Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Interview Transcripts: Atheism, & What It Means To Be An Atheist In Singapore

In my previous post, I mentioned that I had the ignominious honour of being interviewed by a Straits Times journalist (Straits Times is a national, major newspaper in Singapore), who, upon chancing upon my post with regards to the issue of interfaith dialogues, decided to conduct a email interview, with what I presume as a further query with regards to the atheistic point of view.

Transcripts of the interview was sent to me on the 3rd of July, and my reply was sent out on the following day.

While I was hoping that the interview would be published (knowing full well the conservative nature of Straits Times, I was expecting a watered-down version of it), but the latest word I have received was that the journalist concerned, Ms Li (I shall not divulge the full name. For those who are infinitely curious, leave a note in my email or this blog's comments) seems to be occupied with her work.

So, without further ado, the transcripts, as follows. My replies, in red:

1) As an atheist, do you feel marginalised in Singapore? Why/why not? If so, do you have any specific examples?

With regards to feeling marginalized, I feel that much of what has been said and touched on about faith is mostly centered on two or three faiths, namely Catholicism, Christianity and its related denominations, and most important of all, Islam.

Take the latest issue on interfaith dialogues. We have imams, priests, reverends and even the odd Confucian scholar who gets invited. But no one, none from the scholastic circles, such as historians, scientists and the like, gets invited to such talks, much less atheists.

What is it about religion that allows them this privilege to get a piece of the limelight and spread their propaganda in such a manner? Are we saying that, short of discussing each other's religion, people from the various religions can't really communicate beyond mere religion? Or are atheists and other members of the free thought community so highly ostracized that we aren't even allowed a whiff of these bunch of self-appraised folks?

Dialogues are a good thing, but dialogues such as these are merely political tools fabricated by people who wish to glamorize religion and portray a falsified unified front of various religious views.

2) Do you feel that because of the sensitivity of religious issues and the emphasis on inter-religious harmony in Singapore, you do not have freedom of expression, when it comes to airing your views?

I think a few years back, two young people or teenagers were arrested and charged with the Sedition Act, one for slandering Islam and the other for drawing Jesus-zombies munching cute little babies.

To talk about freedom of speech in Singapore is pretty much like playing Russian roulette: You can heap as much vitriol as you want, but once you bothered some higher-ups, get prepared to be slapped with ignominous charges, such as the ISA (Internal Security Act) and the Sedition Act.

3) Do you think that atheism is a faith in itself? And should it be accorded the same "respect" that other religions have?

Atheism, by its very definition (Atheist from the Greek word, atheos: A, without, theos, God), refers to a negative position of non-belief. An atheist, in essence, is a person who does not believe in God due to the absence of proof (To some atheists, it means observable, empirical proof).

Faith requires an element of belief. In the case of faith, it is more aptly described as "Belief in things unseen", which really boils down to blind belief.

If anything, atheism is the exact polemic of faith: One is an atheist because one sees no proof to validate the claim, while a person who dwells in faith believes because he or she has subjected to himself or herself a creed irregardless of evidence.

As for the question of respect, I feel that we should respect everybody who is generally law-abiding. The case of the gay movement (which I did wrote on my blog), for example, is one that deserves respect, because gays have long been marginalized and in a way, segregated from the majority heterosexuals because of this misguided notion that sex outside the realms of procreation is an abominal sin, a view justified and mortified by the biblical code of stoning gays to death.

Just as law-abiding gays deserve respect, recognition and dare I say, the rights to marriage, atheists deserve to have their voices and views heard. Unfortunately in Singapore, the religious right has mostly reserved for themselves the right to be heard, and many times, their views are highly eschewed by their belief systems. For example, one would not expect a priest to extol the virtues of condoms and other contraceptives, despite the devastating effects of AIDS and other sexual diseases. To the priest, sex for pleasure is a sin, regardless of the outcome.

4) Do you think that atheists should be allowed to set up an organisation to propagate their views, such as Christians have church organisations, Muslims Islam organisations and Buddhists Buddhist organisations to propagate their tenets? Why/why not? How do you think the society and the Government will react?

I feel that the atheist community in Singapore is too small at the moment: Unlike the American Atheists (AA), atheists here are mainly closeted and disjointed, so no, at the moment, atheists should simply focus on getting out of the closet, which itself is a difficult thing to do, especially for those who are stuck in very strict, fundamentalist sects like I was in the past.

