Monday, October 14, 2019

S’pore has done much to forge a cohesive, multiracial society, but two challenges remain

By Han Fook Kwang

01 May, 2019

It was, fittingly, President Halimah Yacob who announced that Singapore would be holding its first international conference on social cohesion and inter-faith harmony in June this year.

It shows the high level of support from the country’s leadership on issues related to religious harmony.

Indeed, soon after making the announcement, she spoke at a remembrance ceremony organised by the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) to honour those killed during the terror attack on two mosques in Christchurch in March.

The IRO, formed in 1949, with 10 major religions represented, has had a long history in Singapore of promoting understanding and goodwill.

Why is inter-faith harmony taken so seriously in Singapore, including at the highest level of government? There are several reasons.

First, Singapore is a multi-ethnic, multi-religious state where more than five million people live in one of the most densely populated cities in the world.

When so many citizens of different races and religions live side by side, in the same housing estate, working in the same company, enjoying the same recreational facilities, and with children going to the same school, it is a matter of national survival that they co-exist peacefully and respect each other’s differences.

It was not so not long ago, in the early years of Singapore’s independence in the 1960s, that racial tension between ethnic Chinese and Malays led to clashes and deadly riots. Since those divisive days, the country’s leaders and people have strived to ensure racial harmony is not taken for granted.

But multiracialism is more than about keeping the peace. For Singapore, it is nothing less than what defines it as a nation, with an inclusive outlook that is accepting of people from all over the world.

That was how it grew as a city under British rule, attracting people from all parts of Asia, especially India, China and South-east Asia.

Singapore’s largely immigrant stock was a major factor in making it a thriving society open to changes and new ideas, always striving to be better than its neighbours.

But diversity also meant that misunderstanding and distrust was only a neighbouring household away, and had to be carefully managed by the community and the authorities.

This reality shaped Singapore’s identity from the beginning, and its founding Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew was its most committed proponent.

When asked during an interview in 2010 for the book Hard Truths To Keep Singapore Going, which I co-authored, how he would define a Singaporean, he replied:

“My definition of a Singaporean, which will make us different from any others, is that we accept that whoever joins us is part of us…An acceptance of multiracialism, a tolerance of people of different races, languages, cultures, religions, and an equal basis for competition. That’s what will stand out…”
Note that he did not define Singapore in terms of meritocracy or clean, competent government or economic success, which many people might identify more strongly with.

For him, racial and religious harmony ranked foremost. Subsequent generations of Singaporeans have continued to uphold this, which explains why inter-faith issues are taken so seriously.

So, how has Singapore managed the diversity even as it tried to forge a nation out of these differences? The Government played a critical role.

First, the Constitution protects the right of every citizen to practise his or her religion. But there are also strict laws such as the Sedition Act and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act which make it an offence to say or do anything that might cause ill feeling or enmity between different groups.

Over the years the police have investigated and taken action against over zealous Christian and Muslim preachers alike.

In a speech in Parliament in March, Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam summed up the Singapore approach: “We have the current harmony because we did all this…We took no chances. We brook no agitation of race and religion. We refused to let the State bow to any religious or racial group, minority or majority.”

But it would be a mistake to believe that the Singapore way is all fire and brimstone. In fact, tough action has been required in only a few instances.

More important, the State has worked with religious leaders to tackle common problems through organisations such as the IRO and the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circles, a local level inter-faith platform formed in every electoral constituency to promote racial and religious harmony.

These interactions have enabled the Government to work with religious leaders to tackle serious problems such as self-radicalisation of individuals by extremist groups, and more mundane municipal issues such as the use of public spaces for funeral rites, the wearing of religious attire and symbols and the conduct of religious processions outdoors.

These discussions do much to build trust and understanding between the various stakeholders and among leaders of the different religions.


Two challenges will test this peaceful state of affairs.

First, the ease with which fake news and hate speech can be propagated online will make it harder to insulate Singapore and Singaporeans from outside influence. Much of this is organised by extremist groups across national boundaries.

While many governments including Singapore are planning new laws to protect their societies, there are no easy solutions. Indeed, the problem is expected to get worse because there is popular distrust worldwide of governments which are perceived as elitist and detached from the citizenry.

When economic and social challenges are not addressed, vulnerable people are most susceptible to false claims and radicalisation. Singapore will not be immune to this problem.

The second inter-faith challenge is internal and concerns the strength of its social cohesion. Is it based on mere tolerance of each other or is there deep and genuine understanding?

The question has often been raised, including as far back as in 1972 by the late President Benjamin Sheares:
“Tolerance can be based on ignorance and lack of faith. But active tolerance seeks what there is in common…”
Almost 50 years later, the issue is still, if not even more, relevant. A society overly dependent on tough laws and an over-active Government can breed apathy and complacency.

