Shanmugam & Pritam Singh discuss far-right extremism, secularism, & stance on the LGBTQ community in S'pore

Both parties acknowledged the other's views.

Nigel Chua | March 01, 2021, 10:28 PM

Workers' Party (WP) chief and Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh exchanged words with home affairs and law minister K Shanmugam in Parliament during the Committee of Supply debate for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) on Mar. 1.

The exchange can be broadly organised into three key areas: religious extremism, how government policy is strictly secular, and the government's stance on the LGBTQ community.

More reassurances sought on religious extremism

Singh spoke first about religious extremism, citing the recent case of a 16-year-old detained in Singapore in 2020, who plotted terror attacks on two mosques.

He acknowledged reassurances from the government about "increased steps to reach out to youth through social media and other means to counter radical threats," but said that the case served as a "good reminder" that religious extremism can come from anywhere.

"Any religion can be misused, none is exempt."

In this context, Singh said, "the population may need to be reassured that the government is on top of things."

This, to Singh, went beyond "an operational standpoint."

There was also a need for government policy to be "strictly secular", and for it to neither favour nor be influenced by any religious beliefs.

Singh said that religious extremism, when exposed, would be "rejected by all", including the ordinary adherents of that religion. He was also sure that government policy would be strongly against extremism.

However, Singh questioned whether there was a risk of "the subtle influencing of policy by religious persons who are not necessarily radical."

He asked:

"Is there a danger in Singapore that laws and policies could be tilted towards particular religious beliefs, for example because of the dominant religion, the religious beliefs of senior civil servants, or people of influence? If not now, maybe sometime in future."

He asked if the government had considered such matters, and, if so, whether there were plans for "strategies to counter such a possible risk to Singapore's secular principles."

Shanmugam: To leave public with wrong impression of civil service will be "seriously wrong"

Shanmugam later rose to respond to Singh.

He said that many would interpret Singh's words as "saying in essence" that top civil servants could be biased, and could act in favour of religious communities because of their religious beliefs, "both now and in the future".

"Leaving the public with that impression about our current top civil servants will be seriously wrong," Shanmugam said, adding that these civil servants had "dedicated their entire lives to public service loyally [and] faithfully.

If Singh's statement was only meant to cover a future possibility of bias among civil servants and not present ones, "then that should have been made crystal clear," Shanmugam said.

The minister stressed that the issue Singh had raised related to the integrity of Singapore's senior civil service, which he said was "one of the key foundations of our success."

Shanmugam said that the government's position on the matter was "that which Mr. Lee Kuan Yew has set."

Quoting Singapore's founding Prime Minister, Shanmugam read:

"We are going to have a multiracial nation in Singapore. We will set the example. This is not a Malay nation; this is not a Chinese nation; this is not an Indian nation, everyone will have his place: equal; language, culture, religion."

Shanmugam said that freedom of religion is "guaranteed", but added that in the public sphere, and in public policymaking, "neutrality and fairness are essential" and none of the religious groups were favoured.

"That goes for cabinet ministers, senior civil servants, the public service as a whole," Shanmugam said, adding that non-observance of these principles "must be dealt with."

Shanmugam spoke of notable senior civil servants and their long service, saying that it would be "most unfair" to taint them with suspicions of religious bias without any proof.

However, Shanmugam emphasised that he referred only to the impressions that he felt Singh's words would leave with listeners, and did not take issue with what Singh may have actually meant.

Nevertheless, "how the words could be understood [does] matter," he said.

Shanmugam then said that officers were promoted on merit, and no questions of religion or race were asked.

He also said his present comments "can stand together" and be qualified by past remarks in 2003 on "leavening" meritocracy by taking into account the position of minorities, adding as well that the 2003 comments were purely his "personal view".

Having addressed the present state of civil servants, Shanmugam said that moving forward, institutions like the Public Service Commission and Public Service Division would help to ensure that "the best officers" are promoted while those who lack integrity are weeded out.

Shanmugam said the government's secular stand had been "made clear": that the government looks at policies in a secular way, guaranteeing freedom of religion and not favouring any religious group over another.

