COMMENT: Singapore a secular state? Think again

MOM releases a list of public holidays for Singapore in 2016. (Screenshot from MOM website)

Michael Y.P. Ang is a Singaporean freelance journalist. In 1999, he was among the core group of journalists who helped launch Channel NewsAsia, where he covered sports and entertainment events, crime, and the 2001 General Elections. For his commentaries on Singaporean sport, follow his Facebook page Michael Ang Sports. The views expressed are his own.

By Michael Y.P. Ang

In recent years, there have been loud calls to exclude religion from the public sphere in Singapore.

Singapore is widely seen as a secular state because it has no official religion. But there's more to secularism than the absence of a state religion.

Secularism also involves the strict separation of the state from religious institutions and the equal treatment of all citizens under the law, whatever their religion or belief.

Two weeks ago, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong reinforced the commonly held view of a secular Singapore: "To maintain harmony in Singapore's multiracial and multi-religious society, the government … has got to be neutral, secular in its approach, and pragmatic in solving problems."

However, going by the definition of secular — not connected with religious or spiritual matters — it's hard to see Singapore as a secular state.

Let's consider two points.

1) Religion-based public holidays

Have you noticed that more than half of the 11 public holidays you enjoy every year are related to religion? Good Friday, Vesak Day, Hari Raya Puasa, and Deepavali are some of these religion-based holidays.

With the state giving official recognition to religious holidays, taxpayer money is used to pay public servants a full day's worth of salary for taking a day off to celebrate a holiday related to a particular religion. Private companies too are legally bound to give their employees a paid day off.

Doesn't sound secular, does it? Let's face it, religion has always been a part of the public sphere in Singapore.

It's baffling that Singaporeans who advocate secularism do not question state-sanctioned religious holidays. Perhaps they only believe in selective secularism, voicing their objections only when it is convenient.

Have true secularists ever considered suggesting Total Defence Day, Mother's Day, Father's Day, Youth Day, Remembrance Day, or any other non-religious day to be observed as a public holiday? They could even argue that the official observance of such days has nation-building value.

Personally, I like having the various religious holidays. In fact, I wish for more.

2) Religion-based government agencies

Another clear indication of Singapore being non-secular is the existence of religion-based statutory boards. Such bodies are government agencies under the care and budget of the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.

One of them is the Hindu Endowments Board. Set up under the Hindu Endowments Act in 1968, it manages four temples, among other functions. Another is MUIS (the Malay acronym for the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore), established when the Administration of Muslim Law Act came into effect in 1968.

The mission of MUIS is "to work with the community in developing a profound religious life and dynamic institutions", while its strategic priority is "to set the Islamic agenda, shape religious life and forge the Singaporean Muslim Identity".

With government agencies performing religious functions, how can a country consider itself a secular state?

The lack of public opposition to religion-based statutory boards possibly means that Singaporeans, including secularists, either support or do not object to the allocation of taxpayers' public resources for religious purposes. This is a positive sign.

But once again, secularists' apparent lack of opposition to having religion in the public sphere may mean they are not really serious about secularism.

Proselytising isn't only about religion

Besides emphasising state neutrality on religious matters recently, PM Lee also raised some concerns. He said religious fervour, although in itself positive, could make people "proselytise more aggressively, offending others".

We should apply PM Lee's statement to secular issues as well. Proselytising also means "trying to persuade someone to change their political beliefs to your own".

Proselytising per se is perfectly fine, but when people excessively promote their way of life or political beliefs and practically demand others to accept their views or change the status quo, they are crossing the line.

Don't cry foul just because others disagree with your beliefs or lifestyle. Social issues, whether they are of a religious or secular nature, are rarely simple and straightforward.