Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Hope Initiative Alliance 5th Anniversary Gala Dinner on 7 December 2023.
Reverend Ezekiel Tan, President, Hope Initiative Alliance,
Reverend Terry Kee, Chair, Hope Initiative Alliance Interfaith Relations Advisory Council,
Mr Noor Mohamed Marican, President, Inter-Religious Organisation, Religious and interfaith community leaders,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Good evening. I am delighted to join you today to celebrate the 5th anniversary of the Hope Initiative Alliance.
Let me start by congratulating the Hope Initiative Alliance, as well as all your partners and stakeholders, for reaching this significant milestone.
Since 2018, you have brought people of different faiths together to support and uplift vulnerable groups in our society, including and especially during the COVID pandemic. By doing so, you have grown into a catalyst for positive impact, as Reverend Ezekiel mentioned earlier.
Within just five years, you have also notably broadened your outreach to a wider range of beneficiaries.
During my tour of the booths earlier, I was impressed to see the programmes you have developed to support vulnerable individuals and those from disadvantaged families, as well as migrant workers and foreign domestic workers.
Through collaborating with different partners, the Hope Initiative Alliance is building important bridges to further enhance social cohesion in Singapore.
Strong social cohesion has been a key ingredient in the Singapore Story since independence.
This year, 2023, marks the 100th birth anniversary of our founding Prime Minister Mr Lee Kuan Yew.
For Mr Lee and his pioneer generation of leaders, building a united, cohesive Singapore out of a diverse, polyglot population was an abiding priority, particularly in our early years.
Achieving social cohesion in Singapore laid the foundations for our stability. This, in turn, facilitated our economic development and enabled us to steadily uplift broad segments of the population.
Social cohesion gives investors and other economic partners added confidence that their investments and projects will not be disrupted by outbreaks of unrest or violence.
It assures them that they can conduct business and create meaningful jobs in a safe environment.
Over the years, Singapore’s social cohesion has helped to deepen our attractiveness as a regional hub for trade, commerce, logistics and finance.
In a 2022 regional survey conducted by the Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore was perceived to be the most socially cohesive country in Southeast Asia.
I should add that social cohesion is not just an asset to grow the economy. It actually also goes to the heart of our resilience as a nation during moments of crisis.
During the COVID pandemic, we saw many heartwarming stories of neighbours from different races and religions supporting one another, and of people from different backgrounds coming together to help those in need.
As Finance Minister in 2020, I delivered an unprecedented five budgets in a single year to help Singapore tide through this crisis of a generation.
But while the financial capital that we deployed to save lives and livelihoods was important, it was ultimately the strong social capital among our people that helped to shape our effective response to the pandemic.
Preserving and enhancing Singapore’s social cohesion remains a major priority for the Government today. Doing so is fundamental to ensuring our sustained growth, progress, prosperity, and stability in the years ahead.
DPM Lawrence Wong recently released the Forward Singapore report laying out 7 shifts that we are undertaking to progress towards a more vibrant, inclusive, fair, thriving, resilient and united Singapore.
These include empowering those in need and doing our part as one united people to deepen our sense of empathy and solidarity, and build our shared future together.
This is especially resonant in today’s uncertain world, where societies are coming under stresses and strains in multiple ways.
As a small, open and hyper-connected country, Singapore is not completely immune to forces that are gaining traction beyond our shores.
For example, the pushback against globalisation from some quarters has given rise to growing xenophobic sentiments in many countries around the world.
This is compounded by dissatisfaction over inequality, which threatens to amplify social divisions.
In addition, perennially sensitive issues, as we have seen from the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, risk inflaming tensions between different communities.
Against this backdrop, how should we best advance a more cohesive and united Singapore in the years to come? As I said earlier, this is existential to Singapore and fundamental to our continued success as a nation.
Let me briefly outline three prongs to the approach that we must take.
First, we must foster deeper inter-faith understanding and engagement between our different religious communities.
Singapore, as many of you know, is one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world.
Just before my speech this evening, we saw leaders from different religious communities perform a common prayer on stage.
Similarly, inter-faith leaders from the Inter-Religious Organisation gather to perform prayers at national events like our Formula 1 Night Race as well as the commissioning parades at our Officer Cadet School.
This sense of solidarity, standing shoulder to shoulder across faiths, is not a common occurrence in many other countries. And we should never take it for granted in Singapore.
Building and maintaining this solidarity among religions is a constant work-in-progress. Our religious and inter-faith leaders play an instrumental role by setting a positive example for their respective communities to follow.
When tensions escalated in the Israel-Hamas conflict in October, Singapore’s Mufti and Chief Rabbi exchanged letters reaffirming that peaceful coexistence can be achieved despite differences between Jews and Muslims.
This sent a strong signal to all in Singapore of the longstanding trust, confidence and friendship between the local Jewish and Muslim communities.
Coming from the respective religious leaders, it also sent a powerful message – that religion should help bring people together to appreciate and uplift our shared humanity, rather than divide us.
