For the second time since 2003, homosexuality figured in the prime minister’s National Day Rally speech, this time in the context of religious groups pushing their agenda. On 16 August 2009, Lee Hsien Loong said:
You might ask: Does this mean that religious groups have no views and cannot have views on national issues? Or that religious individuals cannot participate in politics? Obviously not. Because religious groups are free to propagate their teachings on social and moral issues and they have done so on the IRs, on organ transplants, on 377A, homosexuality. And obviously many Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhist participate in politics.
Further on, in a more specific reference to the attempt by a fundamentalist Christian group to take over the feminist organisation AWARE, whose neutral stance on homosexuality had been mischaracterised as “pro-gay”, he made clear where the government stands:
On homosexuality policy or sexuality education in schools, there can be strong differences in view but the government’s position was quite clear. It was not at stake. But what worried us was that this was an attempt by a religiously motivated group who shared a strong religious fervour to enter civil space, take over an NGO it disapproved of and impose its agenda. And it was bound to provoke a push back from groups who held the opposite view which happened vociferously and stridently as a fierce battle.
Elsewhere in the speech, he drew a line in the sand:
Christians cannot expect this to be a Christian society.
This appears to be a direct response to Pastor Derek Hong’s sermon (April 2009) in which Hong warned: “there’s a line that God has drawn for us, and we don’t want our nation crossing that line.”
Lee’s next few sentences, I’m sure, was just added for balance:
Muslims cannot expect this to be a Muslim society, ditto with the Buddhists, the Hindus and the other groups. Many faiths share this island. Each has different teachings, different practices.”
To make sure his point was understood, he reiterated:
Rules which only apply to one group cannot become laws which are enforced on everyone…. if one group invokes religion this way, other groups are bound to say I also need powerful support and will also push back invoking their faith. One side insists I am doing God’s work. The other side says I am doing my God’s work. And both sides say I cannot compromise. These are absolute imperatives. The result will be a clash between different religious groups which will tear us apart. We take this very seriously.
Beyond the question of homosexuality, complaints of aggressive proselytisation must have been piling up too.
Our schools are another example where we have common space, and where all races and religions interact. In government schools, but even in mission schools. Even in church schools run by religious groups, there are clear rules which [the Ministry of Education] has set so that students of all faiths will feel comfortable. You might ask: Why not allow mission schools to introduce prayers or Bible studies as compulsory parts of the school’s activity or as part of school assembly. Why not?
Why not let those who are not Christian or do not want a Christian environment go to a government school or go to a Buddhist school? Well, the reason why not is because if we do that, then we will have Christians in Christian schools, Buddhists in Buddhist schools, Muslims in schools with only Muslim children and so on. And I think that that is not good for Singapore.
For good measure, the website of the Prime Minister’s Office featured a Straits Times photo showing Lee meeting with members of the Inter-religious Council. Like most people, I wouldn’t normally scrutinise such a photo, but after listening to Miak Siew present his paper on 23 August at an Indignation event, I was most interested to see who were the religious leaders who met with the prime minister.
Siew had noted in his paper that the mega churches and militant churches gave the cold shoulder to the inter-religious council. He echoed the view first enunciated by Mathew Mathews, a visiting fellow at the National University of Singapore, that these churches tended to view inter-religious dialogue as compromising the absolute truths of their beliefs.
Indeed, the only two Christian leaders who were in the photo were the head of the mainstream Anglican Church and a representative of the Roman Catholic Church. In other words, the real trouble-makers effectively snubbed the council and the meeting with Lee.
Thus, instead of demonstrating that all religions bought into his message, the photo showed all too clearly how the most troublesome ones would still challenge the secular state and its tolerance-promoting message.
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I hope Miak Siew’s talk makes it into Youtube. It gave me much food for thought. In particular, he showed how narrowly based this so-called Christian objection to homosexuality is, being essentially a political project of a small group of people, mostly connected with the Church of Our Saviour and inspired by the Religious Right of America.
