08 June 2009

Rethinking secularism I

Secularism 1.0: The beta version Papalee would rather forget

Believe it or not, Singapore's wayang model of religious consultation isn't the first time the State had enlisted the religious communities in the nation-building process. This isn't the first time the State had its good intentions blow up in its face either. And guess what, the last time it happened, it involved teaching in schools too.

As they say, all this has happened before; all this will happen again.

I speak of the Religious Knowledge curriculum in secondary schools in Singapore, introduced as a compulsory examinable O-Level subject in 1982 and abolished in 1989. As with Goh Chok Tong's model of religious consultation, the Religious Knowledge was largely a wayang show.

The purpose of RK was peddled to the populace not as religious education, not even as moral education, but mainly as a "cultural ballast" to the bad influences of a rapidly Westernising society and what Lee Kuan-Yew perceived as deculturalisation and loss of traditional values (Straits Times, 15 March 1979). Of course, religious experts and philosophers were activated or enrolled by the state to produce multiple studies and panels to form a curriculum.

On a far more practical level, RK was seen by Singapore's leaders as a piece in their arsenal of tools to promote their vision of a communitarian society, to reinforce their ideology of society over self.

In particular, Confucian Ethics was hoped to be the default choice of Chinese students, unifying the various dialect groups through the 'grand tradition' of Confucianism, then touted by Lee Kuan Yew as the secret of Singapore's economic success.

Needless to say, things didn't work out that way. Confucian Ethics was one of the least popular subjects. Most Chinese students took Buddhist Studies. Bible Studies claimed more than 21.4% of students - and during the 1980s Christians numbered less than 10% of Singapore's population.

Most unfortunately for Lee Kuan Yew, the civil servants, and the panels of religious experts involved in forming the RK curriculum and training the teachers to deliver that curriculum, the failure was more severe than that. A study named "Religion and religious revivalism in Singapore" by sociologists Eddie Kuo, Jon Quah and Tong Chee Kiong directly implicated the Religious Knowledge courses in creating intense religious fervour and religious differences amongst students, and warned of the very real possibility of inter-religious conflicts in the long term.

And this is them being polite about it. And within 1 year of the study's publication, Religious Knowledge was phased out.

Unofficially though, let's just say that members of a certain religious affiliation in Singapore took the state sanction of "Religious Knowledge" to promote their strong-arm evangelising activities, which of course produced very vocal, outspoken, and strident students who put their classmates ill at ease.

To be completely impolite about it: Religious Knowledge was scrapped in schools because of the radicalisation and self-radicalisation of Christian students or students taking Bible Studies.