The Singapore model of religious pluralism

VIEW: The Singapore model of religious pluralism —Ishtiaq Ahmed

On the whole, Singapore’s approach to prevent radicalisation of society is to actively engage with the religious communities, maintain close link with their organisations and allow unrestricted religious freedom to them, yet put limits to such freedom when national interest is adversely affected

In this essay I would like to share with the readers the very positive views on the Singapore model of religious pluralism that I formed during my recently completed 3-year stay in that country. The religious composition of the 4.8 million-strong Singapore population is currently as follows: 42.5 percent Buddhist, 14.9 percent Muslim, 14.6 percent Christian, 8.5 percent Taoist and 4 percent Hindu. There are more than a million foreigners who also work in Singapore. Singapore bases it policy of religion on the assumption that most of its population is deeply religious. Such a disposition must be respected, but on a non-discriminatory basis. Therefore, constitutional measures as well as public policy must ensure that the multi-religious and multi-ethnic character of society is expressed fairly and peacefully. In symbolic terms it has meant that religious festivals of all the major communities are public holidays.

The state does not interfere with the beliefs of its citizens and each individual is free to practise his/her faith. What the state has done, instead, is to ensure that no religious community is involved in politics. Politicisation of religion is considered the major threat to the Singapore model of religious pluralism. The state monitors and regulates religious freedom on the realistic assumption that religious harmony cannot be taken for granted. It has to be maintained through a diverse range of government inputs including pre-emptive measures to see to it that social cohesion and harmony are not jeopardised.

More crucially, while the constitution provides for absolute religious freedom, including the right to convert to another religion, the government maintains an important distinction between belief and action. The position taken is that whereas beliefs pertaining to spiritual values and principles are to be enjoyed by all without interference by the state, the citizens and foreigners are to be held accountable for actions they may claim were inspired by their beliefs. Any action, including verbal action that sows discord among the citizens, can be legitimately prohibited. Therefore, the government curtails and constrains religion-inspired actions that adversely affect the integrity and security of the state and subvert peace and harmony among the various religious communities.

Thus several measures have been undertaken to ensure that religious freedom is not abused to preach hatred or incite violence against other religious and ethnic groups. Under the Sedition Act, it is clearly laid down that it is an offence “to promote feelings of ill-will and hostility between races or classes of the population of Singapore”. In 2005, three bloggers were convicted under the Sedition Act for posting anti-Muslim comments.

The principle is that communal harmony and peace are paramount and enjoyment of human rights can be qualified and restricted with a view to maintaining communal amity Thus, The Satanic Verses by Salman Rushdie was banned because the book was considered scurrilous to Islam. The government also banned Martin Scorsese’s ‘The Last Temptation of Christ’ because Christian sentiments were hurt by it. Such proactive monitoring of freedom of religion and expression has earned Singapore the reputation of an authoritarian regime, but the government defends its policies by arguing that the overall advantages from such regulation of freedoms has been greater than the disadvantages of selectively restricting some freedoms.

Although secular laws regulate public life in Singapore, religious law applies to the personal affairs of members of the various communities. With regard to Muslims, marriage, divorce and inheritance are regulated by shariah injunctions. However, neither polygamy nor child marriage is permitted. In adopting such policy, the government takes the position that that religious law should not adversely affect the status and rights of any section of a religious community.

On the whole, Singapore’s approach to prevent radicalisation of society is to actively engage with the religious communities, maintain close link with their organisations and allow unrestricted religious freedom to them, yet put limits to such freedom when national interest is adversely affected. In this connection, the government overruled the wearing of headscarves by minor Muslim girls in government schools, asserting that all children must wear the same uniform and learn to mix with each other. However, at university level, Muslim girls are free to wear the headscarf. The assumption is that as grownups they have consciously chosen to wear the headgear and, therefore, it is an expression of free choice by a person who has already been groomed to appreciate and internalise the Singaporean approach to multiculturalism.

The question now is: how is such a model relevant for a 96 percent Muslim-majority state such as Pakistan? First of all, the 4 percent minorities out of 170 million, means nearly seven million non-Muslims. Moreover, the 96 percent Muslim population comprises different sects and sub-sects. Therefore, it is equally relevant that the state should adopt such constitutional provisions and public policy that ensure that all religious and sectarian groups enjoy full religious freedom, but none is privileged to impose its dogma or beliefs on others. This is only possible if Pakistan becomes a secular state. I do not understand why its Muslim identity would be compromised if the state becomes a neutral protector of all communities. Given the religiously motivated terrorism that is now endemic in Pakistan, it is imperative that the state remains neutral on the matter of belief of its citizens.

As a concrete measure, I would propose that all places of worship in Pakistan — Muslim and non-Muslim — should be brought under direct state control. The priests who work in them should become state employees drawing a government salary. Their function should be strictly to lead prayers and nothing more. There should be a complete prohibition on fatwas by the clerics. Instead an official fatwa or among non-Muslims, if there is any such practice, a corresponding ethical edict should be presented to the worshippers. In these official statements derived from religious sources, emphasis should be on promoting communal harmony and voluntary work to serve people in need. I am sure the Quran, Bible, Gita and other holy books have enough material to support peace and harmony, and social service to humanity.

State control of religion may sound authoritarian, but Singapore is a brilliant example of freedom of religion being sharply distinguished from abuse of religion for preaching hatred of others and thus undermining national solidarity and unity.

The writer is a Professor Emeritus of Political Science, Stockholm University. He is also Honorary Senior Fellow of the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore. He can be reached at

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