Speech by DPM and Coordinating Minister for National Security, Teo Chee Hean, at the opening ceremony of the 17th General Assembly of the Regional Islamic Da’wah Council Of Southeast Asia And The Pacific (RISEAP) on 3 October 2017 at the Grand Hyatt Hotel.
“Strengthening Religious Harmony in Southeast Asia and the Pacific”
His Excellency Tun Pehin Sri Haji Abdul Taib Mahmud, Governor of Sarawak and President of the Regional Islamic Da’wah Council of Southeast Asia and the Pacific,
Minister for Communications and Information and Minister-in-charge-of Muslim Affairs Dr Yaacob Ibrahim,
Mufti of the Republic of Singapore, Dr Fatris Bakaram,
Mr Abdul Razak Maricar, Chief Executive, MUIS,
Distinguished RISEAP Delegates,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Good morning. A warm welcome to all delegates from the 24 RISEAP member territories to Singapore.
Providing Religious Guidance and Avoiding Conflict
The pioneers of RISEAP started the Council 37 years ago as a broad-based Islamic organisation for Muslim minority communities in Southeast Asia and the Pacific region to foster greater understanding and cooperation, and share best practices.
Religion is a powerful force for peace and good, unity and harmony. But it can also be misused for extremism and violence, which can divide and polarise societies. Where religion is overlaid upon differences in race or language, the situation can be even more sensitive.
How then can we draw upon the inherent good in religion to help strengthen the societies we live in, and avoid the pitfalls that the misuse of religion can draw our societies into? This is particularly important for minority communities, as minorities can thrive best in an open and welcoming society, and are conscribed the most when societies are divided.
What can we do to help build resilient and united communities where minorities can thrive in a society that we live in? Our Muslim community in Singapore has been living harmoniously with all communities in a cohesive, multi-racial and multi-religious society. This did not happen overnight for us and still requires all communities to continue to work together. Similarly, RISEAP member associations would have your own experiences to share as well, and this contributes greatly to the diversity and the sharing of experiences at this conference.
I would like to suggest three priorities that RISEAP and its members can work on to provide and promote religious harmony and strengthen multi-religious relations in our respective societies. First, to build open, inclusive and integrated societies. Second, to contextualise religious practices within multi-religious societies, and third, to counter extremism and violence in all forms.
Building Open, Inclusive and Integrated Societies
First, building open, inclusive and integrated societies. A strong foundation of mutual understanding and mutual respect will strengthen relations among all communities. This will help encourage integration, reduce the chances of conflict, provide assurance to all communities especially our minority communities, and enlarge the common space, so that all communities can be united in a common purpose.
Over the years, Singapore has implemented policies and programmes for all communities to mix and interact freely. Our public housing estates and precincts are by policy and by design integrated - with provisions for citizens of difference races and religions to live together, and go to school together. Land is set aside for religious institutions of the major faith groups to minister to the spiritual needs of residents. In the newest division in the electoral constituency that my team represents, there is a new mosque, a recently consecrated Catholic church, and a soon to be opened Buddhist temple. There are Hindu temples, Christian churches and Taoist temples in neighbouring divisions.
There are many opportunities for people from different religions to come together, celebrate festivities together and raise mutual understanding. It requires confidence and openness to reach out, and take the steps that will bring us together.
Many religious organisations in Singapore adopt inclusive practices and partner each other in their activities. Our mosques are very welcoming. They welcome non-Muslims to visit. And it is now common for non-Muslims in Singapore to join their Muslim friends at iftar or breaking fast during Ramadan, and learn more about Islam.
Just last week, I joined leaders of 26 religious organisations including Muslim organisations, and 5000 participants from all races and religions, to celebrate the 100th anniversary of Sheng Hong Taoist Temple.
Such activities show that through sincerity and hard work over time, we can move towards a stronger, more resilient, and more harmonious society for the benefit of all communities.
I am glad that RISEAP has signed a 3-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with the MUIS Academy to run an executive programme, “PRISM”, for RISEAP member associations. Together, we can promote inter-faith relations and religious harmony in all our societies.
Contextualising Religious Practices within Multi-Religious Societies
Second, religious leaders of all faiths can play a key role to help contextualise religious practices within the multi-religious milieu of our respective societies. This will help build togetherness, social harmony and unity.
Faith communities, including Muslims in our region, are not alone in contextualising their practices. In many parts of the world, Muslims live in diverse social milieus. And we also have many distinguished and learned Muslim thought-leaders who can impart the values and traditions of Islamic thought to guide Muslims on how they can live and thrive in plural societies.
