Thought of the day

I thank whatever gods may be / For my unconquerable soul. / I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul. ~William Ernest Henley, Invictus

Government's promises are like the Ringgit, they depreciate with time.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

National Day Rally speech (Part 3 - Social cohesion)

Critical to our long-term success other than building the social safety nets like health care is maintaining our social cohesion and particularly looking after our racial and religious harmony.

We've discussed potential fault lines in our society quite often, between the rich and the poor, between Singaporeans and new-arrivals. You see letters in the newspapers all the time.

But the most visceral and dangerous fault line is race and religion. And people don't discuss that so much. So I asked myself why. And I think there are two possible reasons opposite to each other.

One is they may think we have no problem because we are living peacefully and harmoniously for so long. But two, perhaps people know this is a very sensitive subject and they are awkward to talk about it, maybe to tread on some sensitive ground, shy away from it.

I think there's some truth in both explanations. Yes, we are in a good position but, yes, we are aware of the sensitivities.
Yet, from time to time, we have to discuss it honestly but tactfully to assess the progress we've made, to address the trends, recognise the trends in our society and the world around us and to remind ourselves to do better and to tell ourselves where we need to do better.

We've made a lot of progress over the last 40 years in building our harmony and cohesion.

We've integrated our people, we've enabled all communities to move ahead. We've built a stronger sense of Singaporean identity and the religious groups have contributed a great deal to this progress.

The leaders of the groups have guided their flocks wisely, they've helped to set a wholesome and moral tone to our society.

And they do a lot of good work, not just for their own flocks but for all groups. And they've respected and accommodated one another, made practical compromises so that all can live harmoniously together in a uniquely Singaporean way.

I know it first-hand. I went to a Catholic school, it gave me a good education and now as an MP seeing cases I know the good work which the church groups, the mosque groups, the temple groups do.

Recently, I saw a case, man came to see me. He had a house problem. He said, please help me solve this problem. I have spent 23 years in jail in and out. I've now turned over a new leaf. Please don't let me go back to where I was again.
And he showed me his proudest possession, a certificate of completion of a Bible study course which had helped him to turn over and know what is right and what is wrong. So I tried my best to help him. I'm not sure whether the problem will finally be solved but here was one man whose life had been changed vastly for the better.

We may take this for granted in Singapore but our visitors are astonished.

Recently I met the Grand Mufti of Syria. He came here to deliver the Muis Lecture and I spent some time with him. I learnt a lot from him.

He told me that racial and religious diversity was a great treasure for a nation state. He was deeply impressed by how we had embraced diversity in Singapore. And he shared with me this parable.

He said, imagine a mother with 4 children, a Christian, a Buddhist, a Muslim, a Jew, 4 children. Which child should the mother love most? So he says, it's an impossible question. Of course the mother will love all of them equally because they are all her children but she will most approve of the one who takes best care of his or her other three siblings.

So I replied to him, I said, thank you very much for your compliment but I didn't feel that Singapore had completely arrived and we still have to be careful because racial and religious conflicts can still pull us apart.

So let me explain why this is so, from a micro point of view and from a macro point of view.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw a programme on TV, Discovery Channel's Six Degrees, Lonely Planet Six Degrees on the Discovery channel.

It was about Singapore and all the things you can do, food, entertainment and so on and the climax of the programme, the presenter was going to watch a Malay band perform at a Malay wedding in a void deck and the band leader was guiding the lady to the location.

On the way, they saw some tentage put up. He said, what's that? Is that the wedding. So the band leader, he was a Malay boy, said, no, that's not the wedding, that's a Chinese funeral, in the same void deck.

And he explained, he says, a void deck can be used for weddings, funerals, also to play soccer. I think the last part's not quite right. But he said, you can't watch pornography and other things.

But he added, Malays, Chinese and Indians, we stay together in the same block so when you have your cultural events, it all comes together. And that is what usually happens in Singapore. But sometimes things go wrong, like the case which I described in my Chinese speech just now.

