Intrusion into Common Space, Tolerance and Respect


When too little done is just too much, for the intolerant, on the lack of government hand.

With increased visible religiosity and inter-religious friction as one result, the secularists are getting alarmed at what is happening at their doorstep. The Rony Tan incident hints of how the hot-headed from any side can jeopardise harmony to an extent just like that and the secularists should be concerned.

Fundamentalism of any type is looked at cynically and rightly so. But if religion is generally one belief system on how one should live in society, then secularism is another competitor belief system as well.  So if we are wary of some religious-fundamentalists and how they try to impose their views on others or are insensitive to others, we should be similarly wary of secularist-fundamentalists trying to impose their views and being insensitive as well.

When someone says his prayers in public, that person is not imposing his views. Be Zen about it and have a Yin-Yang balance towards secularism and religion. On common space being shared with the religions – it is common space after all and the secularists can use it next if they want to. Furthermore, from the Rony Tan incident, I know I don’t want the government to step in and tell me what is intolerant or intrusion.

A sign of tolerance or intrusion?
Religious events in public areas: Guidelines needed on ‘how much is too much’ says inter-religious group

Updated 04:00 PM Apr 19, 2010
by Alicia Wong, Today

SINGAPORE – It has been, in recent years, a popular choice to hold church services and functions. Now, the Singapore Expo is seeing more interest from other religious groups, too.

Two months ago, it hosted a Buddhist event and, next month, Buddhists will head there again to commemorate Vesak Day. An Islamic organisation, meanwhile, will be holding a lecture there in May.

It is not just the queries and bookings from religious groups that have gone up in the past two years, said an Expo spokeswoman: “They’re taking up a larger space for their events, too.”

At a more central location, Suntec Singapore has become another venue where faith has found a foothold.

New Creation Church holds services at an auditorium there, while City Harvest Church is proposing to take a $310-million stake in Suntec Singapore, paving the way for its congregation to use the facilities there.

With religious groups becoming more visible in commercial places, have their activities become a little too intrusive for Singaporeans’ liking?

On Wednesday, Deputy Prime Minister and Home Affairs Minister Wong Kan Seng flagged this trend – and that of religious groups going into business as well as more assertive evangelising – as areas of concern for the Government.

A straw poll by MediaCorp of 20 Singaporeans evoked mixed reactions. Eight did not find this growing visibility to be “intrusive”, nine said they did, while three were in two minds.

With most Singaporeans living in public housing, many have become accustomed to Housing Board void decks being “converted” to a place of worship of sorts when altars are set up for funeral wakes.

Managing director Lee Chee Yong, 36, said: “Religious tolerance cannot be fostered by segmenting recluse zones or by keeping behind the walls of mosques, temples and churches … Permitting public expressions of different faiths is just allowing that choice (adopting a religious belief) to be made intelligently.”

Those who felt otherwise were inclined to view religion as a private matter, not to be “flaunted”. Senior marketing executive Charlynn Kah, 26, said: “It’s also a sign of respect for people of other religions, to not ‘showcase’ your religion in a public display.”

These are complex issues that require “careful consideration, dialogue and a deep understanding” among communities, said Bishop Dr Robert Solomon, president of the National Council of Churches of Singapore.

Religious leaders themselves are also starting to weigh up such issues.

Singapore Buddhist Federation secretary-general Seck Kwang Phing told MediaCorp it was “okay” for temporary events to be held in commercial venues, but drew the line at long-term activities.

The nature of the event also matters, he said. Buddhist groups once held a fun fair-type event at Ngee Ann City plaza, but they held a cultural programme at the Singapore Indoor Stadium. The coming Vesak Day celebration is held at the Expo because it can accommodate more people.

But while the central objective for events may differ, “there are usually some elements of proselytisation … even if subtle”, said the Inter-Religious Organisation Singapore.

It suggested the Government draw up guidelines on “how much is too much” when it comes to publicity efforts and usage of prime areas, so there is “no sense of unfair encroaching on common spaces”.

The concern, said political analyst and law lecturer Eugene Tan, “is premised on the need to delineate public and private spaces clearly.” Otherwise, “there may be a view that these commercial venues have been commandeered for religious purposes.”

There is also the element of competition between religious groups, according to Dr Terence Chong of the Institute of South-east Asian Studies.

“New strategies, both in business and proselytising, are thought up to attract individuals into their fold, he said, observing that churches are ahead of the curve and it is not uncommon for others to follow.

But S Rajaratnam School of International Studies associate research fellow Yolanda Chin was more optimistic.

