foreign influence

Religion, Politics, and Foreign Influence in Singapore

The recent reversal in the US of the constitutional right guaranteed for abortion (more commonly known as “Roe vs Wade” after the Texas court case brought in 1970) marked a stunning political development that sent reverberations worldwide.

The US Supreme Court reversed its original 1973 landmark finding that the US Constitution protected a pregnant woman’s liberty and right to choose an abortion of an unwanted pregnancy by themselves, instead claiming that it should be up to individual state laws to legislate the legality and rights of women to abort their pregnancies in the absence of a nationwide overriding federal law guaranteeing such rights.

Religion and Politics in the US

The reversal of abortion rights in the US is the culmination of decades of political lobbying and organisation by various Christian faith groups in alliance with conservative political groups.

American politics originally never cared much for the issue of women’s rights over their own bodies or to abort their pregnancies, until decades of political and societal evolution beginning in the late 1960s brought together conservative Catholics, Protestants and evangelical Christian denominations with the second “New Right” of political conservatives through populist agitation of hair-trigger sensitive societal issues such as abortion rights.

This was done partly due to various Christian organisations and leaders’ wishes to continue enjoying preferential financial treatment and tax exemptions under favourable political viewpoints, as well as political conservative factions and leaders seeking to stir a “counter-revolution” against what they saw as unacceptable and anxiety-inducing social changes such as the sexual revolution, civil rights movement, and women’s liberation.

Christianity’s Focus On The Family?

The relevance of the rise of the Christian Right in US politics to domestic Singaporean politics and society centre around a key common point: the existence of a powerful US-based transnational Christian fundamentalist organisation called Focus on The Family (FOTF). FOTF was the single most powerful Christian organisation that agitated for the reversal of women’s abortion rights in the US, something that came to fruition on 24 June 2022.

The central tenets of FOTF are their promotion and advocacy of socially conservative views on public policy and society along traditional hierarchies and power structures. Specifically, FOTF focuses heavily on promoting creationism, abstinence-only sex education, heterosexual family structures, traditional gender roles, and prayers in education institutes. With the purpose of organisations as defined by what they are opposed to alongside what they support, FOTF is just as well known to heavily agitate against LGBT rights and any socially progressive acceptance of anything it deems to be “immoral vices” such as pornography, drugs, gambling, divorce, and abortion.

Christian Fundamentalist Influence in Singapore is Very Real

Only two days before FOTF’s goal of reversing women’s abortion rights in the US was realised, we carried an article on how FOTF has successfully infiltrated and sown deep roots in Singapore’s political, civil service, and industry establishment over the past years.

The article was originally triggered by two unrelated news of anti-LGBT actions in Singapore: the NC16 classification of a children’s film “Lightyear” due to its depiction of a same-sex relationship, intimacy, and family unit in the movie, and the rejection of a same-sex couple’s request to book a wedding venue by Parkroyal Collection: Pickering Hotel, one of the top five-star hotels in Singapore. Both incidents were linked to FOTF primarily because of the main individuals responsible for the organisations involved in them. IMDA’s panel for film classification is led by Cheryl Ng, an associate trainer with FOTF, whilst the CEO of Pan Pacific Hotels Group (which owns Parkroyal) is Choe Peng Sum, who also holds the role of vice-chair on FOTF’s Board of Directors.

Open information can be found on FOTF Singapore’s webpage of various high-ranking members of its executive board of directors. The individuals range from CEOs of hotel chains in Singapore, to various high-ranking government civil servants, business federations, law firms, and even a non-resident national ambassador of Singapore to a foreign country.

These individuals make up a veritable who’s who list of Singapore’s ruling establishment across political, civil service, and business spheres of influence and control.

None of their participation with FOTF be it as individual members or as directors on FOTF’s board can be said to be financially motivated, since according to FOTF’s own website they are unpaid volunteers who serve for a maximum term limit of 10 years. Therefore, it can be safely said that since they are not in it for the money, then they are in it for their true beliefs which align with FOTF’s Christian fundamentalist values and beliefs.

