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Refreshing our Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs)

Opening Address by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister For Culture, Community And Youth & Second Minister For Law, at the IRCC 20th Anniversary Celebration on 30 Jul 2022

ESM Goh Chok Tong
Members of the National Steering Committee and Working Committee for Racial and Religious Harmony
Chairpersons and members of the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles (IRCCs)


Distinguished guests
Ladies and Gentlemen


  1. Good afternoon.
  2. Let me first thank the organisers of today’s event for putting this together.
  3. Looking around the room today, I think we have not seen each other in such close proximity in such big numbers for a while.
  4. So thank you very much to the organisers for putting this together.
  5. I also want to thank the chairpersons and the member committees, both past and present.
    1. The work that you do is very important but often unseen. But the bonds you built have kept Singapore strong and safe, and has been a fundamental pillar of racial and religious harmony.

    20th Anniversary of our IRCCs: A milestone to celebrate our strength in diversity

  6. This year marks the 20th anniversary of our IRCCs.
    1. This is not only a celebration of how far we have come in this journey to achieve racial and religious harmony
    2. But is also an occasion to appreciate our unique path as a multi-racial and multi-cultural country.
    3. And also an occasion to remember how far we have come by not forgetting where we started. 
  7. Compared to many other countries, Singaporeans today live in relative peace and stability.We do not have tensions or violence arising from racial strife or face widespread discrimination, and even violence, and sometimes even loss of life.
    1. We do not have tensions or violence arising from racial strife or face widespread discrimination, and even violence, and sometimes even loss of life. 
    2. We do not have racial or religious enclaves in our residential estates that people from other races or faiths might worry about. 
    3. In fact, we might sometimes because of this be lulled into a false sense of complacency, believing that what we have today, what we enjoy today, is the natural order of. 
  8. Yet if it were an expected or natural state of affairs, it would have occurred elsewhere in the world naturally.
    1. In Indonesia, riots have been breaking out every so often. You know of the 2017 riots when there were riots when a Christian politician of Chinese-descent was accused of committing blasphemy against Islam.
    2. In Myanmar, you know what has happened to the Rohingyas.
    3. Thailand, Philippines and Malaysia – pick up newspapers for the last couple of years and even recently, you will constantly see stories.
    4. All of these stories and flashpoints arise from a deep-seated structural inability to address the ethnic minority’s position in society.
    5. And I must also say that in many societies, in almost every society, there will be a minority, and it is all too easy to discriminate against the minority because after all they are smaller in number, and they have less of a voice.
    6. And beyond the loss of lives and the property destruction, all of which is bad enough, all of these racial and religious tensions fundamentally damaged in a long-lasting way, the social cohesion, harmony, and goodwill that exist in those communities. 
    7. Trust and goodwill between races and religions – once we lose it – it would be very hard to get it back. 
  9. Singapore also does not have to look very far back in our history to know that we started off not in this natural order, not in this state, but with peace and religious strife, tension, riots, violence, and even loss of lives. 
  10. All of you know that each July, we celebrate Racial Harmony Day on 21st July. 
    1. But if you just look on the screen, this was Singapore in 1964 in July. And so Racial Harmony Day commemorates this very dark day in our history – 21st July – when communal and racial riots broke out in the aftermath of the merger with Malaysia. 
    2. It was in fact one of the worst and most prolonged riots in Singapore's post-war history, between the Malays and the Chinese.
    3. And in fact, these riots eventually became one of the reasons for the separation from Malaysia, so that’s how serious they were.
    4. These riots led to loss of lives, injury, and damage to property. But as I said earlier, it is a fundamental breakdown of racial relations that made a long-lasting impact.
  11. There were some very serious lessons to be learnt from this terrible episode.
    1. And these lessons remain relevant today, on how we manage race and religious relations in Singapore. 
    2. If anything, I would say these lessons of many decades, perhaps might be even more relevant today, when our society and the world we live in has become increasingly fractured, very divisive, and fault lines exist in so many parts of the world.
    3. And people, bad actors, especially on social media, seem to accentuate and deepen those fault lines.
  12. So it was against this backdrop in 1964 that our country is formed a year later.
