thin conception of the rule of law which secured commercial and property interests. Strict laws curbed civil and political rights in the name of maintaining social order, considered key to attracting foreign trade and investment. Describing PM Lee as a “stern father,” the second PM Goh Chok Tong likened his governance style to that of an “elder brother” tasked with persuading citizens to accept the family’s “house rules.”Footnote 74
In the late 1980s, PM Goh mooted the idea of having a national ideology as an aid to building national identity. In 1991, Parliament adopted the white paper on Shared Values, containing five core values, including racial and religious harmony.Footnote 75 These were integral to National Education which promoted responsible citizenship; the need to preserve racial and religious harmony was inculcated through the message: “Though many races, languages, religions and cultures, we pursue one destiny.”Footnote 76 Cautionary tales relating to bloody racial and religious conflicts in countries like Sri Lanka, Indonesia, and Bosnia were regularly raised in public discourse.Footnote 77 It was thus imperative to build “the Singapore tribe” where “the sense of belonging to a state” would outweigh “the primordial instinct of belonging to a tribe.”Footnote 78 The attempt to co-opt religion to promote moral values through a religious knowledge curriculum module in public schools introduced in the early 1980s was abandoned within a decade, as it encouraged evangelism in classrooms, precipitating tensions. Indeed, aggressive proselytization was identified as a threat to racial and religious harmony in the 1989 Maintenance of Religious Harmony white paper,Footnote 79 preceding the 1990 Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (Cap 167A) (MRHA). This Act empowers the government to pre-emptively issue non-justiciable restraining or gag orders to religious leaders and groups engaged in promoting political causes under guise of promoting religious belief or whose acts caused “feelings”Footnote 80 of hostility between different religious groups.
The seminal loss of a Group Representation Constituency to the opposition Worker’s Party in the 2011 General Elections inaugurated the start of a post-deferential era, fueled by the internet, as a vehicle for communicating with and holding political leaders accountable. The third PM Lee Hsien Loong, who had urged citizens to participate more actively in public debate and life before assuming office in 2004,Footnote 81 sought to usher in a culture responsive to the electorate, apologized for failures, and exhorted parliamentarians to display public servant-leadership.Footnote 82 This more egalitarian bent departed from past practices where MPs were greeted in feudal fashion by lion-dances and where ministers presumed to tutor citizens to address ministers as senior partners deferentially in public debate.Footnote 83 A more consultative governance style was adopted, with dialogue replacing diktat; this humbler approach yielded the reward of a near 70% of the popular vote in the 2015 general elections.Footnote 84
PM Lee practices relationism in cultivating good working relationships with religious leaders, through quiet diplomacy and regular meetings, such that when a crisis erupts, “we are not dealing with strangers but with somebody we know and trust.”Footnote 85 The trauma of the deadly 1960s race riots erupting from the Prophet Muhammad procession continues to scar the national psyche, anchoring the national historical narrative of rising from the ashes of violence-producing racial and religious acrimony to religious harmony and civil peace. Celebrating some success in the project of religious harmony, PM Lee observed in 2009 that Singapore’s harmonious society was “a Garden of Eden state;” but as there are snakes in every garden, he warned “if you leave … you cannot get back in again.”Footnote 86
This state of affairs requires “activist”Footnote 87 government management. PM Lee, in celebrating Singapore’s golden jubilee in 2015, noted Singapore had transformed into “one united people” as “every community has progressed with the nation” in the journey “from third world to first;” this was a far cry from 1965 when minorities were “uncertain of their place in the new country,” given the “fresh and raw” memories of race riots. Lee Kuan Yew’s dream of a “Singaporean Singapore” had enjoyed a large measure of success, reflected symbolically in the easy interchange between government leaders and religious communities. PM Lee attended many SG50 celebrations hosted by Catholics, Protestants, Taoists, Buddhists, and Malay/Muslim organizations. Nonetheless, while “this faith, this sense