Singapore's fragile harmony threatened

An apology by a Singaporean church for one of its preacher's disdainful comments about Taoism is a sign that the nation's interfaith relations are in danger of turning sour.

The New Creation church, which has a following of some 20,000 people in a nation of about five million, issued its conciliatory statement after a 2008 sermon by its pastor Mark Ng appeared on YouTube last week (it has since been removed), to public scorn from the nation's Taoists as well as scrutiny from the internal security agency.

In the clip, Ng likened the ritual of praying to a Taoist deity to a criminal practice. He bluntly told his congregation: "Praying to him for what? For protection. It's just like a secret society, you know, gangster."

Ng is not the first Christian preacher to have initiated a public furore over his derogatory remarks about other faiths this year. In February, clips of pastor Rony Tan of the Lighthouse Evangelism church, mocking the Buddhist and Taoist precepts of rebirth and nirvana, also stirred strong reactions.

According to the 2000 population census, Buddhists and Taoists account for about half of the city-state's population while Christians comprise a quarter, as do Muslims and those who profess no religious affiliation. Hindus, meanwhile, make up some 4%.

The number of Christians has grown rapidly: in 1980 it accounted for only 10% of the population. This has been attributed to the increased popularity of evangelical megachurches among the more affluent, English-educated ethnic Chinese in recent decades.

Given Singapore's intricate religious landscape, there is a real fear that the likes of Ng and Tan's inflammatory rhetoric could potentially undermine its fragile religious – and racial – harmony.

This fear has led the Singapore government to strongly defend an ethos of multiculturalism through its social policies and policing tactics. Its leaders want to avoid the recurrence of traumatic racial riots during Singapore's formative years as an independent nation-state when ethnicity and religion were held on to tightly as identity markers.

In 1964, for instance, a bloody clash broke out between Malays and Chinese when some members of the former group who were taking part in a procession celebrating the Prophet Muhammad's birthday ran amok, attacking law enforcement officers and Chinese spectators, after policemen told a number of people who had strayed from the main procession to re-join the march.

The YouTube clips were only the latest in a recent series of religious "transgressions" in the secular city-state. In March last year, the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware), an independent feminist organisation, was subjected to a leadership takeover by evangelical Christians from yet another megachurch.

By turning out in force at Aware's annual general meeting and voting out individuals who they thought were redefining marriage and the family by being sympathetic to gay people, this conservative group believed they were righting a theological "wrong". The conservative faction's reign was cut short barely two months after taking over when it was voted out in a counter-coup organised by liberals.

Yet to say Singapore's recent religious strife can be pinned solely at the door of certain Christian groups is unfair.

It would be more appropriate to trace it to the reserved, often uncritical, outlook of Singapore's interfaith groups. The activities of bodies like the Inter-religious Organisation have largely upheld common values while sidestepping difficult issues such as divine truth and proselytisation. It is also possible that these transgressions are a reaction to the strict sacred-secular dichotomy that has shaped Singapore's public policies since its 1965 independence. In fact, the importance Singapore's private citizens place on faith suggests policies that do not fear religiosity could possibly lead to greater harmony

Nazry Bahrawi, an independent journalist.