  13. And a year later, in this context, our leaders knew:
    1. We had to be very clear on our policies because we had a country that was a Chinese majority but there were many other races and that, as a whole, made us who we were.
    2. So we needed very deliberate policies to institutionalise racial harmony, coupled with carefully thought-out safeguards, and resolute efforts in the grassroots, on the ground.
    3. We had to do so to ensure that no particular racial or religious group could emphasise its identity or assert its rights as a group at the expense of another group.
    4. We started by entrenching in our Constitution from Day one that every Government must bear the responsibility to care for the interests of our racial and religious minority communities. 
      1. Not many constitutions, if any at all, in the world, will do this to protect the minority population from the start and to require, by entrenching it in the constitution so that the government does so.
    5. We also recognise the special position of Malays as the indigenous people of Singapore, and therefore sought to support and safeguard their political, educational, religious, economic, social, and also cultural interests.
    6. We also enacted Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act or MRHA, to ensure that we can guard against actions that seek to denigrate other religions or affect our racial harmony.
      1. And you know that are intending to do so now with another piece of legislation for maintenance of racial harmony in Singapore.
    7. Some other examples - the GRC structure, making sure you are represented in the GRC structure and that you will always have representation from across the spectrum of races in Singapore in Parliament.
    8. Public Housing – 85% of our population live in public housing. We have policies like the Ethnic Integration Policy (EIP) not to discriminate against particular races but to ensure that in every precinct, every HDB flat, in every marketplace, we will have representation from across the spectrum of different races. 
    9. We talk about racial harmony, but how do we build racial harmony? We won’t be able to live in racial harmony if we walk in the markets, and down to the lift lobby, or we go to the nearby supermarkets and all of the people are of the same race.
      1. And that’s what happens in many developed countries like in the US and UK where you have politics and values and this is how the natural order is. If you don’t take any steps, people of different races don’t tend to live together by natural order.
    10. So, when we set up all this, including the Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which requires the PCMR to look at every piece of legislation, even after it has passed through Parliament, to ensure that the minorities are not prejudiced by reason of statute.
      1. So even if you pass through Parliament and go through voting and the bill is passed, PCMR still looks at it to see – are we compromising the interests of any particular race in Singapore?
  14. In addition to all this, I must say that all of these are policies but it is also the mindset that’s important and that set up Singapore for what it is.
    1. We didn’t come to achieve this harmony and this state by either ignoring or eliminating cultural diversity, or in fact even cultural minorities.
    2. We didn’t ask ethnic minority groups to just adopt the language of the majority or adopt the practices and culture of the majority and let’s all live harmoniously because that, after all, is the majority.
    3. We didn’t do that. On the contrary, we have long recognised that we need to actively protect the position of the minority, and that, fundamentally, is how we reached our state of harmonious living.
  15. I can do no better than quote Prime Minister Mr Lee Hsien Loong. I like this quote and I’ve used it several times because I think it so aptly describes what we have and what we share in Singapore. In 2017, when Prime Minister opened the Singapore Chinese Cultural Centre, he said this, and I quote:
    1. “We are a multiracial, multi-religious, and multi-cultural society. This diversity is a fundamental aspect of our respective identities. 
    2. Our aim is integration, not assimilation. No race or culture in Singapore is coerced into conforming with other cultures or identities, let alone that of the majority. 
    3. Ours is not a melting pot society, with every shorn of its distinctiveness. 
    4. Instead, we encourage each race to preserve its unique culture and traditions, while fostering mutual appreciation and respect among all of them.”
  16. I think this quite aptly, and in my view, quite beautifully captures what we have.
  17. Look around the room, this is integration. Everyone coming with your own respective backgrounds, practices, and sharing it in this common space.
    1. That is what we have in Singapore, that is special.
    2. At the same time, we can’t for a moment, because we have achieved this and have been doing so for a while, be complacent, not for a moment.
    3. We can’t presume that what we have is either perfect or that it will remain for some time to come.