of togetherness and purpose is stronger than before,” he warned against taking things for granted as “we are always at risk of deep fault lines” where religiosity is growing and people are “exposed and vulnerable to extremist ideologies, like the Jihadist ideology of ISIS.”Footnote 88 For example, more Singaporeans have become “self-radicalized” by online ISIS propaganda, illustrating how race and religion affect not only politics, “but also terrorism and violence.”Footnote 89 Multi-racialism is considered a coping strategy for dealing with the inevitable fear and anger a terrorist attack would generate, guarding against a Muslim/non-Muslim divide. The relational approach in having religious and grassroots leaders work to build stronger community ties through interactive forums and initiatives, such as “Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles and SGSecure,” would help Singaporeans “hold on together and let life go on as one people.”Footnote 90
Two things are noteworthy. First, liberal constitutionalism is rejected insofar as it requires the state to be neutral and unconcerned about its citizens’ character, leaving them alone to decide what constitutes the good life.Footnote 91 Liberal states are not neutral—they seek not only to protect but produce citizens with liberal dispositions, even if the state “as a school of virtue is the last thing a liberal regime conceives itself to be.” The Singapore state unabashedly adopts “an ethical, educational, even spiritual role” in nurturing civic virtue and “public spiritedness.”Footnote 92
Second, the language of affect and appeal to intangible values is becoming more prominent within a polity where efficiency is prioritized and rationality valorized. Religion may speak in an emotional or affective key, but so does civil religion; cold rationality alone cannot foster solidarity. Government leaders increasingly appreciate the need to engage both the head and heart in describing harmony and the Singapore way as “not just tolerating other groups but opening our hearts to all our fellow citizens.”Footnote 93 In a similar vein, PM Lee in 2015 noted the historic “shared moment of sorrow,” where the nation as “one Singapore family” mourned the passing of PM Lee Kuan Yew; this crystallized “the Singapore spirit” such that “[n]ow we know that we are Singaporean.”Footnote 94
Despite the absence of a constitutional founding moment channeled through a constituent assembly or some analogue, government leaders have lately begun to refer to “our founding fathers” to invoke an air of mythos and moment who enshrined multiracialism into the Constitution and authored the National Pledge under which Singaporeans “pledge ourselves as one united people, regardless of race, language or religion.”Footnote 95 A now identifiable “Singapore Story” sets forth a shared vision of “prospering together, progressing together” to make “this little red dot shine bright in the world, as well as in our hearts …”Footnote 96 The national narrative is no longer one of mere struggle, but of attainment. There is now a “way of life” to safeguard, where majority and minority groups interact to “increase common space” and resist the global “tide of populism”Footnote 97 and ethnic chauvinism.
In 2017, the Law Minister, while affirming the religious freedom of all, urged that as a community “we must covenant to ourselves to never allow xenophobia and majoritarianism”Footnote 98 to compromise minority protection. A covenant speaks to enduring partnership;Footnote 99 the enemies of this covenant seek to alienate Singaporeans. He particularly cautioned against Islamophobia in stereotyping Muslims as terrorists, exhorting non–Muslims to “embrace our Muslim brothers and sisters”Footnote 100 to prevent them from becoming alienated, imperiling “the harmonious society that we have built.”Footnote 101 The project of sustaining racial and religious harmony continues, with the government seeking to partnerFootnote 102 with civil society and religious leaders to build social trust, as “peace between religions” does not come naturally, but is “a constant work in progress.”Footnote 103
II. Source and Content of CCR
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,Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 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”Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 114 A constitution as institution “consists of the ways and attitudes of varied people.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.Footnote 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 normsFootnote 118 bear some stability and possess predictive value flowing from their social ordering capacity.
