07 July 2009

The Inter-religious Organisation of Singapore (RDS)

Religious Diversity in Singapore is a collection of research papers originally presented in a series of workshops between 2004 and 2006 by the Institute of Policy Studies.

The Inter-religious organisation of Singapore, by Lai Ah Eng

Lai's paper presents a historical overview of the IRO's founding in 1948, its activities from that period to the present, with focus on its role in state-sanctioned nation-building, and the internal politics and divisions within the organisation.

Lai's quotes are taken from interviews she conducted with several IRO council and ordinary members between 2003-2006.

We present interesting excerpts from Lai's paper and comment when necessary. Names of key organisations, clergy and events as in bold, although like many papers presenting in Religious Diversity in Singapore, such details are often missing.

1. Interfaith and faith organisations and the Malayan Emergency
Set up officially on 18 March 1949 at the time of imminent independence from British colonial rule, the IRO claims to be one of the oldest interfaith organisations in the world... Its founding and early years had the support of several religious leaders and religious organisations, political leaders, public figures and the British colonial administration.
Like the founding of the NCCS a year earlier in 1948, the circumstances of the IRO's birth has been more than whitewashed in contemporary accounts. In order to understand the historical and social context, we need to look towards the Malayan Emergency. The British colonial administration encouraged and stage-managed the founding of faith and interfaith groups like these two, as a bulwark against the godless Communists of the MCP.

The second link we need to observe is the decolonialisation process: the prime movers and most active members in both the IRO and NCCS were largely colonials. The expat community in Singapore had, shortly before the course of the war and especially during their incarceration at Changi, experienced a common bonding and refuge in religion, which they saw as the universal answer to the world's problems.

It is hence understandable that shortly after its establishment, the IRO took on several social issues, often partaking actively in the nation-building effort, in a way that recalls a much stronger version of the wayang model of religious consultation, and like the NCCS of today, the IRO committed several instances of imperial overreach that may have contributed to its occasional periods of dormancy and disrepair:
Throughout the 1950s, it promoted religious education in schools, working with the MOE. In 1957, IRO members sat on a MOE Committee on religion and ethics in schools and subsequently contributed passages for reading at school assemblies. In the wake of a larger push towards making religious education compulsory in the late 1970s.. the IRO sent a circular on "the vital need for moral and religious instruction in our schools" to the MOE...

In its early years, the IRO occasionally took up issues related to morality and moral behaviour... For example in 1958, it sent a letter to the Chief Minister seeking stricter government control of crime films and literature as well as "obscene magazines" to "forestall growth of youth delinquency". In 1963, it issued a memorandum on the effects of films, television, radio and literature on youth's morals, particularly against "foreign patterns of love-making" and "sexy" songs, and called for the censure of love scenes and for moderate and decent entertainment.

Also watchful of media portrayals of religions during its early years, the IRO called for the censoring or banning of films considered offensive to religions (such as The Twin Swords (1965), The Great Buddha (1967), and Shaolin Temple (1982). In 1982 it even undertook the stand that all films with religious themes should first be vetted by the IRO...
The creation of moral panics, the whipping up of moral crises, the enthusiastic overextension of powers: in each case (the removal of RK by the government in 1989, the derision that followed its statements on censorship of the media), the organisation's seeming strength and activity quickly faded and its public profile beating a retreat whenever the 'crisis' resolved itself, was ignored or laughed off. Lai notes the IRO's current activity comes in the wake of 9/11, as well as the government's creation of Interreligious circles in 2002 (again the wayang model of consultation!).

Christians in the IRO: a model of good neighbours?

Although founded and then headed by leaders from the Methodist and Anglican churches in its early years, Protestant Christians have not been good neighbours at all, or particularly sincere in the interfaith effort.
Over the years however, Anglicans and Methodists have gradually distanced and disassociated themselves from the organisation and their churches' leaders have stayed away from it. As early as 1968, a letter was received by the IRO from the Anglican Church's Bishop of Singapore and Malaya clarifying that Anglican members of the IRO did not officially represent Anglican interests and that the government should not consider the IRO as the paramount representative despite its name...

One Anglican leader commented in private in 2005 that his Church should not be seen to be represented alongside the Taoist priest with "all his costumes and rituals" during joint prayers or even be involved in joint prayers...

Although the IRO's first president was the then Methodist Bishop of Malaya, the Methodist Church has not been active in the IRO and indeed has disassociated itself from the organisation...

As pointed out by one former council member of the IRO and a Protestant Christian leader, these Christian churches have increasingly grown away from their more liberal traditions, and become more conservative and evangelical and are therefore generally wary of inter-religious dialogue and interaction.
One has to wonder about the wisdom of allowing Protestant Christian leaders a place on the national pulpit, a voice in the media, and representation through stalking horses in Parliament. Why should we listen to Christian leaders and apologists who stress on the need for the freedom to religious speech, opinions, and involvement in public policy when they so clearly do not believe in sincere interfaith efforts and participation? Why should we take into consideration their representations of being oppressed by "militant secularists", if they have never put an honest effort into interfaith organisations? Questions, questions...

In contrast,
Catholics on the other hand have been increasingly involved in the IRO's activities although they came on board on a slow and delayed start... It was only after Vatican Council II in 1963, when the Catholic Church declared itself open to interfaith dialogue... that it became increasingly engaged in the IRO...

Under Sister Seow's presidency which came in the immediate post-September 11 years, several major interfaith events were organised to demonstrate the need for and to promote interfaith dialogue and understanding...
Failing the Dan Brown test

The Anglican and Methodist churches in Singapore: more conservative and intolerant than the Catholic Church.
... there are those whose theological orientation and interpretation are such that they would feel they are "dealing with the devil" if they engaged in dialogue and would not even step into the house of worship of another religion. Thus, in the case of some Protestant Christian churches, they have withdrawn from participation in the IRO and resisted attempts to be drawn into interfaith dialogue or interfaith activity.
The Anglican and Methodist churches in Singapore are to the Right of the Catholic Church on interfaith dialogue. Ordinarily, one would not associate "dealing with the devil" as a response coming from Methodist or Anglican clergy. But we're uniquely Singapore.
When the September 11 attacks took place, the IRO invited all religious leaders to a common prayer event it organised for the deceased and for peace but some Protestant Christian leaders declined. However upon being asked by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, they attended a similar state event at the National Stadium during which the IRO conducted joint prayer rites...
Need I repeat this? Why do we give Christian leaders a national space to hoist their views on homosexuality, gambling, sex education, takeovers of NGOs - when they clearly do not want to share that space with any other religious group?


Anonymous said...

There are Christians and there are Christians. And some Christians are not, and vice versa.

Anonymous said...

religion is self delusion and one should be wary of what comes from self delusion..

I think the churches today are all too familiar with hubris.