Secularism in Singapore

PPCL Phase 3 Inquiry: Is Singaporean secularism anti-theistic or anti-theocratic?  

1.0 Introduction 

The Singaporean government, in all its iterations, has an established history of attempting to pursue secularism. At its core, secularism is most commonly utilised as a political concept, a manner of organising a state and society in relation to religion and belief that emphasises state neutrality to these issues. Practically, this often manifests as the separation of state authorities from religious institutions.1 

There are multiple ways that secularism as a political ideology can be implemented by governments. In ‘A Religious Age’, political commentator Charles Taylor argues that there is both ‘open’ and ‘closed’ secularism. He advocates in favour of ‘open’ secularism, which he states is “even-handed […] religion and non-religion are treated the same”.2In essence, he argues that it affirms the principles of state neutrality, and is distinctly not anti-religion. In contrast, ‘closed’ secularism to Taylor means “a secularism wary of religion, and always ready to set limits to it. Non-religion becomes the common principle, although you tolerate religion if it stays in its place […] you privatize it”.3 

In applying Taylor’s work to the Singaporean context, professor Thio Li-Ann positions ‘anti-theocratic’ and ‘anti-theistic’ secularism as the equivalent of ‘open’ and ‘closed’ secularism respectively. While Thio argues that “the government is committed to an anti-theocratic rather than anti-theistic model of secularism”4. In this essay I will explore the factors that affect the implementation of this model, and examine case studies on the matter. 

1.1 Freedom of Religion in the Constitution 

Firstly, it is important to account for this ‘anti-theocratic model of secularism’ as discussed by Thio, and examine the legal and constitutional basis for the implementation of this model. This is largely supported by legal precedence in Singapore. In Nappali Peter Williams v. Institute of Technical Education5, the Court of Appeal stated that Singapore adopts “accommodative secularism” which considers that “the protection of freedom of religion under our Constitution is premised on removing restrictions to one’s choice of religious belief.” This baseline seems to support Thio’s argument that Singapore has practiced anti-theocratic secularism, simply on the basis that there are supposed to be little to no restrictions on religious freedom and choice. This model seems to be further supported by Article 15(1) of the Constitution, which states that “Every person has the right to profess and practise his religion and to propagate it”6. While at first glance, this appears a very clear marker of anti-theocratic secularism, there exist caveats to this freedom of religion.

These are best expressed in Article 15(4): “This Article does not authorise any act contrary to any general law relating to public order, public health or morality”7. Within this article, it can be noted that there exists an ambiguity in the wording of the clause, with the phrase ‘public order, public health, or morality’ being deliberately vague terms. Since these ideas are not absolute or quantifiable concepts, they are up to interpretation, which can lead to subjectivity in the way these clauses are enacted. This particular clause may in fact allude to possible anti-theistic underpinnings of Singapore’s supposedly anti-theocratic model. By only permitting freedom to religions that fall within the Court’s perception of ‘public order, public health or morality’, it limits the liberty accorded to religious pursuits and freedom based on overarching, governmental objectives and motives. For example, Thio suggests that the ‘public order’ addressed within this clause can refer to communitarian or collectivist goals like social harmony, which can be defined expansively.8I would argue that this, along with the nebulous nature of these statements, effectively allow for the diminishment of religious liberties, which gives room for anti-theistic secularism to take root. 

1.2 Constitutional ‘soft law’ 

Beyond formal legislation, it is crucial to understand how these written ideas interact with the sociopolitical context of Singapore. ‘Soft’ constitutional law is one of the ways in which we can observe these interactions. It can be defined as “a written set of non-binding precepts which exert some degree of legal influence in the realm of constitutional law”9. This works in tandem with binding precepts of the law, such as the constitution, and has a hand in shaping how the government approaches religious matters. 