For example, a 1999 white paper on Principles Governing National ReservesFootnote 119 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.”Footnote 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),Footnote 121 formulated by religious representatives under a junior minister’s leadership. It is also one of five shared valuesFootnote 122 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.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.Footnote 126
The MRHWP considers that if Singaporeans “show respect and tolerance for other faiths, harmony should prevail.”Footnote 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 faithFootnote 128 be “exercised very sensitively,”Footnote 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…. ”Footnote 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 faithsFootnote 131 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.Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.Footnote 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.”Footnote 135 To preserve religious harmony, religious groups should mutually abstain from seeking “competitive political influence”.Footnote 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.Footnote 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.”Footnote 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”Footnote 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.Footnote 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.Footnote 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.Footnote 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.Footnote 143
As terrorism conducted in a religion’s name can fundamentally impair inter-religious ties and deplete the national store of “psychological strength,”Footnote 144 the white paper sought to characterize the terrorists as a “small and isolated group of misguided Muslims with no support from the community,”Footnote 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”Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.Footnote 148 The government was careful to note “it must not disrupt the legitimate practices and peaceful activities of the local Muslim community”Footnote 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.Footnote 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,Footnote 151 with the goal of guiding Muslims “to live in harmony with other Singaporeans of all races and religions.”Footnote 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.Footnote 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.Footnote 154 The Prime Minister warned against anti-Muslim sentiment taking root, equating Islamophobia with radical terrorism;Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.Footnote 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.Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 160 Everyone should unequivocally condemn terrorist acts to facilitate the on-going project of working for “a united tolerant multi-racial multi-religious society.”Footnote 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!”Footnote 162
Religious leaders are now expected to actively champion interaction, integration, and religious harmony for the common goodFootnote 163 to ensure their flock was tolerant, “that we greet each other, that we celebrate each other’s festivals.”Footnote 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,Footnote 165 an example of how religious leaders “give blessings on one another’s milestone celebrations.”Footnote 166 This promotion goes beyond tolerance to actively sharing religious life. While Indonesian Islamic authoritiesFootnote 167 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.Footnote 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.”Footnote 169 In 2018, the Mufti publicly and proactively sent Chinese New Year (CNY) greetingsFootnote 170 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.”Footnote 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.Footnote 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.Footnote 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.”Footnote 174 Practicing faith in a multi-religious context requires nurturing relations which are “tolerant, give-and-take, respectful, [and] warm.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 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.”Footnote 177
III. Institutions and Networks
Singapore CCR has its equivalent of a sacred text which records the mantra of racial and religious harmony, and its adversary, which threatens disharmony. It has its priests, such as the Islamic religious teachers whose ethics code requires that religious teachings do not impair social harmony. Asatizahs also seek to guide youths through their social media presence, which reassures non-Muslims that the Muslim community is taking “firm steps”Footnote 178 to combat the common enemy of violent extremism. The new blasphemy is to denigrate others’ faiths or to stir ill-will against a religious group as a form of sacraphobia.
The CCR is sustained by a community of adherents crossing racial and religious lines. After the Jemaah Islamiyah conspiracy was unearthed in 2001, PM Goh Chok Tong stated his confidence that, at the leadership level, “good sense will prevail” in addressing racial and religious incidents and that reactions would be “calm, considered and based on facts.” He voiced concern that the ordinary citizen would “react emotionally based on rumors, hearsay and prejudices” and that irrational conduct could lead to a “major confrontation” between races and religions.Footnote 179 He proposed a code to “crystallize the consensus” on the conduct of religious life in Singapore. He instructed the People’s Association in 2002 to set up Inter-Racial Confidence Circles (IRCC)—renamed the Inter Racial and Religious Confidence Circles in 2007—at the community level as platforms to promote confidence-building between the different communities and to promote “deeper friendships and trust.”Footnote 180 The IRCCsFootnote 181 also train to be rapid responders in the event of racial and religious tension and to project solidarity during crises.
During the drafting of the Declaration on Religious Harmony (DRH)—which was presented as “a product of a bottom-up consultation process involving all major stakeholders,”Footnote 182and the People’s DocumentFootnote 183—the religious representatives involved in this enterprise, steered by a junior minister, were not only sensitized to each other’s concerns, but they also developed relational networks and were later appointed to a shepherding body to promote the DRH to the community at large. In promoting desirable behavior, the DRH is preventative in nature; whether it is observed depends on good-will and self-regulation.
Just as all religions have sacred or memorial days, the DRH was first recited by grassroots bodies, students, and religious groups during the Racial Harmony Day Celebrations in 2003.Footnote 184 The CCR has pastoral ministers, in the form of the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG), composed of Islamic teachers who counsel and rehabilitate radicalized individuals, such as those detained in the Jemaah Islamiyah conspiracy. This rehabilitation has expanded to include public education initiatives to counter misinterpretations of Islamic concepts and prevent extremist narratives “from dominating the community’s religious discourse.”Footnote 185 The RRG plays a peacebuilding role in promoting an appreciation of Islam and inter-faith understanding.Footnote 186
The shrines where the CCR is celebrated include the Harmony CentreFootnote 187 established in 2006 as MUIS’ inter-faith arm; its location in An-Nahdhah Mosque is groundbreaking. The Centre has Islamic exhibits and also provides information on other religions such as Hinduism, Taoism, and Buddhism, stressing the importance Islam places on pluralismFootnote 188 and showcasing “Singapore’s model of religious harmony.”Footnote 189 To foster inter-religious dialogue, it runs a “Building Bridges” program, collaborating with the National Council of Churches of Singapore in 2011 and the Buddhist community in 2014.Footnote 190 It sponsors a flagship lecture series where apex religious leaders address a wider interfaith audience. The Harmony Centre also sends gifts to Buddhist and Taoist leaders to celebrate the Chinese New Year.Footnote 191 The Home Affairs Ministry developed a “Harmony in Diversity” gallery designed to enrich understandings of Singapore’s rich religious diversity and to appreciate that religious harmony is a constant work in progress.Footnote 192 Consonant with CCR tenets, exhibits and displays seek to emphasize the importance of seeking common ground, expanding common spaces, and encouraging personal reflection on how individuals can help sustain a harmonious Singapore.
