Harmony at the Expense of Liberty

Author: Wan Saiful Wan Jan

Nalla Mohamed Abdul Jameel is an Imam at the Jamae Chulia Mosque in Singapore.  Last week on 3 April he was fined SGD4,000 by a Singapore court for committing an act deemed inconsistent with the maintenance of harmony between religious groups.

Nalla committed the offence on 6 January 2017, when he recited a prayer (doa) in Arabic that means “God please grant us help against the Jews and Christians.”  His speech was recorded by a member of the congregation who then spread it in the social media.

The recording made waves online with thousands of people commenting on it.  One comment was from Dr Khairuddin Aljunied, an associate professor at the National University of Singapore (NUS), in which he implied support for the Imam.

Khairuddin’s comment attracted the ire of Singapore’s influential Home Affairs Minister K Shanmugam who said in parliament on 3 March that if the imam had made any inflammatory suggestions, “then some appropriate action will be taken.”  He also said that “Mr Khairuddin’s position and actions are quite unacceptable. He has jumped into this without verifying the facts and without checking the context and supports a position that is quite contrary to the norms, values and laws in Singapore.”  The NUS took swift action and Khairuddin was suspended from his post on 6 March.

Prior to the sentencing by the court, Nalla actually issued a public apology.  He invited about 30 leaders from the Christian, Taoist, Buddhist, Sikh and Hindu communities, and he was reported to have said to them that he was “filled with great remorse for the inconvenience, tension and trauma that I have caused to this peaceful country”.

Nalla, being an Indian citizen working in Singapore, was also quoted to have said that “As a resident here from a foreign land, I should have practised my faith in accordance with, and appropriate to, the social norms and laws of this country. I fully admit that my said actions have no place, wheresoever, in this extremely multi-religious and multi-cultural society.”

At court for the sentencing, the district judge rapped Nalla by saying “you would have been aware of the fact that Singapore is a multiracial and multi-religious society and that it was necessary for you to be sensitive and not to say anything in your sermons that may undermine the harmony that exists among the different races and religions.”

Soon after the sentencing, Singapore’s Ministry of Home Affairs issued a statement emphasising that the offending statement from the imam “was and is unacceptable in a multiracial and multi-religious society”.

Another Minister, Yaacob Ibrahim, also commented that Singapore’s laws “preserve the freedom to practise one’s faith, and protect all communities, regardless of race or religion, from being denigrated. The authorities have done the right thing by applying the law firmly and fairly, as this is in the best interest of all communities.”  He added that “We must safeguard the values we hold and cherish as Singaporeans – mutual respect, unity and social harmony. The unity of our nation depends on this.”

As I am now based in Singapore, I took the opportunity to ask people what they think of this saga.  The vast majority of common Singaporeans I met on the streets, hawkers centres, and community centres are not aware of this case.  But almost everyone I met at my local mosque know about it.  The vast majority of Singaporean and Malaysian academics in Singapore whom I met also know about the case (less so among other foreign academics).

Among those who know about the case, everyone was supportive of Singapore government’s swift reaction on this issue.  Yes, literally everyone I asked, if they knew about the case, felt that the Imam should be punished and Khairuddin is in the wrong.  I did not meet anyone who said the government is wrong to encroach into and restrict the freedom of speech of the Imam, or that the NUS was wrong to curb the academic freedom of Khairuddin.  No one objected to the actions by the authorities.  Or at least no one was willing to admit to me that they object.

I find this whole story fascinating for two reasons.

First, we have a situation where a religious preacher was asking his God to help his group against others.  If Imam Nalla were to remove the word “Christians and Jews” from his prayer, or if the recording was not put online, would that be alright?  Or are we suggesting that the government should be given powers to determine what is right and what is wrong, including when it comes to religious statements that has not caused any physical harm to anyone?  Should freedom of conscience be subjugated under political expediency?

Secondly, almost no one stood up to publicly defend Khairuddin’s right to academic freedom and freedom of speech.  Every single person I spoke to, including academics, were apologetic if not supportive of the action taken against Khairuddin.  Singapore has some of the best universities in this region but this saga did not at all attract public comments about how the liberty of a prominent academic to speak has been constrained.  Everyone prioritised social cohesion instead.

It is intriguing to watch how individual liberty is openly curtailed to serve the priorities set by politicians who claim to represent society.  It is more intriguing to see how society accepts these developments without any real debate. I wonder what would have happened if this was in Malaysia?