15 May 2009

Singapore's wayang model of religious consultation

Imperial overreach redux, or: haven't we been here before?

In the light of a second cycle of official statements coming from various churches and religious groups on the long aftermath of the Aware issue, it is clear that the matter is not closed, and will not be closed for some time. Despite their authority and positions, statements issued by various quarters more than a week ago lack the finality that was expected of them - hence forcing another wave of clarifications.

The church-state wayang

As a modus operandi, faith organisations have never played an active role in political and public commentary in the years of the Republic; one may cite certain remarks a political leader issued shortly after Operation Spectrum, or the general consensus on the church-state divide already existing in the entire region after 1960.

It is then highly out of the ordinary that faith organisations in Singapore have been issuing on a regular basis, official statements on all matters of public policy and social discourse in the recent years. We trace this torrent of statements to their zero point: a decision in 2001 by the Goh Chok Tong government to obtain the consent from various faith leaders before embarking on its life sciences and stem cell research industry.

Out of this need to have religious leaders to speak for their faith communities as part of a "look, I asked them, they didn't object strongly enough" consultation process, certain questionable innovations have arisen, erroneous impressions cultivated, and ambitions stoked.

Like a good old wayang, a series of legal and social fictions (in the sense that corporate personhood is a fiction) must be maintained in this 'consultative' mode of government.

1. Religions have a major say in public consultation (when the government decides they should be consulted, or be made to speak up on certain issues)

2. Religions must receive special legal protection against certain speech (to the point where observers have the impression that religious organisations have a veto over public discourse and public policy)

3. Religious leaders have authority to speak for and dictate the beliefs and attitudes of their faith communities

These fictions, especially the final one, don't seem to be immediately illogical; we expect Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (aka MUIS) to issue religious rulings that orthodox Muslims in Singapore would consider binding.

But does the President of NCCS have the authority to speak for, dictate the doctrinal stand, and issue commands to Christians in Singapore?

And moving further away from the religions of the book... do the statements from the President of a Buddhist Federation or a Taoist Society have any doctrinal, legal, or even institutional authority on self-professed Buddhists and Taoists in Singapore? To what extent do the Presidents of these societies receive the acknowledged leadership and authority from the members of their faith, which they fictionally 'speak for' and 'represent' in Singapore's wayang system of church-state relations?

The Aware saga has shown that certain consultative bodies may not be content with their mere consultative role, and aren't afraid of being seen by the larger polity as muscling their way into public policy and setting the terms of public discourse either publicly, through their 'individual' proxies, or through inaction to control these proxies.

Go to part 2 of this post

1 comment:

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