Our President Tan Tatt Si delivered this speech at a dialogue regarding the ‘Freedom of religion or belief in Singapore and ASEAN’, organised by the EU Delegation to Singapore on Dec 9, 2016, at Raffles Hotel. Photos courtesy of European Union Delegation to Singapore.
Good morning, I’m Tatt Si . Greetings and deepest respect to all, for we are equal humans. Sorry about the limp. I broke my ankle four weeks ago. I think god is trying to tell me something.
I speak here as a non-religious person, who also happens to be the president of the Humanist Society of Singapore. Our society is so open, it can choose to disown or endorse me after this speech. This speech will be like an anthology of my human rights observations, anchored in the East, educated in the West.
I must confess: I do have a god. A goddess, in fact – my wife. She is so, because, not just that I fear Her – apparently She is also always right. But seriously, the heart of every humanist is an atheist – one who lacks a god-belief system.
The atheist in us is witty and sarcastic. We believe in the scientific method, we chastise people for not understanding and accepting Neo-Darwin Evolution, and we think that all organised religions out there are wrong, except for one: Which one? It’s the one that each and every one of us is holding right now or the one we are about to convert to. Cheekily, I congratulate all on having the right religion.
It is important to have Freedom of Religion, just as much as it is important to have Freedom from Religion. Instead of calling ourselves in this conference “religions, cultures, or the godless”, let me just call us the “-isms”.
If atheism/humanism is a religion, I am the leader of the single largest religious order in Singapore, having more people in my demographic (18.5%) than the most reverent Archbishop William Goh of the Catholic Church here. Does that get to my head? Of course, it does! But I’m quickly put in my place when two Julys ago our highest official compared us to “communism”. Now I know how Obama feels – him & I we are both presidents, and between us we’ve won a total of one Nobel Peace Prize.
Left-to-Right : Dr Arif Jamal (NUS), Prof Wang Gungwu, Ms Braema Mahti. Ms Atnike Nova Sigiro, Dr Jaclyn Neo (NUS), Dr Noeleen Heyzer (formerly UN), Amb Michael Pulch (EU), Mr Tan Tatt Si, Amb Barry Desker,, Amb Paula Parviainen (Finland), Mr Lim Shung Yar (MCCY), Dr Yeo Lay Hwee (EU Centre), Dr Eugene Tan (SMU).
So, is the reverse true? Can we go after a prime minister, or a former, or founding prime minister, like Amos Yee did? “Wow, someone dares talk about Amos Yee in Singapore”. Seriously, how can one talk about human rights in Singapore without talking about Amos Yee? Amos is an atheist, so he belongs to my “parish”. Together, he and I don’t play golf together, and we are both non-members of Temasek Club. While the humanists tried to help him, it is hard to help someone who’s trying so hard to bite the hands that tried to help him. We will continue to find ways.
Amos was not jailed for insulting Mr Lee Kuan Yew per se, he was jailed for hurting feelings. These “harming of feelings” laws should be looked at because quantifying feelings is onerous, and there is a mob mentality involved. Sometimes these same people will forward the videos and cause even more hurt. Amos didn’t lay a finger on any one, but he’s been hit and physically harassed by a few.
Look at Korea’s protests lately, hundreds of thousands went to demand her resignation when it looks like she did real harm with her friend in charge; then look at Jakarta’s situation, tens of thousands want Ahok’s head for what he apparently said of one of the many holy books in the world. My good friend, a Muslim, so wisely said, “God doesn’t need our protection.”
Why should Lest Majeste law still be there, because the previous king was well loved? Usually, if something said feels hurtful, it is because our egos can’t defend it. People call atheists evil all the time, but it is only when they raise a machete that we are hurt. We should stop at “incitement to violence”, and rid the onerous “feelings are hurt” laws.
Jonathan Swift said: “You cannot reason someone out of something he or she was not reasoned into.”
Singapore’s government is a sensible one. But policies can’t please 100% of people 100% of the time, and over time, every demographic will be peeved at the govt for one thing or another. This is the baggage of 51 years in power, sad to say, but the truth. The government is a government with a capital “G”, like God, to some. In fact, is bigger than God. Who in the world can mobilise a group of ten religious leaders to bless MRT trains & F1 circuits? I will lump politics into “isms” as well.
Isms are dogmas, and isms are well known to cherry pick the good things and neglect the bad. Religions of peace & love have in their texts violence & hate. Cultures still have girl babies circumcised because of “if I had mine cut so shall my daughter”. Dubious unenforced laws should not be there to criminalise people, to give enforcers the onerous privilege to cherry pick when to use it, and on whoever. The stigma stays with those living under the shadow of these laws, like 377A.
Let’s not have the enforcement & judiciary be forced to be in a position to cherry pick prosecution, because this puts the government in the bad light of persecution. Excuses like “a population that is conservative” and “[gay] people will ask for more” should not be used at all, but we must do the right thing, and repealing 377A ought to be argued on its merit. 377A again is protecting those who don’t need protection and leaving the needy without. We cannot just blame Brexit, or Trump-ism as being protectionism. However, our government is capable of making deeply unpopular right decisions, so I remain hopeful.
Humanism is not only human rights. It is about humanitarianism and humanity, in many ways similar to other religions and cultures. All of these put together, we have a goal of giving opportunities so that others may live, and together allow us & other inhabitants of Earth, to live a sustainable future.
Ashoka, once a ruthless ruler, became a humanist, and said: “No society can prosper if it aims at making things easier – instead, it should aim at making people stronger”.
Tatt Si’s reply to questions:
Tatt Si: Some religions are more into marketing than others, and may bombard others repeatedly, making saying “NO” a chore. Religions have a way of entering into people when people are weak, and people are weak at various junctures of their lives. Government hospitals forbid proselytising now. But the question on “why people flock to a particular religion in Singapore” is difficult to answer in full, but I will just say that it is likely a lack of critical thinking.
While I do not have the statistics to back me on this – I’m probably not too far off when I say >50% of doctors in Singapore do not believe in Evolution. I just recently found out that Evolution isn’t taught to doctors, and our education system is mostly about rote learning, we are fed knowledge and are expected to regurgitate this as the accepted truth. Critical thinking should start at a young age, and critical thinking must be taught in school.
Humanists view the question as Purpose In life, and everyone has a different one, it is one’s own purpose, in this only life we have, to find meaning for ourselves, without harming or causing the least amount of harm to others. Usually, when a person feels hurt by a certain opinion, it is because his/her ego cannot defend the issue. Atheists are called “the Devil” all the time, and we proceed with our arguments anyway; on Asst Prof Neo’s question on “Citizenship comes before religion”, let me say that many humanists also regard the concept of countries and borders to be somewhat contentious.
When humans walked out of Africa, there weren’t any borders. But in today’s world, politics are needed to govern a polity, and geopolitics is the reality. The concept of a secular government cannot be that secular means immorality – how can the downplay of religion to serve the public be seen to be becoming immoral? On the question of “whether the Singapore model can be the yardstick for others”, my answer is “not there yet”. Singapore still needs to progress down the road of ditching the sense of the “anomaly”, and treat these as “minority” and continue with equal rights for these minorities. Give opportunities so that others can live.”