30 April 2009

Civil society in a secular society

1. Lessons from Aware

Like a pebble thrown into a stagnant pond, the takeover of Aware continues to create ripples in Singapore society. If Aware's previous leaders were caught off-guard, Singaporeans too were caught flat-footed and intellectually unprepared to grasp the real issues at hand.

This has been a learning journey for all of us. If anything, we're learning the value of civil society. By examining our personal moral outrage provoked by the negative example of Feminist Mentor's takeover, we are all rediscovering the unspoken behaviour and fundamentals that nurture civil society and make for a healthy polity.

We are encouraged by the near-unanimous agreement between the blogosphere and the senior editors of the Straits Times on the value of civil society, and how the takeover offends every sensibility we hold about civil society to the point of threatening its very concept, if not its existence.

2. Anger and its solutions

The seething anger on the ground is fed by the realisation that despite breaking every tenet of civil society, Feminist Mentor and her G9 may walk away with the organisation scot-free, unaccountable to its stakeholders, avoiding all sanctions from any legal, state, or even clerical jurisdiction.

Operation Leper prefers to approach the issue this way: As this group of people refuse to play by the rules of civil society, they shouldn't be invited to play the game at all. Operation Leper urges you instead to work towards preventing their appointment to future leadership roles in politics, voluntary/social welfare groups, and NGOs.

Operation Leper does not support efforts to remove these people from their day jobs, intimidate them, or to send threats to them.

If you are angry, do write to them civilly to express your disappointment with their stealth takeover, their unilateral purges during the communications lockdown of Aware, or their short circuiting of civil discussion. Please do not send mail to their personal addresses. Please communicate with them directly, and not with their employers.

Operation Leper has to date issued a total of one boycott call, that of Lois Ng's Studio You Pte Ltd. Sam Ho rightly grasps our intentions: Studio You Pte Ltd is a company owned by Lois Ng. We object on moral grounds to the participation of this entrepreneur's participation in the takeover of Aware, and therefore call for the boycott of this entrepreneur's company and products.

3. That religious issue

Here at Illusio, a decision was taken not to allow discussions about the religious aspect of the takeover; recent developments and revelations have confirmed some of the theories and speculation floating around the rumour vines. The ban is now lifted.

One thing we note with unease is a growing discourse on the blogosphere arguing that religion has no place in pluralistic secular/civil society.

Let's look at what civil society entails again: it is the conglomeration of free, uncoerced human association and its set of relational networks. In a theocratic state, faith-based affiliation would not be an uncoerced human association, and hence not be part of civil society - whereas it will be, in a multi-faith secular society. Similarly in a modern state, the forces of capital are so totalising that they would not be considered part of civil society - whereas the various guilds and free trading cities of the Hanseatic League would be during their day.

Like it or not, religion is part of Singapore's multi-confessional secular society. People have the right to voice their opinions and beliefs, even if these are rooted in religious conviction. Civil and honest public discussion must be encouraged, even if certain speakers in the polity's discussions make their stand through a prism of their personal conviction.

The takeover of Aware and ensuing allegations of churches engaging in an Aware mass recruitment effort may suggest that certain religious considerations and affiliations are on the verge of becoming a totalising force, one that undermines the uncoerced associations and networks of civil society.

Currently, Singapore is a multi-confessional secular state. Its secularism should not be confused with the laïcité system practised in France or Turkey. A trend of the totalisation of religion may push the state to impose laïcité in the polity, to preserve its secular nature. And let me warn secularists and atheists that the experience of laïcité in France and Turkey has not been a happy one at all.


Japhethite said...

I stand corrected (no, no! I am not quoting Ps Derek Hong). Indeed I had posted a comment too soon and jumped to a conclusion before I read through your entire article.

THL said...

Would a civil society boycott those they disagree with?

That's wouldn't be very progressive and forward of us. : )

We should examine the anger and have a think if we can engage in issues without digging up more dirt.

Shouldn't our focus be on the concerns that led to the whole drama in the first place?

Like what a secular society should look like when so many of it's members subscribe to a faith based world view?

Like whether what is 'secular' is currently only being defined by a small section of those who would call themselves liberal or atheists in their worldview?
Should there be other voices being heard?

Anonymous said...

Religion and god cannot be used as the motivation and explanation. Civil society can only exist founded on secular and fact-based arguments.

akikonomu said...

How about morality-based arguments?

Anonymous said...

Moral arguments can be made, but on their own merits and not in reference to religious doctrine. Rules of engagement and discussion break down once religious dogma is used as the reason.