Two families both want the same place. Malay family wants a wedding, Chinese family wants a funeral, then there's a tussle.

In the incident which I described, fortunately the Malay family graciously agreed to move nearby to a different void deck even they had the first claim after mediation by the grassroots leaders and the MP and the Town Council facilitated this, they waved charges and they put up posters to inform the wedding guests to go to the right place. And so everything ended amicably. But it could easily have been otherwise.

I cite this example not to criticise one group or another but to point out that such sensitive incidents are bound to arise from time to time in Singapore.

They are very rare, many one incident in 300 funerals.

How do I know?

We collect statistics on everything.

Ya, it is about one every 300 funerals. Usually it's handled uneventfully by the Town Councils, sometimes the Malay wedding moves, sometimes the Chinese funeral moves.

This case was unusual because both parties stood firm at the beginning. Fortunately after mediation, one side decided to give way.

But if such an incident had been wrongly handled, and you have a case which escalates into a racial or religious conflict, then one case is bad enough.

To solve such problems, to live peacefully together we need good sense and tolerance on all sides, and a willingness to give and take because otherwise whatever the rules, there will be no end of possible causes of friction - noise, auction 7th moon, parking because of the mosque or because of the church, joss sticks because the stray ashes will blow somewhere, dog hair. I was briefing our MPs on this case and this background recently and one MP says: "They had a case, resident e-mailed him, Malay resident.Upstairs neighbour, dog hair dropping on their clothes. Very angry."

I said I would be very angry too. I'm not Malay but I would be upset too.

So cheek by jowl there will be no end of episodes where we will rub against one another. And without tolerance and forbearance we will have a problem. That's the micro point of view. You don't see it because we don't report a lot in the newspapers.

We keep it quiet, we deal with it in a low key way. So you see the peaceful calm of Singapore harmoniously progressing, which in fact it is harmoniously progressing. It's like a swan. You see it sailing across the water beautifully, graciously, underneath paddling away furiously.

That's what MPs are doing when you don't know what they are doing.

From a macro point of view at the same time, if you look beyond Singapore and ask what's our overall environment like, I think that has some relevance to this question too.

We see a global trend of rising religiosity all over the world. Groups have become more organized, more active. The followers have become more fervent in their faiths, stronger in their faiths. And it's true of all faiths, all over the world. And let me give you just a few examples which are relevant to us.

The US - strong religious country. More than 90% of Americans believe in God by this survey, more than 80% consider, and consider religion important in their lives. And about 80% are Christians. So it's a very strongly religious country and there's a wave of revival - mega-churches and tele-evangelism.

So in person you have enormous building where services are held and you have television channels. You have it all on the Internet. The new media is much more advanced than my new media.

And US politics is strongly influenced by religion in the Republican Party and in the Democrats. With the Republicans the Christian right are a powerful influence, setting the agenda, influencing who can be elected, what policies they pursue. The Democrats on the other side, they also need Christian support.
So in the last presidential election, Barack Obama's middle name became an issue. His middle name is Hussein. But he's not a Muslim. He's a Christian. And he spent a long time trying to explain to people that I'm not a Muslim, I'm a Christian and pls vote for me.

So religion and politics are supposed to be separated in America but in reality they are closely entangled together. And there's a fierce struggle between the conservatives and the liberals in America over moral and cultural issues.

They call them the Culture Wars. They argue over abortion, they argue over stem cell research, they argue over gay rights, gay marriages, and so on.

A fierce struggle both sides striving to set the agenda, not just for their own followers but for the country. With Muslims, there's an intense revival worldwide. It's also visible in South East Asia.

There's a strong sense of umma of the worldwide Muslim community, of all Muslims all around the world. You see it around us in Msia. In one generation big change. Rules on dress, on food. on alcohol, contact between men and women. Very strict rules prevail now which did not use to prevail a generation ago.

