A Secular Society Interrupted
Last year the extraordinary development that the media dubbed ‘The AWARE Saga’ forced us, AWARE members, to re-examine our commitment to a secular organization and to affirm our values. We – and many others in Singapore – realised that our secularism needs to be fought for, defended and protected.
History shows us that secularism is not a settled state but one that requires periodic reviews, and safeguards, especially when its concept and practice is threatened. Hindu fundamentalists in India, for instance, continue to challenge the secularism of India. Mahatma Gandhi paid the ultimate price when he was killed by a Hindu fanatic for his defence of pluralism. The main opposition to secularism comes from fundamentalism, and fundamentalism poses the greatest threat to women’s rights.
Singapore was a secular state at independence. With our early cosmopolitan population, we were in fact well on our way to being a secular state long before independence. The first Chinese Temple, the Thian Hock Keng Temple, was built in 1821; the first Hindu temple in 1823, the first mosque in 1824, the first Church in 1835.
Most secular states – UK, USA, and many European countries, for example – evolved their secularism over centuries, sometimes after bloody struggles to wrest power away from the dominant Christian Church. Countries which are well-known as constitutionally secular states include India, France, Turkey and South Korea.
So what is ‘secularism’?
Secularism, in its most extreme form, means completely denying any public voice to religious communities. In this view, religion remains in the private domain.
In political terms, secularism can refer to reducing ties between a government and religion and replacing laws and policies based on scripture (such as the Ten Commandments and Syariah law) with civil laws, and eliminating discrimination on the basis of religion. No one set of values has precedence over other value systems.
The more benign definition of secularism allows for public expression of religious views. In other words, religious groups have as much right as non-religious groups to promote and advocate their positions and their values. They are thus participants in the political process of the country. Last year’s takeover of AWARE by a group of fundamentalist Christian women was a highly political process as was the struggle by the secularist members to win it back.
Singapore’s secularism is a benign one given the existence of institutions, such as hospitals and schools, run by religious organisations which receive state aid but whose existence is contingent upon state approval and public policies. Their active participation in the state is a historical recognition of their contribution to society as serving the public good.
A more important condition of secularism is that public policies be based on facts and not on the basis of religious or cultural proscriptions. An obvious example of this is the attitude towards the use of condoms.
The fact is that the use of condoms prevents unwanted pregnancies and STI (sexually transmitted infections). That the use of condoms is wrong or immoral is a religious view not based on fact. Another example is the status of women. The claim that women should be subservient to men is a religious and/or cultural attitude and not one based on fact.
In this sense, secularism requires politicians to make decisions based on secular reasons rather than on religious ones. It follows then that decisions about many contemporary issues, such as stem cell research and sex education, should not be based on religious beliefs.
The opponents to secularism would argue that a secular system is lacking in values and is morally unacceptable. This argument, besides being arrogant and patronizing, also denies the possibility of moral human beings whose actions are governed by their innate sense of goodness.
George Jacob Holyoake, who coined the terms ‘secularism’ in 1851and ‘jingoism’ in 1878, defines secularism as ‘a code of duty pertaining to this life, founded on considerations purely human. Its essential principles are three: (1) The improvement of this life by material means (2) That science is the available providence of man (3) That it is good to do good. Whether there be other good or not, the good of the present life is good, and it is good to seek that good here in this world.’