    The rich value of our IRCCs

  18. And therefore, apart from all these policies, legislation, institutions that we’ve set up, the mindset we’ve inherited from our founding leaders, we also need everyone on the group to pay attention to race and religious harmony.
  19. And that’s where the IRCCs come in.
  20. In addition to all of this, on a day-to-day basis, institutions and laws can’t walk around in the corridors and can’t be in our communities. But each of our IRCC leaders can.
  21. And so over the past 20 years, the IRCCs have played a really critical role in bringing different ethnic and religious communities together so that we can actively not just safeguard but practice and live racial and religious harmony.
  22. We see it every day.
  23. The IRCC was first mooted by then-PM Goh Chok Tong, ESM in 2002, 20 years ago.
    1. If you remember, that was the year when the world was still reeling from the aftermath of 9/11.
    2. The atrocities of 9/11.
    3. We realised very quickly after that, Singapore was not spared. 
    4. We cannot be insulated from these threats which are worldwide.
    5. And so, shortly after that, we uncovered the Jemaah Islamiyah (JI) plot to attack embassies in Singapore.
  24. And then, in 2002, the Inter-Racial Confidence Circle was first established, a vision mooted by ESM Goh to create a platform:
    1. For community and religious leaders to come together, to have regular interactions with one another to foster friendships and build trust over time.
    2. And I think the premise was very simple but very correct:
      1. the more you know someone, from a different background, different religion, race, creed, colour, 
      2. the more you might understand and appreciate, and then the deeper the bonds will go. 
    3. Joo Chiat was the first IRCC to be formed in 2002.
    4. I would like to thank Mr Abdullah Shafiie Bin Mohamed Sidik, sitting over there, who served as the first Chairman of the first IRCC from 2002 to 2017.
      1. And he just recently appointed a new Chairman in his place, but Mr Shafiie remains as the Vice-Chairman.
      2. So he is still very much involved, still very much part of the new team, practicing everyday what we believe in race and religious relations.
    5. IRCCs were later renamed Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles in 2007 to better reflect their role;
    6. As key inter-faith platforms at the local level to respond quickly to incidents within the community that are of racial and religious dimensions.
  25. Since then, I must say, from 2002, the IRCCs have grown tremendously.
    1. We now have IRCCs in every constituency across Singapore, with more than 1,500 actively serving members and many more alumni who still today come back and help contribute, and in many ways, take part in the programmes to foster a sense of community.
    2. Our IRCCs have organised an average of 250 community events each year such as
      1. Dialogues on different faiths, practices, and festivals, fostering a deeper understanding and therefore deeper level of embrace; and
      2. Joint collaborations to promote mutual understanding and appreciation of the different cultures among Singaporeans.
    3. But the greatest strength of our IRCCs lies in the large network of warm personal relations between leaders and members of different faiths and different races.
      1. After all, the easiest way to solve a problem is to just pick up the phone, call the person, have a word, come down to have a coffee, and speak about it.
      2. And even if you can’t find solutions to all of the differences, I think you will walk away understanding each other’s perspectives a lot, and I think that’s the beauty of these IRCC networks.
  26. I am encouraged that, even during the pandemic in the past 2 and half years or so, our IRCCs did not let up, did not let the pandemic and the SMMs stop good work.
    1. Many of you adopted virtual means to deepen your relationships. Not quite the same, but much better than nothing.
  27. All of this good work that our IRCCs have achieved in the last two decades is only really possible because of the work that each and every one of you do, daily, and often, as I said, unseen.
    1. You have come together with a common objective of deepening inter-ethnic and inter-faith understanding:
    2. I would like to take this opportunity to applaud our IRCC leaders, especially our many veterans who have been part of the IRCCs since the early years.
    3. I’ve put the names of these veterans here, having been involved in IRCCs for so many years.
    4. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask you all to please stand up so that we may acknowledge you.
    5. Thank you very much to all of you for leading the charge on IRCCs and I would also like to thank the IRCC volunteers, and there are so many, both in IRCCS and within the ROs past and present, working tirelessly.