If an atheist organization were to exist here, I cannot really fathom the framework which we should go about in setting up such an organization. Religion in Singapore is something that is held in excessive awe and respect, even rationalized in the form of moderate belief systems. If the organization seeks to be just a freethought organization, then I would feel that there is no need for an atheist organization, or for myself to joing one. An active atheist organization that is highly vocal against religious irrationality may be too hot a potato for a distinctively conservative and highly cautious society here in Singapore.

5) Do you think that a Singaporean atheist would be allowed to write a book like that of Richard Dawkins' or Christopher Hitchens'?

The problem here in Singapore, I suspect, is that in higher academic circles here, is that any academic must be strictly neutral, or at worst, slightly sympathetic of religiosity in order to continue their research here.

That aside, most publishers in Singapore would baulk at publishing such controversial material here. If there is even an outside bet that one could actually sneak past such works, I would gladly be the first one to try.

6) Do you feel that there are increasing tensions between those who are religious, and those who are secular, within Singapore? Some will call you a "secularist fundamentalist". Do you agree with such a label?

One of my earliest blog posts (still there, but I have abandoned it) was about this pastor in a megachurch who actually proclaimed that "the red colour of the Singapore flag symbolizes the blood of Christ".

I had attended that service on the behest of a friend,and was profoundly shocked to hear this lie being spoken life in front of 20,000 church members.

While it is too early to say whether the secularity of our nation is under threat, I think there are people in Singapore who definitely enjoy the idea that the tenets of our Constitution is somehow aligned with the Ten Commandments, even if it clearly isn't.

At present, I do not detect this threat in the Parliament. To me, the status quo quo of "Equal playing ground" still holds true up to a point, and I for one would definitely not want to see our nation turn into a fascist theocracy.

The final question with regards to "secular fundamentalist" was left out, because I find that such a term is indeed a grave insult to rational people, religious or otherwise, who do not seek to widen the religious scope towards the secular sector, be it in government institutions or even to the tenets of government.

Frankly, I doubt this interview would ever be published in our closeted media, and hence I have decided to publish this without the permission of the journalist.

In concluding this article, I urge all Singaporeans to speak up in the face of religious domination within our media. We must find a voice in a society that continuously trumpets the need for religious reconciliation, without sparing a thought for the 13%-15% of us who refuse to be part of this hypocrisy of grovelling towards religious moderates who, ironically are the major source of inspiration for fundamentalists and their dastardly plans of terror and extremism.


concerned citizen said...

I find the whole interfaith dialogs idea interesting. I'm curious what the percentages in Singapore are of the main religions you mention?

I say that because I'm wondering how well they actually do get along with each other? Do you sense a lot of real life tension between the faiths?

I believe the big foreword movement of atheism in the US is partly due to the spotlight being turned on the tensions between the religions & the average citizen being compelled to consider these issues.

Speaking of the media... in my limited experience of starting a movement, the media will make you or break you. Publicity is paramount to attention. There has to be eager journalists somewhere in Singapore who recognize the value of controversy.

BEAST said...

Hi I>T

To be frank, the situation here in Singapore is a litttle bit delicate.

Race and religion are often conjoined twins, especially for the Malays(Almost all are Muslims). The Chinese, such as myself, are generally Buddhists or non religious, although there is this disturbing trend of conversion amongst Chinese. The Indians are typically Hindu or Catholics.

The tensions here cannot be seen outwardly, but generally speaking condescension amongst different religions are commonplace, but you have to be really "on the ground", so to speak, to really hear any sort of ramblings. Our media, of course, does a very good job of whitewashing such issues.

The journalists here in Singapore are tightly controlled by government, and hence the nickname of "154th media" for our our media, which, I am ashamed to say, is the international standing for journalistic freedom in Singapore.

BEAST said...


concerned citizen said...

i found this interesting, also

RE: in regards to the media.
The Media tries to play both ends against the middle. In my situation(Concerned Citizens of Coquille) the local media(newspaper) thinks at the moment that their bread is buttered on the side of the City Council. They are wrong because Concerned Citizens of Coquille are the ones getting the publicity & the ones creating the controversy that is selling their damn newspaper. If it wasn't for us they'd be a one fuckin page rag. It always comes down to money in the end. The trick is to get them to realize that. ;]

Rajesh said...

good interview ... too bad they didnt have the balls to publsh it ...