Soft law approaches tend to be unique to the societal contexts they operate in. In Singapore, it is suggested that soft law is used to forward the government’s “preferred communitarian values and Neo-Confucianist ideology”10, and hence can influence community standards or even constitutional interpretations11. Hence, acknowledging elements of ‘soft’ law in Singapore can also help us understand the government’s rationale when intervening in religious matters. One such example of an instrument of ‘soft’ law used to help constitutional interpretation is the Declaration on Religious Harmony (2003), which was proposed after the arrest of members of the Jemaah Islamiyah terrorist network in Singapore following the September 11, 2001 attacks in the USA, which heightened religious tensions.12 This short declaration’s key idea can be encompassed in the line “We shall always […] Respect each other’s freedom of religion”. This particular declaration is key in understanding the projected image of secularism in Singapore, given the emphasis on “each other’s freedom” instead of on the right to religion itself. It makes the right to religion as expressed in the Constitution Article 15(1) not an inalienable right that can be used as a ‘trump card’13in political discourse. Rather, this seems to recognise that there are communitarian interests at stake that should also be considered, by considering the need to “balance liberty and harmony”14

Upon considering constitutional ‘soft law’, it does appear that we are straddling the line between anti-theistic and anti-theocratic secularism. On one hand, we appear anti-theocratic in our commitment to remaining neutral, in the sense that individuals are allowed to practice and profess religion. On the other, it seems anti-theistic that this right to religion is quickly curbed at the point that it infringes upon communitarian ideals and social harmony. 

2.0 The hijab ban: legal considerations 

The first case study we can examine is an issue that has been hotly discussed in Singapore, the ‘hijab ban’. In 2002, two Malaysian Muslim girls in Singapore were suspended from their primary schools for wearing their hijabs15, which for many Muslim women is a significant part of their religious expression. Moreover, the prevailing norm in civil service is that women who work in public sector offices which require a uniform cannot wear the hijab.16 Many Muslim women also reported feeling that they had been forced to make a decision between their faith and their careers.17 This is one of the foremost examples of anti-theistic secularism being exercised in Singapore, where the freedom to religion is curbed in public spaces and jobs. Moreover, it places religion as a right that can be retracted at the point that it enters into the public sphere, again positioning this ‘hijab ban’ as a step away from the anti-theocratic secularism that Singapore proclaims it practices. 

In fact, much of this anti-theistic rhetoric arises from governmental spokespersons. Following backlash in 2013 to this ‘hijab ban’, then Deputy Prime Minister Teo Chee Hean said that “Every community when it presses for its own concerns must bear in mind how that affects other communities and how others might see it,”. In essence, DPM Teo Chee Hean was making use of several elements of constitutional ‘soft law’ to support these statements. By arguing that communal interests have to be considered over the right to religion he justifies the curbing of these particular civil liberties by invoking the ‘communitarian’ defence. This is the very basis of what allows for anti-theism to take root in Singapore – the ambiguous nature of Article 15(4) of the constitution, thus justifying the removal of civil liberties in the name of ‘public order, public health or morality’. In confining the wearing of hijabs to an expression of religion that cannot be carried out in the public sphere, we resort to anti-theistic secularism that pushes the right to religion as one that can only be accessed in private, and not in the public eye, one of the cornerstones of ‘closed’ secularism. However, it must also be noted that this ruling has recently been modified, with nurses in the public sector now allowed to wear their hijabs while in the workplace. This is a marked shift away from anti-theistic secularism, as it shows the beginnings of anti-theocratic secularism. Religion, here, is being mainstreamed, and considered an important underpinning and extension of the individual, allowing them to express their freedom to religion even when serving in the public sector. This definitely shows a step towards anti-theocratic values that the government espouses, but it is worth noting that this form of secularism does not extend to other public sector jobs, such as the police and the armed forces. Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong stated that this is because these groups are impartial and secular arms of the state who are armed and enforce laws. As such, these considerations of freedom to religion being weighed against the collective, communal good displays a uniquely Singaporean brand of secularism. This secularism seems to hold itself up with both constitutional and ‘soft’ constitutional laws, and seems to embrace an illiberal form of anti-theocratic secularism that is always dealt certain caveats in the name of ‘public health, public safety and morality’. 

3.0 Chan Hiang Leng Colin v Public Prosecutor: legal considerations 

Other interesting case studies, however, centre around a rather crucial form of governmental intervention in religious matters – the registration and location of religious societies. The case of Chan Hiang Leng Colin v Public Prosecutor is thus an interesting one to explore, as it questions the government’s definitions of Article 15(4) of the constitution, and presents an intriguing dilemma in terms of assessing whether Singapore practices anti-theistic or anti-theocratic secularism. 

Chan Hiang Leng Colin v Public Prosecutor was a case assessing the constitutionality of deregistering the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses under the Societies Act that was heard in the High Court in the 1990s.18 The society was deregistered on the grounds that Jehovah’s Witnesses are not permitted to engage in any political or national practices, such as saluting the flag or performing national service, which was considered a threat to public safety. 