The government runs a harmony fund—the CCR’s evangelical arm—to support projects promoting religious harmony with grants up to $100,000. The fund awarded a grant to the youth group “Roses for Harmony,” which acts as CCR ambassadors for inter-faith harmony, and whose patron since 2012 is the President. It seeks to build an inter-faith network of youths and train them to become “peace ambassadors, interfaith leaders and lifelong catalysts of inter-religious cooperation.”Footnote 193 MUIS intends to develop a broader alliance among such interfaith groups in order to build a “stronger voice of reason, moderation and toleration” to serve religious harmony.Footnote 194 The government encourages such grassroots initiatives, as the religious harmony project requires civil society and religious leaders to work “in partnership”Footnote 195 with the government as adherents to a common creed.
IV. Dispute Resolution: Disharmony Disputes, Public Ritual, and Relational Constitutionalism
The court-centric theory that rules decide cases creates—in the aftermath of adjudication—both a winner and a loser. This result breeds alienation and separation, rather than reconciliation and solidarity, the object of relational constitutionalism. Officialdom also fears that judicial proceedings over religious disharmony disputes may be a venue for stoking public passions.
To preserve the relationship of parties to a disharmony dispute, nonjudicial dispute resolution has to be oriented towards a settlement which allows for a continuing relationship and community rapprochement; any disciplining response cannot be disproportionate, humiliating, vengeful, or animus-sustaining. This notion requires goodwill on the part of those involved and a commitment to heal the relational breakdown and seek reconciliation. A rights-based approach to ordering social relations cannot accomplish this.
Typically, a disharmony incident involves religious group A doing something which offends the sensitivities of religious group(s) B. A complaint is made to the authorities, either by the offended religious party or by militant secularists who—as conflict entrepreneurs—seek to stir inter-religious tensions to serve some ulterior purpose guised under the umbrella of preserving religious harmony. The authorities may take legal action or issue a warning to the offending party.
From a study of various disharmony incidents, such incidents are framed as breaching the CCR tenet of religious harmony through antisocial behavior, eliciting collective disapproval and the prospect of legal sanction. A protocol or conciliation oriented, solidarity projecting public ritual has emerged over time with respect to the desired conduct expected of various parties to a disharmony crisis, which may be described as CCR in action. This has precedential value, where actions comply with expectations and CCR norms as part of the Constitution as a living institution provide the shared basis from which the dispute is managed. The offending and offended religious parties take center stage, while the legal framework and watchful government recede to the background and reemerge only after the reconciliatory public ritual is successfully executed to ratify the settlement. This process usually involves an express acceptance that SCL norms in MRHWP provide the appropriate framework for managing the issue, which reaffirms the authoritativeness of CCR norms for addressing disharmony problems. This affirmation sustains the perception that the government is not acting in a heavy-handed interventionist manner, which can alienate faith communities, contrary to the goals of CCR. How the government responds to third party conflict entrepreneurs seeking punitive action to fuel tensions or weaponize the situation for political gain will impact the sustainability of the settlement between the religious parties. What follows is an analysis of three case studies with a view to illustrating an alternative dispute resolution method which applies and develops the CCR in its goal of sustaining solidarity and repairing the relational breach to restore the status quo ante of religious harmony.
1. Lighthouse Evangelism Disharmony Incident Footnote 196
Complaints were made against videos made by Pastor Rony Tan on the Lighthouse Evangelism church website, which some Buddhists and Taoists found offensive for mocking their beliefs. After receiving a public warning from the Internal Security Department, the videos were removed, but by then had been reposted on platforms like Facebook and YouTube. The internet was abuzz with harsh criticism of the pastor who appealed for the removal of these reposted clips and who also reviewed the church inventory of uploaded videos for offensiveness.
