By Wai Kit Ow Yeong
AN ALTERNATIVE TO AUTHORITARIANISM
In February 2012, a student religious group at the National University of Singapore (NUS), the NUS Campus Crusade for Christ, placed posters on campus benches intended for internal circulation within the group. This would have hardly caused a stir but for the fact that the posters, advertising overseas mission trips to Thailand, contained insensitive remarks about Buddhism, Thailand’s main religion.
The effects were swift. Photographs of the posters taken by students went viral on social media sites like Facebook. Public condemnation intensified after finding that the group’s website also included advertisements for mission trips to Turkey, phrased in a way widely regarded to be offensive towards Muslims. News about the posters spread from online to print media, and the story featured in the Straits Times, Singapore’s national newspaper.
The group’s website was quickly shut down, and the university ordered the group to cease all activities on campus. Later it was decided that the group’s website would be reactivated, but the offensive posters and all related postings would be removed. The group also issued an apology for the distress caused. As the university reiterated, freedom of speech does not give any religious society the right to spread messages that denigrate other faiths because this leads to hatred and intolerance.
Concerns about threats to religious harmony are especially relevant for a country like Singapore, which has a diverse number of faith communities practising religions such as Christianity, Islam, Taoism, Hinduism, and Buddhism. As a city-state affected by transnational trends like increasing fundamentalism, Singapore is vulnerable to pressures and influences that may compromise social cohesion. Though the poster fiasco subsided, incidents like this may not be isolated but prove indicative of a deeper trend – the religious prejudice and blanket ignorance of some Singaporean young people.
In a study of Singaporean secondary school students’ attitudes towards religion, educator Phyllis Chew discovered that typical sentiments included mistaken notions such as – Islam is a religion in which marriages take place in the ‘void deck’ [public spaces at the ground floor of apartment blocks in Singapore], or Zoroastrianism is the “sign of Zorro,” and that Buddhism is only about filial piety. If these attitudes are anything to go by, many young people don’t understand the religions practised in our own backyard.
Youth leaders from the interfaith movement in Singapore were concerned about the long-term repercussions of this religious illiteracy. They worried that such ignorance might spark more online religious disputes, resulting in an over-reactionary backlash by the university or state authorities. The consequences could be serious.
In a misdirected attempt to prevent similar incidents from re-occurring, officials could step up their surveillance on student religious societies. The publicity materials of religious groups on campus would be increasingly censored, curbing the freedom to publicize activities that the groups currently have. My notion, as a campus interfaith leader, was that we could provide an alternative.
If our student religious groups demonstrate that we manage difficult incidents like the poster controversy in a responsible manner, we could convince the authorities that there is no need for overt restrictions and controls. We could demonstrate that offensive statements are not normative of faith communities and that our faith groups have the courage, determination, and necessary means to conduct our affairs responsibly.
Currently, legislation such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, enacted in 1990, gives the Singapore government the legal option to prosecute individuals who pose a threat to public order due to their religious extremism. But a reliance on the state to counter prejudice is hardly ideal, given that legislation alone cannot weave a sturdy fabric of interfaith cooperation.
Active interreligious dialogue from the bottom up, by contrast, is far more effective in cultivating harmony than top-down authoritarian regulation. Student religious groups have risen to the challenge. The Buddhist and Muslim societies at NUS created an annual ‘Buddhism Awareness Week’ and ‘Islamic Awareness Week,’ educational campaigns to address misconceptions about their faiths. These programs involve eye-catching poster displays, lively public talks, and a variety of events. Members of the sponsoring groups reach out personally to students throughout the university. Judging by responses on social media like Facebook, there have been no complaints about the societies’ campaigns, and the groups have in fact received positive feedback.
Young interfaith leaders also have the passion and technical know-how to combat ignorance and intolerance on the Internet. A single ill-thought blog entry or Facebook post can incite hatred and trigger violence; but sensible social media postings can generate a positive effect. When video clips of a Singaporean Christian pastor making disparaging comments about Buddhists and Taoists were circulated, the NUS Buddhist Society issued a response addressing misconceptions in the online videos. The response received thousands of page views with many positive comments and was republished in campus publications, highlighting young adult interfaith activism.
Along with online efforts, personal interaction is crucial to provide the human touch necessary for evoking a genuine sense of concord. One well-tested way to ensure interaction is through dialogues between different religious groups. NUS Interfaith has organized and moderated such campus events, bringing together Catholic, Buddhist, Muslim, and other communities. Serving as an intermediary, NUS Interfaith facilitates a joint dialogue between the Muslim Society and the Varsity Christian Fellowship, seeking to nurture personal friendships and forge deeper ties between the two groups.
In short, interfaith youth groups play a critical role in raising public awareness. Starting two years ago, ‘Faith Firsts,’ another NUS Interfaith program, offers a series of sharing-sessions between students and local religious leaders. These have included Rabbi Mordechai Abergel, the Chief Rabbi of Singapore, and Venerable Shi Chuan Guan, the Dharma Propagation Chair of the Singapore Buddhist Federation. Designed to raise awareness about religions in Singapore, the sessions provide students the opportunity to clarify their doubts and ask difficult questions without any fear of offending. Other NUS Interfaith activities include visits to places of worship. Most recently, the group’s visit to the Harmony Centre at An-Nahdhah Mosque in Singapore was an enlightening experience for learning about Islam and was featured on Singaporean national television (on Channel NewsAsia) last August.
All these activities are student-initiated and student-run, contradicting the assumption that youth are too blasé about interfaith relations to make a difference. Such efforts ease the fears that growing youth religiosity is detrimental to a secular society. Instead they provide assurance that young Singaporeans are equipped to discuss sensitive topics as mature individuals. We cannot wait passively for the state to initiate solutions whenever issues of tension arise. Instead, by strengthening our networks, students can work with university boards or state authorities to find common ground and collaboratively engender social cohesion.
Such partnerships have begun. Student leaders from the newly formed Community Engagement Programme (CEP) Network, comprising representatives from various student religious groups, partnered with the NUS Office of Student Affairs to organize the inaugural Diversity Symposium last February. The theme was “Achieving an Inclusive Community: Challenges and Opportunities,” and the symposium served as a platform for students to celebrate and promote greater understanding about the religious, cultural, and ethnic diversity within the campus community. The event attracted official recognition: the guest-of-honour was the Minister for Education of Singapore, Mr. Heng Swee Keat, who tackled sensitive issues head-on during a dialogue session with participants. Mr. Heng called on young people to become ambassadors for diversity, collaborating to build a shared future.
Allowing the collaborative activities of student religious groups to speak for themselves will allow Singapore’s interfaith youth movement to gain the respect of the student population at large. At the same time it is earning the trust of the authorities. With religious tensions still plaguing countries across Asia and beyond, and the lack of moderate voices on the Internet, it has never been more urgent to foster religious harmony. If our interfaith efforts are sustained, we can prompt a ripple effect, influencing our peers to think a little deeper about their words and deeds when dealing with matters of faith.