The “Rules of Prudence” that the Prime Minister sent last week to newly elected People’s Action Party Members of Parliament after the General Election stressed the importance of humility, integrity, the separation of business and politics, and financial prudence (“Don’t slacken off despite strong GE showing, PAP MPs warned; Sept 30). It was an excellent message that spelt out principles of good governance and politics.
Surprisingly, there was no mention of separation between religion and politics. We live in a milieu where religion is increasingly politicised, often resulting in social tensions, political unrest, terrorism and armed conflicts.
This phenomenon is happening at a global scale, and its destabilising effects spread rapidly in our ultra-connected world. As an open, cosmopolitan city with an ethnically and religiously diverse populace, Singapore is especially susceptible to the combustible concoction of religion and politics.
It would be prudent for political leaders and senior civil service officers to be reminded of secularism as one of Singapore’s core governance principles. If they subscribe to any faiths, it is especially crucial to draw a line between their personal beliefs and professional work, so that policymaking and politics do not become hostage to religious polarisation.
When engaging the public, our office holders should also refrain from publicising their religious beliefs. A multi-religious society with politicians who are too public about their faiths may even encourage electoral behaviour where voters support candidates whose faiths are aligned to theirs, resulting in divisive politics.
Two esteemed past politicians we can look up to in upholding public religious agnosticism are the late Hon Sui Sen and Mr S Dhanabalan. Both men were devout in private, but maintained principled silence about their faiths when they discharged their duties as public sector leaders.
We have seen our fair share of heated public debates with religious undertones recently. An example is the National Library Board’s children’s book saga, in which some saw the book as promoting same-sex families.
Also a worrying trend is the discovery and detention of self-radicalised individuals planning to join the religious conflict in the Middle East, an issue the authorities have handled firmly and sensitively.
We will face more religion-tinged incidents in future. An unequivocal reminder to separate religion from politics would do much to reinforce public trust in the religious neutrality of Government, and buffer Singapore from the perils of religious polarisation.