Shades of Offence in Multireligious Singapore

Religion, the government reminds us, is a very sensitive issue in Singapore. My Social Studies textbooks imply that religious harmony is necessary to prevent the race/religious riots of the early and mid-twentieth century. The unspoken implication is that religion is necessarily placed in some sacrosanct place in the public sphere, immune to offense or criticism under pain of the Sedition Act or other laws. An important corollary is that faith is so important that it must be protected at all costs against any perceived threat.

But Singapore is a multireligious society. It is impossible to avoid doing something that contravenes some religious doctrine or other: eating meat, having pre-marital sex, drinking alcohol, refusing to have children, working on Sabbath. It is impossible to avoid offending believers in some faith or other at some point. Singapore’s doctrine of religious harmony virtually guarantees that believers will always get their way. They need merely raise a big enough outcry to garner official attention. And the people who prefer using this tactic in recent times seem to be inflexible, close-minded dogmatists who wish to impose their beliefs on everybody else.

The Escape Chapel Party is its latest victim. The party was publicised using images of women dressed in modified nun’s habits and party dresses, and was held in a former chapel, in a compound long used for secular activities. As Chemical Generation Singapore points out, Singapore is not a Catholic-majority nation, but the Catholics managed to shut the party down. Archbishop Nicholas Chia (no relation) himself called for the party to be cancelled.

To be sure, the timing of the party could have been more tactful. The party was slated to be held on 7 April, the day after Good Friday. It is natural for Christians (and, by extension, Catholics) to be more sensitive about their religion during the run-up to this event. The use of Catholic imagery in advertising and the location of the party could not have escaped notice by the wider community. It is inevitable that there will be some Christians who will take offense at the party’s fusion of the sacred and the secular.

But the party is a secular event — the Asian leg of a music festival. The chapel has been deconsecrated; it is now a secular space. The advertising is probably a nod to the chapel’s former purpose. The party is a secular event in a secular space. While the promotional and marketing material did contain images of models wearing high heels sexualised nun’s habits, there was nothing in that material, as far as I know, that criticises the religion or desecrates any holy symbols or sites.  This is the event’s only direct connection to Catholicism.

It is not the place of the Church to dictate secular events. Its role is, and should remain, limited to matters of faith within the community of believers. Shutting down the party deprives would-be party-goers of that event, and these people do not all follow the Church’s philosophies. It is also discouraging multinational companies from setting foot in Singapore or embarking on bold campaigns, for fear of antagonising the Church. As described in the news article, Escape Swansea and Escape Recordings was looking to expand into Singapore. This event would make the executives think twice, and other companies think thrice.

To be clear, I’m not saying that people should not feel offended. I’m not offended by the party, its organisers, or its marketing and promotional campaign, but I can see why some people would. But professing belief in any religion does not automatically bestow moral superiority. It does not grant believers the moral imperative, authority or legitimacy to shut down anything that does not please them. Feelings were hurt, but hurt feelings is not an excuse to cancel a public event. The only reason to do that is actual or potential harm. This means violence, threat thereof, or incitement towards violence. This event has done no harm and will do no harm. All it has done is to hurt the feelings of a minority of Singaporeans.

There are many other ways to register offense: open letters, meetings, blogs, videos on YouTube. If the believers are so offended by the event, they don’t even have to attend the party. Actions like these communicate emotions and offense just as clearly as a pressure campaign to cancel the party. They allow offended people to air their grievances, and the organisers a chance to make amends and make things better the next time around. By influencing the organisers to cancel the party, the Church is saying that it is okay to sacrifice revenue, cultural exposure, tourist income and good publicity for Singapore just so a minority of people can feel good about themselves — and, along the way, force everybody else to live by their beliefs.

The main problem with Singapore’s policy of religious harmony is that there is no threshold of permissible offence, no room for shades of offence. In the local narrative, all it takes to disrupt religious harmony is to make a statement that involves religion and makes believers angry. And yet it is impossible to avoid conflict and offense in a culture and country as diverse as ours. Adherence to this policy leaves no room for acceptance of constructive criticism or edgy artistic expression. Arguably, a strict interpretation of this policy leaves no room for a blog post like this one.

The threshold of offence should be set at the level of harm: the state will only step in if life and property is at stake. Otherwise, the state will not intervene, and the parties in conflict would sort things out themselves. Without thresholds of offence, current policy demands the State to throw its weight behind any organised group of outraged believers. High-profile organisations and companies, such as the landlord of the chapel, will follow the State’s example to avoid legal problems. If outraged dogmatists will not get their way, they will turn to the government as the ultimate arbiter to get their way — and the State is bound to seriously consider and rule in favour of their demands because there are no thresholds of offence and therefore no matter too small.

Dogmatists will be emboldened by the cancellation of the party, taking it as a precedent for future campaigns. Singapore has seen this in campaigns to keep homosexuality criminalised, and the condemnation and prevention of casinos on moral grounds. I think it is only a matter of time before dogmatists move into wider areas in the public sphere. Only a matter of time before similar incidents occur.

We live in a diverse and multireligious society. We cannot sweep religious issues under the carpet, and we cannot not offend someone sometime. But hurt feelings are just that; there is no need to apply blunt instruments against the wider society when more precise tools are available. It is not the place of any church of any creed to interfere in secular life. Only universal principles apply when considering deeds that touch on many groups and communities, not the teachings of a singular faith.