Editorial: Safeguard secular nature of labour laws

Editorial: Safeguard secular nature of labour laws
Faith Community Baptist Church.

SINGAPORE - When organised religion collides with the public interest in what some deem to be a faith-based dispute, there is no question a correct decision is one that favours society at large while respecting the doctrinal sanctity of that faith.

In this manner the secular nature of Singaporean life and the nation's institutions is preserved, while followers of religions are untrammelled in their right to practise their beliefs. There is hardly a need to belabour the point that this is the only practical approach to adopt in a nation of many faiths and ethnic groups.

Chaos would otherwise ensue. There is no lack of reminders in South-east Asia of religious triumphalism, of whichever faith, having brought grief and despair.

This is why the Government had a duty to make a principled stand in a labour dispute a woman church worker had brought before the Manpower Ministry. She had been dismissed by her employer, the Faith Community Baptist Church, on the ground that her adulterous relationship with a colleague violated biblical teachings and the ethics of the independent church.

She became pregnant but was going through a divorce at the time.

At issue was whether the dismissal was justified. The ministry ruled her rights under secular legislation had been violated as the sacking was without sufficient cause. It ordered compensation for unpaid salary and maternity benefits, which the church paid under protest.

Its pastor Lawrence Khong justified his stand on the ground that his church's expectations were implied in the employment contract as, in his words, a "church is one of the industry standards" on matters of moral behaviour.

Given the interest the case had aroused, observers would ask whether he was being theatrical when he declared he was prepared to go to jail for his beliefs, during settlement talks. Religionists should reflect on how a secular construct such as Singapore would unravel if any of its constituent parts claimed exceptionalism as a conferred right.

There are implications arising from the order which heads of religions and civil organisations with religious affiliations ought to ponder. Some heads of independent churches had in the past been pulled up for mocking other faiths but employment issues are in contrast fairly uncomplicated.

Just as companies should not discriminate on grounds of religion, race, age and gender in hiring, they cannot apply labour law selectively in matters of contested dismissal.

By introducing his church's moral reasoning into a dispute on fair and reasonable treatment of workers, the pastor narrowed a common secular space that the state has taken decades to build, for the sake of social harmony. For Singapore to cohere, state sanctioned laws need to be upheld regardless of race or religion.


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