Although Singapore is a multi-racial, multi-religious pluralistic society, our nation is perhaps one of the remarkable and rare examples of a harmonious society. Given that race and religion are fault lines that have torn many societies apart, we recognise that it is not by chance that people in Singapore have largely been able to live harmoniously together.
Indeed, we thank God that since the birth of our nation-state, our Government and different communities have worked hard together to maintain peace in our country by protecting the freedom to practise religion and encouraging mutual respect and tolerance for one another. It is truly commendable that despite their differences, the faith communities in Singapore have demonstrated maturity and sensitivity in their dealings with each other and that instances of microaggression are far and few in-between and not entrenched within any ethnic community.
However, there are those occasions when people conflate race and religion. This can be seen in two recent newspaper articles where the category of race and religion is being used interchangeably by Straits Times journalists while referring to a same occasion.
In “A politically neutral president can better unify Singapore: Ng Kok Song” (updated on 24 July), reporter Chin Soo Fang wrote that Mr Ng Kok Song who has announced his intention to run for president, raised his palms to reporters and said that “the tips of the fingers are separate, representing how every religion has its unique features”. Mr Ng went on to share that “when people of every religion can go deep, we all meet in the centre of the palm. This centre of our palm is our common ground.”
However, in “Celebrate racial diversity, but unite as Singaporeans: Presidential hopeful Ng Kok Song” (25 July), Jean Lau reported that Mr Ng intended for the tips of his fingers to represent the different races and to illustrate that though they may be apart, they connect at the palm, representing a shared Singapore identity.
Based on these two articles, what did Mr Ng intend his five fingers to represent? Was it different religions or different races? In this instance, it would be interesting to find out to what extent did the two journalists exercise their journalistic liberties or whether it was simply a case of quoting someone wrongly.
Although readers will probably still arrive at the same understanding of what Mr Ng was trying to communicate regardless of whether he was referring to race or religion, it would be a separate matter when people assume that an individual’s racial identity is pegged to a particular religious affiliation. After all, even if most Indians here in Singapore are Hindus, it does not mean all Indians must be Hindus.
Likewise, does a Chinese become less Chinese when he or she puts his faith in Jesus Christ rather than pray to a pantheon of deities? In the first place, who gets to define what it means to be a Chinese? Surely not modern-day socialist China right? While the atheistic state officially recognises the five religions: Buddhism, Taoism, Catholicism, Protestantism and Islam, we also know that the founding leaders of People’s Republic of China such as Mao Zedong were greatly influenced by Marxist ideology instead of Confucianism.
It is also worth noting that in various countries where there is a zealous insistence for people belonging to a particular race to pledge allegiance to a specific religion, it has led to much social tension. It has also often resulted in gross injustices to other ethnic or religious minorities. Whether they come in the form of anti-conversion laws, banning of interfaith marriages or coercive discrimination, so much is at stake whenever there is no freedom of choice with regards to one’s religion.
As much as Christians are eager to plead with people to be reconciled with God (2 Corinthians 5:20) and desire all to come to Christ in repentance, we need not shy away from being advocates of religious freedom. This is because we believe that religious liberty is a natural and inalienable right granted by God to everyone rather than a “benefit” accorded by some earthly authority. Even though Christians will rejoice whenever someone turns to God in repentance, we also accept that people have the freedom to reject the Christian gospel.
Similar to other freedoms, there are of course limits as to how our freedoms can be exercised. Whether it is Singapore or elsewhere, ideally, the government should faithfully carry out its obligation to protect its citizens from any violence or harm arising out of another’s insistence on their religious convictions and practices.
On the other hand, religious freedom also implies that religion should be free from state control. The state has an obligation to protect citizens from the state itself and not be overextending its reach, for example in attempting to dictate orthodoxy for the adherents of any religion.
Given our Christian understanding of what constitutes religious freedom, we know that we must never resort to some legislative power to demand external conformity to the Christian faith. Instead, we learn to earnestly offer our intercession unto God and trust that through the Spirit’s power, there will be genuine conversion amongst those whom we are reaching out to. On that same note, religious freedom also means that an individual should enjoy the same freedom to choose Christianity without fear of any punitive actions from the state or his ethnic community.
As Christians, we do not see that there is some inherent conflict between the biblical practice of evangelism and the sincere efforts to foster cordial relations among faith groups. Firstly, God has called Christians to love our neighbours as ourselves (Mark 12:30-31). Furthermore, pride and self-righteousness have no place in our evangelistic efforts (1 Peter 3:15-17). We are also mindful that evangelism is not to be pursued as if it is a zero-sum game where Christianity is in competition with other religious faiths and we are trying to capture a larger market share of the population.
Here in Singapore, it is quite evident that over the years, much good work has been done to facilitate deeper understanding and cooperation between people of different races and religions for the common good. There is also a broadening of perspective where people can see that unity need not be synonymous with uniformity and that diversity is not a bane to a nation’s flourishing. All these should not be taken for granted and Christians must continue to do our part in nation-building by showing love to our neighbours through our conduct and speech.
Although Mr Ng intended his illustration of the five fingers and palm to point to our common ground and shared identity as Singaporeans, I think it can also serve as a reminder to Christians of our fellow Singaporeans’, and for that matter, humanity’s common need for a Saviour. While Christians believe that freedom of religion applies to all people, we are not about to suggest that all paths lead to God or that truth claims are relative.
Instead, our belief in religious freedom challenges us to be loving and faithful in our Christian witness while longing for the day where a great multitude from every nation, tribes, people and languages is gathered in unison in their worship of the Lamb of God (Revelation 7:9-12). For if there’s one person who is truly worthy to represent us and has sacrificed himself for our welfare, it would be Jesus Christ, God’s only begotten Son. Even though he came and took on flesh as a Jewish male.