In a Facebook post, MP Alex Yam comments on online reactions

‘I read with concern some of the comments online in reaction to the statement issued by His Grace Archbishop William Goh as guidance to Catholics in Singapore.

Let us put things in perspective. His Grace as leader of his flock has a moral obligation to shepherd and fulfil his trifold role to teach, govern and sanctify the local Church.

In other words, he, like a father or a mother, has responsibility over the moral, physical, spiritual growth of the family he is elected to lead and serve.

And just like any parent or older sibling, even if it makes him unpopular or seem naggy, he must state what he feels is needed in the context of faith that Catholics need to follow. And like any elder, hopes that the flock listens.

So why the controversy over a couple of songs and a concert? Well it is the importance of symbolism. There are things we each hold dear to, it could be our family, photos, our flag, our homes, our beliefs, our faith. Religious symbols too.

So if someone wilfully burns our national flag, we have laws that police that and we expect that our leaders will raise their voices in protest.

If someone intentionally insults your family, will you not be indignant and defend your family’s honour. If someone enters your home and tears up your treasured photos will you not react and question the intentions.

So the same with people of faith and our symbols. Whether or not they sacrilege the Bible, a Koran, the Torah, a Sutra, or tear a sacred image, intentionally burn a cross, swastika, idol, flag, statue, symbol, you will expect that there will be a reaction.

Profanity whether in the secular or religious context can rile and divide, can inflame and disappoint. And any leader of his or her community, if faced with such a situation must give leadership.

When our Singapore flag was burned in Vietnam in 2014, our leaders raised a protest and MFA issued a sharp rebuke. Rightly so. 

The flag is a sacred national symbol, our collective identity, any insult to it is an insult to all of us. So we react accordingly.

When Terry Jones threatened to burn a Koran in the US, both MUIS and the National Council of Churches in Singapore came out strongly to give guidance to followers on the right reaction.

So when any entertainer purports to burn a religious symbol for entertainment’s sake, to denigrate religious sensitivities for entertainment’s sake, to take different symbols and profane them, then religious leaders have a moral obligation to state their views to their followers. Which is what the Archbishop has done to guide his flock.

We may argue it is for harmless entertainment’s sake, but if we take that catch-all line of free speech for free speech’s sake, then nothing is left sacred. Not your identity, not your totems, not your nationality, not your flag, your family, your traditions, your language, your religion, nor your race. Everything can be profaned and insulted.

Even if we took the line of free speech and freedom of expression, then one must be prepared to take it as it is, that your freedom of expression must be met with an equally robust and equally free response by those who disagree. One cannot state that your views qualify as free speech but a counter-argument is not.

Yes, some argue that MDA has already said the contentious songs will not be performed in Singapore. But read carefully what the concert promoter said, that ultimately the artiste may decide on the stage whether or not a song will be on the set.

So given that it may not be performed here but just as one banned overseas Muslim imam may be full of pleasantries when he last spoke in Singapore it doesn’t take away the fact that the same preacher speaks of things online that run counter to the religious sensitivities of Singaporeans.

As a Catholic myself, the Catechism of the Church teaches that I have free will, that God created me with free will, as a rational being conferred with the dignity of a person who can initiate and control his own actions. So I am given mastery over my own actions.

But this freedom comes with it responsibility. Free will means I can choose to ignore the guidance of my religious leaders or the core teaching of the Church but my responsibility is how I am portraying myself to others. My responsibility is also to ultimately answer to God with my actions.

So freedom comes with its responsibilities and obligations.

Like any parent or leader, His Grace has issued a statement to his own flock, in accordance to the teachings of the Church, for that particular audience. And a leader needs to make known his views and stance to others in authority.

That a national paper should pick it up and report it in no way purports to be guidance for all Singaporeans. In fact, liberum arbitrium means some Catholics may also choose to ignore the guidance.

So the crux isn’t so much about the Archbishop’s letter being reported in the Straits Times, nor simply about giving guidance to Catholics, but about why symbols and imagery carry so much weight.

As a Singaporean, I respect and welcome the artistry of any artiste who wishes to use his or her talent to entertain, but it doesn’t mean I will watch or support their acts if they run counter to my own beliefs, debases the beliefs of others or runs down my country.

Just as I take guidance from my parents, I take counsel from the leadership of my faith to remind me that my freedom comes with equal responsibility, so that within my own actions, I stand guided.

Reproduced from Mr Yam’s Facebook page with permission.

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