LGBT rights activists in Singapore are speaking up, and religious groups are declaring their public opposition. But do the voices of the religious belong in the public sphere at all?
On the appointed day, a sea of Singaporeans dressed in pink will flood the lawn in Hong Lim Park with their families. Some will settle on a comfortable picnic spot to enjoy the live performances, while others will browse the nearby shops offering one-day only promotions. If not for their clothes, one would never guess their common purpose. This is the Pink Dot rally, where Singaporeans congregate each year to demonstrate their support for LGBT individuals and for the ‘freedom to love’[i] .
Pink Dot has witnessed a surge in public support since its inception in 2009, when 2,500 pink-clad Singaporeans attended its first rally. That number grew to 26,000 attendees at Pink Dot 2015[ii]. Amid the rising popularity of Pink Dot, Singapore’s religious groups could not stand idly by. In 2014, Muslim religious teacher Noor Deros initiated the Wear White movement, which invited Muslims throughout Singapore to wear a white garment on the first day of the holy month of Ramadan to publicly register their “opposition to homosexuality”[iii]. LoveSingapore, a Christian network of about 100 churches, soon jumped on the bandwagon and mobilized 10,000 Christians to don white for their Sunday services on the weekend of Pink Dot[iv].
Intriguingly, a drastic change in meaning of the Wear White movement accompanied its inclusion of the Christian community. The Muslim authors of the movement originally intended to target Muslims who supported the LGBT cause, and re-educate them about the Islamic conception of freedom and rights[v]. When LoveSingapore joined in, however, the movement’s focus suddenly shifted to the moral well-being of Singaporean society as a whole. Senior pastor Lawrence Khong of the Faith Community Baptist Church (FCBC) wrote in a letter on Facebook (that was apparently later removed) that “the Church has a major role in defending the moral future of Singapore”[vi]. By wearing white, Christians were affirming the “Natural Family”, thereby defending not only a “core value of Singapore’s conservative majority”, but “a great legacy” of Singapore’s founding generation.[vii]
The fact that a Church now sees itself as the moral custodian of a nation begs a number of question: Why should a religious group butt into the affairs of the state? Why should the religious group bother at all about what the non-religious do with their lives? Granting LGBT rights to LGBT individuals will in no way affect the ability of Christians to continue building ‘Natural Family’ units. This was precisely the criticism espoused by local playwright Alfian Sa’at, who wrote in a Facebook post that “that gay couple who got attached isn’t threatening your marriage”[viii]. Freelance journalist Kirsten Han similarly argued that “what two consenting adults do within the four walls of their bedroom is none of their concern”[ix]. The common thread underlying these objections to Wear White is a certain liberal understanding of society. This liberal position conceives of society as a collection of individuals who are entitled to a set of rights which constitute an individual’s private sphere. Only an intrusion on this private sphere would constitute legitimate grounds for banning another person’s action. As long as these rights are not violated, any action is permissible.
The issue at hand, therefore, is the imposition of beliefs. No one denies that religious groups are at liberty to preach to their flock about their moral understanding of the family unit. The initial aims of Wear White to educate only misguided Muslim individuals seemed appropriate. What seemed inappropriate, was that a Church should expect people who do not believe that their God exists to abide by rules this God has laid down. That Church would be violating the rights of others to freedom of religion. The question then becomes: To what extent do the general claims made by the Wear White movement constitute an imposition of beliefs on wider society? Is it legitimate for a religious group to make a recommendation to the public on non-religious public matters?
Pluralism and Public Reason
It is generally accepted that public discussion is a valuable, if not necessary, feature of a democratic regime. How public discussion should be structured is a trickier question, and one that the idea of public reason, developed by contemporary political philosopher John Rawls, offers an answer to. Rawls’ formulation of public reason relies primarily on a distinction between what he calls comprehensive doctrines and political conceptions of justice. The former consists of all the moral philosophies, religious or secular, that specify a particular conception of the ultimate Good. The latter refers to the set of moral principles that are expressly political. In this context, Rawls uses the term ‘political’ to mean two very specific things: first, these principles are restricted in scope, in that they apply only to the fundamental political and social institutions which structure society; second, these principles can be presented independently from comprehensive doctrines. That is not to say that these political conceptions of justice must have been conceived of and developed in a vacuum isolated from comprehensive doctrines. Rawls did not mind if these principles were originally developed as religious principles; what matters is that once they enter the public sphere, these principles must be formulated in a way that remains sound irrespective of religious conceptions.
Issues are therefore eligible for debate in the public sphere if they are appropriately public, that is, if they deal with the basic structures of society. Then, if someone wishes to make a public argument regarding such an issue, they must structure their arguments on premises supported political conceptions of justice, rather than their own comprehensive doctrines. Whether the religious groups in Wear White can legitimately make public recommendations on the family therefore hinges, first of all, on whether the family is an appropriately public structure, and second, on whether the arguments they use appeal to political conceptions of justice.