Laws addressing assertive proselytising have been enforced recently, she noted, and “the trend does not seem likely to spiral out of control”.

And, so long as activities are confined to their designated space in commrcial venues, “the dual use of public spaces in this manner is evidence of tolerance”, she said.

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9 responses

  1. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Daily SG: 20 Apr 2010

  2. sloo

    I agree that we should be aware of secular fundamentalist but no where in recent times (or at least not reported in our MSM) are there any incidents of secularists imposing their stringent and extreme views or actions upon anyone in public.

    No one has stopped another from saying their prayers in public or for that matter, burning incense or performing their prayers in public areas. What we do have are lots of religious fundamentalist acts and words that are insensitively flung at the general public.

    The situation here is very unlike that of the States or even in the UK where secularists have been extremely aggressive in defining the separation of state and religion, on preserving their secular space. In Singapore, there is a huge reserve of tolerance on all sides and it was the religious fundamentalists who took this for granted, who exploited it.

    That the govt has chosen to highlight this fact is a response to situations that were created by the religious fundamentalists themselves. That some secularists have opined about the issue stridently online is a response to these insensitive acts as well. Where there is no fire, there won’t be any smoke. Your post seems to advocate waving off the smoke without dealing with the fire.

    April 20, 2010 at 4:42 pm

  3. chemgen

    Hi Sloo

    Cleverly put. You are right that the secularists here as a whole on the whole, are not seen as pushy as the fundamentalists. So far. But there were arguably hints that there is stronger secularist humanist need to push back the imposing of religious values in society. 377A is one.

    Who started the pushing? Depending on who we ask, the response would be different. The religious fundamentalist would say it is the Others allowing this, closing an eye to that, saying it is modernity here, changing values there. The secular fundamentalist would say it is simply the religious fundamentalists who started it -and that these religious rabble should not have a say in how their moral world view should be the blueprint for the secular world. Right and wrong the situation is not. By suggesting that one side is right or wrong, is the thinking of a fundamentalist already.

    But your reaction and dismissal of the needs of the religious lobby implied a less confrontational approach nonetheless to this whole my space your space contest. Perhaps all religious and secular fundamentalists, and those in between and along the sides, should just calm down and see this claiming of space as that typically of different lobby groups on a policy. Certainly not a battle between Good and Evil (in the eyes of the religious fundamentalists) and Backward and Progressive (in the eyes of the secular fundamentalists).

    April 21, 2010 at 9:27 am

  4. Pingback: The Singapore Daily » Blog Archive » Weekly Roundup: Week 17

  5. Farah

    But you must agree that having religious organizations owning common spaces definitely undermines the secular design and purpose of these common spaces. and over time, it is possible that the public will feel these common spaces are no longer secular because they are being owned by religious organizations who exert some form of control over the space? is it not possible for these public spaces to develop images that they are not secular because of the people who own them or the people who use them?

    March 23, 2011 at 10:41 pm

    • chemgen

      “is it not possible for these public spaces to develop images that they are not secular because of the people who own them or the people who use them?”

      Good point. I agree that if the public spaces are being actively used by the religion at a particular time, with sight-sound motifs of that religion filling that public space, then that public space at that moment becomes sacred space. However, once the followers exit and the sight-sound religious experience goes away, that space quickly reverts to its secular-public space.

      March 25, 2011 at 12:27 am

  6. chemgen

    “But you must agree that having religious organizations owning common spaces definitely undermines the secular design and purpose of these common spaces. and over time, it is possible that the public will feel these common spaces are no longer secular because they are being owned by religious organizations who exert some form of control over the space?”

    You know as well as I do that it depends. For example, tourists in a historic temple, church or even graveyard. The tourists can walk around in the common areas, and that part is secular while there are parts closed to the tourists and only for worshippers etc and that part is sacred. There is a negotiation of sacred and secular space although the place is owned by a religion.

    March 25, 2011 at 12:20 am

  7. Lora

    Can I ask what is meant by guidelines on “how much is too much” ,what does “how much” infers to and “too much “for what?
    Does it mean that religious activities intrude private space, but common space is still there?

    March 26, 2011 at 12:00 am

  8. chemgen

    Hi Lora

    If religious activities intrude or I prefer the term “share” common space, I think the idea of common space in general is big enough for everyone. But it goes back to the question how much religious presence in public is OK and which point it does not become OK.

    Good question on “how much is too much”. It depends? I don’t have an answer to that. Maybe when religion-specific beliefs become law, then that maybe is too much. For example, certain meat cannot be eaten, certain behaviour about what to do or wear or say or behave with fellow Singaporeans.

    March 27, 2011 at 10:56 pm

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