The ‘S’ word strikes again: Today Article Don’t impose beliefs on others: interactions in society should be secular.’, quoth Shan

Thio Li-ann
Professor of Law,
National University of Singapore

TBPT seem to be going on about the ground rules for religious expression and secular interaction again. In an article titled “Don’t impose beliefs on others: interactions in society should be secular.’ (Today, 19 April 2010), Law Minister Shan is reported as stating: “Religious beliefs must remain private and should not be imposed on others – but it can be used to promote good values that all can agree on”.

It was also reported: Interaction in society, he said, should be based on secular values and arguments, as it would be difficult for people to accept arguments based on another person’s religious beliefs. But, Mr Shanmugam added, “if you put forward that argument on the basis it is in the best interest of the community and put it forward on a logical secular basis, then people can accept it”.

The article by Alicia Wong also referred to recent ministerial statements relating to securing secular common space. Specifically:

1. How religious groups are increasingly holding worship events at commercial venues

2. How religious groups are getting involved in business

3. how religious groups are becoming “more assertive in evangelising.”

The solution? The touting of the “S” word, secularism. But Secularism is a protean term, capable of meaning a wide variety of things. As a basis for structuring a Religion-State model, Secularism can be anti-religious or anti-theistic, which is a dangerously intolerant ideology, or it can be anti-theocratic or agnostic i.e. indifferent towards religion, locating the source of law not in divine law but in ‘secular’ documents (those shorn of religious authority) like the Constitution or the processes of Democracy.

There is no doubt that in a multi-racial and multi-religious society, there should be ground rules based on prudence designed to promote peaceful co-existence as well as to secure religious liberty. Religious liberty includes the constitutional right to evangelise others in an attempt to persuade belief (which the hearer can of course reject, pursuant to the principle of free conscience which undergirds religious liberty, as art 15 safeguards).

There are frequent admonitions to exercise this right “sensitively.” It’s really just self restraint and civility, part of the social compact rather than legal regulation. It also involves the right of citizens not to be discriminated against on religious grounds, so that all citizens of whatever persuasion can participate in democratic debate. This Law Minister Shan seems to appreciate; and it is common sense too that arguments should be broadly accessible and couched in a way which appeals to the common good and to common sense and sensibilities. Democratic debate is about persuasion, about what serves the common good.

The thing is: is “secularism” about geography or ideology?

1. Secularism as Ideology: If the latter, it should not been a pretext for the imposition of anti-religious ideology. The secularism the state has practised and continues to practise is a ‘procedural’ one, which treats all religions in an even-handed manner insofar as possible, and does not privilege atheistic views which is to impose anti-theistic beliefs (radical liberalism, secular humanism) on those who do not subscribe to such beliefs. Secular ideologies e.g. utilitarianism, libertarianism, marxism, can also be imposed. There is no neutral ideology and therefore public philosophy should be open to democratic debate so that all citizens can shape this and seek the public good.

2. Secularism as Procedural Framework / Geography: this idea of ‘secularism means that there should be “common spaces” where religion isn’t an issue e.g. public schools, where a no tudung rule is adhered to as a facet of education policy in primary school, and where both halal and non-halal food is served (to serve only halal school in a multi-racial setting is to discriminate against those who do not require to eat halal only) The delineation of the common shared domain and the private domain is typical in managing racial religious diversity in any plural society which aspires to be democratic. Religious services should be “private” in the sense that the government has no business entering into e.g. a church, mosque or temple to see whether what is being preached violates some politically correct code – such govt intrusion would be violative of art 14 and 15, freedom of religion, speech and conscience.

A particularly sad example of how state law can violate religious freedom is the recent Victoria Equal Opportunity Bill (see; for a critique see:

The Public in the Private, The Private in the Public

To say that religious beliefs must remain “private” is a loaded statement. The “public/private” dichotomy is often invoked as a conclusion, not a basis for analysis or reasoning as what is public and private again is not self evident and is based on some background political philosophy. A good exposition is Karl Klare, ‘The Public/Private Distinction in Labor Law’ 13 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1359 (1981-1982).

Hence, where the lines between the “public” and the “private” are drawn  must pertain to our understanding of “secularism”. What could “private” mean in this context?

a) It would be unacceptable to say that “private” means no propagation of faiths. That would violate a constitutional right to propagation (albeit sensitively, without resorting to denigrating other religions, so long as it is appreciated that disagreement is not tantamount to denigration).

b) “Private” could indicate the sphere of autonomy religious groups should enjoy, as is constitutionally protected in art 15(2); for example, the state cannot intervene by sending politically correct police into religious services; nor can the state stipulate how believers should pray etc…

c) “Private” does not entail the “privatisation” of religious beliefs for the purpose of banning religiously-inspired convictions from entering into public debate. This would be blatant censorship and discrimination against those who hold religiously inspired convictions, assuming these can be identified. Religiously inspired convictions may overlap with non-religiously inspired convictions (overlapping consensus?). A religious belief could fuel a commitment to economic prudence and hard work, as opposed to say, a hedonistic ‘secular’ anti-theistic worldview which celebrates wanton gambling etc…

d)  “Private” could mean: religious affiliation is a private choice with whom no one should interfere. That is the principle of conscience on which religious freedom and profession is based. The state cannot dictate belief. If someone tries to persuade you to a belief system, you could either hear it out and evaluate it, even adopt it, or ask the person politely to stop because you are disinterested. That is true tolerance: I disagree with you, but I respect your right to share your beliefs, even if I find your beliefs to be untrue or annoying etc…It is intolerant to call down legal sanctions as tolerance implies self-restraint and forbearance against a view one dislikes. We should hear and evaluate all views and make up our own mind as to what is right and wrong, especially in matters of religious belief where ultimate values and Truth are at issue. But religious belief (or non-belief or a change in belief) is something that falls to the individual to decide – from the variety of worldviews which should be made available to him as part of the common good (informed decision-making needs information not censorship); the principle of free conscience requires that in matters of religious belief, there should be no coercion or duress. This is the appropriate use of the term “private” – private choice in terms of choosing religious belief (and implicit in making a choice is a rejection of competing ‘choices’; in other words, to chose, is to reject all else) , after deliberating on all worldviews available for individual assessment.

Professor Thio Li-ann

19 April 2010


One comment

  1. Pingback: General Paper Essay Outline: Censorship is not relevant anymore | H1 General Paper 8807

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