DPM Lawrence Wong at the 75th Inter-Religious Organisation's 75th Anniversary Celebration

DPM Lawrence Wong | 23 January 2024

Remarks by Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Finance Lawrence Wong at the 75th Inter-Religious Organisation's 75th Anniversary Celebration on 23 January 2024.

ESM, Mr Goh Chok Tong,
President of the IRO, Mr Noor Mohammed Marican,
Religious leaders,
Distinguished guests,
Ladies and Gentlemen

I am very happy to join you this evening to celebrate the IRO’s 75th anniversary.

This anniversary is a timely reminder to all of us – that the religious harmony we enjoy in Singapore is a precious legacy we must always treasure and protect.

As Mr Marican said just now, when the IRO was founded in 1949, it was a different world. It was a world that was full of geopolitical tension and uncertainty.

Post-war Europe was divided into an American-led western bloc, and a Soviet-led eastern bloc.

There were growing anti-colonial sentiments and independence movements then in Asia and Africa, which were largely along racial and religious lines. For example, we saw this in 1947, when India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. The partition was along religious lines, and the resulting conflict cost many lives.

Closer to home, the forces pushing for independence in Malaya were also organised along racial and religious lines.

And it was against this turbulent backdrop that discussions on the IRO started in Singapore. And I am sure all of you are familiar with the story of how it began. It was then President of Jamiyah, Syed Ibrahim Omar Alsagoff, who invited various religious leaders to his home for dinner, which was in honour of a visiting Muslim missionary. During the dinner, they discussed the need for more cooperation between different faiths. And they continued that discussion over the course of several meetings, which eventually led to the formation of the IRO.

The IRO’s first public meeting was held on 18th of March 1949. The theme of the meeting was “The Contribution of Religion to Peace”, and there were Christian, Muslim, Sikh, and Buddhist speakers. It was attended by more than 2,000 people of different races and religions. Malcom MacDonald, who was then the Commissioner-General of Singapore because we were not yet independent, was also the IRO’s first patron, and he called the IRO a “bold movement”.

Today, 75 years later, what started as a bold movement has become a key institution for our multi-racial and multi-religious nation. And for that, we can all be very thankful to our IRO and be very proud of what we have achieved.

In the years ahead, as we embark on our next bound of nation building, I have no doubt that the work of the IRO will be more important than before.

Because after about 30 years of peace and stability around the world, we are now unfortunately entering an external environment that resembles the post-war environment, one characterised yet again by heightened geopolitical tension and uncertainty.

Competition between countries for influence and strategic dominance continues to heat up.

And this has led to diminished capacity to tackle problems on a global scale. That is why we see wars in Europe and the Middle East, and we are likely to see more armed conflicts and violence around the world which cannot be easily resolved. We see global issues like global warming or pandemics continuing to grow, and the global community is unable to find consensus to tackle these shared concerns decisively.

Across the world, there is also a worrying trend of people increasingly identifying themselves in narrow ethnic and religious terms. As a result, we see more people living in echo chambers. They form their own “tribes” – they listen only to what they like to hear, and believe them, even if these are half-truths, untruths or conspiracy theories. This has fuelled the rise of extremist groups that threaten peace and cohesion in countries everywhere – from ISIS with its distorted views of Islam, to far-right neo-Nazis with their ideology of white supremacy, to nativist political groups that reject multi-culturalism.

These are all developments happening beyond our shores. But they can have a huge impact on our social cohesion and harmony. For Singapore is open, plugged into the global grid, and our people are exposed to information from all over the world.

We are one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world. All across our island, it is common to see churches, temples and mosques located close together, sometimes even along the same street. In our HDB estates, we have people of all faiths living cheek by jowl, and interacting with one another daily. And with so many faiths in close proximity, some friction is inevitable – inconveniences caused by religious festivals, sounds of prayers, or insensitive words used in careless remarks.

Fortunately, we have so far remained also one of the most harmonious societies in the world. Survey after survey shows that – a recent survey by the Pew Center found that a majority of Singaporean adults are tolerant and accepting of other religions. The same survey also found most Singaporeans see our religious diversity as something good for our country.

This level of harmony amidst diversity is really quite unique in the world, especially when we look at the experiences of countries elsewhere. The prevailing trend in other places moves towards intolerance and extremism. But here in Singapore, we are able to celebrate each other’s religious festivals, visit one another’s places of worship, engage in shared prayer, engage in dialogue and fellowship, and engage with mutual trust and respect. What we have today is truly rare, remarkable and very precious.

And we know this did not happen by chance. No doubt, all of us here believe in the good of humankind. But we also know that as humans, we are fallible. The primal emotions of race and religion are always lurking under the surface. One of our founding leaders Mr S Rajaratnam used to compare these emotions to a “wild and hungry beast pacing impatiently behind the bars of a cage”. And he said that these emotions – this wild and hungry beast – has to be locked in its cage.

And that is how we got to where we are today; it was not overnight that everybody became enlightened. It was through many years and decades of patient effort and very hard work.

