Strengthening religious harmony to build a cohesive society in Singapore
Speech by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the parliamentary debate on the second reading of the Maintenance of Religious Harmony (Amendment) Bill
07 October 2019
A.Support for MRHA amendments
I support this Bill. Since coming into effect in 1992, the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) has been a critical complement to Singapore’s work on strengthening religious harmony. It protects our religious freedom, by making clear the boundaries of our mutual engagements. Since then, the world around us has evolved and changed. The world is at far more risk of polarising forces that divide rather than unite people. It is timely that we amend the Act to ensure that it continues to serve its original intent, today.
Globalisation has increased our connectedness with foreign cultures and communities. Social media has transformed how we communicate. Hate speech and violence in the name of personal beliefs and faiths are on the rise. We are facing heightening polarisation of views. Singapore is not immune to these trends and they threaten the religious harmony that we have spent decades carefully tending. We need new responses to new challenges.
The Government is not alone in holding this view. I chair the National Steering Committee on Racial and Religious Harmony, whose members comprise the apex leaders from the major faith and ethnic groups. These respected leaders, and many more in Singapore, have expressed similar concerns when we discuss issues of race and religion. They understand the importance and urgency of dealing with the risks unequivocally, and they have expressed strong support for the proposed amendments.
B.Building social harmony
We have built a strong foundation for social cohesion in Singapore, which we must vigorously safeguard. We have proven that our communities can come together to discuss sensitive issues of race and religion seriously, candidly, but respectfully, with the common goal of making Singapore a better home for everyone. This is the case whenever we discuss religious radicalisation activities or when we discuss results of studies on race and religion in Singapore. It was the same when we debated the introduction of the Reserved Presidential Election. It was also the same when we debated the ban of the Swedish black metal band Watain from performing in Singapore, because the band advocated violence against a religion. It demonstrated the desire of our people for a cohesive society that would deal with such emotive issues publicly, transparently and calmly.
Although we are here to debate the Act, laws alone do not bring about the cohesive society that I have described. Legislative solutions cannot address the many challenges that we face. For instance, although we can implement policies such as the Ethnic Integration Policy, we cannot legislate neighbours to interact with others of different faiths. Our schools cannot dictate that classmates must eat and play together. The same applies to our workplaces. At a more fundamental level, we cannot legislate to remove irrational fears and stereotypes, nor to accept that a set of different beliefs can coexist with ours. In other words, legislation, though important, is not sufficient.
Our social harmony has been built painstakingly over time. It is through individual actions and efforts in our everyday lives to engage one other. We offer help to one another, do business together, and attend one another’s life events such as weddings, and funerals. This approach has served us well, and survey results show both inter-racial and inter-religious trust is high and rising.1 This requires continued effort and we, as Singaporeans, must all do our part. This was emphasised 30 years ago, in the original 1989 White Paper on Maintenance of Religious Harmony. I quote – “so long as all Singaporeans understand that they have to live and let live, and show respect and tolerance for other faiths, harmony should prevail”.
Underlying this is a shared commitment to build a home together. It is a home built on the ideal of a multi-racial and multi-religious society, where everyone has the freedom to choose and practice his or her religion, provided the same freedom is afforded to others. When Singapore became independent, our founding fathers made a deliberate choice to build our nation based on such a multi-racial, multi-religious society, as an expression of what Singapore stands for. It was a novel idea at that time, when most newly independent countries opted to entrench a dominant race, language and religion, because it was the easier and primordial path. It is done out of a tribal instinct to protect its identity and ensure its existence. Multiculturalism, of sharing the societal space with all races, on the other hand, has become an integral part of our Singapore identity. All of us want a society, where all Singaporeans, regardless of background, feel that they are equal members of the same community. This social compact will allow us to broaden our common space, even as our society becomes more diverse.