    Positioning our IRCCs to be ready for the future

  28. 20 years on, I would say that the IRCCS mission is still has invaluable and important as we face constant challenges that threaten to rip apart our social fabric:
    1. Our society is becoming increasingly more diverse with more cultural identities emerging due to immigration and a growing number of inter-cultural marriages;
    2. Our societal fault-lines continue to evolve, with race and religion increasingly intersecting with other fault-lines such as socio-economic class, gender and sexual orientation and inter-generational differences.
    3. Social attitudes are also evolving with each generation of Singaporeans. 
      1. Today, some younger Singaporeans hold different views and ideas from the older generation and family members about identity, race and religion, and also how they publicly express their views about such issues.
    4. We also have to deal with more complex security threats such as self-radicalisation, particularly through online means, which was always a problem but was never as stark as it is now.
      1. In 2021, we were very starkly reminded of this threat in the middle of COVID-19, in the case of the foiled attacks on two mosques and one of our synagogues.
      2. It may have been in the middle of COVID, but these activities don’t let up. We must always be mindful.
    5. We also have to consider how to use technology and social media for the common good.
      1. While online platforms can facilitate outreach and open discussions, as many of our religious leaders have had over the period when SMMs prevented worshipping in churches, temples, and mosques.
      2. But at the same time, these are also platforms that can embolden hate speech and spread falsehoods that undermine our social harmony.
  29. So your role as IRCC leaders is deeply embedded in society, in each of the communities that we serve, remains very much crucial in guiding our society through this rapidly changing World.
  30. Our IRCCs must continue to:
    1. Be a network of champions, each and every one of you, fostering social harmony, and race and religious harmony.
    2. Foster community outreach platforms that allow people to share their experiences, grow the common spaces across different diverse communities.
    3. And IRCCs should be the community touch points that can sense and can get a foothold on what’s evolving in the community, and pre-empt religious and ethnic tensions so that we can avoid them altogether and effectively avoid the threats that seek to divide our society.
  31. All our IRCCs have been doing this and more. But we cannot be complacent, as I said, and we cannot just on tried-and-tested ways.
    1. Our IRCCs must remain one step ahead of the curve, because in Singapore we face many threats every day, all the time. We foil many of them but it just takes one to succeed and this will drive a seamless wedge in our society, so we must always be on the lookout.
    2. So after 20 years of operating as IRCC, we formed a workgroup earlier this year, precisely to look at the evolving situation around the world, the different threats, different types of mechanisms by which people drive tensions.
    3. We wanted to review and refresh our IRCCs to ensure they remain relevant, and they remain equipped to deal with today’s challenges.
      1. Our workgroup comprised a mix of young and veteran IRCC leaders, and also representatives from a broad range of the different community and religious partners that IRCCs work with.
      2. The workgroup has worked really hard and had many meetings in the middle of COVID over the last four months and I’m sure we will be very focused and look at their recommendations in some details because they’ve put a lot of thought.
      3. I don’t want to spoil the surprise but I thought I’d highlight a few.
    4. The workgroup has recommended that we do a couple of things:
      1. First, we should Refresh the IRCC programmes: To be more regular, to have a steady cadence, and to be more impactful in bringing communities together and really drawing on a wider spectrum of society and using different techniques as well because our young people are very much in the online space.
      2. Second, we will also Diversify and renew the composition of our IRCCs:
        1. As I said, it is each of these networks and each of these individual relations that can help us move forward.
        2. So the broader the spectrum we have in our IRCCS, the more connections we have, the more scope, reach and breadth of our IRCCs, the better.
      3. Third, to enhance the expertise and capabilities of each IRCC member:
        1. Very often, we know that the fundamental endgame we want to achieve is racial and religious harmony but very often, we may not always be equipped as to how to achieve it.
        2. So we want to see more structured training;
        3. Have more resources that are dedicated, and have a better sense of coordination and deeper community partnerships so we can leverage one another.
      4. We also want IRCCS to enhance outreach to different segments of the community:
        1. Reach people that we have not seen or heard from before, go out there, talk to people, and make it a lived experience.
        2. After all, racial and religious harmony is not just some nice goal to talk about but it reflects what we do every day, how we live every day when we go to the marketplace. This is the true lived experience for racial and religious harmony.
        3. That is what the workgroup has done.
    5. Finally, with this refresh, there’s the suggestion also to give the IRCCs a new name after 20 years. So, after this is done, the workgroup has recommended that IRCC be renamed as Racial and Religious Harmony Circles, or Harmony Circle for short.
      1. This new name reflects the broader mission of our Harmony Circles to promote racial and religious harmony in Singapore.
      2. But yet still keeping to the fundamental objective of building trust and goodwill in a circle, denoting a never-ending co-existence of trust, understanding and confidence among the different communities.

