By Wei Jie Koh, Yale-NUS ’17 – See bio
This post is about an ongoing saga involving a megachurch pastor, a network of more than 40,000 Christians, and the LGBT community in Singapore. This series of events has re-ignited a heated debate over local LGBT issues. The outcome has the potential to affect not only LGBT people, but also the role of religion in the public sphere.
Religion and Politics in Singapore
What should the role of religion be in Singaporean society and politics? Simply put, Singapore is a secular nation. The government is separate from religious institutions. Policies should be constructed without influence from religious values and should not unfairly discriminate against or benefit any particular religious group. Article 15 of the Constitution also guarantees every person “the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it”. Religious groups have the right to free exercise, but they cannot deny the rights of other groups to practice their own religions. The government also strongly promotes “racial and religious harmony” with laws and policies that are meant to prevent acts that cause ill-will between racial and religious groups.
Singaporeans are a religiously and ethically diverse group that has seen significant progress towards racial and religious tolerance under the government’s racial and religious harmony policy. As a result, most Singaporeans support secularism, and events in recent history have shown this to be true. Perhaps the best-known incident is the AWARE saga of 2009, when a group of Christians took over a secular women’s rights organisation in a surprise coup. The “new guard” were subsequently voted out when AWARE supporters mobilised and held an extraordinary general meeting.
In 2010, megachurch pastor Rony Tan made comments demonising Buddhism and Taoism. He was not only reprimanded by the authorities, but also faced widespread criticism from Singaporeans, even those from the same faith.
In 2012, when a Campus Crusade organization in National University of Singapore put up posters insinuating that Buddhism causes Thailand to be “a place of little true joy”, and that much of the population in Turkey “is M” and “much prayer and work is needed in this place”, a similar outcry took place and both state and university authorities took action against the group.
Because religion in Singapore is still a very sensitive subject, even 50 years after deadly racial and religious riots, people who make insensitive comments about other races and religions tend to attract very strong criticism from ordinary Singaporeans, regardless of their political or religious leanings.
The Lawrence Khong saga began on the 13th of January when the Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) published a statement on its website that had been read earlier in the day to former prime minster Goh Chok Tong. Goh had been invited to the church during one of his “regular walkabouts”. In the statement, senior pastor Lawrence Khong requested Mr. Goh not to repeal Section 377A of the penal code, a law that criminalises “gross indecency” between males in Singapore. Parliament debated its repeal in 2007 and the law remains a key topic of public discussion on LGBT issues.
According to a newspaper report of the event, Goh had been read a “prepared statement” and neither expressed support nor criticism of it.
On the 18th of January, the Minister for Law posted a message on Facebook stating that he had been contacted by Khong, who represented his church and LoveSingapore, a network of “some 100 churches” and “at least 40,000 Christians” in opposing an upcoming constitutional challenge to S377A. In response to the Minister’s meeting earlier this year with activists from Sayoni, a group for queer Asian women in Singapore, Khong requested to meet the Minister to discuss the issue.
Khong made Facebook posts of his own. In a post on the 19th, Khong described the repeal of S377A as “pivotal to the implementation of the gay agenda”, which he described as an “insidious conspiracy” and an internationally-funded political movement. He stated that it would lead to hate-crime and anti-discrimination laws that would “reverse-discriminate” against opponents of the so-called agenda.
“Our core values will be systematically eroded until homosexuality is elevated as king in our land. Subjects of this king will silence all dissenters and make them submit to a new orthodoxy.”
As of the time of writing, this post had attracted more than a thousand comments. Naturally, the discussion was heated, leading to Khong’s next post, in which he cited a so-called “Homosexual Manifesto” unaware that the essay was a satirical piece. Again, there was more heated debate. Khong apparently realised that he had unknowingly cited satire, but in his next post, wrote, “Any fiction portrays truths. Even a satire has a truth it seeks to illustrate. While it is over the top, it expresses the raw desire of an oppressed homosexual seeking to become a predator to the heterosexual.”
On the 19th of January, pastor Yang Tuck Yoong from Cornerstone Community Church, also part of the leadership team of LoveSingapore, posted a statement on his church’s website, titled “Firing the first salvo”. It contained a story of biblical figures, and ended with three paragraphs calling for “spiritual warfare”. Yang’s comments described the church as a metaphorical army that was facing an imminent battle, and called for his members to take sides.
About a day later, the statement was renamed to “Times and Seasons”, and the last paragraph was changed to the following:
“We must sound the trumpet because the church must get herself into battle footing, and be battle-ready. The church will arise victorious. We are more than conquerors in Christ Jesus who loved us. Grace to all of you.”
Before-and-after screenshots containing the exact text of his post can be seen here.
As of writing, the church’s website does not contain any references to the LGBT issue, nor does it explain why the statement was changed.
Implications for Secularism in Singapore
Much has already been said about Khong’s arguments, his claims about homosexuality and the so-called “homosexual agenda”. The pastor’s points are not new, for they are part of right-wing Christian rhetoric commonly found in the United States. My personal opinion is that the pastor and his supporters are not just plain wrong, but also incredibly out of touch with the concerns of LGBT people and the reality that they face daily. When not committing slippery-slope fallacies, Khong and his staunchest supporters make poorly substantiated claims intended to persuade through irrational fear, uncertainty, and doubt. Regardless of one’s point of view, we must address the pressing issue of religion and its role in this debate.