The Public Family
In Rawls’ own words, a democratic government’s legitimate interest is that “public law and policy should support and regulate the institutions needed to reproduce political society over time”[x]. One such institution is the family. Familial upbringing has an enormous impact on the values that a child will eventually grow to live by in adulthood. The family therefore plays an essential role in maintaining the social fabric of society by raising children in a way that ensures their moral development and education into the wider culture.
If the state has a duty to protect the democratic order on which society is structured, then it is the state’s legitimate interest that children grow up in a manner that enables them to comply with democratic values. The democratic order is what bestows upon each citizen our private sphere of rights in the first place. Any defense of an action in the name of an individual’s private sphere of rights makes no sense if the action itself threatens the democratic order of society. One cannot justify raising a child as a religious extremist by appealing to the freedom parents should have in deciding how to raise their child. To the extent that the state is obliged to ensure adult citizens comply with the democratic order, the state also has a legitimate interest in the family with regard to the upbringing of children.
This doesn’t mean, of course, that the state should dictate how each individual family must raise their children. Rawls is quick to specify that these political principles do not govern the internal lives of associations like the family. Liberalism still protects individual and associational liberty, but only to the point when the democratic values on which the state is built are threatened.
The conflict between Wear White and Pink Dot must therefore be redefined. It is no longer about the avoidance of intrusion on another person’s private sphere; it is about whether granting LGBT rights actually threatens the state’s interest in the family. Rawls therefore granted that even liberal principles could lead one to outlaw homosexual relationships if they compromised the state’s interest in the family, for example, if same-sex marriages were found to be destructive to the raising and educating of children.
Whether LGBT rights actually do compromise the state’s interest in the family is far from resolved, however, and given that this question does belong in the public sphere, all segments of society should contribute to the public debate around it, religious groups included. Certainly, not all of the arguments that religious groups use will be supported by political conceptions of justice, and therefore, appropriate to the public sphere. But some arguments will be, and the rest can be safely ignored. For example, in an online letter to Catholics on same-sex marriage, Archbishop William Goh questioned whether a child raised by two parents of the same sex would receive ‘holistic formation’ comparable to a child that is cared for in a stable family by a father and mother[xi]. What Archbishop Goh means by ‘holistic formation’ is not clear in the slightest. However, it could plausibly appeal to political conceptions of justice if, for example, ‘holistic formation’ encompassed the inculcation of democratic values in children. Constructive public debate would then press further on what ‘holistic formation’ actually means, and its relation to LGBT rights and state interest in the family unit.
Few religious groups actually suggest that existing heterosexual family units will be broken up with the normalization of LGBT lifestyles. To pretend that they do, and then throw the simplistically liberal ‘don’t bother them if they don’t bother you’ is to talk past them. Religious groups assert instead that same-sex unions have detrimental impacts on the upbringing of children and on society as a whole. To the extent that these arguments are relevant to political conceptions of justice, they need to be addressed head on in public debate with well-considered arguments, not brushed aside. Liberals also have a part to play in contributing to the healthy deliberation that characterizes life in a vibrant democracy.
Rawls, John. “The Idea of Public Reason Revisited.” The University of Chicago Law Review 64, no. 3 (1997): 765-807. doi:10.2307/1600311.
[i] About Pink Dot. Pink Dot SG. http://pinkdot.sg/about-pink-dot/ Retrieved April 27, 2016.
[ii] Zaccheus, Melody, and Janice Tai. “Christians to Don White for Services as Hong Lim Park Hosts Pink Dot.” The Straits Times, June 12, 2015. http://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/christians-to-don-white-for-services-as-hong-lim-park-hosts-pink-dot.
[v] Press Statement. Wear White SG. http://www.wearwhite.sg/ Retrieved April 27, 2016.
[vi] Han, Kirsten. “Lawrence Khong: “Pink Dot ‘vandalises’ Singapore with Their Propaganda”” The Online Citizen, June 15, 2015. http://www.theonlinecitizen.com/2015/06/lawrence-khong-pink-dot-vandalises-singapore-with-their-propaganda/.
[viii] Taken from Alfian Sa’at’s Facebook Note (no title) dated 18 June, 2014.
[ix] Han, Kirsten. “The Hypocrisy of the Wear White Campaign.” Yahoo, June 15, 2015. https://sg.news.yahoo.com/blogs/singaporescene/comment-the-hypocrisy-of-the-wear-white-campaign-091332927.html.
[x] P.779 , Rawls (full reference in the Bibliography)
[xi] Goh, William. “Pastoral Letter To Catholics With Same-sex Orientation.” Catholic News (Singapore), July 13, 2014. http://catholicnews.sg/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=10241:pastoral-letter-to-catholics-with-same-sex-orientation&catid=407&Itemid=473.