Such a people when truly tested, for example in a terror attack claiming many lives, may not have truly developed the instinct to come together and overcome their prejudices.

With the increasing number of incidents worldwide involving attacks on religious groups, including the latest in Sri Lanka where more than 350 were killed, the work to strengthen resilience and social cohesion has become more urgent.

For Singapore, as Mr Lee put it, it is ultimately about what defines a Singaporean.


Han Fook Kwang is Senior Fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University. This first appeared in RSIS Commentary.

[I have been sitting on this article (since May 2019) because I wanted to comment on it. Particularly the second part or second challenge identified by Han: Tolerance. He quotes Benjamin Sheares: Tolerance can be based on ignorance... Active Tolerance seeks what is common.

I fear "active tolerance" may well lead to derision, intolerance, and conflict. Unless I misunderstand the scope of Sheares suggestion of "Active Tolerance".

Put it this way: is there any teaching of your religion that could be taken out of context, made fun of, or ridiculed? No? How... fortunate.

The truth is Tolerance is Intolerable
Because if you believe in the One True God, then what of other believers of other faiths? Obviously their gods are false. Then how can one tolerate those of other faiths?

Obviously only in a patronising way. Not necessarily overtly patronising. But in your heart of hearts, you KNOW you are the follower of the One True God (OTG, reg'd trademark), and those of other faiths are obviously wrong, deluded, and hell-bound.
How else can you tolerate them except with the Knowledge that they are wrong, but you have to keep your mouth shut because, hey - multi-culti, diverse and fruity, let's all just get along or the ISD will get you for sedition?

So we "tolerate" other faiths.

It is probably the wrong kind of tolerance. The kind that never goes anywhere. The kind that doesn't grow into anything positive or productive. The kind that keeps everything seething under the surface. The kind that says, "you stay on your side and I'll stay on my side. Good fence makes good neighbours."
But isn't there room for compromise? For Respect, Tolerance, and Compromise?
"Respect, Tolerance, and Compromise" is easier said than done.
To take an issue out of Singapore (to allow for some distance and perhaps objectivity), consider the Abortion issue - a hot issue in the west, specifically the US.
If you are "Pro-Life" you believe that life begins at conception (or very soon after), and abortion is murder.
If you are "Pro-Choice", you believe that a woman has full autonomy over her person and should have the right to control what happens to her person. Forcing a woman to have a child against her will is a form of subjugation/slavery.
How does one arrive at a compromise? For a pro-lifer to compromise, it is to allow murder. For a pro-choice to compromise, it is to surrender their autonomy and personhood, and allow others to dictate what can be done to them.
The point is, as long as values (and morality is a set of values) inform your position on issues, how do you COMPROMISE on your values? If you value your values, but they are so easily compromised, you don't really value them, do you?
Or by "compromise", what you mean is that the OTHER party should compromise their misinformed, heathen values, because obviously YOUR values are true and divinely informed?
How do you TOLERATE other values when they are so obviously misinformed, and clearly wrong? Because if they are not wrong, it would mean that YOU may be wrong. If their values are correct, shouldn't you adopt those values? If those values are correct, then yours MUST be wrong. And if THEIR values are wrong, tolerating them is... intolerable. Or you are just humouring them. For the sake of "harmony".
How do you RESPECT other values, when they are so clearly pagan/heathen/simply superstitions masquerading as religious values? Because if their values are based on TRUTH, then how can yours be based on Truth as well, and be opposed to their values?
"Tolerance, Respect, and Compromise" are easier said than done. All of the above rests on two other virtues. The first of which is Humility.
Humility. I'll elaborate on that a little later, but let me complete my screed on "tolerance" and "compromise".