For example, he described a survey conducted by the Christian Post website in 2008. Survey letters were sent to 33 leaders of various Christian denominations, churches and organisations. “Only 7 responded,” wrote Siew, “of whom 3 declined to comment.”
One of those responses was from Father Daniel, the leader of the Eastern Orthodox denomination in Singapore. He wrote that “the standards applied to the Church should not be the same as those applied to the unchurched and unbelieving world at large” and that the issue was not political but a pastoral one. He concluded by warning “Christians against using political means to resolve the issue that are really based on a judgmental posture of living.”
In his research, Siew collated all the letters written to the Straits Times on Section 377A of the Penal Code between 25 April 2007 and 25 October the same year. There were 69 letters in total, of which 35, i.e. half, argued for retention of the anti-gay law. (This proportion is of no significance, he said, because the editors would have carefully selected for publication equal numbers of “for” and “against” letters.)
Only 8 of those letters espoused an explicitly Christian perspective. “However, in analyzing the language and the arguments employed in the letters, 24 of the remaining 27 letters used one or more of the ‘points of concern’ suggested in the email,” wrote Siew, referring to an email issued after 20 persons met in July 2003, in the wake of the gay civil servants controversy. That email opened with these words:
The result of the meeting ended with a consensus to draft an immediate plan of action that every pastor and church can adopt in our battle against homosexuality.
The email included a suggested form letter and listed eight ‘points of concern’. These ‘points of concern’ re-emerged in the Straits Times letters of 2007 when 24 of the 27 letters used words like “family values”, “homosexual agenda” and “alternative lifestyles” and warned of the effects of decriminalisation of homosexuality on children.
More interestingly, Siew managed to identify 13 of the letter writers as being from the Church of Our Saviour, a startlingly significant proportion considering the small size of that church.
Then Siew spoke about another example of religious mobilisation: A talk organised by the YMCA of Singapore entitled “A Christian Pe5rspective on Homosexuality”. The email invitation said:
The topic of homosexuality has been making the news in Singapore recently, especially in connection with the question of whether or not Section 377A of the Penal Code should be abolished so as to decriminalize homosexual practices. This talk presents a Christian perspective on this issue along with some practical suggestions on how the Christian Church should respond to the issue.
The guest speaker was Tan Kim Huat, Professor of New Testament at Trinity Theological College. “It is clear,” wrote Siew, “that part of the discussion was to address the issue of decriminalization of homosexual acts. However, during the talk itself, the moderator cut short the presentation, giving the reason that time was running short and the portion dealing with the decriminalization of homosexual acts was left out.”
Tan’s prepared slides however, indicated that he was going to tell the audience that he supported repeal of Section 377A. Was that why the talk was cut short? Were they silencing one of their own? Was the forum meant for discussion or for policing thought?
Siew also pointed out that in 2007, among the laws repealed was the old Section 498 of the Penal Code which had made it an offence for a man to “entice” a married woman away from her husband, with the intention of having “illicit intercourse” with her. Essentially, this law reflected the Christian injunction against adultery — Singapore’s laws being an indirect descendent of Christian-based English law. These same Christians who raised a hue and cry over homosexuality were remarkably silent about the repeal of Section 498, even though, Siew noted, in Christian teaching, adultery is at least just as bad. It is also likely true that if one takes Singapore society as a whole, there is greater consensus that adultery is morally unacceptable, yet we don’t see why criminal law should make it an offence.
Why is this group of Christians so obsessed about this one issue of homosexuality? asked Siew. His take on it was that they had in a sense painted themselves into a corner. Having framed anti-homosexuality “a litmus test of one’s faith”, it has become impossible for them to change their minds or even soften their position, for to do so would be to admit the fallibility of their beliefs.
“Any admission of failure will also threaten the faith of its congregation. The church is paralyzed and cannot do anything but hurl everything at its disposal even if there is concrete evidence to prove that it is wrong,” wrote Siew.
After all, these are the same people who would not participate in the Inter-religious Council for fear that it would mean conceding that their faith might not be the Absolute Truth.