SINGAPORE: While freedom of religion is guaranteed in Singapore, public policy-making decisions are not made in favor of any particular religious group, said Justice and Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam.
This applies to the public service as a whole, including cabinet ministers and senior officials, he told parliament on Monday (March 1).
“Neutrality and fairness are essential. Otherwise, in this small country, we will quickly lose the confidence of the people, ”he said.
“And when these principles are not respected, they must be dealt with,” he added.
Mr Shanmugam was responding to opposition leader Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied), who raised the case of a 16-year-old Protestant Christian of Indian origin who was arrested after planning to attack two mosques here.
This indicates that religious extremism could come from anywhere, Singh said.
“At a time like this, the public may need to be reassured that the government is on top of things – not only from an operational standpoint, but that government policy is strictly secular and neither promotes nor is influenced by religious beliefs anywhere, ”said the general secretary of the Workers’ Party.
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Mr Singh asked if there was a risk of “subtle influence of politics” by “clerics who are not necessarily radical”.
“Is there a danger in Singapore that laws and policies will orient towards particular religious beliefs, for example, because of … the religious beliefs of senior officials or people of influence, if not now, may -be in the future? ” he said. He also asked if the government had any strategies to counter such an eventuality.
In response, Mr Shanmugam said he had worked with many senior officials over the years.
He gave the example of the current Permanent Secretary for Home Affairs, Pang Kin Keong, whom he noted had spent 20 years in the public service, including as chairman of the Homefront Crisis Executive Group, currently coordinating the response. government to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We are looking for officers of this character and caliber, and they should in no way be tainted with suggestions of religious bias in their approach,” he said.
The Home Office is “at the forefront of dealing with religious issues,” Shanmugam said.
“We meet different religious leaders, we work hard to preserve religious harmony between different faiths. Our integrity, honesty, reliability and neutrality are essential to us and these are the currencies we do business with, ”he said.
“When a police officer answers a call in a house, you don’t want people to think it is a Muslim officer, a Christian officer or a Hindu officer. You want people to think he’s an SPF (Singapore Police Force) officer, ”he said.
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“NOT A SYSTEMIC PROBLEM”
The minister recognized the tendency of people – whether ministers, public servants or ground officers – to view problems through a religious lens or their own personal perspective.
“We have to guard against it, we have to avoid it. Leave your personal views and look at them – when you are shaping public policy – through a secular perspective… you have to look at the vast majority and see what is in their best interest, ”he said.
“We must jealously guard against such a tendency to look through a particular lens, whether it is ministers or anyone else. And we have to set the tone from above, insist on the secular approach and be strict about it, ”he said.
“Mr Singh is thinking, I think, what some people might feel and I will tell him today that this is not a systemic problem,” he added.
“What is the backup? It starts with politics, how we conduct it. And religion – how much importance do we place on politics? In the middle, do we hiss a dog? “
It is the responsibility of both sides of the House to guard against such influence of religion on politics, Shanmugam said.
“You want an example of where this can lead, look in the United States, how votes are sought according to religious criteria. We are taking this route, we will be in trouble, ”he warned.
Mr. Singh later clarified that he was not suggesting that some officials were biased and did not intend to undermine their work, but rather called for a “reaffirmation of the government’s commitment to laicity “.
Looking ahead, Shanmugam said Singapore has developed institutions and a system that seeks to “promote the best officers and eliminate those whose integrity is unclear.”
“We have safeguarded the independence of the PSC (Public Service Commission), because the degradation of the civil service will seriously affect Singapore,” he said.
“Having said that, my second point is, to be frank, that the senior civil service remains world class and its integrity ultimately depends on who the ministers also are,” he noted.
“The tone of our ministers will ultimately decide everything else. If ministers are biased, if they lack integrity, then it will spread – maybe slowly, but surely, ”Shanmugam said.
“And you just have to look at some countries outside of Singapore – many countries, including first world countries – to see what can go wrong and how fast,” he warned.