Should we ban foreign religious preachers from Singapore? If we ban foreigners from promoting political causes, then yes.

foreign preachers

It makes no sense to say that we should ban foreigners from influencing Singaporean politics, without also banning other foreign influences. This includes foreign religious preachers. This is because, religion is never truly a completely private matter. The religious composition of a country will always influence its politics. We therefore cannot do one, and not the other, since this would be illogical.

The Ministry of Home Affairs recently introduced a law banning foreigners from promoting political causes in Singapore. Demonstrations “directed towards a political end”, and involving foreign entities and foreigners will, at the police’s discretion, be banned. The law specifically targets foreigners who influence “policies, legislative changes, or even public opinion on controversial issues”.

(foreigners) should not “interfere in our domestic politics, especially those issues of a political or controversial nature

K Shanmugam, the Home Affairs Minister’s stated that this law exists because “foreigners and foreign entities should not import foreign politics into Singapore”. He said that they should not “interfere in our domestic politics, especially those issues of a political or controversial nature”. He argued that “this ensures that Singapore is not used as a platform by foreigners to further political causes, especially those that are controversial or divisive.”

My argument is that if we accept the Home Affairs Minister’s justifications for the banning of foreign entities from promoting political causes, then we must also ban foreign religious preachers from promoting their religion, or religious beliefs in Singapore. Let me explain why.

religion is never truly a completely private matter. The religious composition of a country will always influence its politics

Religion is a core component of one’s identity. It plays a huge role in determining one’s core values. These values will almost certainly form part of one’s political ideology, and influence one’s political behavior. A person’s religious beliefs will determine what sort of political causes they fight for, and will influence the way they vote. Let me give an example. People whose religions tell them that homosexuality is wrong will most likely oppose legalizing homosexuality. If, for example, a referendum was called on the issue, these people will likely oppose the repeal of Section 377A. This is evident from the demographic of those who, for example, support the ‘wear white’ campaign. Hence, religion is never truly a completely private matter. The religious composition of a country will always influence its politics, just as how the cultural and racial composition of a country plays an impact in determining its values.

Let us return to Mr Shanmugam’s argument. He stated that Singapore must not be used as a platform by foreigners to further political causes. I argue that the furthering of religious causes necessarily spills over into the political sphere. Hence, if we accept the Minister’s argument, then we should ban foreign preachers from preaching in Singapore, since spreading religious beliefs can, according to the new law, influence policies, legislative changes, or public opinion on controversial issues. It is illogical to do one but not the other.

I will now address a few possible responses that some readers might have.

One response is to say that religion is religion; politics is politics, and the law applies only to politics, not religion. This completely misses my point. I am arguing that if we adopt the reasoning behind the new law, we cannot simply limit the existing restrictions to politics. This is because religion is closely intertwined with politics – it determines the way people approach political issues. Arguing that religion is a private affair does not eliminate the fact that it influences public discourse and determines one’s political beliefs and the way they vote.

Another response might be that the government does, at the moment, stop foreign preachers from politicizing religion. The recent case of the foreign Imam is one example. This does not undermine my argument. Although the government is committed to a policy of banning foreign preachers who are intolerant of other faiths, this is a very narrow commitment on the government’s part. There are many ways for religion to influence politics without offending other religions. For example, foreign preachers who preach a religion that opposes homosexuality are not being intolerant of other faiths, but they are certainly promoting a religion that is intolerant of other social groups. Similarly, for example, foreign preachers who preach a religion that supports a domesticated role for women are again not being intolerant of other faiths. Yet, the ideas that they spread will influence people’s political values, and their opinions on political issues, albeit in an indirect way.

One might say thay I am wrong, and that religion should be separate from politics. This misses my point completely. I am not saying religion should be intertwined with politics. I am saying that it currently is.

our political values are… derived from… different external influences – religious, cultural and ideological.

A further response might be that if we adopt my reasoning, then there will be too many things that can influence politics, and which also need to be banned. Foreign TV shows, books, and ideas can all affect our society’s political values, and people’s opinions on controversial issues. If we ban foreign religious preachers, then should we not also ban people who import all of these things? This seemingly ridiculous conclusion only demonstrates the weakness of the Home Affairs Minister’s reasoning. He suggests that banning foreign entities from promoting local causes allows Singaporeans to decide on controversial issues on their own. In doing so, he fails to acknowledge that our political values are not derived from some inherent, independent, self-existing Singaporean identity, but is in fact a product of different external influences – religious, cultural and ideological.

In summary, it makes no sense to say that we should ban foreigners from influencing Singaporean politics, or influencing Singaporeans’ views on controversial issues without also banning other foreign influences on our politics. This includes foreign preachers. If the government wishes to maintain its current policy, it must give better reasons to support it. The Home Affairs Minister’s existing argument is not good enough.

On the other hand, if you think that my conclusion on religious preachers is counter-intuitive and difficult to accept, another way to resolve this problem is perhaps to reconsider the law banning foreign entities from sponsoring local civil society groups – just saying.

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Author: Rio Hoe

Rio is the chief editor and co-founder of Consensus SG. He is a recent law graduate from the University of Oxford. His interests include politics, sociology, legal theory and political philosophy.

4 thoughts

  1. On some level I do agree with this note, but it may be useful to consider the definition of the word “foreign” itself. Does an NRIC itself draw the line between local and foreign? This definition would necessarily presuppose that we are in fact born with an unchanged set of beliefs from the moment of birth. On the other hand, one can draw arbitrary lines further backwards in time. We are migrants from China and India, the Orang Asli were migrants from the Hoabinhian peoples from the Vietnam region, etc until the birth of the human race in Africa. No religion, as far we know, sprang from the soil of Singapore, but then neither did any of our peoples. What is a useful meaning of origin? The notion to freeze all things in place for all time for fear of change – there is a word for this. Stagnation.

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  2. I think you’re mistaking the nature of religious teaching. Foreigners promoting their political ideologies can upset a very contextualised political climate in Singapore. A political system that works for another state might not work for ours, so it makes sense to safeguard our politics by excluding “foreign political ideologies” from our public square.

    Theology however, is different. Take Christianity for example. Strictly speaking, there should be no such thing as an “American Christian theology”, or an “African Christian theology”. The text (i.e. the Bible) is fixed. No bible expositor is free to alter doctrine to suit his context. In other words, if someone teaches the gospel of Mark accurately, it shouldn’t matter which country he is from. Sure, Christian theologians do disagree with particular interpretations, but the difference in opinion can hardly be attributed to nationality. And of course Christianity practiced in other countries may look very different, but its the praxis that is contextualised; the doctrine remain universal.

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