Hastings Constitutional Law Quarterly


Li-Ann Thio


The governors of a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state which is based on political authority derived from secular laws, rather than theocratic mandate, are aware of the paradoxical quality of Religion as a force for peace and conflict. Indeed, the root word re (to bind) legare (what is broken) suggests that Religion is something which is redemptive in its healing quality. However, pragmatism informed by history reveals the need to maintain ethnic and religious cohesion as religious conflicts can tear plural societies apart. Religion is too potent a force to disregard or attempt to coercively eliminate, in a manner reminiscent of totalitarian states where the Hegelian or Communist state deifies itself as the source of ultimate authority and demands allegiance from citizens. Religion or irreligion is a strong source of identity and given the mutual exclusivity of theistic and anti-theistic worldviews, every society grapples with the question of how to agree to disagree and live together in peace in this lifetime. What norms, institutions and ethos best secure the pacific coexistence of distinct religious and ethnic groups within a society which is committed to democratic pluralism? This article seeks to investigate this question within the context of the experiment undertaken by Singapore to manage religious freedom and preserve social harmony within a multiethnic secular state which practices a 'managed' or 'soft authoritarian' form of corporatist democracy. As a cautionary tale, former Prime Minister Goh Chok Tong drew an interesting parallel between Singapore and the former Yugoslavia to underscore the fragility of state cohesion in the face separatist pulls fuelled by religious and ethnic differences. He noted that "Singapore is not yet a nation, it is only a state, a sovereign entity... We do not all speak the same language. Nor do we share the same religion and customs. We have different ancestors." Similarly, he noted of the Yugoslavia "cobbled together" by Tito after World War Two that, "There was never a Yugoslavia nation. The break-up of the former Yugoslavia illustrates that a nation is not just a collection of peoples under a common constitutional framework."