Tuesday, February 22, 2005

*Religion and Public Policy*

Dear Sir,

Religion and the expounding of religious views have always been seen as being a touchy if not a taboo subject in Singapore. The existence of a pluralistic and multi-racial and religious society means that we have to take extra precautions where and when religious views is to be seen as legitimate and to be heeded. Indeed, the Straits Times Editorial has previously come down strongly on the side of the absence of religion in the making of public policy and that is very commendable.

Whether religious views should be sought after and listened to and whether policies ought to be implemented on that basis are two separate questions and issues. The first issue acknowledges that all views have an intrinsic right to be heard. Society is made all the richer and progress is achieved through the free exchange of diverse ideas. However, it has to be stressed that religious views are merely one of the moral or principled views that one can adopt. After all, a person without any religious allegiances can still be a moral person holding valid principled views. So as such, any calls on the basis of religiosity has no greater claim than another does on the basis of principles or rights. The second issue questions whether there should be an automatic link between the canvassing of views and its acceptance as a basis for sound policy making. It is a realisation that religious or moral views can only go so far as grounds for public policy considering the society and nation that we are in.

Given that there are a plurality and plethora of (valid) views (moral, social or religious), it would be naïve if not hubris for any group to claim a monopoly of what the truth were. Or similarly to even be able to claim to speak for the other groups, much less the impossibility of claiming to speak for all members of its own congregation. Even if and where society and religions do form a consensus on what is right and wrong, again as the adage goes, the devil is in the details: the same ‘moral’ principle can lead to two opposing results. A bald proclamation that killing (murder) is wrong, nevertheless, creates conflicting opinions with regards to issues of capital punishment, abortion, euthanasia and stem cell research. Each side will proclaim it has values or morality on its side. So how does one choose between them?

Principles are by nature subjective and the choice between them entirely a matter of personal preference. A policy based entirely upon such subjectivity will automatically make it unpalatable to those opposing it on another (valid) moral principle. But since policies needs still be made, the only sensible and legitimate approach would be to take the widest view possible and accommodate the greatest good for the greatest numbers. Hence a casino policy cannot simply stand on whether my personal values claim it good (freedom of choice) or bad (social repercussions), but will have to be calculated according to its benefits and detriments or even what does less harm. Beyond that, it becomes a mere assertion of faith for either side.

At the end of the day, religious views should be sought when making public policy. But that does not mean those views make good public policy.


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