Room to evolve the way religion intersects with life

SINGAPORE - Robin Chan speaks to Laurence Lien about the separation of religion and politics. Mr Lien is a Nominated MP and deputy chairman of Catholic charity, Caritas Singapore Community Council.

You raised the question of religion and politics in Parliament. Are you satisfied with the answers?

The Government's stand has not changed, so my satisfaction level hasn't, either. I am not blind to the concerns, I know everything that Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said. And yes, we want to preserve religious harmony.

But it is not so clear-cut, it is not so black and white. There are clearly areas, especially in a well-functioning democracy, that religion must not cross. We are not talking about the type of political regime, or the choice of political leaders, because politics is much broader than that.

It is not just about policymaking either, it is about expressing your views on issues, and when you express them, you also want to influence the wider group, but that is different from imposing (your views on them).

How can religion cross into the realm of politics without being detrimental to social harmony?

One area is in calling attention to issues and problems. Not necessarily complaining that the Government is not doing enough, but just telling people about the realities on the ground, and that we as a community need to address it. And sometimes that has implications on government policy.

If you take a broad definition of politics, that is stepping into the realm of politics, because you are trying to draw attention, shape opinion and influence the way people think and behave.

When it comes to expressing and acting, people want to know there are other people who are with them, and feeling the same way. And when you come from the same religious group, you naturally find a community of people you have an affinity with because of the faith. The Government seems to be saying that that is not what you are supposed to do.

But I must say sometimes the line seems to have been crossed already. When you look at the casinos, certain religious groups spoke up about it. If we make amendments to the abortion law, for example, do you expect the religious groups to not come out and say anything? So it's not realistic to bottle that.

And it is not unhelpful to express those views as a group, because you do want to know where people are on those issues, rather than forcing those motivations to be hidden.

So how do you think we can better define the boundaries between religion and politics?

I think one place to start is to allow people who come together as groups (to express their views)... if they are as a group motivated by that faith and are expressing it because of their faith. Especially when it pertains to the idea of the common good. But clearly we want such groups to continue to be respectful of other groups.

So the boundaries will be more in the way that people engage, rather than the issues that they engage on. It is not permissible to force your views on, and to intimidate others with your views, if they do not subscribe to it.

Understandably we are quite cautious because of our history, and we are not advocating a major, sudden shift in the way that we do things. But there is room to experiment and evolve the way that religion is intersecting, not just with politics, but with life.

But what if something happens in this liberalising?

What are the things that can happen? What powers do you have? You can't force people to adopt your views, because at the end of the day, laws are passed by Parliament. We don't organise as religious groups in Parliament, that is important.

We have to look at the good that can do. We always think about the most contentious issues, but quite often, there is usually a lot more in common than in conflict. Yes, we need to manage where there is conflict. We mustn't let that evolve into anything that is ugly. We want to manage that without restricting the possible good that could result from all the commonality in solving social issues and problems.

How much of this has to do with us maturing as a society and country?

I think as we mature as a democracy, it is not just about religion or politics, it is about handling diversity. The broader issue is about how we handle diversity, how we handle competing values. It is not just religion that provides competing values - even if you are completely secular, you have competing values.

But how do we deal with the friction, the conflict that might arise from that? This is just one sub-section. We may go overboard; that is when leaders must recalibrate. But we have to try.

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