Keynote address by Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong at the inaugural International Conference on Communities of Success (ICCOS) on 9 September 2022 at Raffles City Convention Centre.
Ladies and Gentlemen
I am very happy to join you this evening at the inaugural International Conference on Communities of Success (ICCOS). I am particularly glad to see religious scholars, asatizah, policy makers and community leaders from Singapore and around the world. It is a valuable opportunity to share ideas and discuss how we can develop practical solutions to challenges faced by minority Muslim communities, build communities of success and enable diverse societies to thrive in today’s world.
Building Minority Muslim Communities of Success
Some countries are more diverse than others. But nowadays nearly every country is composed of different ethnic and religious groups, each has its own practices, customs, norms and beliefs.
It is not easy to hold diverse societies together. Many countries start off with the ideal and ambition to build tolerant and inclusive societies, to treat everyone equally regardless of race or religion. But along the way, with electoral politics and majoritarian instincts, the temptation to use race and religion to win votes is always there. Passions get roused. The result is sectarian division and mutual suspicion, and in more extreme cases, oppression and bloodshed. Once a society evolves in that direction, it is very difficult to turn back. It becomes a one-way street. So how can we all live harmoniously and successfully together in a diverse society?
This question particularly concerns societies with Muslim minorities. There are over 1.9 billion Muslims globally today. Around 400 million live as minorities in their countries, which means about a quarter. To them the matter is not straightforward. Firstly, because for many Muslims, Islam is not only a spiritual faith, but a comprehensive way of life. So for Muslim minorities to fully express their Islamic identity, while expanding what they share in common with non-Muslim fellow citizens, is an important yet delicate process. Secondly, since the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the global threat of jihadist terrorism has sowed suspicions, fear and Islamophobia and strained relations between Muslims and non-Muslims.
Countries with Muslim minorities have to ask ourselves: how do we build the right institutions, and foster the right attitudes and values in our society? How can individuals both be responsible and contributing Muslims, and at the same time responsible and contributing citizens? There is no single approach, because every society is different. But there is much that we can learn from each other.
Allow me to share some of Singapore’s experience. Singapore is a multi-racial and multi-religious society. Besides Muslims, we also have Buddhists, Christians, Taoists, Hindus, Jews, and many others. The Pew Research Centre ranks Singapore as one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world, if not, the most religiously diverse country in the world. We have a substantial minority of Muslims, about 15%. This religious minority also largely coincides with an ethnic minority: the Malays. In Singapore, the majority of Muslims are Malays, and nearly all Malays are Muslims. Both race and religion are important aspects of the community’s identity, and they self-identify as Malay/Muslim Singaporeans.
Today, in Singapore, we are fortunate that racial and religious relations are generally harmonious and peaceful. But it has not always been the case. More than half a century ago, in our early years of nation-building. Singapore experienced several serious communal riots. Dozens of people were killed, and hundreds injured. We experienced first-hand the dangers of distrust and division when sensitive issues of race and religion were mismanaged and exploited in a diverse society. These painful lessons have become important reminders of our need to maintain peace and harmony.
Role of Government
The Government has played an important role in setting the overall direction and tone for Singapore society. Our starting point is that it is possible for individuals to be good Muslims – or for that matter, good Christians, Buddhists, or Hindus – while also being good citizens. From the very beginning of our republic, our founding fathers were determined to uphold the principle of equality – “regardless of race, language or religion”. This fundamental principle was enshrined in our National Pledge as an ideal and aspiration for all of us to work towards, generation after generation. The Government fought with single-minded determination to uphold multi-racialism, to bring the different races and religions together, and to reject sectarian or majoritarian politics.
Many of our policies and laws have been designed to uphold this principle. We safeguarded the rights of our minority communities. For example, we created a Presidential Council for Minority Rights to scrutinise all legislation to ensure that they do not discriminate against any race or religious group. We expanded common spaces in our society, for example, by ensuring a diverse and balanced mix of racial groups in public housing estates so that the public housing estates are racially integrated and not segregated by race. We provided a secular national curriculum in schools, even schools affiliated to religious groups, and we passed special laws to protect our harmony and combat misinformation that can create distrust across communities. For example, we have a special Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act (MRHA), and Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA). These efforts and policies help to prevent minority groups from becoming marginalised, and to ensure they have the space to pursue their cultural and religious practices.