If you watch P. Ramlee movies from the 1950s and 60s, the way they dress, the way they act, the way they perform, it's like an American sit-com, but it was a society then, a different kind of Muslim society.

Today you cannot imagine a P. Ramlee movie being produced and shown over Malaysian television. It's become a conservative, more rigorously Islamic society amongst the Malays and Muslims and Islam has become a major factor in Malaysian politics.

In Indonesia, there it's a similar trend, not as advanced but similar. And the DPR, their Parliament is right now considering a law to require businesses to seek halal certification, not voluntary but compulsory.

If you are doing business, you must get a halal certification. Indonesia is based on Pancasila, that means belief in one God regardless of which religion you belong to. And yet this is happening. In Indonesia the society is changing and they feel a sense of ummah too, of the global Muslim community.

So recently when the Xinjiang riots happened which were between the Uighurs and the Han Chinese, Uighurs are Muslim, the Han Chinese are not Muslim, the Indonesian Majilis Ulama Indonesia, their Ulama Council issued a statement in support of the Muslim Uighurs.

It's not their struggle in Indonesia but they felt a sense of togetherness with the Muslims far away.

In South Korea, East Asian country, Buddhists originally but Christianity has become a major religion. And the Christians have been successful.

They've risen, they occupy important positions in business, in politics. The President is Christian. Mr Lee Myung-bak, he is a Presbyterian elder in his church. And he's got many of, some of his advisers who are also Christian and the Buddhist community has raised concerns.

So last year thousands of Buddhist monks stage a protest against what they saw as Christians discriminating against Buddhists in Korea.
The result was President Lee subsequently expressed regret that the Buddhists had been offended, the Buddhists have taken this positively, so there's some reconciliation and temperatures have come down.

These are things happening around us but Singapore is carried along by this global tide. On Fridays mosques overflow, on Sundays churches overflow, cinemas overflow, many halls over Singapore overflow with Christian services of all kinds.

Buddhists too are active, reaching out to a younger English-speaking generation. And some have introduced music to spread their teachings. Hindus too are celebrating more religious festivals and events.

In itself, there's nothing wrong with people becoming more religious because religion is a positive force in human societies, it provides spiritual strength, guidance, solace, a sense of support for many people, especially in a fast changing and uncertain world.

But at the same time, stronger religious fervour can have side effects which have to be managed carefully, especially in a multi-racial and multi-religious society.
So what are these risks? Let me just highlight three of them.

Aggressive preaching - proselytisation. You push your own religion on others, you cause nuisance and offence. You have read in the papers recently on couple who surreptitiously distributed Christian tracts which are offensive of other faiths, not just of non-Christians but even of Catholics because it said Catholics are not Christians and they were charged and sentenced to jail. But there are less extreme cases too which can cause problems.

For example, we hear from time to time complaints of groups trying to convert very ill patients in our hospitals who don't want to be converted and who don't want to have their private difficult moments in their lives intruded upon. But sometimes it happens.So aggressive preaching is one problem.

Intolerance is another problem. Not respecting the beliefs of others or not accommodating others who belong to different religions.

You think of this as me versus somebody else, one group versus another group but sometimes it happens within the same family.

Sometimes we have parents who are traditional religions, children have converted away. Then when the parents die, they've asked to be buried according to traditional rites and the children stay away from the funeral or the wake. It's very sad.

From a traditional point of view, it's the ultimate unfilial act but it does happen, occasionally. So intolerance.

Extremism is another problem, exclusiveness is a 3rd problem. Segregating into separate exclusive circles, not integrating with other faiths.

What does that mean? That means you mix with your own people, you don't mix with others, you'll end up as separate communities.

It could be a direct preference to stay among your own group, it could be indirectly unintended but you prefer not to share meals with others or maybe you disapprove of yoga or taiji because you think there's something religious there and so instead of doing an activity jointly together, you end up with each group, separate activities.

