S. Rajaratnam on Book Banning and Religious Hysteria

Everyone who cares about Singapore’s peace and harmony should read this letter written by one of Singapore’s finest leaders S Rajaratnam who was our Deputy Prime Minister in the early 80s.  He had warned back in 1988 of the dangers of giving in to religious hysteria and of religious conflicts that could tear this country apart. He was spot on.

The rising religious fundamentalism in this country is worrying and it is even more so as our government appears to be supporting and “placating” religious hysteria. The recent appalling actions by the National Library Board in withdrawing three children’s books just because they did not fit “community norms” and the even more shocking official support given by the Minister for Communications and Information Yaacob Ibrahim have raised alarm bells.

Like many fellow Singaporeans I am worried for my country. Worried that the angry debate, the growing intolerance of people who do not fit the state-sanctioned “norm” and the rising militancy of religious fundamentalists will tear our social fabric and our harmony to shreds if the Govt continues placating and feeding the religious hysteria. If only we have the likes of the wise Rajaratnam in government now to restore sanity to the state. -Jentrified C.

Why Religious Hysteria Must Not Be Placated 
A letter by S Rajaratnam published in ST Forum
23 Nov 1988

Why, it may be asked, am I persisting in what is turning out to be a spirited monologue between me and the censors responsible for banning Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation?

The banning of a memorable book which the vast majority of Singaporeans have ignored for some 30 years without serious damage to their health and mind is unlikely to bring Singapore crashing down.

The worst that can happen, from the censor’s point of view, is that, should the ban be ever lifted, there would be a stampeded to borrow or buy the book.

The best that can then happen is that, in diligently searching through the novel for the dirty bits that do not exist, many Singaporeans would have, for the first time in their lives, read from cover to cover a masterpiece of modern literature.

So my persistence is not over the banning of one book but concern over the cast of mind and motive that led to the banning.

This anxiety has been reinforced by Mr Koo Tsai Kee’s response on Nov 12 to my first letter. I find Mr Koo’s reply far more disturbing than that of Mr John Lee (ST, Nov 12). In the latter case, I was broadcasting FM while Mr Lee was radiating on a wave length beyond the range of earthly intelligence.

Mr Koo, on the other hand, is a highly intelligent man, not least of all because of his description of my first letter on the ban “as a brilliant piece of expose which makes for compelling reading”.

Circuitry haywire

My inflated ego soared higher still when he tried to shame our censors by stating that the fact that “the movie and book were not banned in the West in spite of a hue and cry from predominantly Christian societies bears witness to the triumph of sanity over hysteria”.

He then goes on: “If anything the misrepresentations should be exposed. I sincerely believe we are intellectually the poorer because of it (the ban).”

So far so good. We were both operating on FM. Then suddenly I lost Mr Koo. He was inexplicably operating on a wave length well beyond the reach of known human intelligence.

His circuitry suddenly went haywire. He says that nevertheless “I empathise with the sentiments of my Christian friends” in the interests of what he calls “racial and religious cohesiveness” — race and religion unspecified.

He, therefore, “grants our censors… the privilege” of ensuring that, out of regard for the sensitivities of the hysterical, other thinking Christians and non-Christians should “suffer some intellectual deprivation”.

In other words, “racial and religious cohesiveness” can best be ensured in Singapore by enforcing, as a matter of law, what on the basis of Mr Koo’s own analysis is the triumph of the hysterical over the sane — Christian and non-Christian.

I would have thought the best way of ensuring racial and religious harmony would be by compelling the hysterical minority to “empathise” with the sane majority.

This is what Western Christian and even non-Christian countries with also a multiplicity of religions and races have had the courage to do in the face of the baying of the hysterical over this book.

And as far as I know, no religious wars have erupted as a result of the courageous stand. On the contrary, placating religious hysteria is the surest way of encouraging religious intolerance and, therefore, of religious civil wars.

Yet a non-Christian and Asian Singapore applies the opposite remedy.

I do not propose in this letter to back my statement by adducing a wealth of evidence, except to point that, today, there are so many racial and religious wars on a global scale as to justify regarding this phenomena as the rule rather than the exception.

That is why when on the day of my retirement from official politics I was asked by the reporters what my future concerns for Singapore were, I unhesitatingly said: “The danger of racial and religious conflicts”.

Personal encounter

The reason why Singapore has so far been an exception to what is becoming a world-wide rule is that this Government had the courage always to be on the side of sanity against the intolerance of the hysterical.

Singaporeans would be foolish to think for one moment that they have some divine immunity against religious shootouts.

I would like to back this statement with a personal encounter.

I was recently on a holiday in an Asean country. I was visited by a niece of mine on her way to a girl guide campfire sing-song. I remarked that during my boy scout days I enjoyed such campfires.

“Not any more uncle”, she said, with a wry smile.

“Why not?”

“Nowadays we have sing-songs but without campfires”, she said wistfully.


“Because”, she said, “some minor religious sect considers singing around a campfire fire-worshipping and therefore offensive.”

The girl guide officials were advised in the interests of racial harmony and in the interests of “empathy” for the intolerant to dispense with the bonfire.

A triumph of hysteria over sanity, right?

As my niece walked away, I wished with all my heart that, for her sake, sanity had won over hysteria instead.

Transcribed from: http://bit.ly/1nrJful

Note: This letter was transcribed by Kenneth Tan and it had first appeared on his Facebook page Kenneth Shanghalist Tan.  He is looking for volunteers to help transcribe more archived reports that are of interest to Singaporeans. Those interested can contact him at singaporeano@gmail.com


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3 Responses to S. Rajaratnam on Book Banning and Religious Hysteria

  1. Pingback: Daily SG: 14 Jul 2014 | The Singapore Daily

  2. Steve says:

    A wonderful piece of archival history and correspondence that has been unfortunately ignored? Dispensed with? Or thrown aside? This only reminds what made our political forefathers visionary and brave.

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