      Our racial and religious harmony must be a constant work in progress and whole-of-society effort

    6. This refresh of our Harmony Circles is one of many efforts to ensure that we continue to do our best to preserve the hard-won social harmony that we enjoy and a constant reminder that we cannot take it for granted.
      1. Laws and policies can tell us what not to do, and provide the broad parameters.
      2. But it cannot tell Singaporeans and each of us what we can do to embrace more friends, to spread our networks between different races and religions.
      3. What we can do to preserve our racial and religious harmony must be a whole of society effort.
      4. Every Singaporean regardless of race, language, religion, has a role to play:
        1. In strengthening our nation’s social compact and social fabric.
    7. How do we do this?
      1. Each of us must be conscious that we live in a multicultural, multi-ethnic society that needs constant nurturing.
      2. We can do it by simple steps and everyday acts.
      3. Take the extra step to make our minority friends, neighbours.
      4. Make the first move in the lift lobby,
      5. Treat others in the way you would like to be treated in society; look out for your actions, sometimes these actions might not have ill intentions but may be misconceived and come across as being aggressive, so we just constantly have to be more aware.
      6. Participate in conversations like this and the many dialogues that we have, not just by being there, but with an open heart and mind, be prepared to take the other side’s views. 
        1. be willing to hear from and engage with someone from a completely different background and a different view. 
      7. It is only when we choose as individuals to do so, to step out of our comfort zone, engage in conversations, be open, that I think we can truly develop these bonds that will last for a lifetime and that will be sustainable.
    8. I also call upon all religious organisations to continue affirming our shared commitment to safeguard religious harmony for a better Singapore for all.
    9. And you can be assured that the Government remains committed:
      1. To creating the conditions equipping all of you, and the environment to foster such strong ties,
    10. Conclusion

    11. In closing, let me just reiterate how fortunate we have been in Singapore, that we live in relative peace, harmony and stability. Particularly in the context of a world today that has become divisive on so many fronts.
    12. We must cherish what we have, and continually work at preserving and enhancing this common space.
      1. As I said earlier, just take a look around this room
      2. People from all race, creed, colour, religion, background
      3. Coming together to celebrate 20 years of inter-racial and religious community work
      4. Working side by side as many of you have done.
      5. Not many places in the world would we see this
    13. So we must continually work at enhancing what we have, so that future generations of Singaporeans will not just experience this, but will know how precious this is, that we cherish this, because it can so easily be taken away.
    14. I sound like a broken record saying this all the time but I hope you agree that this is true that we cannot take it for granted and we must educate each generation that this does not happen by chance or didn’t happen because it just is, but because we work very hard at it.
    15. And a lot of credit has got to go to each and every one of the IRCC members over the years. The hard work that you have shown has lifted up IRCC and made sure that the last 20 years have been productive and strengthened our social fabric.
    16. And from today, when we look at the next 20 years and beyond, it has given us a strong foundation and platform from which to continue this work of building racial and religious harmony.
    17. Thank you very much.
    Last updated on 02 August 2022