Yoga, e.g. was an issue in Malaysia recently because there was a ruling that yoga was not halal and the PM then, Abdullah Badawi, had to come out and say yoga is ok as long as there's no chanting or religious component to it.
We foresaw these dangers 20 years ago. So we presented a White Paper on religious harmony, maintenance of religious harmony in parliament.

We passed the Bill, Maintenance of Religious Harmony, in 1989/1990.

Before we did that, the PM, Mr Lee Kuan Yew, and the key ministers met all the religious leaders. We had a closed door session at MCYS. We spoke candidly, we explained our concerns, why we wanted to move this Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act.

The religious leaders spoke up candidly, they gave us their support. We moved with their support. And we continue to keep in close touch with them, to meet them regularly.

I do that personally, exchange views, how to maintain harmony, keep the line warm and the confidence on both sides so that I know you, you know me, if there is a problem, we are not dealing with strangers but with somebody we know and trust.

And once or twice, I've had to meet them over specific difficult cases, not general discussion of religious harmony in Singapore but dealing with specific difficult issues.

No publicity, relying on mutual trust and the wisdom of our religious leaders to diffuse tensions and I'm very grateful for their wisdom and for their support.

So because of this active work behind the scenes, we've not needed to invoke the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act for 20 years but it's something which is important to us which we must keep for a long time.

We can never take our racial and religious harmony for granted. We will look after the issues but at the same time we must observe some basic principles to keep it the way it is. And let me tell you a few of these basic principles.

First, that all groups have to exercise tolerance and restraint. Christians cannot expect this to be a Christian society, Muslims cannot expect this to be a Muslim society, ditto with the Buddhists, the Hindus and the other groups.

Many faiths share this country, share this island. Each has different teachings, different practices. Rules which only apply to one group cannot become laws which are enforced on everyone.

So Muslims don't drink alcohol but alcohol is not banned. Ditto gambling which many religions disapprove of but gambling is not banned. If we have to live together in peace, then all have to adopt 'live and let live' as our principle.

Secondly, we have to keep religion separate from politics. Religion in Singapore cannot be the same as religion in America or religion in an Islamic country.

Take Iran for example. Islamic country, in fact, Shia, all Shia.Recently they had a presidential election which was fiercely contested and the outcome was disputed. Ahmadinejad and Moussavi. Both sides invoked Islam in their support.

So Moussavi his supporters had a battle cry -Allahu Akbar (God is Great). But Iran is Islamic, is Shi'ite. So after the battles they come back, it is one society.

In Singapore, if one group invokes religion this way, other groups are bound to say I also need powerful support. We'll also push back invoking their faith.

One side insists I'm doing God's work. The other side says I'm doing my God's work. And both sides say I cannot compromise. These are absolute imperatives, duties.

The result will be a clash between different religious groups which will tear us apart. We take this very seriously.

The PAP ourselves, we remind our candidates when we field them, bring your friends and supporters. Don't bring all the friends from your own religious group. Don't mobilise your church or your temple or your mosque to campaign for you.
Bring a multiracial, multireligious group of supporters. And when you are elected, represent the interest of all your constituents, not just your religiou group in Parliament. Speak for all your constituents.

Thirdly, The government has to remain secular. The government authority comes from the people. The laws are passed by parliament, elected by the people. They don't come from a sacred book.

The government has to be neutral, fair. We are not against religion. We uphold sound moral values. We hold the ring so that all groups can practise their faiths freely without colliding with one another in Singapore. And that's the way Singapore has to be.

You may ask: Does this mean that religious groups have no views, cannot have views on national issues? Or that religious individuals cannot participate in politics?

Obviously not. Because religious groups are free to propagate their teachings on social and moral issues, and they have done so on the IRs, on organ transplants, on 377A, homosexuality. And obviously many Christians, Hindus, Muslims, Buddhists participate in politics.

In Parliament we have people of all faiths in Cabinet too. And people who have a religion approach a national issue, they will often have views which are informed by their religious beliefs. It's natural because it's part of you, it's part of your individual, your personality.