Pastor Tan personally visited representatives of the Buddhist and Taoist Federation to apologize, which was graciously received. The media printed reconciliatory photos of them hugging, which decelerated tensions. Only then did Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng signal that he was “heartened” by the accepted public apology, commending the measured response of Buddhist and Taoists leaders in urging restraint among their religious communities. Minister Wong affirmed that religious propagation was a constitutional liberty but referenced various SCL norms to underscore that it should not be exercised “by way of insulting or denigrating the religious beliefs of others.”Footnote 197The Buddhist and Taoist leaders stated they intended to stay in touch with Pastor Tan and cooperate to promote mutual understanding between their respective religious groups.Footnote 198 This was not satisfactory to certain netizens who—as self-anointed champions of religious harmony—continued to vilify or demonize the pastor online and to insult Christianity in general. Some netizens started a Facebook campaign calling for the Pastor’s arrest in the name of “embracing religious harmony,” which the government ignored.Footnote 199
2. Imam Nalla Mohammad
A video shot and uploaded to Facebook on February 24, 2017 by Nunis—a Muslim Singaporean—of Iman Nalla Mohammad went viral; in it, the Imam who worked at Jamae Mosque since 2010 uttered an Arabic prayer, “God help us against Jews and Christians,” which was deemed offensive to Christians and Jews. A Muslim academic, Aljunied, made comments on Facebook which could be construed as supporting the Imam’s remarks.
Nalla was convicted under Section 298 A(b) of the Penal Code (Cap 224) for committing an act he knew was “prejudicial to the maintenance of harmony between different religious or racial groups and which disturbs or is likely to disturb the public tranquility.” Nunis and Aljunied received stern warnings, Nunis for posting the video online rather than reporting it to the police. Both men expressed regret and issued public apologies.Footnote 200
Imam Nalla was fined $4,000 and deported. Notably, this process was accomplished in a manner designed not only to punish but restore the offender. A public demonstration of inter-faith unity was made by IRO members, including a Sikh and Buddhist monk clad in saffron robes, who accompanied Nalla when he left the state courts. The remarks of District Judge Jasbendar KaurFootnote 201 were also restorationist: While the Imam should have been sensitive to Singapore’s multi-religious context and not delivered sermons that might undermine racial and religious harmony, Nalla’s admission of guilt, cooperation with the authorities, and demonstrated “strong sense of remorse”Footnote 202 was commended. The media publicized Nalla’s active steps to contain the harm, which reflects the public ritual of apology and reconciliation. He made an open apology on March 31, 2017, before thirty Christian, Sikh, Taoist, Buddhist, and Hindu leaders at a meeting that he requested to be held at the Harmony in Diversity Gallery.Footnote 203 He visited Rabbi Abergel at his synagogue on April 2, 2017, to tender a personal apology,Footnote 204 again accompanied by IRO members in religious dress, demonstrating rapprochement.
The Imam’s subsequent reconciliatory breakfast meeting with Law Minister K. Shanmugam at a mosqueFootnote 205 was widely publicized. The minister—who had stressed the government’s zero tolerance policy towards violence-provoking religious preaching before Parliament—stated the deportation decision was taken “with some regret”; he lauded the Imam’s sincere remorse and courage in meeting other faith leaders.Footnote 206 The press published photos of a teary-eyed Imam and Minister breaking bread and hugging.Footnote 207 MUIS and other Islamic bodies affirmed that there was “no room for discourse that promotes intolerance, enmity or violence against other communities,”Footnote 208 while Muslim Affairs minister Yaacob Ibrahim stated that the rule of law would be applied without double standards to “protect all communities regardless of race or religion, from being denigrated.”Footnote 209 The Imam clarified that his statement was from Indian custom—not the Quran—affirming the “priceless lesson” he took from this heuristic process, his belief there was no witch-hunt, as official action taken was “solely to preserve the sanctity of interfaith harmony.”Footnote 210 Signaling restored equilibrium, the Imam mentioned the warm reception he received from the Anglican bishop and Jewish rabbi, who comforted him in stating “all mortal men make mistakes and that we must move forward consciously for the sake of social trust and religious cohesion.”Footnote 211
The incident was capped by the Minister Yaacob’s Facebook post thanking “our non-Muslim friends for accepting the apology,” noting that gracious forgiveness reflected “the Singapore way” of upholding “mutual respect and harmony for our common good.Footnote 212
3. Kingdom Invasion Conference
The Muslim community reciprocated the forgiveness that other religious communities had extended Imam Nalla in forgiving remarks made by an American speaker, Lou Engle, at the Kingdom Invasion Conference hosted by Cornerstone Community Church in 2018.
