By: Wong Kim Seng
The opinion piece below was sent to dorjeshugden.com for publication. We accept submissions from the public, please send in your articles to firstname.lastname@example.org.
When Singapore won its independence in 1965, it was a poor and almost insignificant island with few natural resources. If Singapore today is a great success story, it is because the deep sense of political, economic and social vulnerability in the early years drove its government to develop itself into a modern economy with a wise and socially responsible society.
The government of Singapore today has two significant goals:
- to maintain a thriving economy based on good international relationships with its political and trade partners, and
- to keep its society stable and respectful of the various races and religious groups that make up the nation.
Recognizing that religious dispute is one of the most dangerous elements that can destabilize the country, the government of Singapore passed the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in 1990 aimed at preventing civil unrest due to faith-based tensions.
In addition, given its relatively small domestic market, Singapore’s relationship with external markets is critical. Without doubt, China represents an important factor in the country’s economic future and stability of the nation. It was not that long ago when Mr. Lim Swee Say, Minister in the Prime Minister’s Office, cautioned the country’s business community that it is “imperative that Singaporeans continue to augment our ability to engage China as part of our strategic vision to maintain global competitiveness and long-term economic vitality”. To the Singaporean government, a good relationship with China is an exercise of their responsibility towards their citizens by providing them with a stable economic future. It is not a question of taking sides in China’s geopolitics.
It is therefore the responsibility of every Singaporean citizen and organization to assist the government in its endeavors. To work against the government’s policies is to jeopardize the wellbeing and future of the people. It is behavior that might even be labelled seditious since these plans are initiated for the good of all Singaporeans, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background. The responsibility to support a government acting for the collective good of its people is even more necessary for a Buddhist organization. The Buddha himself instructed that one should never do anything to oppose the government of one’s country that may result in great harm being inflicted on people’s lives and livelihood.
Thus it is alarming that despite the efforts the Singaporean government has made since 1965, there continue to be religious elements today that appear to be working against them. Instead of acting in the interests of all Singaporeans, such organizations have allowed themselves to fall suspect to foreign influences whose interests are not for the welfare of Singaporean society. For example, the Singaporean-based Buddhist society Thekchen Choling seems to regard itself beholden to the foreign theocrat, the Dalai Lama, more so than to its own government. Led by a Singaporean citizen Felix Lee (also known as Lama Namdrol), the organization has taken up the Dalai Lama’s fight against a Tibetan Buddhist sect that worships the deity Dorje Shugden.
In 1996, the Dalai Lama suddenly proclaimed Dorje Shugden practitioners to be enemies of the Tibetan people who are allegedly working for the Chinese. This is an accusation the Dalai Lama has never been able to substantiate. After banning this practice, the Dalai Lama then compelled all Tibetans to be loyal to him and to regard Shugden practitioners as enemies of the state. As a result, opposing this Buddhist practice became symbolic of standing with the Dalai Lama and opposing the Chinese government. Thus organizations like Lama Namdrol’s who wish to align themselves with the Dalai Lama for financial and material gain, will fervently oppose this practice and encourage anti-China sentiments.
The Dalai Lama explained his opposition to Shugden due to it being ‘demon-worship’. This is a cunning move because it portrays Chinese spiritual leaders such as the Panchen Lama (a well-known Shugden lama) and members of the Chinese government as demon worshippers. That makes them much easier to malign. It is for reasons like these that some Singapore Buddhist leaders have labelled the Dalai Lama a “political monk” and not a religious one.
Disappointingly, Thekchen Choling’s support for the Dalai Lama and their subsequent opposition to the 11th Panchen Lama clashes with Singapore’s support of this lama, as expressed through Foreign Minister Mr. George Yeo. The Singaporean government acknowledges the 11th Panchen Lama whom China recognizes but the Dalai Lama rejects. When Thekchen Choling and other likeminded groups promote the Dalai Lama’s stance instead of their own government’s, these organizations undermine their country’s efforts in building a positive relationship with an important trade partner. In 2013, China became Singapore’s main trading partner, with total trade amounting to US$91.4 billion. As of 2010, more than 7,000 companies from the United States, Japan and Europe operated from Singapore, along with 1,500 companies from China alone.