In this regard, the Hope Initiative Alliance’s commitment to inter-faith charity is a useful way of bringing people from different religious backgrounds together under a common cause.
In addition to addressing societal needs, such collaborative inter- faith charity initiatives also provide a space for the different religious groups to transcend boundaries and promote greater understanding and tolerance.
Over the years, the Alliance has been guided in these efforts by an Interfaith Charity Advisory Council, headed by Reverend Terry Kee.
I said earlier that leaders play an important catalytic role by setting a positive example for their communities. I am therefore happy that we are recognising members of this Advisory Council later this evening.
In tandem with strengthening inter-faith solidarity, we must also foster an inclusive and enabling environment for all segments of society, especially the vulnerable. This is the second prong in building greater social cohesion.
Uplifting those in need and empowering them to build a better future for themselves is a key part of building a caring and inclusive society, and protecting Singapore from the harmful social divisions that we see elsewhere.
ComLink+ is an initiative providing support to families in public rental housing through proactive outreach, close case support, and galvanising the community to offer customised programmes and services.
Over the years, ComLink+ has been greatly strengthened by the support of community partners including corporates, social enterprises and networks like the Hope Initiative Alliance.
In fact, the Alliance is a partner of the Social Service Office in Bedok, my constituency, as well as in Geylang Serai.
In both locations, the Alliance runs a “Write, Read and Tell” literacy programme for children from ComLink+ families aged between 9 and 12, to equip them with useful skills for their educational journey and throughout life.
Our efforts to reach out and enable others should also extend beyond the Singapore community – to those who are helping to build Singapore, keep our island clean, and take care of our families.
I fondly recall joining the Hope Initiative Alliance to launch the Alliance of Guest Worker Outreach programme in 2019. I also remember joining Mrs Dorothy Chan of Far East Organization, who is here today, at a lunch that she hosted for a group of migrant workers some years ago.
I am pleased to hear that you have since grown your efforts to provide holistic care to our migrant workers and foreign domestic workers in partnership with the Ministry of Manpower, including by implementing educational programmes, facilitating religious services, and organising festive celebratory events.
I have touched on strengthening inter-faith understanding and solidarity, and fostering greater empathy and inclusivity in our society. Beyond this, building a more cohesive society for the future will require empowering precisely those who will shape the future – our young people. So the third prong is to nurture civic-minded, socially-engaged youth leaders.
By growing youth leaders in charity and volunteerism, we can harness the transformative potential of youth and develop the next generation of bridge-builders across our communities.
This evening, the Hope Initiative Alliance is appointing the Sowing Care Together Young Leaders Council – a dynamic group of young inter-faith champions and volunteers between the ages of 16 and 40. I just met some of them earlier at the booths outside – a young and enthusiastic group.
These leaders are equipped with the skills to initiate and lead charitable inter-faith projects and are also grounded in a deep understanding of the interconnectedness of communities.
As they take on leadership roles, I hope that will also inspire their peers to join the cause of giving back, deepening understanding and uplifting others. This will ultimately help to strengthen Singapore’s social fabric.
In this vein, let me encourage the Hope Initiative Alliance to explore partnering schools on creating ways to engage our students, and grow their enthusiasm and sense of civic responsibility for volunteering and give back to Singapore.
Let me conclude. I said at the start that Singapore’s strong social cohesion has been a key enabler of our growth and success, and that we must continually strive to enhance and strengthen this valuable commodity. It allows us to live in harmony in a multiracial, multireligious and multicultural society.
This is a whole-of-nation task. It will take the Government working in partnership with community groups and partners, including networks like the Hope Initiative Alliance.
Reverend Ezekiel earlier talked about harnessing the transformative power of collaboration, and building partnerships that are both based on trust and, in turn, build further trust.
This collaborative spirit is key. Working together as an ecosystem will enable you to tap on multi-faceted expertise and amplify your reach and impact.
This will help Singapore advance towards better social outcomes and a more cohesive, harmonious future.
It is therefore fitting that the Hope Initiative Alliance is also recognising your partners this evening with “Together in Improving Lives” awards.
In just five years, the Hope Initiative Alliance has helped to incubate several new programmes in partnership with government agencies, social service providers and other community organisations.
By doing so, you have helped to aggregate and catalyse positive impact across different groups in Singapore.
We are now just a few weeks away from 2024. The end of the year is always a good time to reflect and take stock on what we have done so far and think about how we can improve ourselves from here.
As the Hope Initiative Alliance looks ahead to the next 5 years and beyond, I am happy to hear from Reverend Ezekiel that you plan to apply for Institute of Public Character status.
Upholding strong governance and accountability will reinforce trust in the Hope Initiative Alliance and grow your standing to mobilise support from across communities to do good for society.
Let me also reiterate that your ability to forge meaningful collaborations that leverage complementary strengths for the greater good, will help build a more harmonious, inclusive, united and resilient Singapore.
I wish you all a pleasant evening, and many more fruitful and successful years of bridge-building ahead. Thank you.
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