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.


Anonymous said...

I was one of the beneficiaries who had the opportunity to study the gospel of Luke as well as the book of Acts as an O level subject.

Interesting that you regard the publication of that paper as the cause of the govt dropping RK from secondary school syllabus.

I always felt that the govt dropped RK due to 2 reasons that emerged in the late 80s.

The first was Operation Spectrum, when a group of Catholics were alleged to be plotting to overthrow the PAP.

The second was what happened in the Philippines then, when the Catholic Church swept Aquino into Presidency.

Both events made the PAP nervous on how religion can be a troublesome force in politics.

akikonomu said...

Hi Kelvin,

It's great to know that as a beneficiary of RK, you did not seek to accentuate and highlight religious differences between you and your classmates.

Eddie Kuo, Jon Quah and Tong Chee Kiong apparently felt it did contribute to increased tensions in schools, from their school surveys of students in 1988/9.

As to whether the publication of the paper was the prime cause of the government dropping RK - that's more a thesis of Beng-Huat Chua, in his "Communitarian Ideology and Democracy in Singapore" book.

Operation Spectrum and the Aquino election took place at the same time, but they couldn't have been considered if not for the trio's paper =D

Though I might point out that some people do view the Asian Values ideology in the early 1990s as a natural successor of RK as a government tool of social cohesion. In that sense, RK was never abandoned, merely adjusted...

solvent_d said...

Never knew there was RK in the 80s. Thanks for highlighting.

Look forward to hearing the rest of this series.

Eiji Kotaki said...

I never know there was such thing as RK either!

Signore Kai said...

I agree with you on this.

Having studied in a catholic mission school, the evangelism they displayed was annoying and irritating. And that's not even Religious Knowledge in the action.