Non-mainstream faiths ‘welcome’

  • AseanPlus News
  • Sunday, 20 Oct 2019

SINGAPORE: From breakaway sects to fringe religions, various terms have been used for non-mainstream faiths that have made their way to Singapore in the last century.

Together, about 10 such groups exist here. They range from the Jehovah’s Witnesses to the Tzu Chi Foundation.

In Singapore, where freedom of religion is enshrined in the Constitution, it is not illegal for a person to be a believer of any one faith.

However, some face more restrictions than others when they try to register and operate here. Others, meanwhile, may be promoted by the state more so than others.

This depends on the extent to which a group aligns itself with the “nationalist objectives of promoting economic development and social stability”, says Dr Rodney Sebastian, an assistant professor of religious studies at Manhattan College in a 2010 paper.

He says that Soka Gakkai, for instance, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses, lie at opposite ends of the spectrum based on this framework.

A lay Buddhist organisation, Soka Gakkai subscribes to Nichiren Buddhism, a school of Mahayana Buddhism.

Assistant Professor Neena Mahadev, who teaches anthropology at Yale-NUS College, observes that Soka Gakkai has been accepted in Singapore and is validated through its participation in the Inter-Religious Organisation’s activities.

It successfully registered with the Registry of Societies in 1972 as the Singapore Soka Association (SSA), and has participated in the annual Chingay and National Day parades for more than 30 years.

Sebastian also notes in its 2010 paper that Soka Gakkai’s Singapore arm has assiduously avoided any political involvement here, though it has ties to the Komeito political party in Japan.

It also emphasises peaceful co-existence with other major religions here, though it is often seen as an exclusivist one in Japan.

“Its appearance as a rational Buddhist religion promoting Confucian ethos like filial piety and family values has enabled it to achieve this elevated status, ” he wrote.

In contrast, the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses was deregistered in 1972 on the grounds that its continued existence was prejudicial to public welfare and good order in Singapore.

According to a spokesman for the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA), this was because its teachings forbid members from performing national service, and to object all symbols of statehood such as recitation of the Pledge and singing of the National Anthem.

All publications by the Jehovah’s Witnesses’ publishing arms – the Watch Tower Bible and Tract Society, and the International Bible Students Association – were also gazetted as banned publications.

This means that it will be an offence to possess, distribute, exhibit, publish or sell these publications in Singapore.

However, it is not illegal to profess the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses per se, nor is it an offence to be a Jehovah’s Witness, MHA said.

In response to ST queries about the differing treatment of new religious movements (NRMs), Sebastian said: “Those that perform socially engaged welfare work or support state projects are promoted.”

He added in his 2010 paper that the Sathya Sai Baba movement, founded by Sai Baba, one of India’s most famous and widely followed spiritual gurus in 1960s, has also been allowed to expand here as it promotes hard work, charity and social work. — The Straits Times/ANN

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