Shanmugam repeatedly questions WP’s Faisal Manap over separation of religion from politics
Eventually, WP chief Pritam Singh stepped in to make a statement.
On Oct. 7, Minister for Home Affairs and Law K Shanmugam repeatedly questioned Workers’ Party (WP) Member of Parliament (MP) Faisal Manap over his views on the separation of religion from politics in Singapore.
Shanmugam’s questioning was made in response to Faisal’s Malay speech on the changes to the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, in which he said that he could not fully agree with the Act’s principle on the separation of religion and politics.
Islam covers all aspects of life, including politics
Faisal explained that for him as a Muslim, “Islam is understood as a Way of Life…(and) covers all aspects of life including politics”.
He added that while he agreed that religion should not be used to gain political advantage, he did not agree fully with separating it entirely from politics.
Here, Faisal further noted that Parliament, as the highest law-making institution in the country, allowed religious elements in the swearing-in process of its Members, such as Christians swearing by the Bible and ending with the phrase “So help me God.”
Shanmugam expresses surprise at Faisal’s statement
In response, Shanmugam stated that he was surprised by Faisal’s statement and added that it contained serious implications.
Shanmugam said,”it contradicts everything that we hold as central and important in Singapore.”
Here, Shanmugam elaborated that should there not be a separation between religion and politics, it would mean that those who are part of the majority religion must have the bigger say, or a plurality at least.
He questioned, “Do you think the position of religious minorities will be better or worse?”
The Minister then told Faisal, “I see your position and I leave will the chambers with those statements ringing in my head, that you reject the separation of religion from politics.”
Faisal attempts to clarify his stance
Faisal subsequently attempted to clarify his stance by reiterating his point once again in English, and added that he also understood that Christianity believes religion cannot be separated from politics.
This then drew Shanmugam’s question:
“I think it might be easier to just cut to the chase and maybe tell me, do you accept the principle of separation between religion and politics? Or do you not accept it?
Because by referencing to other religions, if everybody starts saying they don’t accept the separation of religion and politics in Singapore, do you accept that there will be severe consequences?”
Faisal then replied that Shanmugam needed to look at the context in which he may not fully agree with the principle — namely the context that he was a Muslim who had accepted Islam as “a Way of Life” and that he could not accept the separation of politics and religion.
Shanmugam repeats his question
This brought Shanmugam to his next question for Faisal.
“So, if a religious leader, a Muslim religious leader, comes out and says, Islam covers all aspects of life, and therefore, Muslims must vote for Muslims. I suppose that follows, doesn’t it? Based on your position.”
To this, Faisal replied that he disagreed as he had mentioned in his speech that religion should not be used for politics.
Shanmugam rephrased his clarifications, pointing out that the logical conclusion of Faisal’s position was that religion should also impact the formulation of government policy.
“I believe in terms of the policies that are actually related to religion, like currently what we are discussing about, even the Minister has to consult the religious groups, right? So there is an element of, especially in these policies, an element of intertwine between politics and religion, which cannot be separated.”
Yes or No?
At this point, the questioning took on a note of frustration, with Shanmugam repeating his question for the third time, along with an added request for a simple answer.
“I don’t think we are going anywhere, because we are going around in circles. Either your words mean something: A, or B. Do you believe, I ask you for the final time, religion and politics should be kept separate? A simple answer would do. “
Shanmugam then repeated his question two more times in response to Faisal’s repeated reiteration that the clarification Shanmugam sought for could be found in his speech.
“I do not wish to be engaged in such debate, because as I mentioned just now, it is clearly stated in my speech. I believe your clarification, Minister, is directed to my speech.”
Pritam Singh intervenes
Subsequently, WP chief Pritam Singh signaled his intent to the Deputy Speaker to give an answer.
However, Shanmugam addressed his question one more time in Faisal’s direction, who responded:
“I do agree that religion needs to be kept aside, apart from politics so that religion won’t be used to gain personal benefit or for the benefit of any political party.”
The floor was then given over to Pritam who clarified that the position of a minority MP for any party was to represent not just members of their own community, but also members of other faiths.
Pritam then added that the way forward was “to accept that there has to be a certain degree of understanding towards other faiths, and move forward in a way which accepts that we must be mindful of introducing religion into politics.”
As for Faisal’s position, Pritam stated that he was coming was from his faith, which was also a value-system, one that was similar to Christianity.
Pritam then reiterated,”But I think ultimately for a Member of Parliament of any political party in Singapore, I think it’s important that you remember that you have to represent the interests of every community, not just yours.”
Top image collage from gov.sg