Generations of IRO leaders have contributed to this – leading by example, helping members of different faiths learn from one another, guiding your communities to treat each other with respect. So when sensitive issues arise in Singapore, you are a stabiliser; you provide wise and calm words of counsel. So tonight, I would like to thank all our IRO’s pioneers and leaders for the good work that you have done all these 75 years. Thank you very much indeed.

I believe that faith is important to human beings. Faith is a positive force for society. We saw this during Covid, when we were tackling the pandemic. Many Singaporeans were able to draw strength from their respective faiths. We rose above ourselves; we looked out for the needs of our neighbours and our fellow citizens. This idea of loving your neighbour is so simple and yet so profound, and it is a theme common to all the major religions of the world.

For its part, the Government takes religious matters very seriously. We recognise the importance of religion, but we are strictly secular. We are even-handed in treating all faiths and we have even passed special laws and put in place policies to protect religious harmony in Singapore.

Like the Presidential Council for Minority Rights which is enshrined in the Constitution to ensure no laws are passed that discriminate against anyone because of race or religion.

Or the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act to set ground rules for all religious groups, and to keep religion separate from politics.

As well as the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony. These are some of the examples.

But laws and policies are just one part of our approach. More importantly, we are very fortunate to have amongst us religious leaders who understand the context in which we operate. You understand that our faiths in Singapore are best practised in ways appropriate to our multi-racial and multi-religious context. You set good examples for your communities in promoting mutual respect and understanding.

And in turn we are glad that our religious communities understand the need, and take the effort to develop strong bonds with each other.

One example is the Commitment to Safeguard Religious Harmony, which our religious leaders launched in 2019. Through the Commitment, our religious leaders affirmed their shared values of charity, love, respect, and empathy. They agreed to foster a culture of consideration and mutual understanding, including norms of social interactions like eating together, or attending the life events of one another, even if these are held in a different place of worship.

The IRO too has organised countless events and dialogues to promote mutual understanding and harmony. When we talk about the IRO, the image that comes to mind for many Singaporeans is the image you saw just now – 10 religious leaders coming together to bless our important events, or to come together in shared prayer. It is a powerful image of harmony and unity, which you rarely see in any other part of the world, but only here in Singapore.

Indeed, the IRO has always been a symbol of harmony and unity, especially during tough times.

During the communal riots in the ’60s, the IRO visited the injured in hospitals, and appeared on television to urge mutual understanding.

During our periods of collective grief, like the SilkAir crash in 1997, SQ crash in 2000 in Taipei, and the Boxing Day tsunami in 2004, the IRO organised inter-religious memorial services.

During the pandemic when hate remarks, racist and xenophobic behaviours spiked, or went up, the IRO called for unity and urged communities to keep calm and to uphold the values of peace and respect.

And more recently, when the war between Israel and Hamas broke out, the IRO brought together over 100 religious leaders and members of the various religious communities to pray for peace, understanding, and reconciliation in Israel and Gaza.

So I am confident that the IRO will continue its good work not just for today, but also for the future. I say this not just because I have to say this. I say that I am confident because I can see the IRO taking active steps to attract and develop its new generation of leaders. So this is well-founded confidence.

You have the IRO Youth Wing today, it has been nurturing bonds of friendship amongst young individuals across different faiths.

The youths visit different places of worship, they participate in many conversations and dialogues about religion and interfaith harmony.

And the Youth Wing has also started reaching out to non-religious groups, which is very important too, because they too are an important community, to create safe spaces for everyone to discuss issues they care about, and to promote mutual understanding.

These are all excellent initiatives and I commend the youth leaders in the IRO for their many contributions.

The bottom line is that preserving trust amongst our different communities in Singapore requires constant care and attention.

We must never assume that we have arrived or take our eyes off the ball.

As the saying goes, trust is built slowly drop by drop, but trust is lost in buckets. Just one lapse, just one mistake, just one careless word, can easily undermine many years of hard work.

And that is why we take this work so seriously in Singapore.

We want to ensure a cohesive society where everyone is proud to call home; where every community has a place, and everyone belongs.

We want to expand the common ground we share together through a spirit of dialogue and fellowship, so that regardless of race or religion, we will always stand together as Singaporeans, and keep moving closer to this ideal of one united people.

Now, I am at the stage where I am starting to think about my new responsibilities. It can get quite overwhelming when you think of all the things that has to be done. But it is quite clear in my mind that one of my key priorities as leader is to keep our society together, to keep Singapore strong and united, amidst powerful forces that will seek to divide us. That is my task, but my view is that it is also your task; it is our collective mission, to build on what we have today, keep it going for as long as we can, and ensure our little red dot remains an oasis in a troubled world.

So on that note, I thank everyone in the IRO once again for your service, and the roles that you have played these past 75 years. I look forward to your continued efforts to foster acceptance, harmony, and understanding across religions. And as Mr Marican said, I will be sure to call you very often. I wish you all the very best as you continue on your “bold movement” for our next bound of nation building. Thank you, and happy 75th birthday.