But you must accept that other groups may have different views informed by different beliefs and you have to accept that and respect that.

And the public debate cannot be on whose religion is right and whose religion is wrong. It has to be on secular, rational considerations of public interest - what makes sense for Singapore.

The final requirement for us to live peacefully together is to maintain our common space that all Singaporeans share. It has to be neutral, secular because that's the only way all of us can feel at home in Singapore and at ease.

And let me explain to you not based on argument but examples, specific examples what I mean.

Sharing meal. We have different food requirements. Muslims need halal food. Hindus don't eat beef. Buddhists sometimes are vegetarian. So if we must serve everybody food which is halal , no beef and vegetarian, I think we will have a problem.

We will never eat meals together.

So there will be halal food on one side, vegetarian food for those who need it, no beef for those who don't eat beef.
Let's share a meal together acknowledging that we are not the same. Don't discourage people from interacting. Don't make it difficult for us to be one people.

Our schools are another example where we are common space and all races and religions interact. Governmentt schools naturally but even mission schools, even church schools run by religious groups, there are clear rules which MOE has set, so that students of all faiths will feel comfortable.

You might ask: Why not allow mission schools to introduce prayers or Bible studies as compulsory parts of the school activity or as part of the school activity or as part of school assembly.

Why not?

Then why not let those who are not Christian or don't want a Christian environment, go to a government school or go to a Buddhist school.

Well, the reason why not is because if they do that then we'll have Christians in Christian schools, Buddhists in Buddhist schools, Muslims in schools with only Muslim children and so on and I think that is not good for Singapore.

Therefore, we have rules to keep all our schools secular and the religious groups understand and accept this.

Take, for example, SJI, St Joseph's, Catholic brother school but it has many non-Catholic students, including quite a number of Malay students who study there.
And one year the Josephian of the year in 2003 was a Malay student - Salman Mohamed Khair.

And he told Berita Harian that initially his family was somewhat worried about admitting him to a Catholic school and he himself was worried, afraid because he didn't know what to expect but he still went because of SJI's good record.

"Now I feel fortunate to be in SJI. Although I was educated in a Catholic environment, religion never became an issue."

So indeed that's how it should work and I know it works because I understand that Malay students in SJI often attend Friday prayers at Baalwie Mosque nearby still wearing their school uniforms.

And SJI thinks it's fine, the mosque thinks it's fine, the students think it's fine and I think it's fine too. That's the way it should be.

Another example of common space - work. The office environment should be one which all groups feel comfortable with.

Staff have to be confident that they will get equal treatment even if they belong to a different faith from their managers, especially so of course in government departments but also in the private sector.

And I think it can be done because I think even religious community service organisations often have people who don't belong to that religion working comfortably and happily in that organisation.

And this is one very important aspect of our meritocratic society.
Whatever other countries may do, this is what we have to do in Singapore - maintain these principles, tolerance, keep religion separate from politics, keep a secular government, maintain our common space.

The basis for this is practical reality in our society, it's not any abstract political theory, it's not any divine revelation. This is the only way all groups in Singapore can live in peace and harmony in Singapore.

So this is the background to the way the Government looked at one recent issue which I'm sure you're waiting for me to talk about which is Aware.

We were not concerned who would control Aware because it's just one of so many NGOs in Singapore. On homosexuality policy or sexuality education in schools, there can be strong differences in view but the Government's position was quite clear.

It was not abstained. But what worried us what that this was an attempt by a religiously motivated group who shared a strong religious fervour to enter civil space, take over an NGO it disapproved of and impose their agenda.

And it was bound to invoke, to provoke a push back from groups who held the opposite view which happened vociferously and stridently as a fierce battle.
The media coverage got caught up and I think the amplifier was turned up a bit high. People talk about mature civil society, this was hardly the way to conduct a mature discussion of a sensitive matter where views are deeply divided.

But most critically of all this risk a broader spillover into relations between different religions.

