Talking about it

In case you haven't been following the ongoing furore over Singaporean pastor Rony Tan's comments about other religions at a church service:
  • Tan made comments about Buddhism and Taoism that, according to a Ministry of Home Affairs press statement, "were highly inappropriate and unacceptable as they trivialised and insulted the beliefs of Buddhists and Taoists". Online videos of Tan's statements were circulated on YouTube; they've since been taken down, but I watched and transcribed the ones in which he "interviewed" converts from Buddhism --- one male, one female --- in front of his congregation, and my firm impression is that Tan was behaving in a way that was flippant, disrespectful and wilfully ignorant of Buddhist beliefs.
  • The government's Internal Security Department "called up" Tan on Monday and told him not to "run down other religions" (again, I'm quoting again from the Ministry's press statement).
  • Channel Newsasia reports that Tan published a public apology on his church website on Monday. It's four paragraphs long and the apology itself reads:
    I realized that my presentation and comments were wrong and offensive. So I sincerely apologize for my insensitivity towards the Buddhists and Taoists, and solemnly promise that it will never happen again.
  • Tan met the president of Singapore Buddhist Federation and the chairman of the Taoist Federation on Tuesday to make an apology.
  • The Minister for Home Affairs Wong Kan Seng characterised Tan's statements as "clearly offensive to Buddhists and Taoists". However he said that Tan was not arrested, as three young men were for posting racist remarks on Facebook, because – as far as I can make out from the Minister's statement – someone lodged a complaint with the police against the three men, so the police had to take action. Which I guess meant arresting them if sufficient suspicions had been raised? By inference, did Tan avoid getting arrested because no one lodged a formal complaint with the police against him?
Now that the online videos seems to have all been taken down (and I wouldn't be surprised if someone's taken a hammer or strong magnet to the hard drive that held the original files), the message from the powers that be seems to be: keep calm and carry on. Which doesn't stop people from fretting over several possible issues:
  • "ZOMG we are shocked --- shocked! --- to find that pastors are saying these awful things to their congregations about other religions! We must stop them!"
  • "We need to make our feelings known! Please join this [Facebook] group to demand that Rony Tan be sufficiently punished for his religious insensitivity!" (No, really. The group is called "Embrace Religious Harmony! Disgrace to Zealots like Rony Tan" and currently has 295 members. Via Temasek Review.)
  • "No double standard! Either Arrest Rony Tan or let the three young Facebookers off with a public slap on the wrist!"
Interestingly, someone named Andrew left this comment over on the website Blogpastor, responding to the post about this incident:
I just don’t see the fairness in all this. To me it’s all always double standards. When the Da Vinci Code movie and books were popular here, it hurt many Christians and caused many to question their faith, yet the authorities did nothing about it, though we voiced our concerns. It was quickly followed by documentaries on TV that further undermined the Christian faith. It seems like its ok to ‘mock’ Christianity here, but it’s not okay to mock the other faiths. What’s up man?!
Which brings me to what I think is the crux of the entire matter. Yes, Pastor Rony Tan said some very questionable and upsetting things. But the worst thing about his entire shpiel was not that he was caricaturing certain religions. He could've been caricaturing anything, but the worst part was that his line of questioning and conclusions were so obviously flimsy, barely containing anything resembling proper logic, and yet he gets away with standing up there every Sunday and saying things that don't quite add up logically, and no one goes up to him politely and says, "Excuse me, sir, all due respect, but you're not making any sense."

I mean, that's the thing about this surreal world called Singapore. In this system, we can castigate people loosely for threatening religious or racial harmony, but we can't sit down, look closely at what they say, examine it thoroughly, thinking it through, and point out, "Um, excuse me, this sentence is relying on faulty logic."

I recently re-watched the infamous "I'm on page 73" speech made by Thio Su Mien at last year's AWARE meeting and of course lots of people were heckling her even before she got to "I'm on page 73". But it intensified at that point because it was precisely the appropriate response: it was ludicrous for her to assert herself as a "feminist mentor" merely because she had been acknowledged in an AWARE publication as the first female dean of the law faculty. Benefiting from any gains made by feminism doesn't make one a feminist (exhibit A: Sarah Palin) --- that's just bad logic.

