Religious harmony in Singapore – The Issue & Suggestions
Over the weekend, I had the privilege of attending the 2nd Interfaith Conference on Dialogue & Engagement 2009*. Here are some of my thoughts (greatly influenced by the conversations I had that day) on the kinds of religious conflicts happening in Singapore, why they happen and what can be done.
Why religious conflicts happen in Singapore: Confusion over the new boundaries
Everyone agreed that we want to respect each others religions (including atheism/agnosticsm/humanism). However, the panel dialogue surfaced lots of situations/incidence which subtly screamed: You say you respect me, but here’s when you didn’t!
What that showed, in my view, was that people didn’t know how to behave in order to demonstrate their respect. We need to dialogue and establish what constitutes acceptable behavior; we need to define the boundaries.
In the past (judging from conversations with older people, and from the emphasis in school 20 years ago), there was a lot on religious practices and rituals, amongst the religious followers, in national campaigns and public messaging. These tended to be the source of misunderstandings as well. Religious differences were : Muslims didn’t eat pork. Buddhist/Taoist burnt offerings, Christians celebrated Christmas etc. People got upset when rituals of other faiths affected their lives eg. when ashes flew into each others living rooms.
Over the years of dialogue, we’ve come to accommodate each other’s rituals. When organizing an office party, we know we need to ask if there are vegetarians attending. We happily accept Christmas presents. We have no issues with colleagues wearing tudungs or turbans. We have agreed on the boundaries, and we know how to behave to show our respect for diversity.
Today’s population is more exposed to global issues, which is becoming increasingly ideological. New issues have cropped up. Issues where we haven’t had enough dialogue on, where everyone has a different idea of where the boundary is.
When we think of “inter-religious” dialogue in terms of rituals only, and insist on keeping everything else “secular”, we swept very real and contentious issues under the rug. Many of these issues were touched on during Saturday’s dialogue, and I will briefly outline them here.
Some areas of contention and conflict, which needs discussion:
Religious groups in the secular setting : the school, the workplace
It’s OK to give my colleague Christmas presents, invite them for Deepavali party, wear my tudung. Is it OK to give my colleagues Bible-verse-bookmarks, invite them to church, form office cell groups? It’s OK to talk about religious festivals during Moral Ed class, is it OK to talk about the different Creation stories during Science class?
Religious overtones in policy: Homosexuality, healthcare, advertising
- We accept that we have different dietary restrictions, and we’ve worked out ways to accommodate every kind of diet. Can we accept that we have different sexual practice restrictions and work out a way to accommodate everyone? Same with issues like euthanasia, abortion, HIV subsidies. Where advertising is concerned, does advertising in a religious publication mean that my company is inclusive and respectful of diversity, or does it mean that my company favors a particular religion, or has my company flouted secular principles? Everyone will interpret a gesture differently; we need a dialogue to establish different behaviors mean.
Religious practices at home: Funerals, altars, festivals
This is tricky. It always is when the homes and families are involved. But perhaps here is when dialogue is needed, acceptable behavior established, and rights guarded. What kind of funerals should be conducted when the deceased is of a religion separate from the family members? Are altars offensive or inclusive?
This list is far from exhaustive, but already, we see where the dialogue has to go to.
What can/needs to be done
Our inter-faith dialogue has to move beyond introducing our rituals to one another. We need to establish
1. Boundaries of acceptable behavior, and a common understanding of what each gesture means
2. Terms of engagement. How should we conduct our outreach activities without offense? How should we practice our faith outside the places of worship? What is the criteria for offensive/discriminatory behavior? When we disagree, how should we go about voicing our protest in an amicable way?
Without establishing boundaries and terms of engagement, it is inevitable that I offend you with well-meaning gestures. When you react negatively, I would then feel slighted. A recipe for conflict.
Who needs to be involved
1. Religious leaders/organizations.
Because of how they are looked to as the authorities, they have to be the ones starting the conversation. And then they have to preach in the manner they have agreed to. Representatives of secular/non-religious/minority religion groups need to be included too, to ensure they are not discriminated.
2. The State
It is the State’s responsibility to provide mechanisms through which the agreed upon boundaries and term of engagement are respected and enforced
3. Public & secular organizations – companies, schools, hospitals, NGOs
It came as a surprise to me to learn that NIE does not have a mandatory Race/Religious Sensitization course for the people who influence the thoughts of the next generation 300 days a year. Teachers, HR managers, policy makers, etc need to know how to deal with religious issues sensitively, and how to diffuse issues when they do crop up in a fair and sensitive manner. Telling a child to shut up and sit down doesn’t really help in the long run. Companies need to be aware that how they run their Christmas sales can be offensive or not. Hospital staff need to know how to tell when it is offensive or when it is helpful to offer to pray for the patient. If NGOs, educators, health workers, and religious groups had decided to sit down together to discuss sexuality education years ago, the whole AWARE saga might not have taken place. If clear terms of engagement had been established, perhaps the religious groups would have protested AWARE’s policies in a more civil and acceptable manner.
4. Public education
Going down to the grassroots level with inter-faith dialogues and activities is definitely useful, but only after the religious leaders have established societal norms and conventions, and after the societal infrastructure/mechanisms are in place to bring about this racial and religious harmony we seek.
This was organized by the EIF, together with the Buddhist Fellowship. EIF (Explorations into Faith) is a group under the Southeast CDC umbrella, that organizes inter-religious dialogues on a monthly basis, each time partnering a different religious group.
Participants discussed issues of Religion and Race in Singapore in small groups of about 5 – 10 people, and then came together for a forum discussion that saw a panel of 5 religious leaders, representing the Buddhist, Christian, Islam, Hindu, or Taoist faith. .
As part of the National Orange Ribbon Campaign (http://www.aux.com.sg/norc/index.php) to promote racial and religious harmony, the theme for discussion was on exactly that — Racial and religious harmony in the Singapore context.
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