A secular humanist, one Benjamin Lim, purchased a $220 ticket to attend the conference; Lim wrote a hostile, christophobic articleFootnote 213 about it which was published on Rice Media online. It was provocatively entitled “Lou Engle: An American Threatens a Christian-Muslim Divide in Singapore”Footnote 214 and described Engle as making an “anti-Islam remark” at the conference where he apparently said: “I had a dream, where I will raise up the church all over Spain to push back a new modern Muslim movement,” which a church spokesman described as relating to ISIS propaganda. Lim wrote that Engle had been in many controversies “for his homophobic and islamophobic” comments, such as urging his followers to pray for Muslims to have dreams of Jesus in Dearborn, Michigan, as “God wants to invade with His love Dearborn with dreams of Jesus.” Engle was also the leader of an American pro-life movement that Lim found “contentious”. The writer had “come to Kingdom Invasion to investigate whether Engle’s speech would be as controversial as the ones that have cemented his reputation.” He wrote that he could not believe his ears at what he heard, as “[i]sn’t the mention of other faiths at a religious even sacrilegious in Singapore.” He suggested that Engle’s statement be interpreted to mean that “Islam is a threat to Christianity,” and that Engle had expressed “fundamentalist extremist views.”Footnote 215
In turn, the church filed a police report alleging that Lim’s article constituted a “scurrilous attack” and was inflammatory in “stirring up religious tensions and promoting feelings of ill-will and hostility between Christians and Muslims.” The article also had a “seditious tendency” and “denigrated the Christian faith.”Footnote 216 The article and police reports sparked investigations by the police and Home Affairs Ministry.Footnote 217
Religious tensions were evidently stirred, so Cornerstone Pastor Yang Tuck Yoong issued a written apology and personally delivered this remark to Muslim leaders—including the Mufti—at a requested meeting: He regretted that Engle’s remarks had “been the cause of considerable distress and misunderstanding, particularly among the Muslim community.”Footnote 218 The Mufti and Muslim leaders accepted Pastor Yang’s apology and declared their intent to “move on and look forward to a more constructive and healthy relationship.” The Muslim Affairs Minister then gave the seal of ministerial approval through a Facebook post, stating that he appreciated Pastor Yang’s apology and his taking responsibility for the invitation. Pastor Yang also promised not to invite Mr. Engle to speak in Singapore again, emphasizing that his church did not “condone any speech or actions that foster ill will between communities.”Footnote 219
The media published photos of Pastor Yang and the Mufti warmly shaking hands.Footnote 220 Shortly afterwards, former nominated MP Zulkifli Baharudin—Pastor Yang’s university friend— organized a lunch between church and Muslim leaders at Ba’akwie Mosque, with both sides affirming that “these sorts of things can be easily resolved … by meeting together.” The attending dignitaries included President Halimah’s husband. Mr. Baharudin realistically observed that it was not possible to completely avoid these sorts of disputes, and that the “only guarantee” was that of “goodwill” which “starts from personal relationships,” as his actions demonstrated. Showing moral leadership, he demonstrated a relational approach in urging religious communities to welcome those “who have made mistakes, with love, with care, as a brother,” as “Singaporeans should be like that, and Muslims in Singapore are capable of that.”Footnote 221 The NCCS also issued a public statement affirming the “measured response” of MUIS and their “gracious acceptance” of Pastor Yang’s apology as actions worthy of emulation. They praised the “magnanimity which bodes well for inter-religious harmony in our nation” and considered it “marvelous” that where “unintended hurts” are caused, religious leaders “can graciously and maturely handle the matter and keep unhappiness from deepening or spreading.”Footnote 222
4. Analysis and Observation on Religious Disharmony Incidents
Religious disharmony disputes implicate entire communities. CCR plays the functional role that traditional religion has played in times past in cohering society. A harmony-centric CCR which promotes social norms and encourages conciliatory methods of dispute resolution has generated an emergent public ritual over time whose aim is to preserve social cohesion. This ritual involves the offending party extending an apology and taking measures to avoid repetition; the offended party is expected to graciously accept, not churlishly, spurn the apology. This ritual provides a publicly shared moment for the mutual reaffirmation and recommitment to shared values like working together towards religious harmony, which attracts ministerial level approval of this settlement which disposes of the case. These rituals compose a “unique blend of emotion, physical performance and communicative activity.”Footnote 223
The government that has the final say in preserving the public order has chosen to ignore actors seeking to disrupt this settlement by perpetuating the dispute or continuing to demonize the repentant offending party and pour fuel on the embers of a dying fire; such vindictive attacks can cross the line and become persecutory. Attacks on a religious leader may provoke retaliatory countermeasures from his religious community, exacerbating social tensions and rendering religious harmony elusive. Conflict entrepreneurs who seek to incite hostility towards religious group A by raising the ire of religious group B—because they see group A’s values as an obstacle to their political agenda—may abuse the ideal of religious harmony by weaponizing it to whip up social disapprobation, intimidating group A into silence. This exploitation of religious sensitivities for political gain is evident in the Rice Media article which essentially equated prayer for Muslims in America as a negative targeting of Muslims in Singapore. Because Muslims believe that Jesus or Isa is a prophet, one might see a call for God’s love to invade them as a prayer for divine blessing motivated by love, rather than something malicious. People will always disagree on such matters, but friends give the benefit of the doubt, while antagonists seek to cast aspersions to make political capital against the disliked religious group.Footnote 224 This too may cause social disharmony, as relationalism cannot coexist with practitioners of mischievous or malevolent tactics who thrive on agonistic social relations.