I know many Singaporeans were worried about this including many Christians. They ma not have spoken out aloud but they raised on eyebrow and they kept their thoughts to themselves.

Therefore, I'm very grateful for the very responsible stand which was taken by the church leaders, the statement by the National Council of Churches of Singapore that it didn't support churches getting involved and also the statement by the Catholic Archbishop because had these statements not been made, we would have had a very serious problem.

The government stayed out of this but after it was over, after the dust had settled, I spoke to the religious leaders, first the Christians and then all the religious leaders, all faiths, including the Christians again so that everybody understood where we stood and what our concerns were, so that we can continue to work together to strengthen our racial and religious harmony.

This is an unusually serious and heavy subject for a ND Rally.

Normally you talk about babies, hong baos, bonuses. No bonuses tonight but a bonus lecture on a serious subject. But we discussed this in Cabinet at length and decided that I should talk about this.

I crafted the points carefully, circulated them many times.

Different presentations in Chinese, Malay, English because different groups have different concerns but consistent message, so that there's no misunderstanding.
And I also invited the religious leaders to come and spend the evening with us tonight and listen to the rest of the speech as well.

But with a serious purpose, so that I can explain face to face, so that you can help us to help your flocks to understand our limitations, to guide them to practise their faiths, taking into account the context of our society.

Please teach them accommodation which is what all faiths teach and I look forward to all the religious groups continuing to do a lot of good work for Singapore for many years to come.

Finally on religion, let me share with you one story, true story which was in an Indian newspaper recently, The Asian Age, picked up in the Straits Times, about a young man from Gujarat, Muslim, who migrated to Singapore after Hindu/Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002.

You may remember that there were very bad Hindu/Muslim riots. A train carrying Hindu pilgrims was stopped in Ahmadebad, set on fire, circumstances unclear but 50-odd men, women and children burnt to death, trapped in the train.

So the Hindus rioted, they had no doubt what the cause was and one thousand people died, mostly Muslims because Ahmadebad has a large Muslim community.
So this person was a Muslim who experienced that riot. And he decided to come to Singapore after the riots. We call him Mohammed Sheikh.

It's not his real name because he still has family there and he said, this is what happened: During the bloody riots, he watched three of his family members, including his father, getting butchered.

His family had to pay for being Muslim. Besides losing his family and home, Mohammed lost confidence and faith in the civil society. He didn't want to spend the rest of his life cursing his destiny. He wanted to move on.

So seven years ago, Mohammed came to Singapore and got a diploma in hospitality management. Now he is working in an eatery and he hopes to open his own business one day.

He told the interviewer, had he stayed in Gujarat, I would have been hating all Hindus and baying for their blood, perhaps. Now he loves it when his children bring home Hindu friends and share snacks. And he told the interviewer proudly, my children have Christian, Buddhist, Hindu friends.

And he even hopes to bring his mother to Singapore so that she can see for herself that people of different races, different faiths can be friends and can co-exist peacefully.

So the interviewer asked him what Muslim sect he belonged to, which mosque he went to in India. He says, I don't want to get into all that. Now I am just a Singaporean. And I am proud of it.

So this story reminds us that while we must not neglect to strengthen our harmonious society, we are in a good position. If the Garden of Eden state is one where you are happy where things are working and where if you leave the Garden of Eden you cannot get back in again.
So please stay there.

The Grand Mufti of Syria as well as many overseas visitors and diplomats have made the same point to us.

It is what most impressed them when they watched our National Day Parade and our National Day celebrations in their constituencies.

Not the shows and the demonstrations and so on. They can see grander shows elsewhere. But the fact that in Singapore we live peacefully together harmoniously.

And one of them said to me you can have a minority Muslim representing a constituency majority non-Muslims. Unimaginable in the country he came from. And he was a European.

So let us rejoice in our harmony but let us never forget what being a Singaporean means. It's not just tolerating other groups but opening our hearts to all our fellow citizens.

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