C.Together, safeguarding social harmony in Singapore
We, the government, are committed to working with Singaporeans, at all levels, to safeguard racial and religious harmony.We have remained steadfast in this approach since our beginnings. People’s Association was set up in 1960, with promoting social cohesion and connecting people from all walks of life as one of its main objectives. Grassroots organisations helped to resolve local issues and bridge communities through dialogue and engagement. When faced with the communal riots in 1964, we established goodwill committees comprising racially diverse community leaders to calm the situation. This was the foundation for the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs) which was formalised in 2002 to foster community bonding at the local level. Today, IRCC members help resolve local issues that may arise from time to time, work on projects jointly, such as emergency preparedness, and help one another. During this year’s Hari Raya Haji, a Buddhist organisation helped to manage traffic for a neighbouring mosque so that its prayer service could run smoothly. This idea arose during an IRCC meeting, and was carried out by IRCC members.
We support efforts by religious and community leaders to promote racial and religious harmony. An Inter-Religious Harmony Circle (IRHC) comprising religious leaders and government representatives developed and launched the Declaration on Religious Harmony in 2003. This Declaration is still recited at inter-faith events.
In June 2019, our religious leaders launched the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony that affirmed the shared values to safeguard our religious harmony, and the norms of social interaction across religions to foster a cohesive society. The Government helped facilitated multiple engagement sessions with a wide group of religious leaders. More than 300 religious organisations have since affirmed the Commitment. Dozens of secular community organisations, companies, social service agencies and educational institutions have also expressed support for this.
Ground-up effort to promote racial and religious harmony is rising. Several community groups have facilitated candid and open dialogues on race and religion. For instance, The WhiteHatters organised a series of conversations called Ask Me Anything (AMA) where participants of diverse faiths engage religious leaders to clarify their understanding of their religions. In June, the organisers brought together the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religious representatives to discuss the Abrahamic faiths. In September, OnePeople.sg collaborated with CNA and Roses of Peace, a non-government organisation, to conduct dialogue sessions on race relations. The IRO, in conjunction with its 70th anniversary, held a Harmony of Faiths exhibition that showcased efforts in promoting inter-faith understanding throughout its years. The sight of 10 religious leaders, representing different faiths, conducting prayers side-by-side, simultaneously and jointly, would be familiar to Singaporeans who have been to, for instance, SAF Officer Cadet Course commissioning parades, the World War II commemorative ceremonies, or watched their pre-race blessing of the F1 races. We want to tap on the collective wisdom and ideas of Singaporeans, and encourage the community to leverage MCCY’s Harmony Fund to continue developing innovative projects that promote racial and religious harmony.
Beyond programmes, more Singaporeans are also expressing interest and respect for diversity in our daily lives. In the work place, management play an important role in creating a conducive work environment for a diverse work force. For instance, IBM has a Cultural Adaptability Programme to enhance the level of awareness and appreciation on different beliefs and practices among their employees, through structured workshops and resources. These have helped strengthen understanding among its employees, and enhance the contribution of the diverse team. More companies should similarly pay attention to building race and religion competency.
Mr Speaker, at independence, our society started out with tolerance and accommodation between communities. We grew to appreciate what we have in common, and how our differences make us richer not poorer. Today, we harness our diversity as our strength, and we are a society with genuine friendships built on goodwill, trust and confidence in what it means to be Singaporean. During my recent house visit, a Chinese resident who is a Christian shared with me how her Muslim neighbour would help watch her young child whenever she has to fetch another from school, and her Hindu neighbour on the other side would share food with her from time to time. And their children would often be found in each other’s homes. The resident brought this to my attention because she truly appreciated the kindness and generosity of her neighbours. But above all, she knows that this relationship transcending differences in race and religion is not to be taken for granted. Such trusting and warm relationships between neighbours of different faiths can be found all around Singapore. It is the beauty of Singapore and Singaporeans.
We must continue to uphold our values and keep working hard to preserve social harmony. We must ensure that this is in the DNA of every Singaporean, so that we remain as one united people regardless of language, race and religion.
Mr Speaker Sir, I welcome and support this Bill.
1 2019 Institute of Policy Studies and OnePeople.sg joint study.