Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Inter-Religious Organisation's 74th anniversary dinner on 22 May 2023.
Reverend Terry Kee, President of IRO
Ladies and Gentlemen
A very good evening.
It gives me great pleasure to join you this evening to celebrate the IRO’s 74th Anniversary.
The IRO was founded in 1949, even before Singapore’s independence.
A diverse group of religious leaders came together over dinner, and over the course of several meetings, agreed that more should be done to foster religious harmony and cooperation.
So they decided to form the IRO, to drive their vision of peaceful inter-religious engagement and harmony of faiths.
You started with 6 faiths, which has grown to 10 now, as we saw on the stage just now.
Over the years, generations of IRO leaders have continued to carry the torch.
When there were racial and communal riots in Singapore in the 1950s and 1960s, IRO leaders urged calm, and advocated understanding and reconciliation.
You also play an important role in our civic life. The sight of 10 religious leaders conducting prayers is a remarkable one. But it would be familiar to Singaporeans who have been to Officer Cadet School commissioning parades, World War 2 commemorative ceremonies, and even F1 races here.
IRO has also continued to deepen trust within our society, by organising talks, seminars, and workshops to promote greater inter-faith understanding.
You have also led charity work for those who are less advantaged, both in Singapore and beyond. For example, the IRO has worked closely with NGOs like Red Cross and Mercy Relief to offer humanitarian assistance for those affected by natural disasters in various parts of the world.
So let me express our deepest appreciation to the IRO for your excellent work all these years. Thank you very much!
As many of you would know, I had a stroke 7 years ago in May 2016 and had to miss an IRO event shortly after that. A few months after my recovery, I attended another IRO event and all the IRO members present told me that they had all prayed for me. I was very grateful to be offered the blessings of so many of you. Once again, thank you very much.
The religious harmony that we enjoy in Singapore did not come about by chance.
This year is the 100th anniversary of Mr Lee Kuan Yew’s birth. One of the most important convictions held by Mr Lee and his team, was to build Singapore as a multi-racial, multi-religious nation.
As the historian Professor Wang Gungwu recently pointed out – Singapore is the only nation he knows of where the majority accepted that they had to treat everyone as equal, and that a plural society was the foundation of her nationhood.
From the very beginning, we put in place the frameworks and the policies to support this vision.
Our Constitution guarantees every person the right to practise his or her religion;
We have laws such as the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, to safeguard our religious harmony;
We also put in place frameworks to ensure that the multi-racial character of our society is sufficiently reflected in our political system;
And we have also been deliberate in our policies, such as the Ethnic Integration Policy, to encourage mixing and integration in our housing estates.
In a contested and fractious world, our ability to maintain harmony amidst diversity is all the more precious.
But we cannot take this harmony for granted.
Many societies are divided along religious or racial lines, with each group advocating loudly for its interests and viewpoint, making it difficult to forge a consensus on key issues.
In Singapore, from time to time, we too see incidents of hate speech or the radicalisation of certain individuals. In a globalised world, with social media and the internet, extremism is not confined by any borders.
Laws and policies will continue to be critical in providing the conditions for religious harmony and peace.
But it goes beyond that – even more important, is to continually strengthen the trust amongst our people, even if we hold diverse beliefs.
Civic groups like the IRO will continue to play a key role, in deepening our social capital, through fostering inter-religious dialogue and interactions.
While we have done well over the years, it is important to always remind ourselves that religious harmony will always be a work-in-progress.
The Pew Research Centre in the US has found that Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world.
This is remarkable, but what is even more important is that we have maintained harmony amidst this diversity.
The IRO has played an important role in this. Through your work over the last 74 years, we have built a level of trust and understanding that is remarkable and unique. We must continue to nurture and grow this.
So I would like to once again express the government’s deep appreciation to the IRO’s pioneers and the generations of leaders who have come after them, for all your dedication to deepening inter-faith understanding and harmony.
And I am confident that the IRO will continue to do your utmost to strengthen Singapore as a society where regardless of race, language, or religion, we stay united as one people.
Thank you very much, and please enjoy the evening.
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