ST: Religious groups must be mindful of differing views, says DPM

15 May 2009
Straits Times

Religious groups must be mindful of differing views, says DPM

By Jeremy Au Yong & Zakir Hussain, Political Correspondents

THE Government yesterday spelled out rules of political engagement for religious groups as it broke its official silence on the recent leadership tussle at the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

In a detailed response to questions from The Straits Times, Deputy Prime Minister Wong Kan Seng said religious individuals have the same rights as other Singaporeans to express their views on public policy issues, but they should be mindful that they live in a multi-religious society where the views of others may be different from theirs.

‘If religious groups start to campaign to change certain government policies, or use the pulpit to mobilise their followers to pressure the Government, or push aggressively to gain ground at the expense of other groups, this must lead to trouble.

‘Keeping religion and politics separate is a key rule of political engagement,’ he said. He also warned that while the Government ‘encourages the development of civil society’, ‘it will not stand by and watch when intemperate activism threatens our social fabric’.

Mr Wong’s remarks come two weeks after the end of a tumultuous time for women’s advocacy group Aware. The saga began on March 28 when new members, many of whom attend the Anglican Church of Our Saviour, seized nine of the 12 positions on the executive committee. Their stated motive: To return Aware to its ‘original’ purpose, as they saw it as having veered towards promoting a gay and lesbian agenda.

On May 2, the new exco was ousted in a rowdy extraordinary general meeting (EGM) attended by thousands.

In his response to The Straits Times, Mr Wong reiterated that the Government’s stand on homosexuality has not changed, nor will it be changed by the Aware saga.

That position, he noted, was outlined by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong in Parliament during the October 2007 debate on whether or not to decriminalise gay sex.

Both sides campaigned vigorously over whether or not to repeal Section 377A of the Penal Code. In the end, the Government decided to leave the law alone.

Mr Wong said: ‘In his speech, PM Lee said Singapore is basically a conservative society and the conventional family, a heterosexual stable family, is the norm and the building block of our society. However, we recognise that homosexuals are part of our society. They have a place in our society and are entitled to their private lives.

‘This is the way the majority of Singaporeans want it to be – a stable society with traditional, heterosexual family values, but with space for homosexuals to live their private lives and contribute to the society.’

He regretted that homosexuality had emerged as an issue during the Aware saga, saying this was ‘unproductive and divisive’.

He said: ‘Our society will not reach consensus on this issue for a very long time to come. The way for homosexuals to have space in our society is to accept the informal limits which reflect the point of balance that our society can accept, and not to assert themselves stridently as gay groups do in the West.’

DPM Wong, who is also Home Affairs Minister, added: ‘Who controls Aware is not important to the Government. Government policy on homosexuality is settled.’

Urging restraint and tolerance, he said Singapore must not import the culture wars between the extreme liberals and conservatives that are going on in the United States.

The call for restraint was a recurring theme in Mr Wong’s five-page response.

He called on the pro- and anti-gay groups, religious and secular groups, supporters of both the old and new guard of Aware, and civil society at large, to show restraint. ‘Every group, whether religious or secular, has to live and let live, to exercise restraint and show mutual respect and tolerance. If any group pushes its agenda aggressively, there will be strong reactions from the other groups,’ he stressed.

The mainstream media came in for its share of exhortation, with Mr Wong calling on it to report ‘dispassionately and impartially’ the groups and personalities involved.

‘The Aware episode was surely not the most important challenge facing Singapore, deserving such extensive and even breathless coverage,’ noted Mr Wong, adding that journalists should not get caught up in the stories they report.

Turning to the role of religious leaders, Mr Wong praised an earlier statement by Dr John Chew of the National Council of Churches of Singapore (NCCS) urging churches against getting involved in the Aware dispute.

He said he was glad that leaders of other religions came out to reinforce the NCCS message.

‘Had it not been for these sober statements from religious leaders, we would have had serious problems,’ he said.

Explaining the Government’s decision to make an official statement, he noted that there were many qualms among Singaporeans about the Aware takeover being motivated by religion. The involvement of religion made the dispute more dangerous as it was no longer just a matter of homosexuality, he said.

‘The Aware episode showed clearly how passions and emotions naturally run high when it concerns an issue or cause salient to people’s beliefs or interests,’ he noted.

His message for both sides: ‘Calm down and move on.’

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