FOTF has enjoyed government support and approval throughout the years. Two examples stand out to notice. The first is FOTF’s role as an external vendor for MOE between 2009 and 2014 in conducting sex education classes in Singaporean schools, something which was only ended after a complaint from a student was raised to national media attention over their advocacy and portrayal of negative gender stereotypes in their workshops.

The second is their 20th anniversary celebration held in March 2022, titled “State of The Family” and graced by Minister K. Shanmugam, Singapore’s Law and Home Affairs Minister as their guest of honour. This comes as no surprise for anybody with a passing interest in Singaporean politics, as they would know that the ruling PAP political establishment is strongly adherent to its ideological view of heterosexual marriage as the foundational family unit bedrock of society, even if it comes at the cost of public policy marginalisation and institutional stigmatisation of individuals who do not fit into such family structures such as singles and LGBT individuals.

The reversal of abortion rights in the US has been met with condemnation worldwide as a serious step back for women’s rights and general human rights as a whole from various countries. However, Singapore has been noticeably silent about this internationally, as has the local offshoot of FOTF in response to the success their US compatriots enjoyed on 24 June 2022. Perhaps this is a case of “don’t bite the hand that feeds you”, considering that Singapore is a key US ally in Southeast Asia during a time of rising geopolitical tensions in the region, and FOTF Singapore has previously received direct funding contributions from FOTF US.

Singapore’s politicians have not been shy to warn loudly about countering foreign influence in domestic politics and societal affairs in recent years, going as far as hastily enacting a Foreign Interference (Countermeasures) Act (FICA) in May 2022. FICA was enacted to exercise government power of oversight and law enforcement over a wide range of conduct, activities and communications it suspects to be done on behalf of a foreign principal, for what it defines as “influencing or seeking to influence government decisions or public opinion on matters of public controversy or political debate” in Singapore.

Even before FICA was enacted, the government mandated in 2017 that all attendants of Pink Dot (a yearly event held in support of Singapore’s LGBT community) had to be Singaporean Citizens or PRs, and banned foreign companies from sponsoring anything related to the event ostensibly to “prevent foreign involvement in domestic socio-political events”.

Interestingly, an Islamic/fundamentalist Christian-backed anti-LGBT campaign named “Wear White” enjoyed crossbench political support back in 2014 with attendance by a MP from the Worker’s Party (WP) and platitudes from high-ranking PAP ministers. Its 2022 forum comprised of speakers ranging from Zulfikar Bin Mohamad Shariff, a Singapore-born Australian detained under the Internal Security Act (ISA) in 2016, and Mohamed Acharki, an Australia-based Islamic sciences scholar.

So much for FICA and the PAP government’s fears of “foreign interference” in domestic socio-political affairs, when so many members of Singapore’s ruling establishment are already deep in bed with a powerful US-based Christian fundamentalist group that recently managed to achieve a stunning reversal of abortion rights and setback women’s rights not just in a superpower country but also globally. Granted, freedom of religion and worship is enshrined in Singapore’s Constitution, and mere membership of any religious organisation or worship group should not be automatic grounds for condemnation.

Although FOTF Singapore has never come out in opposition towards Singapore’s legalisation of abortion, the actions of its individual members in their respective industries and civil service have been demonstrated to be notably hostile towards LGBT individuals who are just as much equal members of Singaporean society, and aligned with their organisation’s fundamentalist Christian beliefs that are not even organic in nature but heavily influenced by American-style evangelical fundamentalist Christianity.

As a Christian verse so aptly states,

Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.

In this case, Singapore’s elite establishment needs to seriously scrutinise its own eyes for the plank of religious and foreign political influence amongst its own ranks, before lecturing and policing local society to be on guard against foreign influences of all kinds against its collective and individual interests.