In this hearing, the appellants argued that there was no clear or immediate danger or threat to public order, health or morality, meaning that their freedom to religion could not be curbed by the Constitution, since their religion did not pose an immediate danger to public order or safety. Intuitively, this argument seems to put forth the idea that the ruling to deregister the Singapore Congregation of Jehovah’s Witnesses is not aligned with the ideals of state neutrality. The appellants argued that since their society did not contravene the caveats of ‘public order, public health and morality’, any action by the government would be anti-religion and anti religious freedom. However, the Courts argued that this decision was constitutional. It was argued that the mere “possibility of trouble over religious beliefs” was sufficient cause for the Minister to take action. Hence, the danger did not have to be clear and immediate as the Court did not have the ability to actually rule on whether Jehovah’s Witnesses were a threat to public order.19Instead, it was enough for the Court that the Minister for Home Affairs had taken the view that Jehovah’s Witness as a religion that forbade national service, was contrary to public peace, welfare and good order. This case is extremely eye-opening in this regard, as it demonstrates how the Court considers the subjective viewpoint of the Minister themself to be fact on whether Jehovah’s

Witnesses are in fact a threat to public order, which can then be used to justify the dissolution of the religious society.20 Thus, since a detailed argument was never required to explain how denial of national service meant a threat to public order, it means that the opinions presented by the Minister were simply taken by the Court and used to judge the constitutionality of the issue. Hence, we see the ambiguity of the constitution, as well as the ‘soft’ law, being used to remove certain religious liberties. Thus, in this way the government appears not to be acting as a neutral state party, but rather one that seeks to curb and limit religion in the public sphere, something made possible by these nebulous elements of the Constitution. 

4.0 Conclusion 

As with all freedoms, the freedom to religion has to be curbed by the state at a certain point in order for the state to be functioning effectively. When an individual is jailed, their freedom to movement is curtailed somewhat; when an individual makes hateful commentary, their freedom to speech is limited. When it comes to religion in Singapore however, the distinction between ‘open’ and ‘closed’ secularism becomes relatively murky. The state embraces state neutrality up to the point of religion’s supposed intervention with public interest, upon which they see fit to readily remove these freedoms to religion based on sometimes arbitrary and undefined criteria. The ambiguity of this criteria has enough scope to allow for Singapore’s government to essentially make unilateral decisions about the validity of any given religion or religious practice, giving way for these anti-theistic elements to arise in what ultimately attempts to be an anti-theocratic model of secularism. This blend between different forms of secularism, however, has worked for Singapore thus far. Even so, in our religiously heterogeneous society, it is important that the right to religious freedom be defended to ensure individual liberties are not excessively curbed in the name of communitarian values. Ultimately, the purpose of the state and of governance is to serve the people, and thus it is crucial that this state respects individual rights and extends the access of these rights and liberties to every individual, as far as is possible.

Sanjana Rajan (21-O1)





4 secular-democratic-order/ 

5[1999] 2 S.L.R. 569 at para. 28G (C.A.) [Nappalli] 





10 Eugene K.B. Tan, “Law and Values in Governance: The Singapore Way” (2000) 30 H.K.L.J. 91.


12 n-the-Request-for-Addition-of-Jemaah-Islamiyah-to-the-List-of-Terrorists-Mainta 

13 Ronald Dworkin, Taking Rights Seriously (1977) 





18 Chan Hiang Leng Colin v. Public Prosecutor [1994] ICHRL 26, [1994] SGHC 207, [1994] 3 S.L.R.(R.) [Singapore Law Reports (Reissue)] 209 at 214–215, paras. 1 and 3, archived from the original on 26 October 2012, High Court (Singapore).

19 Chan Hiang Leng Colin v. Public Prosecutor [1994] ICHRL 26, [1994] SGHC 207, [1994] 3 S.L.R.(R.) [Singapore Law Reports (Reissue)] 209 at 214–215, paras. 1 and 3, archived from the original on 26 October 2012, High Court (Singapore).

20 Thio Li-ann (1995), “The Secular Trumps the Sacred: Constitutional Issues Arising from Colin Chan vPublic Prosecutor“, Singapore Law Review, 16: 26–103


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