Shanmugam said: "I have spoken about our approach at least nine times over the last five years, and I don't think Mr. Singh wants a 10th speech."

Singh: Revisit the 1989 White Paper on Maintenance of Religious Harmony

Singh also said it "may be a good time" to revisit the 1989 White Paper on Maintenance of Religious Harmony.

The time of the White Paper, Singh said, "was a very different time in terms of interpersonal communication."

He cited an example of how the White Paper sought to deal with "insensitive proselytisation" as a major issue.

Today, however, he said closer attention should be paid to radicalism and extremism.

This need not necessarily be limited to the context of "religion versus religion", said Singh, but also in "religion versus other communities".

Principles and examples in White Paper "bear restating and updating"

The principles and examples in White Paper "bear restating and updating", said Singh, as they are all the more important "in our age of information silos."

Singh then quoted what he felt was the "critical point" from the White Paper:

"The purpose of attempting to separate religion from politics is therefore not to determine the validity of various religious or ethical beliefs which have political or social implications.

It is to establish working rules by which many faiths can accept fundamental differences between them and coexist peacefully in Singapore."

"No immediate need for another White Paper": Shanmugam

In the final part of his response, Shanmugam directly addressed Singh's comments on an updated White Paper, saying that there was "no immediate need" for that at the moment.

This is because of "many steps" that have been taken, which include:

  • A review of the 1989 White Paper, and consequent amendments to the law on religious harmony.
  • An April 2019 Ministerial Statement on hate speech and racial and religious harmony.
  • A June 2019 commitment to safeguard religious harmony, which 680 religious organisations and 73 community groups affirmed.

Far-right extremism

Singh also spoke about far-right extremism, saying that it had "at its core, the rejection of the other".

He raised a story of a man who confronted staff members over a rainbow LGBT pride flag that had been placed at the front of the shop.

Recalling some of the verbal abuse the man uttered, Singh said that it was "concerning" that the video was uploaded to

"highlight the everyday reality that the LGBTQ community experience", quoting reasons cited by the owner, who had shared footage of the video footage of the January 2021 incident on the shop's Facebook page.

Singh asked:

"Will the government consider a restatement or an update of its working rules and laws, to ensure that there is preservation of strict secularism so that all communities recognise that no one is placed above the other in matters of law, policy and governance in our multi-racial and multi-religious society, which also increasingly holds other communities?"

Restatement of government's position on LGBTQ community

Shanmugam referred Singh to his previous remarks regarding the government's position on the LGBTQ community in Singapore.

Specifically, he said that the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act protects LGBT groups or individuals from attacks from religious groups, and vice versa.

"Regardless of which community, what your social, religious or sexual beliefs are, everyone will be protected here and I've said so categorically," he said.

"LGBTQ persons, non-LGBTQ persons, we are all equal. We are not any lesser by reason of our sexual preferences."

Shanmugam also invited Singh to clarify his own position on the government's LGBTQ policies.

Pritam acknowledges Shanmugam's clarifications, makes one of his own

Singh spoke in response to Shanmugam's statement that Singh's earlier remarks could have been interpreted to mean that some civil servants are biased.

Singh said, that he did not mean to undermine their work, or their morale.

Rather, he said that his motivation had been to seek a restatement of the government's commitment towards secularism.

"I thank Minister for dealing with the speech, and the government's approach to what I said in a very detailed way," Singh said.

"I didn't realise Minister had made these remarks nine times since 2015. Suffice to say I appreciate his 10th restatement, more than anything," said Singh, drawing laughter from Shanmugam and others in the chamber.

Finally, Singh acknowledged Shanmugam's statements about the government's stance on the LGBTQ community.

Singh said that Shanmugam's point about equality between LGBT and non-LGBT persons was "an important remark".

"I completely agree with this, I support this. I think it's a very powerful statement, a fair and egalitarian approach to dealing with the matter," said Singh.

He added:

"And I hope all Singaporeans regardless of race or religion actually coalesce around this, and have reasoned and respectful conversations on LGBTQ issues. And I think we'll be stronger as a nation for it."

Top image via MCI on YouTube