Opening Address by Mr Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth & Second Minister for Law, at the National Harmony Circle Appointment Ceremony on 27 May 2023
30 May 2023
Good afternoon, we are here at the Harmony Circle National Appointment Ceremony.
We are gathered today to appoint and celebrate the appointment of the leaders of our Harmony Circles who will start their three-year term to strengthen racial and religious harmony across Singapore, across different societies in our community. And ensuring this treasured harmony that we have is preserved for future generations to come.
Let me start by warmly congratulating all the leaders and members of the Harmony Circles on your appointment.
Our racial and religious harmony will always be a work-in-progress
Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious country. And we are very proud. We have enjoyed peace and harmony since our independence in 1965.
a. Over the years, our ethnic and religious communities have lived peacefully together, forged a strong common bond, often in close proximity, as a small country, on our small island.
b. Everyone in Singapore has the freedom to practise their own beliefs, cultures, festivals, and religions. In fact, we are probably the world’s most diverse country.
This harmony did not come by chance, if you remember how we started as a country. Our country in fact started because of racial differences which erupted into violence and serious tensions in society.
And so therefore even as we enjoy this today, we must never take this for granted.
Since the days of those racial riots, our forefathers have been very single minded about making sure that we preserve this for many generations to come. Painstakingly building trust and understanding amongst our communities.
And taking careful steps to ensure that multiculturalism is not just something that we talk about but something that we practise everyday in our lived experiences. And becomes one of the fundamental foundational building blocks of our country.
Taking steps such as establishing laws like the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, a very unique piece of legislation compared to anywhere else in the world. And policies like the Ethnic Integration Policy to ensure that we do not just talk about racial integration, but that in our lived experiences, in our daily lives we see that where we live, where we work, where we play and where we stay.
These laws and policies are necessary but in themselves, they are insufficient conditions to foster racial and religious harmony. We can set up the framework, we can tell you what you cannot do – you cannot denigrate another religion, you cannot criticise another race. But we cannot tell you to build harmony, we cannot tell you to make friends.
All of us in Singapore therefore have an opportunity, and indeed I would say, an obligation to make it work in our own social circles. Each of us have a role to build bonds with our fellow citizens, our neighbours, and be that living example of what it means to be regardless of race, language or religion.
We know that at the same time, this state of racial and religious harmony that we enjoy today is not perfect. It is far from perfect and we must aways be a little nervous about it being taken away from us, in order for us to continually strive to do better, and to ensure that we foster that with a lot of care. And we nurture that with a lot of compassion.
Our society is also becoming more diverse over time.
The world around us is becoming a lot more fractured, more deeply divided by social issues and identity issues, fault lines forming around identity.
In addition, in today’s digital globalised world, with social media and the internet, it can bring us together to help us chat better but does it really help us communicate better? That is really a question that we have to ask when we go online. But because of the power of the internet and the almost instantaneous transmission through the internet, our society can be easily affected by issues and trends that happen far away. Today, it is very much a part of who we are, and a part of the issues that we grapple with.
We must therefore continually update our laws, policies and programmes,
To safeguard and grow our common space,
Deepen mutual trust, foster understanding and respect,
And take active steps to guard against threats that could undermine and harm this harmony.
Refreshed Harmony Circles will remain relevant and effective in strengthening racial and religious harmony
And it is in this context that some time ago we saw how important to refresh our Harmony Circles
Our Harmony Circles have worked well, and have not let us down for the past 20 years.
They also continued to work hard through the COVID-19 pandemic, as you saw in the video earlier. Despite the restrictions, they made sure to continue the outreach to the vulnerable in our society.
But as our society evolves and new challenges emerge, we have to refresh our Harmony Circles to ensure they remain relevant and effective, to take into account today’s new dynamics in our environment.
We started our Harmony Circles refresh last year. Our refreshed Harmony Circles aim to make a greater impact in the community in three ways.
First, they will be more inclusive
Our Harmony Circles will bring our diverse communities together to build stronger bonds.
In this new term, our Harmony Circles have grown to become more diverse.
We now have over 1,700 members, compared to 1,500 members 2 years ago,
In addition, when I look at the membership, what strikes me as being very progressive, is the growth in membership is fueled by having more youth, more women and more representatives from religious and community organisations that were previously not on board
We are also starting to see second generation Harmony Circle members
As our Harmony Circle members bring in their children and the people around their circle of friends to come in and join the Harmony Circles.
Second, the Harmony Circles will enhance their programmes to promote greater interaction among different communities and create a positive impact in our own lived experiences.
Our Harmony Circles will offer a refreshed suite of programmes.