"What is Tolerance?" Or intolerance?
If there is a nuisance that affects us and we cannot do anything about it, so we bear with the nuisance. Are we being tolerant?
Isn't tolerance more than just forbearance of the unavoidable, the unchangeable? Shouldn't tolerance be more than just the stoical acceptance of (unavoidable, unmitigable) discomfort/nuisance?
Shouldn't tolerance imply some restraint on your part? (and no, not complaining or not grumbling about the nuisance or discomfort is not sufficient as a "restraint".)
Shouldn't tolerance mean having the power or the means to do something about a nuisance BUT refraining from doing so, because perhaps that "nuisance" may be important to others?
From an unpublished blogpost:
You may have read this "prayer", usually called the Prayer of Serenity.
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
Serenity to accept what cannot be changed.
Courage to change what can be changed.
Wisdom to know the difference.
Serenity is easily understood. There are many times in our lives when we face insurmountable difficulties or intractable and unavoidable circumstances. Generally, we try to manage to unavoidable, and avoid the unmanageable.
But there are times when the unmanageable is also unavoidable.
Or the world presents a craziness that just doesn't make sense to us. We cannot understand how the world can be so messed up.
And that is when we most appreciate the value of the gift of serenity.
Courage is also easily understood and easy to pray for, wish for. There are times when what is unacceptable is not immutable or unavoidable. The situation can be made better. The catch is YOU have to make it better, and therein lies the risks and the challenge.
Sometime it would be EASIER to just let things slide. Sometimes it is easier to tolerate what is intolerable because the alternative is to try to change the intolerable.
So that is when we pray for COURAGE. Courage to take up the challenge to change the situation, to make it better, to make a better world for everyone.
Or maybe just for yourself.
Not every act of courage need to be world-changing or an act of altruism.
So, courage. To do what is necessary to change what is intolerable.
That's noble, right?
And then Wisdom to know the difference between what *I* cannot change, and what *I* can change.
Wisdom. To understand the limits of your capability, your power, your influence.
Wisdom to know what you cannot change (and so learn to accept with Serenity), and what you CAN change (and should with Courage).
The WISDOM to know the difference between what you can and cannot change?
That is not... wisdom. That is simply... self-awareness. That's awareness of the extent of your power, authority, influence, and ability.
What about the ability to know what you SHOULD or SHOULD NOT change? What about the HUMILITY to see that what is INTOLERABLE to you may simply be YOUR perspective?
What about Understanding? What about TRUE wisdom which is to know what you SHOULD change, and what you SHOULD NOT change even if you could?
I have met a few people in my life - go-getters with drive and a "won't take 'no' for an answer" approach to life.
You know who else won't take 'no' for an answer?
So why do we hold people with the attitude of rapists in such high regard?
So you have to ask, what is the reason for your tolerance?

Because you cannot change it?
Singapore is a multi-religious society, with people of many Faiths, following different religions, and believing in different gods. But for the sake of harmony, for the sake of social cohesion, I shall pretend that my "friends" who believe in a different god (probably a demon), and have weird beliefs about what they can or cannot eat in other to go to heaven (they are all going to hell, because they believe in the wrong god - demon - anyway), are rational human beings and I will tolerate their different beliefs. They are all going to hell anyway, but they don't want me to help them personally accept the One True God as their personal Lord and Saviour and be saved because social cohesion and harmony. 
So tolerance.

So, if you could change it, you will try to evangelise every Singaporean then?

Because you should have the COURAGE of your conviction and should try to CHANGE the things you can, or at least try to?
True tolerance, and a true test of your humility is tolerating what you have power to change.
Amended Prayer of Tranquility and Tolerance:

“Grant me the serenity to accept what I cannot change, 
The courage to change what I can,
The wisdom to know the difference,
And the humility to tolerate what I can change but perhaps shouldn’t.”

The key is not tolerance. At least not tolerance by itself. Tolerating the immutable is not tolerance. It is simply forbearance. Bearing with the undesirable because there is nothing you can do about it is no tolerance.

Humility is the ability to consider or accept that YOUR perspective is not necessarily correct or should prevail.

And that, is the tolerance we need in Singapore.

The problem is that religions are not the same. 

Some religions are very personal, and are mainly concerned with your own personal conduct and behaviour. And they may be more like philosophies (about life and how to conduct oneself in life), then "true religions". But then again, my idea of a "true religion" means it should have heaven and hell and afterlife, and reward and punishment for how you lived your life, and perhaps whether you had personally accepted the One True God as your personal Lord and Saviour or some such declaration of faith.

The "philosophical religion" are therefore like the first part of Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Effective People - the first three habits are concerned mainly with personal effectiveness. 

The... (let's call them) "evangelical religions" are more like the full 7 Habits. Besides personal effectiveness, it also has an imperative to "spread the word" (Apologies for misrepresenting Covey's 7 Habits. This is simply an analogy, not an accurate representation of Covey's 7 Habits).

To be clear, the first part is personal effectiveness, and the second part is about working effectively with and within the team. Well, the first 3 habits and the next 3 habits. 

The Seventh Habit is "Sharpening the Saw". Or was it Axe?

Telling a Buddhist, or a Taoist (or other "philosophical religions") to be tolerant is not a big deal. Forbearance is part of their teaching.

However, there are evangelical religions (who shall remain nameless), where the Faithful are called to spread the word and to convert the infidels. Or recruit new members. 

Like some pyramid scam.

Those faithful need to have the humility to accept that there are other perspectives and they don't get to say that theirs should prevail.

If it helps, think of someone of another faith as a neighbour who claims that his wife is the most beautiful, and his children are geniuses.

You should just nod and respect his opinion without challenging or giving offence. Of course, if your neighbour is a good neighbour, he won't say such silly things to you when your wife is obviously the most beautiful, and your children are all talents and geniuses.

In other words, when faced with another person's faith, treat it as an opinion. Also understand that others have no duty to treat your faith and conviction as anything other than your opinion. 

And that takes humility.

If you can tolerate that.

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