In his capacity as a religious leader and representative of religious organisations, pastor Khong made his statements directly to two senior political figures. This is blatant political lobbying. In fact, this is not the first time that Christian groups in Singapore have tried to sway the government. This is unhealthy for secularism in Singapore because if left unchecked, religious-political lobbying could lead to competition between religious groups for political attention. In a world where many religions are heavily fragmented and often at odds with each other, it is dangerous to allow their inter- and intra-religious conflicts to spill over into the political arena. It is patently unfair and unreasonable for persons of diverse religious beliefs and non-belief to bear the brunt of policies shaped by religious ideology.
Singapore society is already filled with religious fault lines. We have never fully recovered from the violent racial and religious conflicts that took place just before our independence. Although most Singaporeans are on very good terms with those of other religious backgrounds, conflicts are bound to occur, and they seem to happen at a regular frequency, albeit in relatively small and isolated incidents. In fact, due to the inflow of foreigners of diverse religious persuasions, religious conflicts may even be on the rise. If lobbying by religious groups becomes a norm, politics will become a new point of conflict. Even those who object to the government’s heavy-handed maintenance of religious harmony cannot deny the ill effects of religious conflict in a diverse, tolerant and respectful society.
Poor Arguments and Potential Incitement
On the 22nd of January, Khong wrote another Facebook note defending his position and the right to bring religion into public discourse:
“For almost everyone, moral convictions arise from their religious beliefs. To say that a person who represents a particular faith should not be allowed to engage in public discourse on morals is to say that more than three quarters of Singaporeans, who belong to one of the major faiths in the world, should be denied their right to speak out about what kind of Singapore they would like to live in. This would amount to the oppression of the majority by a minority of people who claim to not believe in any religion.”
Although I agree with him on this point, his post reveals poor reasoning. Engaging in public discourse while expressing personal convictions is very different from representing a religious organisation in an attempt to influence laws and policies. Frankly, I am disgusted that he would use his religious position to engage in political lobbying, and when rightly accused of doing so, hide behind the excuse that religious people have just as much freedom to engage in public discourse as the non-religious.
This is all not to mention the statement published by pastor Yang from Cornerstone Community Church. Yang’s comments are at best incredibly insensitive metaphorical devices, and at worst, incitements of violence that have no place in peaceful, rational, and civil discourse. His language is more than divisive: it demonises LGBT people as “powers of darkness” and encourages readers to “battle” against them. It is simply chilling that a religious organisation would employ such rhetoric against an entire swath of society. Note: on the 24th of January, a member of the public filed a police report against Yang for inciting violence.
The goals of the LoveSingapore movement are also problematic. I would like to give them the benefit of doubt, but I am afraid their objectives are not what they appear to be. The official LoveSingapore website states that it wants to “effect Kingdom transformation in the Seven Gates of Cultural Influence in Singapore and among the nations”. The “Seven Gates” are:
1. Arts and Entertainment
2. Business, Science and Technology
3. Communications and Media
4. Disadvantaged and Marginalised
5. Education and School
6. Family and Home
7. Government and Leadership
Exactly what is “Kingdom transformation”? This phrase is repeated in a presentation slide also found on the LoveSingapore website:
“Transformation strategies… 5. Seek the establishment of kingdom values and principles as marketplace norms and standards.”
Moreover, why are “Education and School” and “Government and Leadership”, which should be the most secular of all institutions, even on this list?
I find it hard to believe that such wide-reaching, organised, and aggressive evangelism is merely the expression of personal moral convictions. I do not want to make accusations purely based on the quotes above, and I sincerely hope to have misapprehended LoveSingapore’s intentions. But vague theological jargon like “kingdom transformation” and “marketplace” may not mean what they seem to mean. At best, LoveSingapore does not wish to evangelise as aggressively as the language on its website implies, and at worst, LoveSingapore wants to fight a “cultural war” against what it believes to be existential threats to Christianity. If the latter is true, Khong’s arguments are further divorced from reality. Is he aware of his own network’s motivations when he makes outrageous claims about an insidious “homosexual agenda” conspiracy? Does he not see the irony of this situation?
We Need a Dialogue
I do not believe that a hostile and militaristic approach to this issue is helpful. For the LGBT community, treating this as a culture war would only play into the hands of an “opponent” who wants to paint it in the worst possible light. On the flip side, I do not believe that Khong, Yang, or LoveSingapore represent all Christians in Singapore. They would be ill-advised to continue their aggressive rhetoric and risk backlash from not just their fellow Christians, but also LGBT Christians and those of other faiths.
Now that they have the spotlight, Khong and LoveSingapore should be open and specific about their intentions. This conflict exists partially because of misunderstandings and misinformation. Commenting on Facebook is an ineffective way to persuade an opponent to see one’s point of view. Perhaps it would be better for “both sides” to have a frank and civil meeting; this would be a huge step toward a more informed and respectful debate.
It is time for a dialogue. It is time for mutual understanding. It is time for peace. It is time to speak in good faith. It is time to overcome fear, uncertainty, and doubt. And I dare say: it is a time for love.
Or at least a little human decency.