NEW YORK: Singapore’s policies and practices have served the country well in uniting its people and strengthening its identity over the decades, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong said on Monday (Sep 23).
But challenges remain, he added, and these could impact the country’s efforts to foster racial and religious harmony.
Mr Lee was speaking at the Appeal of Conscience Foundation’s annual awards dinner in New York, during which he was presented with its prestigious World Statesman Award.
The award by the New York-based interfaith Appeal of Conscience Foundation recognises individuals who support peace, prosperity and liberty, and promote tolerance, human dignity and human rights, both in their own countries and internationally through cooperation with other leaders.
President of the foundation Rabbi Arthur Schneier said that Mr Lee was being recognised for fostering a society that embraces multiculturalism, in which ethnic communities maintain their unique way of life while living harmoniously.
Mr Lee was also recognised for supporting a knowledge-based economy, an education system that provides Singaporeans with the necessary skills to survive in a globally competitive environment, as well as for implementing a world-class health infrastructure.
Among the policies and practices Mr Lee spoke of were Singapore’s Presidential Council for Minority Rights, which scrutinises all legislation to ensure none of it discriminates against any racial or religious community, and the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act, which empowers the Government to act against religious leaders or groups who cause feelings of enmity, hatred or hostility between religious groups, or use religion to promote a political cause.
READ: Changes proposed to Singapore’s religious harmony law to address impact of social media, foreign influence
Singapore has also designed electoral rules to encourage multi-racial politics, instead of the politics of race and religion.
“In Parliamentary elections, political parties are required to present multi-racial slates to contest multi-member seats. This discourages political parties from championing particular racial or religious groups, and dividing our society along primordial fault lines,” said Mr Lee.
“It also guarantees that Parliament will always have a minimum number of legislators from the minority communities, so that minorities never feel shut out.”
READ: Elected Presidency – Amendments to Constitution passed in Parliament
Mr Lee also cited the Ethnic Integration Policy, which ensures that every township, precinct and residential block is ethnically mixed so that there are no racial enclaves.
“Had we not intervened in the housing market, our population would have become racially segregated, as has happened in many other countries, with serious social consequences,” Mr Lee said.
READ: Racism in Singapore, relevance of SAP schools among topics raised at dialogue on race
POLICING THE INTERNET A “SISYPHEAN TASK”: PM LEE
However, Singapore’s susceptibility to external influences, given that it is a small open society, and social media altering the way people communicate are among the challenges that could impact the country’s efforts to foster racial and religious harmony, understanding and tolerance among the population.
“We must not allow those who spread toxic views and poison on the Internet to get away with what may literally be murder. Policing the Internet is a Sisyphean task, but we must keep our laws updated, and devise fresh and effective countermeasures,” he said.
Mr Lee explained that social media has enabled provocative views to circulate and gain currency, adding that it has become dangerously easy for people both to cause offence and take umbrage.
Hence, Singapore has passed the Protection from Online Falsehoods and Manipulation Act (POFMA) law, which gives the Government and the courts powers to require the correction of misinformation and falsehoods online, take action against those who deliberately spread untruths, as well as to deal with websites that give them a platform to do so.
READ: Proposed law on falsehoods has ‘clear oversight mechanism’ to prevent abuse by Government, says Shanmugam
In his speech, Mr Lee said that although globalisation has allowed Singaporeans to learn from others, it can also import disputes and troubles from other lands that could undermine the country’s social cohesion.
This is as every racial and religious group has extensive links with larger communities abroad belonging to the same race or faith, and those groups have their roots in and take guidance from superior authorities elsewhere.
“We do our best to insulate ourselves from other people’s problems, knowing full well that complete disengagement is impossible. Thus we ban or expel foreign preachers who bring their foreign quarrels to Singapore or seek to persuade Singaporeans to practise their religions in ways that are not appropriate for our society,” Mr Lee said.
“At the same time, we explain to Singaporeans that different societies often practise the same religion in different ways, and inculcate in ourselves confidence and pride in our own practices and norms.”
Another challenge Mr Lee spoke of was growing religiosity among faiths, something he described as a “worldwide phenomenon”.
“People everywhere take their faiths more seriously and practise them more fervently,” he said, adding that in itself, “this is not a bad thing” as religion may guide one’s conscience and give one a profound sense of meaning and purpose of life.
“But as convinced as one might be of one’s own faith, we cannot get carried away, and show disrespect to other people’s faiths or gods.”
He added: “In Singapore we strongly oppose exclusionary practices that discourage people of different faiths from interacting with one another as fellow citizens.
“This year our religious leaders made a formal collective declaration that it is entirely proper, and indeed praiseworthy, for people of different faiths to befriend each other, exchange felicitations on each other’s religious festivals and eat together despite different dietary rules.”
The Prime Minister also warned of violence in the name of race or religion, calling it a “real and present danger”.
READ: 3 Indonesian domestic workers detained under ISA, investigated for terrorism financing – MHA
He urged Singaporeans to hold together as a nation if such an attack ever happened, adding that Singapore has kept up its efforts in protecting the nation against incidents of such nature.
“There will always be some people who pervert and misuse religion to justify their violent ends,” he said.
“The danger of a terrorist attack continues, whether from ISIS or Al-Qaeda, or some misguided soul self-radicalised by extremist propaganda that he or she found online.”
READ: PM Lee, President Trump renew MOU on US use of military facilities in Singapore, extending it by 15 years
Mr Lee also said Singapore must never allow religion to be weaponised or used as a front for other conflicts, adding that he hopes future generations of Singaporeans will cherish the harmony, realise how precious it is and strengthen it further.
He also noted that the Government alone cannot bring about religious harmony.
“Responsible voices need to speak up, set the example and spread the message of tolerance and respect,” he said, citing organisations like the Appeal of Conscience Foundation as doing precisely that.
Watch the full speech: