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Strengthening Singapore’s interreligious ecology

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DECEMBER 30 — Singapore is regarded by external observers as an oasis of religious harmony in a troubled world. It has not faced any religious conflict as all the faith communities have lived in peace with one another for the past 50 years. Few, if any, countries have achieved this. This is the product of hard work and perseverance, since Singapore’s independence, to build an efficacious interreligious ecology.

The importance and need for such an ecology are validated by a study done by Netpeace, a forum of media workers and journalists committed to peace and security in Africa. The study, which involved 54 semi-structured interviews conducted in Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States from 2007 to 2008, found that interreligious networks can transform conflicts into peace-building opportunities.

This is indeed the power of religion, because religious text, scriptures and traditions provide very strong motivations for peaceful living. In the same breath, more scholars today believe that religion can be quite easily misused as there are religious predispositions towards intensifying conflicts, encouraging extremism and providing impulses for violence.

There is strong evidence that there are now more countries encountering social hostilities in the form of religious-based conflicts. This means that the government, religious leaders, faith-based organisations (FBOs) and religious communities here must work together to harness the humanising, unifying, peaceful and constructive roles of religion, and at the same time contain its misuse. Singapore’s untiring efforts in building its interreligious ecology, premised on an unequivocal recognition of the positive role of religion, have been instrumental in growing its social capital, which can be drawn upon if need be to defuse tension and to avert conflict.

Comeback of religion — competition, conflict and violence

At the same time, the danger of rising religiosity and thus religious competition in Singapore cannot be dismissed. Worse, religious competition, if not defused, may intensify to become religious conflict. The competition can be interreligious or intra-religious in nature, and may exist in the encounter between religion and the secular as well as between religion and the state. According to local scholar Lily Kong, the competition is normally over space — either ownership of physical space (for example, the performing of rituals in public areas that may affect others) or authority over metaphorical space (for instance, in asserting religious identity in shared spaces).

In cases where there is religious competition, the instinctive reaction of the Government is always to work together with religious leaders and organisations to defuse such competition and to never allow the situation to degenerate into a conflict. This has been Singapore’s formula for sustaining religious peace for such a long time.

Roles of state, civic society and community

Although the Government in Singapore has a pivotal role in defusing adversarial competition and in preventing conflicts associated with religion, it does not unnecessarily intervene in the realm of religion because religion resides in the community. The Government merely provides the overall stewardship, moderating influence and facilitation for social peace, interreligious harmony, dispute resolution and national unity. The Government has been effective in its role because it does not favour any religion, and this neutrality is embedded in Singapore’s national ethos.

The more significant contribution to conflict prevention comes from religious leaders, FBOs and religious communities. Interactions and engagements across religious lines are instrumental in forming the networks to generate social capital in peaceful times that can be drawn upon to reduce tension and avert conflicts.

In Singapore, such deliberate interreligious engagements started early in its history when the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) was formed in 1949. The IRO was a useful platform during the 1950 usaria Hertogh riots and the 1964 Prophet Muhammad Birthday Procession riots in building confidence among the religious communities and to reduce tensions.

Besides the IRO, there are various interreligious networks in action and through which constant communication among leaders of the religious communities takes place. Any issue arising from competition among religions is resolved amicably through a strong spirit of reconciliation, because religious leaders in Singapore are committed to the principles of preserving the common good in society and in fulfilling the social contract.

Building social peace is a painstaking and never-ending job. There are three areas that can further strengthen Singapore’s interreligious ecology and maintain its position as an oasis of harmony.

First is to transform Singapore from a multi-religious to an interreligious country. As the Netpeace study implied, society can be more resilient in averting conflicts if it develops a high level of interreligious literacy. A deeper understanding of issues across religions can better insulate society against the threat of misunderstanding that can lead to conflict. An example is the notion that all religions advocate peace and how this should be squared off with the reality that there are predispositions in religions — more in some, less in others — that encourage conflict.

It is through interreligious dialogue that such potentially divisive issues can be defanged. There is an urgent need to increase the extent and quality of interreligious dialogue to anchor Singapore’s religious harmony to a solid foundation of interreligious knowledge.

Second is the need to be inclusive and to engage those without religious affiliations in the dialogue process. “Religious Nones” constitute a significant segment (about 17 per cent) of Singapore society. They include agnostics, humanists, atheists and secularists. Although they do not embrace religion, they have religious sensibilities. It is prudent for religions to be socially inclusive, and to engage and embrace them as partners in dialogue, working together towards greater social harmony.

Finally, and as one of the most religiously diverse countries in the world and one that has a wide spectrum of non-religious beliefs, Singapore has to constantly learn to find common ground. For these objectives, scholars have spoken of a philosophy of civility that enshrines the social norms and values that are important for Singapore. These include the balanced development of sustainability, mutual respect and a national consciousness that endears citizens to the universal values of humanity.

Dialogue is no longer a matter of choice. It has to be institutionalised as the cornerstone of a stronger interreligious ecology. — TODAY

Mohammad Alami Musa is Head of Studies in Interreligious Relations in Plural Societies at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.

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