FF Podcast 76: Freethinking in Singapore

Shortly after the Asian Humanism Conference ended, Filipino Freethinkers president Red Tani held a podcast interview with our President Paul Tobin and his daughter Patricia Tobin. Watch the interview here:

Transcript of the podcast

Red Tani: We’re in Singapore for the Asian Humanist Conference hosted by the Humanist Society (Singapore). Congratulations for the job well done on the Conference. What is the significance of holding this event in Singapore?

Paul: Thank you for the congratulations but I just want to say, the people who should be congratulated are the volunteers, they worked very hard over the past couple of months to get everything together so it wasn’t just a few people but about almost a dozen people got together.

Red Tani: You’ve got a great team.

Paul : Yeah, we have a great team. So what we hope to do with this conference, in conjunction with the IHEYO meeting, is perhaps to make Humanist Society in Singapore more visible regionally. So people know we exist outside of Singapore and also within Singapore. Let our members see that we are not just alone in the sea of religious cultures that we have people who shares similar views in neighboring countries and all that. So I think, and the third is of course to share each other’s experiences which we’ve done pretty well. So I think we have succeeded with all those three things that we’ve set out to do.

Red Tani: So this is also all organized by IHEYO, the young Humanist organization?

Paul: Yes correct.

Red Tani: What’s it like to be a young Humanist in Singapore?

Patricia: It’s just like being any other young person elsewhere at the moment.

Red Tani : It doesn’t matter? It’s a non issue?

Patricia: I think perhaps it depends on maybe who you’re friends with. Like for me personally I grew up in a Christian School, I went to Christian School so most of my friends are pretty deeply religious so perhaps sometimes religious views do sort of get in the way. But it’s sort of, I guess, I suppose for me knowing that who I am as a person and I believe what I believe in which sorta help me become… I don’t know, just being sure of my identity is most important for me, compared to like arguing my religious views to my friends.

Red Tani: Okay. From challenges to being a young Humanist, were there challenges in organizing this event? I know that Singapore is pretty conservative country in its own way. So what were the challenges?

Paul: Well, Sham (Shamima Rafi) can actually tell you more about it. They are the ones who do most of the work and I guess the challenge is Singapore officially is a secular country, so that is why it is easier for us than say our neighbouring countries like Malaysia and Indonesia to set up a humanist society.

But at the same time, the Singapore government is acutely aware of racial and religious sensitivities. Now whether one agrees with it or not, one has to work within that legal framework. One of the issues we had was initially we wanted to make this actually an open event which basically means we can invite members of the public to come to our place.

Unfortunately we were not able to get the necessary papers for us to do that. Hence, we had to do it in such a way that only members are allowed to attend. So that is some of the difficulties we face. They are obviously not as bad as what other atheists, humanists and non-believers face all over this region. But this are the realities we have to live under, there are certain restrictions that we have to work around some times.

Red Tani: Now humanism, or in particular religious criticism in general, has recently – more attention has been brought to this by the case of Amos Yee. Now what do you think about that case in particular? And just religious criticism in general.

Paul: I am not sure right now if the case is still going or whether it is sub judice to comment but I will give a very general opinion of it and that applies to how people reacted to it. I think there was a lost chance for the leadership of this country to show perhaps the way forward for our community and there are two things that I’ve said that the chance is lost.

If any of our prominent personalities in Singapore were to come up and say: Look, it’s a 16 year old boy making a remark that obviously was offensive but we are adults. We are forgiving people. We should just ride it, and accept it as gracious people that we are. But that was not said. To me, I think that was a mischance. I’m not sure of the extent I can comment on that because the case is still ongoing. Generically that’s what I feel that really lost a chance. Rather than to play to instincts of being angry and insulted, is to say that we should be gracious and move beyond that.

And the second thing is to say that, in this interconnected world, you cannot live your whole life without being offended. Turn on the internet and you will be offended. So what do you do when you are offended? You turn it off. Or go somewhere else. Or rebut if you are offended. Do we act in a very visceral way to call for someone to go to jail? I think – I’m talking about the general public as a whole – it’s not the right way to go forward. And here’s where our leadership could have played a role to say look let’s perhaps look through it and understand it. It’s difficult, it’s impossible for anyone to live a life in this world where you’re not offended. Being offended is something that will happen to you. And more often than not you go and look for it.

