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The recent ruling by the Hindu Endowments Board (HEB) governing the festival of Thaipusam is a manifestation of the worsening state of human rights in Singapore. Under the new guidelines “shouting and other forms of unruly behavior is prohibited; participants shall not paint their faces or bodies or wear any form of disguise”.
These restrictions are not uncommon in Singapore. In the Muslim community, the Islamic Religious Authority of Singapore (MUIS) rules that mosques are not allowed to project the sounding of the azan (call to prayer) because it causes a “public nuisance”.
These PAP rulings are issued through religious bodies to give them a “religious coating”. It is therefore not surprising to note that these bodies are resented by the followers of the religion in this country and lack the moral and spiritual legitimacy to represent the followers.
Origins of the HEB and MUIS
Islam and Hinduism are among the world’s major religions commanding the following of about two billion people. Due to their long history, these two religions have evolved and the interpretations of the religions have diversified as a result of changing times and different cultural understandings.
Naturally, it is difficult to find consensus on a lot of matters, let alone finding one body to represent and govern the religions.
Islam and Hinduism have their origins from the Mohamaden and Hindu Endownment Boards (MHEB) under the British Colonial Administration. Through an act of Parliament, they became two separate bodies: HEB would govern matters of the Hindu religion and customs, and MUIS would take care of issues pertaining to Islam.
It is not the business of the secular government to involve itself in the matters of religion. Religion is a personal right and choice. No one government should dictate how an individual should practice his/her religion.
All a government should do is to ensure that an environment exists that allows all religions to practice their faiths as they see fit with the following ground rules:
- That it be understood by all that no one faith is superior to another,
- That none of the practitioners espouse or practice violence against another religion,
- And that there must be tolerance in our society that each religion has the right to practice their rituals freely.
Under the PAP, however, the Government actively controls the practice of religious faiths by appointing religious leaders. In Islam, for example, the Mufti acts as the representative of the Muslim community in Singapore. He is appointed by the President of the Republic of Singapore who is not a Muslim. Why is he not elected or chosen by the Muslim community?
Religious leaders appointed by the government will be viewed with suspicion because they will be seen as a mouthpiece of the ruling party and lack credibility. This will cause unhappiness in the community.
There is an urgent need for a new form of engagement between the secular government and religious currents. We cannot hold on to the current, out-dated practice. A new religio-political arrangement based on the rule of law and respect for human rights and dignity must be established.
Muhd Shamin is a member of the SDP’s youth wing, the Young Democrats.