Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Religious Faith Discussions and The Question of Tolerance

Religion and Tolerance

I read with amazement Monday's Straits Times article on "How far should discussions of religious faith go?". I haven't been around Singapore for a long time, but I guess kudos are in order that the topic is even partially discussed in the Singaporean print media. Back then (one or two decades ago), any mention of religion and tolerance was considered tabboo.

The article was basically five brief commentaries from Singaporean youths. The general theme of most of the comments was that there should be more of an emphasis on understanding each other's differences rather than simply tolerating. I agree, but I would add that respect is even more important.

Sometime ago, I had written a research paper on the question for religious tolerance and understanding in multi-cultural societies such as Singapore. The research paper was for a graduate seminar class in an ivy-league school in the US, and I had written it just after the hijab ban in Singapore schools fiasco.

I cannot remember what I wrote exactly - if I were to post excerpts here in this blog, I'd have to do some digging into my old files (in my old laptop!). But the thrust of my argument was simply that without respect underlying any attempt in fostering proactive interactions between ethnic (and religious) communities, there would be no genuine understanding. And without genuine understanding amongst the citizenry, you merely have different groups co-existing within the same society.

This ties into the whole question of nationhood. What ties us (all of us from the different ethnic and religious groups) to Singapore? Are our loyalties stronger to our group than the nation?

It seems that these are essential questions that need to be addressed in schools. It is impossible to inculcate a sense of responsility, awareness and respect once a person has attained adulthood - this needs to be done from young.

This is an excerpt of the comment from Ian Poh, a 21 year old NUS first-year law student that was published in the above-mentioned article.

"It is asking for a lot for frankness and tolerance to co-exist - there will always be someone taking issue with your opinion. I base this on my experience in mission schools. Even among peers, there were frequent disagreements arising from interpretations of weekly sermons delivered at chapel services, mostly from the freethinkers and those of weaker faith. Many take these differing opinions personally, adopting a hostile attitude after these debates. The situation might have even been worse had students of other religious faiths not been excused from these services. In my opinion, when it comes to religion, silence beats the discordance of open discussion".

Wow! The above is an example of a dangerously naive way of viewing the world from a future Singaporean lawyer.

I'll give you my take on why the above thinking is so flawed.

First, there will always be individuals around in this world who will take issue with your opinion on a whole lot of topics. Somehow the idea that only religion has the ability to inflame people to irationality has been perpretated so much in Singapore that is has become an accepted truth. I fear of this becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy!

There are Singaporeans who know that there are minority groups here - Singaporean Muslims for example. But they have never interacted with Muslims except for the cursory social interaction at work and school. Such people are prone to believe stereotypes when they encounter them. To prevent that, there has to be a proactive push towards respect, which leads to understanding; not just tolerance.

Second, a telling sign of how progressive a society is, is in exactly how differences between people are aired out. In such societies, there is an underlying respect for the right of that individual to state his position, and to listen to counter-positions.

In fact, this mode of discussion is one of the first things university students in the US are taught. The exchange of ideas then flows easily because there exists this attitude of respect and acceptance, which is critical in fostering creativity and innovation. You cannot pick and choose which topics are acceptable and which are not.
But you can have guidelines for kind of speech is acceptable and what is not. That is why there are such laws as hate speech laws in many progressive countries. And if you educate people from young to have respect for differences, then there will not be an attitude of hostility for those different from yourself.

Only a stagnant society prevents open discussion. Sad to say, the writer's experiences at his school must only be a reflection of the state of the intellectual development in Singapore.

Third, is on a personal note. For all of my formal education in Singapore, I was in Catholic mission schools. I am a Muslim, and on hindsight, I must congratulate the educators at my school for fostering an attitude of openness amongst its students. During my later years, the non-Catholics were excused from Mass services, but prior to that I had attended enough of them to understand the ceremony, which I feel makes me closer to my Catholic friends.

Knowing and understanding the many differences between us, I respect the right for them to believe and worship in the things they do, and I also choose to focus on our many commonalities.

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