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A late post, but this is something to be remembered… where are we headed in Singapore?



Nazry Bahrawi

ONE thing is likely to stick in the minds of many for some time to come about the Prime Minister's National Day Rally speech: His reference to Singapore being in a "Garden of Eden state".

But the biblical imagery came with a warning - that race and religion remain "the most visceral and dangerous fault line" in this little red dot of a nation.

And one way to prevent the line being crossed is to keep politics and religion separate, Mr Lee Hsien Loong said.

But is it really possible to view politics and religion as mutually exclusive, even though that may be the most viable option for a multi-religious nation like Singapore?

In fact, several scholars have suggested that the nature of religious movements is inherently political.

Professor Linda Woodhead from Lancaster University's religious studies department posits that the Roman Emperor Constantine embraces Christianity because he believes that a church-state alliance could help unite the people of his diverse empire under the ambit of Christianity. Most noticeably, Constantine was known for propagating the Edict of Milan which preached tolerance of other faiths in his empire.

Meanwhile, scholars like James Piscatori suggests that Islam has been a political movement since its birth. He points to Prophet Muhammad's creation of the Medinan society, complete with its own constitution which outlined conditions on how Jewish and Muslim tribes should live together. Before the Prophet came to Medina, he preached the Islamic faith in Mecca where Muslims were persecuted.

As such, I don't think we can address the issue of growing religiosity in Singapore without acknowledging its political link - and finding ways to harness that link in a way that will not be inimical to national interests.

One way to ensure that religion and politics do not end up as a combustible mixture is to listen to all religious groups which want a say on political issues so that their voices are acknowledged. Such a move would also ensure that no one voice becomes dominant.

One could argue that divergent voices are exactly what a Singapore that aspires to be a Renaissance City needs. Views and counter-views contribute towards the making of better policies - and help to keep Singapore in tune with the times.

A failure to engage individuals and groups with divergent views may send them "underground" only to re-emerge as a force that could threaten social cohesion - the very thing that the Government wants to avoid by separating politics and religion in the first place.

The Aware saga serves as a good warning of how a religious grouping, feeling its views challenged, decides to organise itself to take over a secular organisation. Acting on good intentions, their move ended up dividing Singapore society.

Brain drain in 'Garden of Eden'

Race and religion apart, one suspects that Mr Lee's reference to the "Garden of Eden state" is also more than just about maintaining Singapore's religious and racial harmony. It could also be read as an effort to arrest the acute problem of the nation's brain drain.

Only two months ago, Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong, speaking at the 70th anniversary dinner of Chung Cheng High School, revealed that more than one in five of Singapore's top A-level graduates from the 1996-1999 batches are working overseas today. This group would be between 28 and 32 years old. In other words, they are talent in the prime of their lives - and careers.

This group could very well figure among the 1,200 overseas users who had caught the live streaming of Sunday's rally on Channel NewsAsia's microsite, or read about it later at the online portals of local newspapers.

In this light, Mr Lee's remarks that "if you leave the Garden of Eden, you cannot get back in again" could be aimed at reminding this group what they stand to lose if they decide to leave Singapore for good.

If one considers recent developments in Europe, Mr Lee's statement could not have come at a more appropriate time.

The European Union parliamentary elections in June suggested a shift towards the rhetoric of far-right politics as voters elected a slew of politicians from anti-immigration parties in the Netherlands, Austria, Denmark, Slovakia and Hungary. In the United Kingdom, the highly conservative British National Party, which opposes mass immigration, even clinched two seats for the first time.

And with European economies unlikely to experience boom time anytime soon, anti-immigration sentiments could be expected to rise and rise. If this comes to pass, then those Singaporeans who have left may decide that the grass is actually greener in this "Garden of Eden state".

The writer is pursuing a postgraduate degree at the University of Edinburgh under the British Chevening scholarship.


Taken from TODAY, Comment – Tuesday, 25-Aug-2009

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