So those were the two things I thought was a mischance to take the society forward, as opposed to saying “oh yeah no we shouldn’t say that because people are sensitive and all

Red Tani: Okay, so today is also Father’s Day and I was interested , I wasn’t as fortunate as you , what’s it like, how cool is it to be raised by a humanist dad?

Patricia: Oh gosh, someone actually asked me this just now, they were like, what is it like to be Paul Tobin’s daughter? Oh yah, really cool man. I guess basically for me it’s pretty normal since I grew up with it.

Red Tani: But compared to your friend’s experiences? What you know…?

Patricia: I suppose like I mentioned earlier, my dad from young always open about what he thought about religion and he would perhaps give me books by Dan Barker, and stuff like Maybe Yes, Maybe No, and like comparing like , what’s the book called again dad, something about god is like santa claus?

Paul: oh yeah, also by Dan Barker. Oh my gosh, I forgot the title.

(Transcriber’s note: The book is called Just Pretend: A Freethought Book for Children)

Red Tani: here’s the link, where it magically would appear

Patricia: But uhm, yeah basically in that book he also talked about like the analogy of why people believe in santa claus…

Red Tani: yes

Patricia: … same as believing in god. I remember I went to Christian schools when I was in primary 1, i was like 6 or 7, and i was like really like, you know, I just felt this like great confidence in what my dad taught me at home but when I went to the school i was like gosh, all these things, I really don’t agree with it. and I actually erm, during a class like “moral education” we should just you know, religious that , i actually asked my teacher well like if God made the world, who made God? and i was like looking back was not really like bizarre, like crazy like i did like coz i was like 6 years old in a class roomful of kids and it’s like the teacher was taken aback and then she was like, her answer was like, “God is just like air” I was just like no idea how do you answer her. and i was like oh, okay. it wasn’t really what I thought. it was just like yah, in learning about like i remember like lifecycle like…

Paul: water cycle

Patricia: sorry, water cycle, like where does rain comes from, and thunder is not from God being angry. It’s just, yea, it’s just being like really keen and very interested in science which I still do today.

Red Tani: Was humanism was imposed on you? You’re supposed to be a humanist. You’re supposed to not believe these things. Was it? Was it?

Patricia: No. I don’t really think so because like, erm, I still went to church. Occasionally my friends invited me along and like, and I would talk to my friends’ parents about, like, Christianity and, like, the bible and, like, ask them, like, why are you Christian and try to understand them and stuff.

So I guess it is a great deal like being humanist, being open to science and rational belief but also being humanist today and also this conference about about being compassionate and being open minded and being willing to learn. And so whenever I went to church it was, yeah, I mean I listen to these people but personally I felt like I couldn’t agree with them.

Red Tani: And finally you identify as a humanist.

Patricia: Yeah.

Red Tani: Aside from Father’s Day, today is Atheist Solidarity Day. So what are, what message do you have for the atheist, the humanist freethinker in Singapore and in Asia.

Paul: The same message I said in the first day of this conference that we have. And the message is this:

With the interconnected world, we gain more and more information. I have a firm belief that that a lot of religious beliefs are based on not knowing enough, hiding information. When you allow facts to come out, it’s going to be, even if you have websites or blogs that talk about the same fundamentalism… eventually they will meet people with other views and they will confront directly people who criticize and then, I think that will be, can be nothing but good. Eventually you will see that more and more people will see where the facts lie and… young people who are more savvy with the net and like I said as well, don’t despair you’re a young humanist or an atheist in a country where it is difficult because like I said, sometimes it is very difficult to change the minds of people my age or Red Tani.

But take heart that eventually the young people will take over the world and old people like us die and their ideas will die with them because your ideas can convince the other people. Take heart in that, however hard it is.


The Humanist Society (Singapore) would like to thank Joel Lim, Ying Yen, Dan Tang, Chris Low and Ivan Ng for helping to transcribe the podcast.