SINGAPORE: While freedom of religion is guaranteed in Singapore, decisions in public policy-making are not made favouring any particular religious group, said Minister for Law and Home Affairs K. Shanmugam.
This goes for the public service as a whole, including Cabinet ministers and senior civil servants, he said in Parliament on Monday (Mar 1).
“Neutrality and fairness are essential. Otherwise, in this small country we will lose the trust of the people quickly,” he said.
“And when these principles are not observed, they must be dealt with,” he added.
Mr Shanmugam was responding to Leader of the Opposition Pritam Singh (WP-Aljunied), who had made reference to the case of a 16-year-old Protestant Christian of Indian ethnicity who had been detained after making plans to attack two mosques here.
This indicates religious extremism could come from anywhere, Mr Singh said.
“At a time like this the population 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 favours nor is influenced by religious beliefs from any quarter,” said the Workers’ Party secretary-general.
Mr Singh asked if there was a risk of “subtle influencing of policy” by “religious persons who are not necessarily radical”.
“Is there a danger in Singapore that laws and policies could be tilted towards particular religious beliefs, for example, because of… the religious beliefs of senior civil servants or people of influence, if not now maybe sometime in future?” he said. He also asked if the Government had strategies to counter such a possibility.
In response, Mr Shanmugam said he had worked with many senior civil servants over the years.
He gave the example of current Home Affairs Permanent Secretary Pang Kin Keong, whom he noted had spent 20 years in public service, including chairing the Homefront Crisis Executive Group, currently coordinating the Government response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“We look for officers of this character and calibre, and they should not in any way be tainted with suggestions of religious bias in their approach,” he said.
The Ministry of Home Affairs is “at the forefront of dealing with religious issues”, said Mr Shanmugam.
“We meet different religious leaders, we work hard to preserve religious harmony amongst the different faiths. Our integrity, honesty, reliability and neutrality are key to us and those are the currencies we deal in,” he said.
“When a police officer attends to a call at a house, you don't want people to think this is a Muslim officer or a Christian officer or a Hindu officer. You want people to think this is an SPF (Singapore Police Force) officer,” he said.
"NOT A SYSTEMIC ISSUE"
The minister acknowledged the tendency for people - whether ministers, civil servants or ground officers - to see issues through a religious lens or their own personal perspective.
“We have to guard against that, we have to avoid it. Leave personal viewpoints and look at it - when you're making public policy - through a secular perspective … you have to look at the broad majority and see what is in their interest,” he said.
“We have to jealously guard against any such tendency to look through a particular lens, whether it's ministers or anyone else. And we have to set the tone from the very top, insist on the secular approach and be strict about that,” he said.
“Mr Singh is reflecting on, I think, what some people might feel and I will say to him today that it is not a systemic issue,” he added.
“What is the safeguard? It starts with politics, how we conduct it. And religion – how important do we make it in politics? In the midst, do we dog whistle?”
It is the responsibility of both sides of the House to safeguard against such influence of religion into politics, said Mr Shanmugam.
“You want an example of where it can lead to, look at the United States, how votes are sought along religious lines. We go down that road, we will be in trouble,” he warned.
Mr Singh later clarified that he was not suggesting that some civil servants were biased and did not intend to undermine their work, but rather was asking for a “restatement of the Government’s commitment towards secularism”.
As for the future, Mr Shanmugam said Singapore had developed institutions and a system that seeks to “promote the best officers and weed out those whose integrity is not clear”.
“We have safeguarded the independence of the PSC (Public Service Commission), because the degradation of the civil service will seriously damage Singapore,” he said.
“Having said that, my second point is, to be blunt, whether the senior civil service remains world-class and has integrity depends ultimately on who the ministers are too,” he noted.
“The timbre of our ministers will ultimately decide everything else. If the ministers are biased, they lack integrity, then that will spread - maybe slowly, but surely,” said Mr Shanmugam.
“And you only have to look at some countries outside of Singapore - many countries, including first world countries - to see what can go wrong, and how quickly,” he warned.