Role of Muslim Community
The minority communities, including Muslims, also contribute and do their part to maintain racial and religious harmony and social cohesion. They approach issues with a spirit of mutual understanding and accommodation. They understand that because of our multiracial context, some things have to be done differently from elsewhere. Singapore has been fortunate to have had Muslim religious leaders who have understood this fundamental point. In 1949, a Muslim scholar, Maulana Abdul Aleem Siddique, proposed forming the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO), to bring followers of different faiths together in a fellowship of peace. The IRO has continued to actively foster religious tolerance and harmony, now for more than 70 years.
With good mutual understanding, we have been able to tackle amicably the delicate issues which inevitably arise when different groups live closely intermingled with one another. One example is the practice of the Azan, the Muslim call to prayer. In some countries, this call to prayer is made by mosques over loudspeakers. It was so in Singapore too. But given our high urban-density, with people of different faiths living close to one another, this practice would not have been tenable in Singapore over the long run. Muslim Singaporeans understood the need to make pragmatic adjustments in accordance with their religious values. This included broadcasting the Azan call over national radio instead, and at the same time, turning the loudspeakers in mosques inwards to avoid inconveniencing nearby residents, many of whom are non-Muslim. Because Muslims took this pragmatic approach, we have been able to build mosques within dense public housing estates, and have them be accepted and welcomed by their neighbours who belonged to all faiths.
It is also important that minority communities maintain the trust and confidence of other groups in society. This includes dispelling fears and suspicions over the spread of extremist ideologies and terrorist threats. In Singapore, our Muslim leaders work closely with the Government and community partners to guide the community in the right direction. For example, after we arrested the Jemaah Islamiyah group which was plotting terror attacks in Singapore, several senior asatizah came together to form the Religious Rehabilitation Group (RRG). The RRG worked to rehabilitate those who had been radicalised, through religious counselling. They guided the broader community on the proper interpretation of Islam. They helped to maintain mutual trust between Muslims and non-Muslims.
All this requires strong and respected religious leadership. I am glad that Singapore’s Islamic religious authority, Muis, and our Muftis have built up their experience and standing in the community over the years. Muis sets the norms for our asatizah. It administers an Asatizah Recognition Scheme, to ensure that our religious teachers and scholars better understand the Singapore context and are equipped to guide the community to understand and respond to complex socio-religious issues.
To stay on top of its responsibilities, Muis must continue to invest in Singapore’s Islamic religious leadership. For example, through programmes and scholarships to equip aspiring asatizah with the knowledge and skills to serve the community. It is also important to continually expand religious knowledge. Last year, Muis introduced the Research Programme in the Study of Muslim Communities of Success (RPCS). This aims to build religious knowledge to deal with emerging issues related to governance, science, and technology. It will help Muis provide contextualised guidance rooted in Islamic teachings. I encourage institutions and religious scholars to work with Muis through this research programme, for the benefit of Muslim communities around the world.
Beyond being good Muslims, minority communities also need to participate fully in the economic and social life of their country. In Singapore, we do this first by our policies to ensure full and equal opportunities for all. We also we have many community initiatives that enable individuals to participate and help the Muslim community to do well. For example, the government supports a self-help group, MENDAKI – some of you visited it this afternoon – which leads efforts to uplift the Malay/Muslim community through education. Another forum is the People’s Association Malay Activity Executive Committees Council (PA MESRA), which organises many outreach programs to strengthen cohesion.
Through these collective efforts, working with the government, the Muslim community in Singapore has made considerable progress over the decades.
Role of the Majority Community
But it is not only minority communities which must make the effort. Majority groups also have to do their part. To reject majoritarian politics, to adopt an attitude of compromise and accommodation, and to build cohesion in a diverse society. For instance, after Singapore separated from Malaysia, we made English the working language and not Mandarin. This ensured that minority communities could fully participate economically and socially, and not be put at a disadvantage. More recently we made changes to our Elected President system. To ensure that every citizen, whichever ethnic group he belongs to, knows that someone from his community can become the President one day, and in fact does become President from time to time. These important steps were not uncontroversial at first, but over time have been well accepted by Singaporeans.
In fact, in a multi-racial society, the majority group has to go one step further. To always recognise and respect the interests of the minorities; to realise that in any society, it is harder to belong to a minority than a majority group; and to be especially mindful never to make the minority groups feel left out.
