Preserving Singapore’s social harmony in the face of emerging threats
Keynote address by Ms Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth at the Roses of Peace Youth Forum “Aftermath of Christchurch – Lessons for Singapore” at OnePeople.sg
30 March 2019
Good afternoon to all of you, it is my pleasure to join you here today.
Two weeks ago, the horrific mosque attacks in Christchurch, New Zealand prompted collective soul searching on the acceptance of minorities, and whether inflammatory remarks left unchecked, have been the cause. While we have yet to determine the motivation for this heinous act, the circumstances underpinning this incident bear reflection for Singapore.
Reflection 1: Singapore’s social harmony is not by chance, and not to be taken for granted
First, Singapore’s social harmony is not by chance, and it should never be taken for granted. Singapore is the world’s most religiously diverse country. Multiracialism and multi-religiosity are key tenets of our national values. We have been tireless in our efforts at building this precious social harmony over the past five decades.
This social harmony can be easily destroyed, and we would be foolish to take it for granted. The Christchurch attacks are a stark reminder of the threats that we face.
Reflection 2: Preserving our social harmony in the face of emerging threats
Resurgence of identity politics
Second, we need to do our utmost to preserve our social harmony in the face of emerging threats. The perpetrator of the Christchurch attacks was influenced by far right white supremacist beliefs. This demonstrates that radicalisation could be present in any religion or any race.
All of us, as family and friends must be alert if and when we come across these attitudes and stances. Reach out to the person, engage him to understand his situation better, dissuade him from doing anything foolish, and if required, alert the authorities. Doing so helps your loved ones and prevents others from coming to harm.
Imam Gamal Fouda, who survived the terror attacks, said that the impetus for the attacks did not come out of the blue, but was fanned by anti-Muslim rhetoric. He said, and I quote, “It is a targeted campaign to influence people to dehumanise and irrationally fear Muslims.”
The attacks coincide with the resurgence of identity politics. More people are identifying along narrow ethnic, cultural and religious lines. There are groups who will try to maximise their space and influence at the expense of others. This would result in communal tension and discord, and sometimes, like in this case, violence and death.
Religious tensions have been observed in the region. The 2016 gubernatorial election in Jakarta split Indonesian society along religious lines, and a political party urged Muslims not to vote for a Chinese-Christian. This must not become the path for Singapore.
In Singapore, we wish for every Singaporean, the right and freedom to practice his or her belief of choice. We encourage people of all races, beliefs and backgrounds to interact with one another and we make integration part of our public policies, such as the Housing & Development Board’s (HDB) Ethnic Integration Policy and keeping our schools secular. Every person or group has to be accommodating. It may mean giving up a bit of one’s own space and comfort for others, but in return other groups do the same for the practice of our own beliefs.
Accordingly, the Government has from the outset, actively fostered a culture of consideration and mutual understanding in Singapore, and instilled values of respect and accommodation. From there, Singaporeans can have a deeper understanding of one another and develop an appreciation of commonalities and differences. With that, friendships built on mutual trust and confidence in one another will grow.
Threats in a digital age
With the prevalence of smart phones and rise of extremist views that propagate easily, the impact of terrorism gets amplified. Before the attacks, the gunman published a manifesto on social media highlighting his extremist views. The live streaming of the attacks further amplified the impact of these attacks.
The internet enables falsehoods and disinformation to be proliferated at unprecedented speed and scale. Online falsehoods capitalise on insecurities and mistruths, and then undermine our social harmony.
Online disinformation and falsehoods are insidious to our multiracial, multi-religious society. When we see or hear news on disputes relating to religious and racial prejudice, we should question its authenticity. We should actively check the accuracy of the sources, and seek clarification from religious and community leaders.
Reflection 3: Singapore’s social harmony
Social harmony is our shared responsibility and a collective effort
Third, social harmony is our shared responsibility, and a collective effort. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the community response in New Zealand has been uplifting, with the public standing firmly behind local Muslims.
Tens of thousands attended prayers and vigils around the country in a show of solidarity with the Muslim community. When prayer sessions at the site of the first shooting resumed, Imam Gamal declared to New Zealanders from all walks of life that “we are here in our hundreds and thousands unified for one purpose – that hate will be undone and love will redeem us.”
In Singapore, our religious and community leaders play a critical role in maintaining solidarity in times of crisis, or when sensitivities arise. The Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) and all the different major faith groups, such as the Catholic Church in Singapore, National Council of Churches Singapore, Singapore Buddhist Federation, the Hindu Endowments Board and Hindu Advisory Board, and the Taoist Federation were quick to condemn the attacks, expressing support for the local Muslim community and emphasising the need for unity across all faiths. I am heartened by the swift responses from our religious and community leaders, who must continue to build our communities and networks of trust.
The Government will continue to work closely with community partners, such as the IRO, OnePeople.sg, Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCC), and groups such as Roses of Peace to strengthen Singapore’s social harmony, and I must commend the Roses of Peace for very quickly organising this conference because I think it is important for youth in Singapore to take a stand, to condemn such an act and to stay united with one another. This is the only way to send a very, very strong, indisputable message to the other side.
Youth have a stake in the future of Singapore’s social cohesion
The youths in New Zealand showed strength and solidarity. Students from several schools paid tribute to the victims by performing a haka, a ceremonial Maori dance, to mourn the victims and honour the dead.
The youths’ moving haka was captured on video and circulated on the internet, where it was warmly received. The youth issued a rallying call for Christchurch to rise up and remain resolute. So you see ladies and gentlemen, the internet and social media, so often used to sow discord, were now harnessed for good. The digital space can be an avenue for strengthening relationships, and allow for a respectful exchange of viewpoints.
Earlier this week, the Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) released the findings of a survey on Religion in Singapore which found that nearly one in two young Singaporeans are open to religious extremists posting their views online. This is worrying, because extreme online sentiments can affect real-world relationships and perceptions. Frequent posting of extreme views, if left unchecked, will normalise such views and over time, make them main stream. Therefore, Singaporeans must hence be discerning about messages that propagate prejudice relating to race and religion and take a stand against such hatred and prejudices. I encourage youth – youth here and youth outside this room, to also think about how to leverage the online space to strengthen our social cohesion. Let us speak up and also encourage others to do so, to counter divisive remarks that are made behind a veil of anonymity.
Youths are key agents in effecting positive change, and shaping the future. I would like to commend Roses of Peace, which is a youth-led initiative, for organising today’s session. I hope that the Roses of Peace will keep up its good work in helping to deepen inter-racial and religious understanding amongst our youth, through dialogues and joint action for the common good.
In June, Singapore will also be hosting an International Conference on Cohesive Societies, organised by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS) with the support of MCCY. The conference will discuss themes on building cohesive societies and interfaith harmony, and will also include a track for youth. Called the Young Leaders Programme, it will provide the next generation of leaders like yourselves a platform to find like-minded collaborators to tackle social challenges.
New Zealand has responded to the attack in an exemplary manner, by standing shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim community, and rallying widespread community support at a difficult and painful moment.
Singapore is still a young nation; while we are rightly proud of our multi-racial and religious harmony, it is a constant work in progress and it needs every pair of hands on deck to make this a continued success of Singapore.By continuously seeking to understand one another, appreciating our similarities and differences, and building strong bonds, we will build a harmonious society with all your help.
Finally, I would like to thank Roses of Peace once again for bringing us together. I would also like to thank every one of you present today. Your presence speaks volumes to the stand that you are taking, the support that you are giving to interfaith harmony, and our strong resolve to make Singapore multiracial and multi-religious.