Refusal to participate in funeral ceremonies of a religion other than one’s own is not an act of “intolerance” or “extremism”. On the contrary, it is the coercion and derision poured on those who follow their consciences that is the true intolerance and extremism.
In a letter to TODAY, “Religion getting in the way of filial piety” (22 March 2014), Evelyn Tan writes about her relatives who have refused to participate in the Taoist funeral ceremony of her husband’s grandmother:
My husband’s grandmother died recently at the age of 91. The last couple of years were difficult as she was bedridden and fading day by day.
Certainly, she lived a fruitful life, with five children, multiple grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.
According to her wishes, the funeral arrangements followed Taoist tradition. This involved elaborate prayers, processions and folding thousands of paper ingots to send her on a comfortable journey to the afterlife. With that many offspring, one would have expected all hands on deck.
What materialised seemed to be a reflection of changing times and narrow beliefs. Several of her offspring have adopted other religions and refused to participate in any of the Taoist ceremonies, including the folding of paper ingots.
I find this a strange phenomenon. Surely, what matters must be the wishes of the deceased, rather than the beliefs of the living?
As more Singaporeans become well-travelled, no one has qualms about visiting religious landmarks, such as the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan. In fact, many plan to visit these landmarks.
As we progress in this society, we must remain tolerant of all beliefs.
Using religion as an excuse to distance oneself from religious ceremonies for a loved one seems to be a practice of double standards and the start of an intolerant approach.
These sentiments are not new, and even Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said in his 2009 National Day Rally speech:
Intolerance is another problem. Not respecting the beliefs of others or not accommodating others who belong to different religions. You think of this as me versus somebody else, one group versus another group but sometimes it happens within the same family.
Sometimes, we have parents who have traditional religions, and children have converted away. Then when the parents die, and they had asked to be buried according to traditional rites, the children stay away from the funeral or the wake. It is very sad. From a traditional point of view, it is the ultimate unfilial act but it does happen occasionally. So intolerance, extremism, is another problem.
How shall we understand tolerance and accommodation of different religious beliefs?
Religion getting in the way of filial piety?
At the outset, it is clear that filial piety is a cardinal virtue of all major faiths. This has been recognised by the Singapore government, under the Shared Values White Paper (Cmd. 1 of 1991) at para. 12:
The sanctity of the family unit is not a value unique to Singapore. All major faiths consider this a cardinal virtue. The family is the fundamental building block out of which larger social structures can be stably constructed. It is the group within which human beings most naturally express their love for parents, spouse and children, and find happiness and fulfilment. It is the best way human societies have found to provide children a secure and nurturing environment in which to grow up, to pass on the society’s store of wisdom and experience from generation to generation, and to look after the needs of the elderly. [Emphasis added]
However, in a multi-religious society like Singapore, no one is compelled to adopt a particular religious interpretation of filial piety which involves “elaborate prayers, processions and folding thousands of paper ingots to send [a deceased person] on a comfortable journey to the afterlife”. Such beliefs belong to the realm of individual conscience.
Religious freedom entails the right not to participate in any ceremony of a religion other than one’s own. Article 16(3) of the Singapore Constitution provides:
No person shall be required to receive instruction in or to take part in any ceremony or act of worship of a religion other than his own.
The Singapore Court of Appeal interpreted the above article in Nappalli Peter Williams v. Institute of Technical Education  2 SLR(R) 529 at para. 21:
Article 16(3) seeks to protect persons from taking part in any ceremony or act of worship of a religion other than his own. Article 16(4) leaves no doubt about this interpretation. Its purposes are to protect the position of those under 18 years of age, in respect of their choice of religion. Therefore, read together, Arts 16(3) and 16(4) protect a person’s right to choose his own religion. A person is entitled to refrain from participating in ceremonies of religions other than his own. For example, a Muslim cannot be “required to take part in” a Christian ceremony such as the Holy Communion. [Emphasis added] Therefore, the constitutional guarantee of religious freedom lays down a basic framework by which religious beliefs in a multi-religious society like Singapore should be accommodated.
As a result, the refusal by the relatives of Ms Tan’s husband who have adopted other religions to – in her own words – “participate in any of the Taoist ceremonies”, is their right and they are entitled to do so.
By contrast, the visiting of religious landmarks are not of themselves ceremonies or acts of worship. Tourists may visit the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, St Peter’s Basilica at the Vatican and the Tiger’s Nest monastery in Bhutan without having to participate in their religious ceremonies.
Tolerance and double standards
To “tolerate” means “to allow someone to do something that you do not like or approve of”. What it does not mean is being coerced into doing something that is against one’s conscience.
The actions of the relatives of Ms Tan’s husband are not acts of intolerance. They might be contrary to a particular religious interpretation of filial piety that involves “elaborate prayers, processions and folding thousands of paper ingots to send [her husband’s grandmother] on a comfortable journey to the afterlife”, but it is up to their consciences whether or not they subscribe to this religious belief.
Seen in this light, it is the accusations of “intolerance”, “double standards”, “extremism” and the lack of filial piety that are the real acts of intolerance, since these relatives are not even allowed to follow their consciences and exercise their constitutionally guaranteed rights of religious freedom. (See also the posts on Tolerance)
It is ironic that, in accusing them of having “double standards”, Ms Tan has herself practiced double standards and doublethink.
While filial piety is a cardinal virtue of all major faiths, no one is compelled to adopt a particular religious interpretation of filial piety which involves the afterlife. Such beliefs belong to the realm of individual conscience.
Religious freedom entails the right not to participate in any ceremony of a religion other than one’s own. While the passing of a loved one is a time of great loss and mourning for all, relatives are entitled to refrain from participating in funeral ceremonies of religions other their own.
Is this an act of “intolerance” or – in PM Lee’s words – “extremism”?
No. On the contrary, it is the coercion and derision poured on those who follow their consciences that is the true intolerance and extremism.