These reconciliation rituals stir emotions; in motivating reciprocal compliance, it shapes behavior in future disputes. CCR is thus developed through practice, such as the duty to apologize and to forgive as a means of operationalizing commitment to religious harmony.
Mr. Baharudin’s comments speak of friendship, which entails maintaining a continuing relationship rather than shunning a person. Harmony is supported by friendly relationships or friendships, which have developed between leaders of different religious groups. In 2010, a church deacon and Taoist leader resolved a conflict, publicly demonstrating this by singing together at a concert which the Prime Minister graced. This demonstration signifies approval by political leaders of these conciliatory efforts. This same duo reprised their performance at a 2015 inter-faith concert which the Prime Minister also attended.Footnote 225 Optics—in the form of media coverage—are important, as this reconciliation ritual is designed to restore harmonious equilibrium and signal unity as well as the implicit approval of an important personage in attendance. Both community actors and the government are involved in this ritual, which seeks to realize the substantive goals of CCR within a constitutional order that protects and qualifies religious freedom.
Rituals are expressions of the normative commitments of a political community. It may be argued that a hortatory soft law norm as part of this reconciliation ritual has developed as a response to disharmony incidents where repentance is met with forgiveness and restoring the offending party to good standing. This argument is bolstered by ministerial affirmations of forgiveness being described as “the Singapore Way,”Footnote 226 supported by a harmony chorus sung approvingly by religious leaders and other stakeholders. This process facilitates an environment where social trust and strong relational bonds can be cultivated through dialogue and diplomacy, reflecting the method and objective of relational constitutionalism.
D. Concluding Reflections on Solidarity in Diversity: I, We, and Them
Beyond rights and institutions, the political community needs a sense of conviction that we the people are bound to a shared enterprise or “common historical project,”Footnote 227 that transcends “enduring fault lines”Footnote 228 of race and religion. The CCR seeks to erase the us versus them mentality. Carl Schmitt noted the “specifically political distinction … is that between friend and enemy”;Footnote 229 the task of creating friendly relations is key to realizing solidarity in diversity.
Like religion, political ideologies may assume an “idolatrous character, and like all idols, are unwilling to share power with others.”Footnote 230 The Singapore CCR is minimalist in not coercing belief in substantive values, and procedural in its primary concern to secure a framework for pacific co-existence between religious group; insofar as Singapore is “an oasis of religious peace”Footnote 231 in a troubled world, the CCR has enjoyed some success as a civilizing force in nurturing citizen responsibilities.
Civil religions may be spontaneous, organic products or some of “deliberate design and manipulation,” a tool to enforce ideology.Footnote 232 Singapore’s CCR is state-directed and secular, a basis for the justification of actions, although consensus-building efforts are made to gain broad support for its tenets. In an era of ethnic chauvinism and exclusivist ideologies that “deepen communal and religious fault lines,” the government is determined that “here in Singapore, we will resist this tide.”Footnote 233 This sentiment is in pursuit of the chosen “nobler dream” to have a “multi-racial, multi-religious Singapore,”Footnote 234 anchored by the CCR commitment to racial and religious harmony.