SINGAPORE - Constant care and attention is needed to preserve trust among the Republic’s different communities, and Singaporeans must never assume that the work is done, Deputy Prime Minister Lawrence Wong said on Jan 23.
This is particularly so given a world of heightened geopolitical tension, and where people are increasingly identifying themselves in narrow ethnic and religious terms, he said at the 75th anniversary celebration of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO).
Such behaviour has fuelled the rise of extremist groups and nativist political parties – an overseas trend, but one which can have a huge impact on Singapore’s social cohesion and harmony given that the country is plugged into the global grid, DPM Wong said at the event at Raffles Town Club.
“It is quite clear in my mind that one of my key priorities as leader is to keep our society together, to keep Singapore strong and united, amidst powerful forces that will seek to divide us,” he told the audience of 120 guests, who included IRO’s patron, Emeritus Senior Minister Goh Chok Tong.
That one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world is also one of its most harmonious societies is remarkable and very precious, given the prevailing trend elsewhere towards intolerance and extremism, DPM Wong said of Singapore.
“And we know this did not happen by chance. No doubt, all of us here believe in the good of humankind. But we also know that as humans, we are fallible. The primal emotions of race and religion are always lurking under the surface.”
Singapore is where it is today in its inter-faith understanding due to decades of hard work, including by generations of IRO leaders who guided their communities to treat one another with mutual respect, DPM Wong said as he thanked the inter-faith group’s pioneers and leaders.
Founded in 1949 by religious leaders of five faiths, the IRO today comprises representatives from the Hindu, Jewish, Zoroastrian, Buddhist, Taoist, Jain, Christian, Muslim, Sikh and Baha’i religions.
DPM Wong said the Government takes religious matters seriously and protects religious harmony here through policies and laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, but this is just one part of the approach.
“More importantly, we are very fortunate to have amongst us religious leaders who understand the context in which we operate,” he said.
“You understand that our faiths in Singapore are best practised in ways appropriate to our multiracial and multi-religious context. You set good examples for your communities in promoting mutual respect and understanding.”
As Singapore embarks on its next round of nation-building, there is no doubt that the IRO’s work will be more important than ever, he added.
This is as competition between countries for influence and strategic dominance is heating up, while the capacity to tackle problems on a global scale has diminished.
DPM Wong cited the war in Ukraine, which is entering its third year, and the conflict between Israel and Hamas, which recently passed its 100-day mark and has spread to the Red Sea.
More people are also living in echo chambers and forming their own “tribes”, he noted.
“They listen only to what they like to hear, and believe them, even if these are half-truths, untruths or conspiracy theories,” he added.
Singapore is fortunate that its religious communities understand the need and take the effort to develop strong bonds with one another. “Indeed, the IRO has always been a symbol of harmony and unity, especially during tough times,” DPM Wong said.
He cited the communal riots in 1964 when the IRO visited the injured in hospitals and appeared on television to urge mutual understanding. More recently, it brought together over 100 religious leaders and members of the various religious communities to pray for peace, understanding and reconciliation in Israel and Gaza.
That the IRO has been taking steps to develop its next generation of leaders and begun to reach out to non-religious groups is commendable, DPM Wong said while urging unceasing effort to keep moving closer to Singapore’s ideal of one united people.
“As the saying goes, trust is built slowly drop by drop, but trust is lost in buckets. Just one lapse, just one mistake, just one careless word can easily undermine many years of hard work.”
In his welcome address, IRO president Noor Mohamed Marican called on the attendees to renew and reaffirm their belief in religion, dialogue and fellowship, which he said are the pillars for peace on which the IRO was built.
He listed three tasks for the inter-faith group, which echoed ESM Goh’s sentiments during its 70th anniversary in 2019.
These are: to work to expand the common space for Singaporeans of diverse backgrounds to practise their own religions; for religious leaders to actively speak out against segregationist practices and divisive speech; and for the IRO to strive to enhance day-to-day interactions, for people of different religious backgrounds to collaborate for the common good.
“While our aspiration is sustainable peace for all, we must acknowledge the need to be prepared for challenges that may threaten our religious harmony,” he said.