Panel Discussion – Bridging Different Communities (QnA)

The sharing by the panellists (read it here) were followed by a QnA session.


The first question, from Prof John van Wyhe, was about the association of an earthquake on Mount Kinabalu to a group of tourists that posed nude on it, and how it was portrayed by the media in Malaysia. Mr Zurairi shed light on the matter by informing the audience that the two incidents were originally reported as separate. The view that the natural disaster was a result of the nudity was held more by the superstitious natives minority, rather than the Malaysian majority. Deputy Chief Minister also linked the two, and said he had an omen that it was about to happen. Mr Zurairi explained that it was not the journalists in Malaysia who linked the two together.


The next question was from Danielle from Humanist Alliance Philippines International, regarding the mitigation of the chaos from incendiary news. Mr Zurairi answered that the chaos is not a consequence of the reporting, but rather the events that was reported.

Red Tani talked about the incidents in Philippines, one of a famous tour guide who went into church and protested for the religion to stop meddling with politics, who got off scot-free, and another of an artist who did an installation art of a phallus on the forehead of Jesus Christ, who received threats of violence and had his art vandalised and removed.


The following question was addressed to Doctor Theresa, on their social outreach, and messaging. Dr Theresa explained that PATAS goes through the humanist route to make people understand. In Philippines, Dr Theresa shared that survival was the people’s preoccupation, not philosophy. Thus, PATAS’ aim was to help the people with what they needed, such that they would be more receptive to the message PATAS wanted to share. Besides healthcare, they also work on educating the younger people, debates, lectures, and seminars.

Paul Sing, HSS Member, posed a question to the entire panel – he asked if the choice of name mattered, whether it is secularists, atheists, agnostics, or others? Mr Red Tani shared that the choice of Filipino Freethinkers was strategic because “freethinkers” is an umbrella term, and because it sounds more inviting. Dr Theresa, from PATAS, explained that for them, they wanted a group that stands for atheists and agnostics specifically.


Mr Uttam, stressed that it is important to remember that the purpose is not to convert anyone to atheism, however, the purpose is to eradicate superstition. He stressed the importance of attempting communication, not revolution, with the government, and working with them.

Prof John Van Wyhe shared that the philosopher AC Grayling dislike the word atheist, because it was a definition based on an absence. He mentioned that the term humanist is an alternative, but is also linked to a set of doctrine. Mr Zurairi mentioned that only 3 percent of Malaysians are non-religious. In Malaysia, “agnostics” referred to people sitting on the fence. “Atheists” and “freethinkers” are considered derogatory because connotations of not having morals, and the term “secularists” is used in political scenes, to refer to people who do not subscribe to the Islamic political stance. He shared how most of the public groups prefer to refer to skepticism, and focused on the scientific, as it is more acceptable. He also shared that he referred to himself as a “humanist”, as “humanist” and “rationalist” are considered less hostile terms.

Mr Red Tani shared the differences between Secular Humanist, and Religious Humanist, and explained that the term “Secular Humanist” is a positive declaration of what you are, instead of defining in terms of what you are not. A more specific term would be “Naturalists”, to indicate not just a lack of belief in religion, but all things superstitious.

Paul Tobin, President of Humanist Society Singapore, mentioned that the terms can be chosen based on context. If the purpose was to defend in opposition of a theist, the term atheist would be apt, if the purpose was to talk about doing good, humanist or freethinkers would be more positive. The term is not just descriptive, it’s prescriptive as well.


The next question asked about the acceptance of Confucius and Mencius in Malaysia and Indonesia, as these are non-theistic philosophical beliefs. Mr Zurairi answered that Confucianism and Buddhism are considered religion, even if they are more philosophical beliefs than deistic beliefs. He then shared that it is more dangerous to be a Muslim of wrong denomination, than to believe in these religion. It is also the same of Indonesia.

The last question was targeted on Humanism in Singapore. Paul Tobin explained that he felt that there should be a difference between respecting other people’s beliefs, and respecting other’s people’s right to belief. He shared that the two is often confused together.

The Society would like to thank Huan Hock for this write-up.