It is therefore shocking that Thekchen Choling and some Singaporean citizens would chose not to support its own government and instead act against it. To support the Dalai Lama is to reject the Panchen Lama, and this will not have a positive impact on Singapore’s friendship with China. When Singapore’s Buddhist centres align themselves with the Dalai Lama, there is absolutely no benefit whatsoever to Singapore. In fact the opposite is true.
Wherever the Dalai Lama goes, this Shugden segregation takes root and his supporters make it a domestic problem. What is incredible is how willingly Singaporean organizations like Thekchen Choling have embraced a foreign conflict and ‘imported’ it into Singaporean society, where it is now spreading disunity amongst Singaporean followers of Tibetan Buddhism. While the Singaporean government has been fostering religious harmony, organizations like Thekchen Choling or even Amitabha Buddhist Centre openly call for a marginalization of Shugden believers.
Amitabha Buddhist Centre, which regularly organizes trips to visit the Dalai Lama, has on their registration forms a disclaimer stating those who worship Shugden are banned from their activities. Thekchen Choling’s Lama Namdrol has during religious teachings purposefully created ill will against Shugden followers by repeating the Dalai Lama’s false accusation of Shugden Buddhists. The danger of such actions is not limited to Shugden believers and non-believers. Once individuals and organizations sense that faith-based discrimination is not curtailed by the country’s authorities, it spreads. What begins as a simple disagreement can very quickly transform into inter-faith tension because there is little to stop someone from openly denouncing another person’s religion. Such organizations should remember that they have a duty of care to the Singaporean government and the people and should not be inciting religious disharmony. Openly courting the favour of a foreign institution is an indication that they do not respect the law of their own land but also that they do not respect the rights and freedom of Singaporeans to make their own choices with regards to their faith.
In this way, actions such as those from Amitabha Buddhist Centre and Thekchen Choling’s damage more than just Shugden Buddhists. It also damages Singapore as a country and her citizens as well, by infringing on a Singaporean citizen’s freedoms and rights. For example, Charitable Assistance Society of Thousand-Arm Chenrezig, Singapore (CASOTAC) were reported to be making a scene in front of a Buddhist exhibition in Suntec city. They insisted that the exhibition was not sanctioned by the Dalai Lama, and therefore it was inappropriate. Their actions led the Dalai Lama’s government to issue a statement against the exhibition, which had been legally approved by the Singaporean government. That CASOTAC followers distributed flyers in front of such an exhibition was challenged by followers of another group. The resulting religious disharmony for the entire organization behind the exhibition led to the exhibition being shut down, leaving many Buddhists confused and unsettled. Whose government are CASOTAC really following? Singapore’s or the Dalai Lama’s?
Religious harmony and freedom has always been a right in Singapore. Any member of the public may attend any religious events of their choosing without limitations of other religious dogmas as they are free to express themselves. The Amitabha Buddhist Centre, for example, states in print that those who practice Dorje Shugden are not allowed in their premise or teachings as it is in accordance with the Dalai Lama’s wishes. Why are these registered centres allowed to sideline other faiths and traditions, using foreign-derived influences, as opposed to living cohesively and fostering harmony with others?
Whether it is Singapore or any other sovereign state, no foreign influence should be allowed to be in position to manipulate its political, economic or social affairs like the way the Dalai Lama has managed to, via actions of organizations like Amitabha Buddhist Centre and Thekchen Choling. The legal and moral obligations of Singapore’s Buddhist centres should remain with the country that has supported, sustained and licenced their activities. Instead of working against the Singaporean government, the likes of Lama Namdrol should support the government and help to protect its people from corruptive foreign influences that only serve to disrupt a harmonious society and ruin important trade partnerships.
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