Religion, politics and the line between

Blogger Alex Au (inset) had alleged that Archbishop Chia (left) had written a letter supporting a Function 8 event in June against the Internal Security Act but retracted it soon after.

What it's all about

The issue of the separation of religion and politics came up in Parliament this week after MPs asked about a recent controversy involving Archbishop Nicholas Chia of the Catholic Church and activist group Function 8.

Last month, blogger Alex Au had alleged that Archbishop Chia had written a letter supporting a Function 8 event in June against the Internal Security Act but retracted it soon after.

This sparked an exchange between the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), Archbishop Chia and Function 8. While MHA criticised Function 8 for trying to involve the Church in its political agenda, Archbishop Chia and the group differed over accounts of what had happened. At the latest parliamentary sitting, Nominated MPs Laurence Lien and Eugene Tan asked about where the line between religion and politics should be drawn.

What's the buzz

In his reply, Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean reiterated the Government's long-held stance on keeping religion and politics separate to preserve Singapore's social harmony.

But the exchange that followed showed that the issue of separation between Church and state is far from settled. The two NMPs argued that this separation need not be so clear-cut, as religious groups seeking to further the common good might sometimes step into areas considered political.

Mr Teo, however, stressed the need for a clear line to be drawn, to ensure religious groups do not try to engage in politics, and political groups do not use religion to further their causes.

Why it matters

Delineation between Church and state has been a sensitive topic since several Catholic Church members were detained in 1987 over an alleged plot to overthrow the Government.

In 1990, when the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act was passed, religious groups raised some concerns and asked for a clearer definition of "politics". While they agreed on the need to keep out of party politics, they were worried about what it meant for their interest in public affairs related, for instance, to people's welfare.

The latest controversy shows that the issue is still very much a "live" one, especially with religiosity growing and civil society seeking a bigger presence.

In the past few years, religious groups have spoken up on certain issues, such as on the building of casinos in 2004, homosexuality and euthanasia.

It has prompted some to ask whether giving religious groups more room to express their views will result in social discord. Some believe it is possible to blur the boundaries a little bit more, to allow for a greater diversity of views.

What's next

For now, the issue of religion and politics appears to have been put aside. But more cases are certain to arise in the future, and the line between religion and politics could be crossed, again raising the question:

Will the Government continue to hold steadfastly to its belief that Church and state must be kept separate, or will the lines be allowed to blur? And while it appears that laws are one way of handling the issues, many agree the best solution is still to have cool heads whenever it comes to the touchy subject of religion and politics.

chanckr@sph.com.sg


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