Coming back to Tan, there were countless instances of faulty logic in his comments, but instead of people having the opportunity to watch the videos and talk about them and peg him for what he is --- a poor thinker, who really shouldn't be allowed in front of a classroom of any size or age group --- he gets labelled as a religious bigot and will probably never speak of the incident again. Which means there's a very good chance that a) he'll never have to question or improve his powers of reasoning, and may go on to say other illogical things, just not necessarily about non-Christian religions, b) no one else will get to dissect his statements, check and improve their own thinking, and in future be better able to see through other specious arguments.

For instance, I think Andrew's comment above is well worth parsing. What is it, really, to mock a religion, and is the goal of society to be so happily harmonious that no religion or social group ever feels offended? I happen to be a huge fan of Dogma and a huge opponent of burning books, even the lamest Chicken Soup books, so you know where I stand on that. But I'm still saying we should have a conversation about it.

The other thing is, if the Internal Security Department gets activated every time anything drifts remotely close to a religious organisation, and/or the Sedition Act gets whipped out to police this type of speech, ordinary people are never going to learn to talk about race and religion in a meaningful way. All the more the current government and its gatekeepers will be wary of letting such conversations even happen, and we will be stuck in deliberate ignorance and with untested logical thinking skills. And then if another AWARE hijacking takes place, I'll be surprised if anyone has the presence of mind to notice that, hey, wait a minute, something's not right in the logic of what certain people are saying here ...

I don't think we should shut people up or shut them away for saying grossly bigoted things. I think we should stand up and point out (sans violence) their faulty logic and lack of compassion, and we should make it clear that their viewpoints are not acceptable in the kind of society we want to live in. I think we should train our minds to pay closer attention to what people mean when they speak. Yes, it's tiring. Yes, it's hard. But that is the only way to make sure people don't get away with saying outrageous things sidiously, moving around certain goalposts to suit a hurtful and/or hateful agenda.

Edited to add (February 13):
  • Commenter Astron has added links below for the videos on YouTube. I don't know how long they'll be active.
  • Channel NewsAsia reported on February 12 that the police have placed one of the three youths accused of starting a Facebook group that stirred racist sentiment on a "Guidance Programme", while the other two administrators of that group have been "cautioned"; none of them will have a record of criminal conviction (source: "Youths involved in Facebook racism incident to be given 2nd chance").
  • Kennethism highlights another video of Pastor Rony Tan speaking in church and making preposterous statements about gay people (again, I'm not talking about faith-based issues, merely all sorts of logical fallacies).



At 2/11/2010 11:23 am , Blogger Little Miss Drinkalot said...

While I do agree with what you say, I really don't think religion can be equated with logic or science. Even if we were to discuss religion logically, it may come across as insulting to believers (who operate on faith, not logic).

At 2/12/2010 2:34 am , Blogger Tym said...

Oh, I totally agree with that you can't compare religious doctrines with only logic and not faith. But what really irked me about Rony Tan's statements was that even leaving aside faith-based issues, he lacked proper reasoning skills in how he presented any of his ideas.

E.g. Tan said that a Buddhist had once said to him, since he [Tan] was an unbeliever, he would be reborn as a woman; ergo, in Buddhism, women have a lower stature than men.

Leaving aside what the Buddhist faith does or does not say about gender roles, Tan's logic --- and this was how he represented the entire Buddhist faith to his congregation --- was that because one unnamed Buddhist (monk? abbot? layman? who knows), whom he spoke to "many years ago", felt that women were of a lower stature, the entire religion considered women to be of a lower stature than men.

If Tan was going to make statements about an entire religious faith, I would at least expect him to go and do some homework and cite specific Buddhist writings or other authoritative sources. I would not expect him to cite the example of one unidentified Buddhist as the final word on the subject.

At 2/12/2010 3:59 am , Blogger Astron 爱思顿 said...

The Url of the Video clips of Pastor Rony Tan blasting and attacking Buddhism as below:

Pastor Rony Tan Blasts Buddhist Part 1

Pastor Rony Tan Blasts Buddhist Part 2

Pastor Rony Tan Blasts Buddhist Part 3

Pastor Rony Tan Blasts Buddhist Part 4

At 2/13/2010 4:26 am , Blogger Little Miss Drinkalot said...

Ah ok, got the context now.

At 2/17/2010 11:58 am , Anonymous ThinkAgain said...

38 Point-by-point Clarifications of Misconceptions in Pastor Rony Tan’s Vids can be seen @

At 2/18/2010 4:35 am , Blogger Tym said...

Just adding for posterity the full URL of the link provided by ThinkAgain: http://groups.yahoo.com/group/DharmaNews/message/5380


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