Speech by Deputy Prime Minister and Coordinating Minister for Economic Policies Heng Swee Keat at the Inter-Religious Organisation, Singapore (IRO) Day on 26 August 2021.
Emeritus Senior Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong
Minister for Culture, Community and Youth and Second Minister for Law, Mr Edwin Tong
President of IRO, Mr Tan Thiam Lye
Religious leaders and members of IRO
Ladies and gentlemen
A very good afternoon to all of you, including those of you who are joining us online.
It is my pleasure to join you here today, to celebrate IRO's contributions to Singapore's interfaith harmony over the last 72 years.
As President Tan Thiam Lye mentioned in his opening address just now, the IRO was formed in 1949, against a backdrop of post-war uncertainty.
A diverse group of religious leaders came together for dinner.
Two meetings later, they formed the IRO to cement their fellowship of peace and work for the common good.
Since then, generations of IRO leaders have tirelessly carried out this responsibility.
A generation of Singaporeans would recall the communal riots in 1964, which left many dead or injured.
In an important act of healing and reconciliation, the IRO visited the injured in hospitals.
IRO leaders appeared on television to urge mutual understanding.
Over time, the IRO has grown.
From the original 6 faiths, it has since expanded to a membership of 10 faiths.
The sight of 10 religious leaders coming together to perform blessings is a powerful symbol of our religious harmony. Today, this blessing is a distinctive feature of key events, such as OCS Commissioning Parades and the annual Remembrance Day Ceremony at the Kranji War Memorial.
I was personally very blessed that religious leaders from the IRO came together after my stroke in 2016, to pray for my recovery while I was still in the ICU. Thank you all.
That we are all gathered here today, in the auditorium within a Taoist temple, is in itself a celebration of our religious harmony.
An Age-Old Faultline
This harmony that we witness in Singapore is not a natural state of affairs.
Around the world, major religions have been a powerful force for good, teaching values that have shaped many societies positively. But religion is also an age-old fault line throughout human history.
Religion can be cynically exploited for secular motivations.
Take, for example, how countries have gone to war under the pretext of religion.
The so-called “European wars of religion” from the 16th to 18th century had important secular causes, including territorial and political interests.
In more recent times, we continue to see the conflation of faith and politics in many parts of the world.
Religion has also been exploited by those seeking to spread hate and terror.
Their extremist and exclusivist ideologies are propagated and amplified on the internet.
When left unchecked, this has often led to self-radicalisation and terrorist incidents.
Expanding Common Ground
Singapore is not immune to these fault lines.
Today, Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world, based on a study by the Pew Research Centre. As an open society, we are vulnerable to divisive influences.
A recent report on the Terrorism Threat in Singapore found that self-radicalised individuals were influenced by violent extremist materials online that promoted hate against specific religious groups.
We continue to see troubling cases of self-radicalised youths. A 16-year-old youth was detained in December last year for planning to attack Muslims. In March this year, a 20-year-old youth was detained for planning an attack on Jewish congregants at a synagogue.
I am glad that the IRO has come out strongly each time. You have renewed your commitment to strengthen relationships between religious communities in Singapore. You have also called for more efforts to protect youths from extremist ideologies.
As our society continues to evolve, we will also have to build new bridges.
One key trend in Singapore is the growing proportion of those with no religion, a trend that is also observed in other parts of the world.
This group makes up 20% of Singaporean residents aged 15 years and above today, a 3 percentage point increase from a decade ago.
It is not a small group. But it is not a monolithic group either, as they are made up of people from diverse backgrounds.
We must therefore strengthen harmony not just across faiths, but with all segments of society.
How do we do so? The key is to ensure that we continue to expand our common ground in Singapore.
All religions share many basic common values, such as compassion, respect, and empathy. These are core values that we should all cherish and strengthen, whether we have a religion or not.
Where there are differences in views, we must never fall into the dynamics of Us vs Them, which will poison and divide our society.
Instead, each of us should recognise that we must seek to understand others better, and make some accommodation from time to time.
This is how we have gotten to where we are today – through appreciation, not confrontation; through respect, not sanctimony.
This has been our approach since Independence, to carefully expand our common space.
We built a society where people of all races and religions live together in our HDB estates, and our children learn and grow up together in national schools.
This harmony did not happen naturally. Rather, it is hard earned, where we have to lean against the natural tendencies of people to mix along ethnic and religious lines.
The tragic consequences in many parts of the world, torn apart by racial and religious differences, are stark reminders that we must continue to work hard to nurture our harmony.
Our policies on race and religion will not remain static.
It is heartening that Singaporeans care deeply about these issues. I know many of us want to move closer to becoming “one united people, regardless of race, language or religion”.
Our norms and policies will continue to evolve. But as I said in a recent speech, even as we seek progress, we must do so with humility and forbearance.
Progress cannot be defined by how far each of us succeed in pushing our interests on a specific issue, but by how we can seek out different perspectives and grow the space for convergence.
Ground-up organisations like IRO play a critical role in expanding this common ground.
Your efforts help to bring people together to build greater mutual understanding and trust.
To tackle youth radicalisation, the IRO Youth Wing has reached out through dialogues with young people.
The IRO has also stepped up efforts to engage the wider public digitally. For example, IRO participated in MCCY’s “Create and Connect” digital media workshop, which strengthens IRO’s capability to put out positive content on religious harmony and counter online religious extremism.
The IRO's Women of Faith pocket booklet, which we are launching today, is another good initiative. This will bring greater awareness to commonalities in religious teachings and promote togetherness by presenting quotes about women from the IRO’s ten member religions.
Today, as we celebrate IRO’s 72nd anniversary, I am glad that IRO is also taking steps to broaden your base to further strengthen interfaith harmony in Singapore.
With IRO becoming an Institution of a Public Character, the IRO is in good stead to draw together a wider variety of organisations to promote religious harmony. This is important as our society becomes more diverse.
The IRO is also strengthening your partnerships with other organisations as part of the new “Friends of IRO” initiative. Today, we welcome the first four “Friends of IRO” – OnePeople.sg, Roses of Peace, Far East Organisation, and Thye Hua Kwan Moral Society.
The work to expand our common ground and foster harmony in diversity never ends. Over time, I hope more organisations and their members will join in and contribute to this effort.
Let me take this opportunity to also congratulate Sister Maria Lau, who is receiving this year’s IRO Award in recognition of her contributions in fostering interreligious harmony in Singapore.
Sister Maria Lau was instrumental in the setting up of the Women of Faith Group in IRO and building a network of women committed to interfaith unity.
I understand that among her many contributions to IRO, she also has a good ear for music and had organised a sharing session on the religious music from IRO’s 10 member faiths!
Let us work together to expand our common space, and carefully nurture the precious but fragile harmony that we have in Singapore.
This work will not be easy, as our society continues to evolve.
But harmony in diversity has always been one of our greatest strengths.
I am confident that if our whole society can come together – with community groups like the IRO playing a key role – we will be able to continue to harness our diversity as a strength.
This is the spirit of Singapore Together, where we all work together, to build a stronger and more cohesive Singapore.
Thank you and I wish you a pleasant evening ahead.
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