Do they really want the church involved in politics?
Mr Alex Au has said that he surfaced this incident to alert people to how the country is governed. I think that on his part, he is arguing for transparency. I think on the part of Singaporeans who follow governance matters especially to do with state-society relations, the matter of the letter and its withdrawal especially since it relates to a movement on the ISA falls squarely within a well-known operating paradigm in Singapore.
That paradigm is that religion and politics are kept separate unless the state explicitly invites religious group to comment or act on something for the common good; that the state monitors this carefully and acts to maintain that separation.
Religious communities are natural, moral constituencies which are bound by their precepts. The problem with allowing religious groups to wade into politics in general, is that unlike groups that are fundamentally political or groups in other parts of civil society where is it assumed that the weight of evidence and a reasonable argument can be brought to bear into shifting their positions on political or policy matters, religious groups must necessarily by definition be bound by a fixed way of interpreting political and policy matters according to their precepts.
They are also constituencies that are not by definition based on democratic ways in which to establish who has the authority to lead even if there are exceptions. So it is all the more important to ensure that they stay within the bounds of their religious mandate in a highly multicultural context such as Singapore or there will be a high level of contestation to have influence over the state, governance and civil society where there is no clear mandate even from adherents of the communities to do so.
While Singaporeans would probably not wish for their religious leaders or constituencies to be cribbed, cabined or confined in this manner with regard to influence on public matters, they would probably not want other groups to have the unfair advantage overthem either. For that reason, this is a generally accepted operating paradigm by all.
These are the reasons, ground-up and top-down why the practice in Singapore is to keep civil society and religious communities tightly regulated according to their registered objectives.
Do note that the government has often invited input from religious community on many public matters as I said earlier.
But for a religious community or leader to be construed as joining hands with another civil society group to advocate change on as sensitive a matter at the ISA, could lead others to question why they might not do the same, or why one group might be allowed to fall out of that operating paradigm.
As the Archbishop explained, his intention was to ensure that his sentiments are not construed in that manner and hence he withdrew his letter.
It is also in the public interest that a government leader reiterates the operating paradigm or alerts him to that possibility.
It is also well within Alex Au’s right to surface the issue though it was disrespectful to the Archbishop.
But it illustrates the harsh realities of the operating paradigm which probably someone in Function 8 or Maruah disagrees with in the first place. I think that is where the story really lies. Do they really want the church involved in politics?
Dr Gillian Koh is a senior research fellow at the Institute of Policy Studies. This was her response to queries from The Straits Times about the saga involving Archbishop Nicholas Chia.