Editorial: Southeast Asia’s Religious Secularism

Editorial Omong-Omong

5 min read

It’s a tale of two different nations which share borders but both are like poles apart.

While Singapore can finally get rid of a monkey on its back, discarding a discriminatory law, and thus, enhancing protection of the country’s minority groups and stepping toward a more equal polity, its giant neighbor Indonesia is unleashing a more draconian law, threatening to limit the freedom of its own people, in a time when free thinking and creativity are needed most to be able take the country out of obscurity.

Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong announced in his National Day Rally speech on Sunday (August 21) that the country is repealing Section 377A, a controversial law that criminalizes sex between men, effectively making homosexuality legal in the city state.

Singapore is the latest Asian country to move on LGBT rights, after India, Taiwan and Thailand. Vietnam has even moved further, deciding to allow same-sex marriage, with its health authorities firmly declaring that its not a disease and outlawing conversion therapy, a business to convert gay to straight person.

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In a unique Singaporean fashion Lee explains clearly every rationale behind such a repeal. It’s all based on clear cost and benefits analysis. It’s all logical risk assessment based on adequate knowledge and data. Simply put: No non-sense.

Section 377A of the Penal Code states that any male person who, in public or private, commits, aids or enables a male to commit any act of gross indecency with another male could face a two-year jail term. Such criminalization of gay people has become sources of criticism against Singaporean authorities, with local and international civil society groups alleging that it is was inhumane and discriminatory against its own citizens.

But Lee asks the right question now, ”Should sex between men in private be a criminal offence?”

This problem is by no means an existential issue by any Singapore’s standards but however small it is, it’s still a burden the nation has to carry since the British Colonial era. All this time the application of the law felt like it’s contrary to what Singaporeans believe as equality, law and order. The law was in the book since decades ago but because of it’s flawed, discriminatory and inhumane nature the government was forced not to enforce it, a very unusual condition for the city state whose existence, survival and thriving is based on the solid legal system, commitment to law enforcement and equality before the law.

The government’s previous stance was to keep it but it also promised not to enforce the law in an effort to appease multiple groups within the society, especially the rights organizations and gay communities on the one side and the religious groups on the other. The acknowledgment that that section was part of Singapore’s law but was not meant to be upheld has possibly created uncomfortable condition where it could be seen that the state was not be able to enforce its own law. At least, it could pave way for legal inconsistency, or worse, legal uncertainty, the last thing a country like Singapore wanted to have.

However, Singapore – again out of pragmatism and cost & benefit analysis – is still very careful not to create too much division that will derail existing social fabric, like moving to legalize same-sex marriage,  with Lee giving assurances such a repeal would not trigger wholesale changes in Singaporean society which is still a traditional one with conservative social values, including believing that marriage should be between a man and a woman, that children should be born and raised within such families, and that the traditional family should form the basic building block of the nation.

Beside removing inconsistency and uncertainty which is crucially dangerous for small state like Singapore, removing the annoying section handed over Singapore other multiple benefits.

First, it drives up Singapore’s image in the global stage in term of respect for human rights, softening people’s perception that the country only care about financial gains. However, this good perception will turn out to be one of key elements of making Singapore a favorable place to invest, work and stay – a huge financial gain in time.

Secondly, with LGBT communities are growing and getting stronger, denying this development will be foolish by any account. Singapore will likely to have full support from local and global homosexual communities, with smart, educated and creative existing gay residents smoothly integrated into the community while those outside with skills, capitals and fresh ideas to be attracted to come.

While Singapore and many other major Asian nations have moved on LGBT rights, the city state’s biggest neighbor next door is strengthening its terror on its homosexual citizens.

Indonesia, Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, is about to pass a sweeping set of revisions to the nation’s criminal code (KUHP) that would criminalize extramarital and gay sex based on behalf of safeguarding the morality of the society, an excuse pushed by rising influence of fundamentalist groups, especially the Islamists, across the country.

While any Indonesia’s basic principles and constitution suggest that it is a secular democratic state with strong commitment to equality before the law and free of expression, its laws have been becoming more and more discriminatory contradicting its own ideals and in many cases taking religious teachings and clerics’ opinion as its guidance, penetrating deep into the private life of its citizens and especially regulating their sexual life. Islamic laws (sharia) have become the basis for the creation of hundreds of local bylaws across the archipelago in which it suppresses women and discriminates against the minority groups.

As oxymoron as it is, Indonesia has turned itself into a religious secular state, and being forced to keep on employing religious secularism in a growing sectarian political climate where religions continue to become a weapon for political gains.

We introduce this oxymoron concept — religious secularism — to describe a country whose constitution and principles are secular but keeps on or invites religions back to regulate public and private matters.

Rather than using sound logic, data, science and wisdom, the laws have been created out of power play by religious authorities, moral conviction and expectation of political gains and arbitrary judgments without sufficient data and knowledge, if anything at all.

Series of recent decision, policies, projects and law creation have been an enough basis to say that Indonesia is a place of arbitrariness. The public, for instance, has no idea why President Joko “Jokowi” Widodo is insisting on moving to the capital to Kalimantan during his presidency. Why not lay the foundation for the 550 trillion-rupiah project first, allowing time for more studies and data gathering, and let the next administration do and finish it? Instead, the government made up a paper and called it a report of the viability study. Jokowi wants to create a world-class city based on a paper even a college student would be ashamed to submit it.

And then come the controversial overhaul of Criminal Code, the Omnibus Law and KPK Law. All of them spark massive controversy and nation-wide protests as most of us just could not understand the rationale behind many contents of the laws other than suspecting that there must have a backroom deal behind them.

We are not expecting that Indonesia’s problems to go away just like that. What we want is something that can make sense all the contradictory decisions.

Every arbitrariness will likely end up creating discrepancies. Indonesia is a sum of arbitrariness. What we see today is a result of discrepancies accumulation, creating tragedy after tragedy year after year.

There is no more tragic oxymoron than having incredibly rich natural resources but still having almost 30 million people living below poverty line, and having seven million children under five years old who are stunted. In fact, Indonesia has the fifth-highest number of stunted children in the world, according the UNICEF.

There is no more tragic result of arbitrary policies than having a situation where the four richest men have more wealth than 100 million poorest people. Indonesia is now the sixth country of greatest wealth inequality in the world. Today, the four richest men in Indonesia have more wealth than the combined total of the poorest 100 million people.

The argument that Singapore can be prospered because it is small and much easier to manage is an apology from any Indonesian ruling elites and their supporters to keep Indonesia stay behind and remain in their control. Indonesia and Singapore each has its own unique challenges. We know that well. But there is nothing unique about governing with reason and honesty, while making decision based on adequate data, knowledge and science rather than conviction and moral judgement.

Indonesia is probably a perfect example of a country practicing religious secularism, but a country like Malaysia is also moving in the same direction. And it’s not only Muslim majority nations are practicing it. Myanmar uses Buddhism and monks to erase Rohingya Muslim, causing half of Rohingya population — 750,000 people — were either killed or fled to Bangladesh where they live in camps. India has become more and more Hinduist fanatics, using their majority to supress other groups. The Philippines’ churches have also played a role in determining the country’s direction, and its leaders usually use symbols of Catholicism to win votes or devising policies.

The fact is Singapore is among the world’s least corrupt nations, while Indonesia and other Asian nations still using religious teachings as basis for decision making are among the most corrupt countries in the world. Singapore is one of the world’s most prosperous nation while Indonesia has just been downgraded by the World Bank to lower middle income country.

Editorial Omong-Omong

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