This article is a response by Rio Hoe. Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. If you like this article, you can check out the rest of his blog here
I recently wrote an article on the Masagos-Faisal saga, and Tay Leong Tan, in their article ‘Religious Discussion in Parliament: An Alternative View’, provided a well-argued response, which you may find here. However, I find myself unable to agree with them entirely.
Tay argued that just because something is not debated in Parliament ‘doesn’t not mean decisions are being made behind citizen’s back,’ and that some issues need to develop organically, and that legislation and policy are not the only way to deliver change.
It is true that not everything has to be decided in Parliament, but that does not mean they should not be debated in Parliament. Debates allows public views to be expressed. While it can be left to civil servants and politicians to address these issues, rather than through Parliamentary legislation, this does not mean the issues should be not brought up and discussed in the open.
Furthermore, while it is true that some things can develop organically – e.g. culture, or social norms, the prohibition on the wearing of the tudong by frontline civil servants is a matter of government policy, which came as a result of deliberate decision-making, not an organic shift in public behaviour. The issue is therefore an issue of policy, and can only be changed through implementing a different policy.
Tay Leong Tan also argued that religious matters are a special class of divisive, difficult matters. They argue that in religion, there can be no conclusion and no consensus because faith is incompatible with reason. I have two responses to this.
First, as I pointed out in my article, while a lot of issues are divisive for the wrong reasons: they are divisive because some segments of society hold extremist views. These groups are very vocal, and are willing to stir up trouble if they feel that their views are threatened. They may be unreasonable, irrational and refuse to listen to reason. It surely cannot be that just because of this, we should allow ourselves to be bullied into silence?
Second, while some issues are matters of religion to other people, they may mean something else to others. Telling the group that does not see the matter as an issue of religion that the matter cannot be discussed because their opponent’s faith is incompatible with reason is rather unfair to someone who does not adopt the same religious views. For example, one group of people might think that preserving Section 377A is a matter of preserving important moral values that they derive from their religion. At the same time, another group might treat the issue as discrimination based on one’s sexual orientation, and an attack on their personal identity. Telling the latter group that this issue is beyond discussion because it has been couched as a religious issue by their opponents is surely quite unfair.
Let me provide another example. 400 years ago, the idea that the sun revolved around the earth was treated by the Catholic Church, and many people in Europe, as a matter of religion. For Galileo, who believed (correctly) that it was the earth that revolved around the sun, it was a matter of science. Were Galileo to exist today, should we tell him that his theory should not be discussed because it involves sensitive religious discussion, and that religion is incompatible with reason? I find it difficult to accept this conclusion.