Fortunately, Chinese Singaporeans, as the majority racial group in Singapore, understand this. Perhaps it was easier because while Chinese Singaporeans are the majority race, they belong to different faiths. No religious group forms a majority in Singapore. But even so, it has not all been sweetness and light.
From time to time, individuals or groups have overstepped the limits and caused offence to other groups, or tried to exploit race and religion to cause trouble or gain support. The Government has had to stand firm, call out and take action against those working up these divisive passions and convince Singaporeans that that is the surest way to destroy our harmonious society. The Government has done so even at the risk of losing political support and votes. But this has been essential to uphold our fundamental value of multiracialism, and to protect the delicate balance in our diverse society.
That is how Singapore has been able to get here, with everyone living harmoniously with one another. Everyone understands what is at stake. Everyone accepts that no group can get everything it wants. Everyone supports the overriding need to compromise, adjust, and accommodate the sensitivities of other faiths. Expand our common space; and build a reservoir of trust and respect amongst all Singaporeans.
This way, we can continue building a multi-racial and multi-religious nation where every Singaporean – regardless of race, language or religion – is a valued and respected member of society, and where Singaporean Muslims like all other groups in Singapore can develop their own unique Singaporean identities, different from that of other Muslim communities across the world.
Singapore has come a long way in our journey. But building a cohesive multi-racial and multi-religious society will forever be a work in progress. Times and circumstances change, new generations have different life experiences and expectations, and from time to time we need to address new and sensitive issues.
One example is the wearing of the Muslim headscarf, or tudung, in the healthcare sector. For many years, we did not allow Muslim nurses in public hospitals to wear the tudung. All nurses wore exactly the same uniform, so that patients would be less likely to prefer one nurse or the other, depending on her religion. But over time, the desire of Muslim women to wear the tudung grew. We recognised this desire, and sought to accommodate the sincere wish of some Muslim nurses to wear the tudung with their uniforms.
But before changing the uniform rules, we spent years preparing the ground. We waited till non-Muslims became more comfortable interacting with Muslims wearing tudung. We held many consultations with different community groups and religious leaders. We made sure that both Muslims and non-Muslims understood what we were doing and what our aim was. Finally, last year, we made the change, and I am happy that it has gone smoothly and been well accepted. Looking back, I am glad we moved cautiously and with the support and understanding of religious leaders. I am also grateful for the forbearance and patience of the Muslim community, who waited quite a while for this to happen.
Another example of a sensitive issue is a live matter that we are dealing with now – the repeal of Section 377A of the Penal Code, which is a law from the British colonial period criminalising sex between men. Islam considers homosexual acts to be sinful. Many Christians think so too. But what some religions consider a sin should not necessarily therefore be made a crime. Like every human society, Singapore also has gay people in our midst and like other Singaporeans, gay people want to be respected and accepted, just like their fellow citizens.
For reasons that the government has explained, we intend to repeal s377A, and to decriminalise sex between men. But at the same time we do not want the repeal to: trigger any drastic shift in our societal norms; lead to same-sex marriage; or affect the many government policies that are based on the existing definition of marriage, namely a union between a man and a woman. Thus we will uphold and safeguard the institution of marriage, and intend to amend the Constitution to protect the existing definition of marriage from being challenged on constitutional grounds in the courts. Muslims are not directly affected by this, because their marriages are governed separately by Muslim law. But understandably, they are concerned too. Hence we have reassured Muslims that they will remain free to preach and practise what Islam teaches on sexuality and marriage. And the broader social context within which Muslims live will not suddenly change.
In a multi-religious society, the government must take a neutral and secular approach. But the government will also recognise and respect the different legitimate views and aspirations among Singaporeans, and balance them fairly in order to reach a political accommodation. With give-and-take, all groups can live and let live, and get along together. It is the only way for us.
By handling these difficult issues firmly and fairly, we maintain the mutual trust and understanding between different communities, we prevent tensions from building up, and enable all groups to make progress together on the challenges facing our nation.
I have explained how we have sought to build a successful minority Muslim community in Singapore. Ours is not the only way, nor is there just one correct answer. We all have much to learn from one other. Let us continue to exchange ideas and practices to develop Muslim communities of success, including at platforms such as ICCOS.
I wish everyone a fruitful and meaningful conference.
Thank you very much.
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