Speech by PM Lee Hsien Loong at the Inter-Religious Organisation's 70th anniversary gala dinner on 26 August 2019.
Emeritus Senior Minister, Mr Goh Chok Tong
Venerable Seck Kwang Phing, President of IRO
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen
A very good evening to all of you. It gives me great pleasure to join you this evening at the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO)’s 70th Anniversary celebrations.
This year, Singapore is also commemorating its Bicentennial. We are reflecting on our longer history, and how Singapore has become today’s multi-racial and multi-religious nation. In fact, Singapore is the most religiously diverse country on the planet, as the Pew Research Centre has found. So, this is an opportunity to also remind ourselves that religious harmony is one precious legacy that we must treasure.
IRO was founded in 1949. Syed Ibrahim Omar Alsagoff, President of the All-Malaya Muslim Missionary Society (Jamiyah), held a dinner in honour of a visiting Muslim missionary, and invited other religious leaders. At Alsagoff’s home, the group vigorously discussed the need for more religious unity and cooperation. So, the IRO was formed; from the hearts of wise men, working for the common good. Since then, generations of IRO leaders have carried on this responsibility. The major faiths are now represented under your umbrella. You play an important role in our civic life. Doing good together through charity projects; bestowing blessings at milestone events; helping members of different faiths learn about one another; leading by example, you have guided your communities to treat one other with respect; and you have helped to build mutual trust, so that we can discuss and deal with sensitive issues that arise from time to time; at moments of interfaith tensions, you can be a stabiliser, offering wise and calm words of counsel. I would like to thank IRO’s pioneers, and the generations of leaders who have come after them for all your good work over 70 years. Thank you very much.
We have succeeded in building religious harmony in Singapore, because we treat religious matters very seriously, deliberately and actively. The Constitution guarantees every person the right to profess and practise his religion, and grants every religion the right to manage its own religious affairs. The state is strictly secular. The Government is completely impartial to all faiths. Our laws and public policies are not based on the teachings of any particular religion. We also encourage different races and religions to mix and integrate with one another, and to expand the common spaces where we can all come together. Thus, Singaporeans study, work, live, and serve National Service together. It is common to see churches, temples, and mosques all located close together. Like along Telok Ayer Street or South Bridge Road; or even in the same building, like Loyang Tua Pek Kong Temple, which houses statues of Taoist, Buddhist and Hindu deities, all under one roof. So, in Singapore people of different faiths not only co-exist peacefully, they also look out for one another and provide extra helping hands when the need arises. For example, helping each other out with managing traffic, sharing premises and joining in celebrations of each other’s festivals.
Another factor that has helped us live harmoniously together is our appreciation of our place in the world. The world’s great religions are represented here in Singapore, but none of these religions are indigenous to Singapore. They have all existed for centuries, if not millennia. They have millions or even billions of followers worldwide. The future of these religions in the world is secure; and does not depend on what happens here in Singapore. Therefore, there is no need for people of any faith to be anxious or defensive over religious trends in Singapore.
However, this same broader context makes it hard to insulate ourselves from religious problems elsewhere. We try our best to practise our faiths in ways that are appropriate to our multi-racial and multi-religious context. But all the faiths defer to superior religious authorities based elsewhere; their followers feel that they belong to a global community of the faithful. This keeps our religious groups up to date with developments abroad, but it also exposes us to other people’s problems. For example, the culture wars in the US; or the emergence of radical terrorist groups in the Middle East, based on distorted views of Islam.
These are not our problems nor are they our battles. We must remember this, if we are to live harmoniously with one another in Singapore’s multicultural society. Religion is a deeply personal and sensitive matter. It concerns our conscience and conviction. It provides us with a sense of the meaning and purpose of life, builds sound character, and teaches us to be compassionate and to empathise with others. To be one people, one nation and one Singapore, we must respect people who have different faiths than ourselves, accommodate each other and adjust our religious practices. It is the only way we can maintain a culture of tolerance, and live amicably together in a dense urban environment. Whether it is the burning of joss sticks during the 7th month of the lunar calendar, or the sounding of the azan at our mosques, or the ringing of bells at churches and Hindu temples; we need to make adjustments, accommodate, be tolerant and forbearing towards one another.
You only need to look around us – and not too far away too – to recognise that the prevailing trends are towards intolerance, extremism and inter-religious strife. Even in countries where different groups have lived together for centuries, race and religion still remain sensitive issues which can be stirred up and exploited. For example, in Sri Lanka, Buddhists, Hindus and Muslims had a long history of peaceful co-existence; but since its independence in 1948, Sri Lanka has been riven by ethnic and religious tensions, conflict and violence. In the Philippines, where the divide between the Christian and Catholic north and the Muslim south is a deep and enduring fault line, which successive governments have tried hard to bridge. Against that backdrop, what we have in Singapore is very precious, rare, and remarkable.
Singapore too has experienced religious strife in the past; thankfully before many of this present generation were born. In the decades since independence, we have made enormous progress building mutual trust and confidence. We have become a more cohesive nation, and are now able to discuss sensitive matters more openly and candidly, in order to address problems and better appreciate one another’s point of view. But we do not allow unfettered and rambunctious discussion on religion; or even worse — provocative or blasphemous cartoons, performances and videos; nor are we likely to do so for a very long time to come. We have no illusions about the depths of the religious fault lines in our society, and the harm that will befall us if we neglect to manage them.
That is why we passed the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA) in 1990, to set the ground rules for all groups, and to help us to police them. The MRHA established the Presidential Council for Religious Harmony, which has given good advice on dealing with sensitive religious matters which arise from time to time. The government has never had to invoke its powers under the MRHA. The very existence of the Act has helped us to maintain the peace and harmony which people sometimes take for granted.
Over the last 30 years, the situation has changed significantly. The proliferation of social media has made it much easier for people to cause offence through spreading vitriol and falsehoods, and for others to take offence. That is why we will table amendments to the MRHA in Parliament next week, to enable us to deal with new threats comprehensively and in a timely manner. We have consulted religious leaders widely on the proposed amendments and are very grateful for their support.
Legislation is only one part of our approach to maintaining religious harmony. We must also have religious and government leaders who are broad-minded and enlightened, understand the context in which we operate, and set an example for others to spread the message of tolerance and understanding.
I am heartened that the younger IRO leaders have been doing this. You have reached out to non-religious groups and networks, which are also promoting interfaith dialogue. You have tackled difficult questions about the role and relevance of religion in our society today, in an open and honest manner. Including holding lectures and forums, such as the recent “From Inter-Religious Dialogue to Inter-Worldview Dialogue”, which included a discussion on atheism.
We also value deeply the contributions and guidance of our elder leaders, who have seen and experienced what can go wrong if misunderstandings arise; and hence speak with conviction and weight. One fine example is the late Mr SR Nathan, whom the IRO is honouring posthumously today. Mr Nathan served as the IRO’s Patron from 2012 to 2016. He exemplified what the IRO stood for, was passionate about the IRO’s mission, and provided invaluable advice and wisdom. Amongst his many achievements, Mr Nathan will always be remembered for caring deeply about building a harmonious society. I am very happy that Mrs Nathan is able to join us tonight to accept the award.
Once again, I thank you – the IRO – for your service and the role you have played in the past 70 years. I hope you will keep up your efforts. In particular, to remain a focal point for Singaporeans. Especially the younger generation, to learn about religious harmony and impart to them the spirit of give-and-take. To engage other religious groups that are not yet members of the IRO, work with them and perhaps bring them into the fold one day. May you remain steadfast in your efforts and continue to play an important role in Singapore.
Congratulations and happy birthday.
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