I met former Mauritanian Minister for Islamic Affairs and renowned Muslim Scholar, His Eminence Shaykh Bin Bayyah, who visited Singapore earlier this year. His Eminence Shaykh Bin Bayyah is known for leading an assembly of senior global Muslim leaders on the “Marrakesh Declaration”. The Marrakesh Declaration calls on Muslim societies and leaders to give equal rights and protection to religious minorities in their societies. This is indeed a very generous and open gesture.
In his public lecture, he said that “to break down the barriers between communities is to bring different faiths together in an alliance of virtues through dialogue and inter-faith projects such as feeding the poor or sick. This can also help ease suspicion and misunderstanding.” Living by and acting on these shared values are important in nurturing a harmonious and compassionate society.
Islamic scholars such as Shaykh Bin Bayyah understand that Muslims can be active citizens who embrace diversity and the common good. Muslim organisations in RISEAP member territories also spread a powerful message of peace and goodwill when they collaborate to provide humanitarian assistance for communities affected by natural disasters, regardless of their faiths. Such efforts have given much hope for example, to the victims of the Nepal earthquake in 2015 and flood victims in South Asia in September last year.
By promoting inter-faith understanding and working closely with other religious groups, RISEAP member associations can show how Islam is inclusive and promotes peace and goodwill within the context of our multi-religious communities.
Countering Extremism and Violence in All Forms
Third, all communities must unite to counter extremism and violence in all forms.
Inter-communal tensions and distrust can be easily exploited by those seeking to divide society and advance their radical ideology. The situation in the Rakhine State in western Myanmar is a longstanding and complex inter-communal issue with deep historical roots. Such conflicts if unresolved can breed extremism and terrorism that could spread to threaten the region. All Parties involved should stop the violence, restore stability and allow humanitarian access to all those in need. Long-term viable solutions must be found through constructive dialogue. Singapore is prepared to help in whatever positive way we can. The Singapore Government and our community organisations from all faiths and walks of life have offered humanitarian aid to help all the affected communities regardless of religion or ethnicity.
To counter extremism and terrorism, we must also keep a close watch on exclusivist and divisive teachings or statements. Already, attackers claiming to act in the name of Islam have led to a rise in Islamophobia in some countries, triggering negative reactions among other communities. The Muslim communities in RISEAP territories must take a firm stand to reject extremism and join hands and unite with other communities to fight against the common threat which we all face on extremism and exclusivism.
The Religious Rehabilitation Group (or RRG) in Singapore is a volunteer group of ulama and asatizah who are helping to de-radicalise and rehabilitate individuals through counselling and reaching out to their families. To complement the RRG’s work, the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore or MUIS, has started a network to train religious teachers and youth organisations in counselling and counter-radicalisation. Our asatizah will also boost their social media presence to offer guidance to our youths. These important initiatives also reassure members of other communities that our Muslim community is taking firm steps, and doing all it can, to fight violent extremism to help keep Singapore peaceful and secure. And that we are all on the same side against exclusivism, extremism, and radicalism.
RISEAP associations can encourage more of such initiatives, which will help provide guidance for our youths, and inoculate the next generation against extremist propaganda.
Several governments, including Singapore, have taken a strong stand on divisive teachings by preachers of any religion, practices or statements that could cause ill-will among communities. Malaysia for example, has recently banned a preacher. Singapore has also banned preachers who advocate exclusivism and division among people of different faiths, most recently two Christian preachers.
We should focus on what we all have in common and let that unite us, rather than allow the actions of a misguided few to divide us.
RISEAP has promoted many useful exchanges among members since its founding in 1980, and I would like to congratulate you for that. A constant theme has been to promote harmonious inter-religious relations among all communities. This is even more important today, given the rise of religious and ethnic strife around the world, including in our own region. Indeed, in our Parliament of Singapore this afternoon, we will be debating a motion on “Staying united against the terrorism threat”.
By building open, inclusive and integrated societies and contextualising religious practices to our multi-religious societies, we can build bridges of trust and mutual understanding among all communities including our Muslim communities. This will provide a strong reservoir of trust as we counter extremism in all its forms together, and promote societal progress for all.
I would also like to commend the RISEAP member associations for your work on social and charitable causes for the betterment of all communities, and encourage you to carry on with the good work to foster cooperation and mutual learning among the Muslim communities of member territories.
Finally, I bid a warm welcome once again to our overseas friends. I wish you a good stay in Singapore. It is now my pleasure to declare the 17th RISEAP General Assembly open. I wish the conference great success. Thank you.
 Programme for RISEAP members
 Shaykh bin Bayyah, MUIS Lecture, 17 March 2017.
 Singaporean Rasul Dahri was jailed by Malaysian authorities in Johor in 2016 for teaching without proper accreditation. Several of his publications have been banned by Malaysa’s fatwa council as well. Sumisha Naidu, “Government bans extremist publications by radical Singapore preacher”, ChannelNewsAsia, 20 Jun 2017, http://www.channlenewsasia.com.
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