These include existing programmes such as interfaith dialogues, which have served us very well and have been very important in helping us to foster greater acceptance through understanding of each other’s faiths.
We also want to have learning journeys to places of worship and programmes to support the more vulnerable in our community across the different racial and religious lines. When someone is vulnerable, we do not look at the race, we do not look at the colour, we do not look at the creed. These are the people we need to support to truly make Singapore more inclusive.
They will also offer new programmes that bring people together such as sports, visits to cultural and heritage sites, tree planting and dialogues with Singapore Armed Forces veterans who will share lessons that they have first-hand experiences on, that have forged and shaped our nation, over the many early decades.
These programmes are made possible with the support of many agencies and community partners including SportSG, NParks, our heritage institutions and the Commitment to Defence (C2D) Ambassadors of the SAF Veterans League.
Third, the Harmony Circles will broaden and deepen interest from the community to strengthen social harmony. Because at the end of the day, it is about what you and I do, in our own circle of friends, in our own network and community. Each one is a fundamental building block – one to many, eventually becoming our community, and then our country.
Harmony Circles will also organise various ground-up activities in their local communities across Singapore to celebrate racial and religious harmony throughout the month of July.
We often speak about Racial Harmony Day in July, but we want to broaden the activities across the month, so it is not only an one-off experience. For our school children, it does not just become a one day event where you might come dressed up in ethnic clothing. These are important experiences, especially for children, as we create conversations about different faiths and religions.
We want to deepen that, and so we are making activities to be held across the whole of July.
So please keep a look out for the programmes in your local communities and join in the activities, and promote them as well to the neighbourhoods that you live in.
Enabling the Harmony Circles
Under this refresh, we will do more to enable our Harmony Circles to carry out their roles in both peacetime and in crisis.
In fact, as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown us, what we do, the social capital that we built up during peacetime is so important for times of crisis, and we can never assume that a crisis will not be around the corner for us in Singapore.
Harmony Circles members will undergo a structured training programme.
To ensure that they are well-equipped with relevant knowledge and skills such as facilitation, mediation, interfaith understanding, and crisis preparedness.
We will also equip our Harmony Circles with communication skills and platforms to improve their outreach to their communities. In today’s fast paced digital world, we need to reach out and talk to people in that space.
I am also pleased to announce the formation of the Harmony Circle Coordinating Council.
This Council was an idea that was mooted by Harmony Circle leaders themselves, who wanted to have a greater platform for synergising their activities – coordinating, networking and sharing of best practices across the 93 Harmony Circles.
The Council comprises 18 members, who collectively represent all the Harmony Circles across Singapore.
MCCY will give this Council our full support.
I would like to thank Pastor Andrew Khoo, Chairperson of Chong Pang Harmony Circle, for graciously and generously taking up the role as the first Chairperson of the Council.
Pastor Andrew and his Council have already started to meet up, planning and thinking of ways to better support the Harmony Circles.
I am very grateful to Pastor and the Council members for taking up this challenge. It will be an important role, as we strive to ensure that all the 93 Harmony Circles can come together on a national platform with synergy, sharing best practices, and having a stronger sense of coordination across Singapore.
Finally, as part of this refresh, we will shortly unveil the new Harmony Circle logo.
This logo visually represents how we see theHarmony Circles bringing the communities together.
The logo’s tag line, “Different races, Many beliefs, One Singapore” – that truly optimises what racial and religious harmony means and represents for us in Singapore.
This reminds us that we all have a responsibility and a role to play in building up Singapore – not just for today, but to ensure that this peace and harmony that we treasure will last beyond this generation. And will be something that we continue to steward for subsequent generations. A Singapore that looks beyond our differences, embraces our similarities, and stays united as one Singapore.
One United People is key to Singapore’s future
As I conclude, let me bring you back to a speech that Prime Minister gave in 2021 as part of his National Day Message, and I quote:
“We pride ourselves on being a uniquely harmonious, multiracial (and multi-religious) society.
But maintaining social harmony takes unremitting work.
Our social norms evolve with each successive generation, shaped by different life experiences and aspirations.
Therefore, with every new generation, our racial (and religious) harmony needs to be refreshed, reaffirmed, and reinforced.”
That is precisely what we are doing with the Harmony Circle refresh.
I want to give a shoutout to the outgoing Harmony Circle leaders who have served us with distinction, pride and passion. You have given us a solid foundation to make this refresh work well. You have been the giant shoulders that we stood on to take Singapore and our racial and religious harmony into the next phase.
Thank you for your continuous commitment and contributions, and your ideas and passion for making Harmony Circles work.
I want to end off by thanking and congratulating all the Harmony Circle leaders and members for stepping up, contributing and taking on this appointment.