The Wake of Reason: Enter the Humanist Society in Singapore

Gwee Li Sui

The humanists have landed!

The shape of Singapore’s secular space is changing. This is inevitable in view of several factors: the general development of any secular society; the demands of a multi-cultural and multi-religious sphere; the rise of religious fervour in recent decades; and the existing threat of fundamentalism.

In Singapore, there are also the growing challenges posed by the incursion of religious values into public conversations and policy-making. Yet, according to the last available census conducted in 2000, those without religion made up 14.8% of Singapore, a figure that paled only to that for Buddhists, at 42.5%. Muslims took up 14.9% of the pie, Christians 14.6%, Taoists 8.5%, and Hindus 4%.

It is thus understandable that recent events involving the contents of the law and school education and the secular limits of religion led to concerns over the need to represent the views of non-religious citizens. The Humanist Society (Singapore), the first organisation to champion such a need on the island, was formed recently and recognised by the Singapore government on 6 October 2010. New Asia Republic is proud to secure an exclusive interview with Paul Tobin, the founding president of the society. The full text of this interview follows.

GWEE LI SUI: Paul, can you describe briefly to us the origin of the Humanist Society in Singapore?

PAUL TOBIN: The germ of the idea started in early 2009 when a few of us who attended the Singapore Humanist Meetups decided that there was a lacuna in the public and social discourse in Singapore: non-believers were not represented in discussions on public and social issues. We – thirteen of us – submitted the application for the Humanist Society (Singapore) in November 2009 and was gazetted last month, in October 2010.

GWEE: What are the society’s goals?

TOBIN: There are a number of goals:

a. To provide a social space where non-believers can get together in a safe environment.

b. To encourage non-religious people and to promote for them the same rights and privileges that are enjoyed by members of religious bodies.

c. To encourage respect for the universal human rights of men and women free from discrimination on the basis of race, class, disability, gender, sexual orientation, age, or nationality.

d. To promote an understanding and awareness of humanism and its goals.

e. To raise awareness that a significant secular, non-religious segment of our society, which includes free-thinkers, atheists and non-theists, exists and is an essential contributor to the well-being and progress of our society.

f. To uphold the importance of maintaining secular space in the interest of social harmony.

GWEE: What does it hope to contribute specifically to Singaporean society?

TOBIN: Non-believers like other citizens and residents of Singapore contribute daily to the country. The society wishes to be able to provide a viewpoint that is distinct from religious ones in debates on social issues. By providing a voice for non-believers and holding beliefs that are reason-based while being understanding of others’ belief systems, we hope to contribute to social harmony, which is a strength for Singapore – a strength we can be proud of.

GWEE: The group is set up to represent those with no religious affiliation; yet it calls itself humanist. Does it have anything to offer to, say, religious humanists?

TOBIN: In its modern usage, the term “humanism” is very commonly understood as being secular and no longer needs the latter as an adjective. Witness, for instance, the International Humanist and Ethical Union, the British Humanist Association, the Norwegian Humanist Association, the Council of Australian Humanist Societies, etc. All of these are secular without requiring the adjective.

I personally find the term “religious humanist” oxymoronic since it is impossible to be a humanist when your starting-point for ethical and moral decisions stems from the fact that you are human and yet simultaneously hold on to the idea that there is a higher basis for such decisions.

GWEE: What is the general policy of your society towards religion?

TOBIN: We have no policy as such. We respect the right of everyone to have their own beliefs.

GWEE: Are the ethics and opinions of those without religion represented well in the way socio-political decisions are made in Singapore?

TOBIN: I do not think so. Much of the social discourse in recent years have been dominated by religious groups. Witness the discourse on homosexuality, sex education, the opening of the casinos, abortion, stem-cell research, etc.

GWEE: Where is improvement most needed with respect to representation?

TOBIN: Having a humanist society is a good start. Making our society visible means that we can get feedback from non-believers in our society at large, for which we are then able to make representations in public discourse.

Gwee: Has the society been in contact with the major religious organisations in Singapore yet?


GWEE: Does it seek a more isolated and strongly independent presence?

TOBIN: We will not turn down offers for dialogue with religious groups if it makes sense to do so. But we are independent in the sense that we do not seek any alliance with any religious group. As humanists, we will make charitable contributions and  provide humanitarian assistance during times of crisis. In doing so, we may work with other organisations, religious and non-religious, should that prove to be the most effective and efficient manner to provide such assistance when it is needed.

GWEE: What are the society’s views on secularism in our current world?

TOBIN: I think secularism is being threatened worldwide. Witness the case in US where some recent candidates for the Senate have questioned the doctrine of separation of church and state. Groups have made major inroads into school systems in the US and in Western Europe, successfully introducing religious-based beliefs into textbooks and lectures and presented as a form of science – presented, without evidence, as alternative views to theories that can be proven, time and again, using the scientific method. I have also seen at least one supplementary science book used in some Singapore schools that tries to present creationism as a viable scientific alternative to evolution.

GWEE: What are the strengths and weaknesses of secularism, and does it have practical limits?

TOBIN: That requires a tome to answer, and I do not think a simple Q and A will do it justice. However, the fact that most all secularists are independent and free-thinking is both a strength and a weakness. Secularists are not easily manipulated by fear-mongering, which is a strength. On the other hand, being independent and free-thinking, secularists are a difficult group to get together, ideologically. It takes some time, discussion and analysis before a significant number of secularists can agree and move forward with their ideas. Again, this is, in itself, both a weakness and a strength: wouldn’t we all be better off, most of the time, if we made our decisions after healthy debate and reliance upon available evidence?

GWEE: What are the challenges to your society at the moment?

TOBIN: Our immediate challenge is to get our administrative system in order: setting up a bank account, getting the members list updated, and preparing for our first introductory meetings with new members, which will be held at the end of this month.

In the near future, our main challenge is to get the word out about the goals of our society and to get non-religious people to come together to give us a voice in our society. Interviews like this will help. Also, we have a website up and running so that anyone interested can take a look and see if our goals align with theirs. The web address is:

GWEE: Paul, thank you so much for this conversation. I sincerely wish your society the best in its endeavours.