Published: 08 November 2023
Mr Noor Marican, President of the Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO)
Members of the IRO
Professor Ian McGonigle
Ladies and Gentlemen
1. I thank the IRO for organising this event.
2. The IRO has held an important place in Singapore, for the past 75 years - since 1949.
3. It has helped to foster religious harmony in Singapore, and the IRO is one of a number of important factors why, Singapore, despite being one of the most religiously diverse places in the world, is also one of the most harmonious societies in the world. Because we have put a “laser-like” focus on religious and racial harmony and refused to accept some of the existing frameworks in other countries on how these issues ought to be dealt with.
4. The position that we take, I can summarise it, you can promote your own religion, you can’t run down anyone else, either religion or race. Go proselytise, promote, say good things about yourself. The moment you say something negative about someone else, we will have something to say, and depending on what you say, the law will take over.
5. So, it’s very clear, the lines, and that has helped create an environment where people have felt safe to practise their religion and interact with each other. And of course the laws can only tell you what you can’t do, but they can’t tell you what to do. That has to take a lot of effort by the Government, the community, community organisations, people, and the IRO has played a very important role in that. You have organised many inter-religious dialogues and initiatives, like today’s event, to set the example at the highest levels of religious leadership for Singaporeans, and to reinforce the importance of religious harmony.
What Is Happening Today
6. Today’s gathering, none of us needs reminding, takes place against the backdrop of the terrible war in the Middle East.
7. We have had a despicable attack on 7 October, leaving many Israelis dead, and then now 10,000 Palestinians dead - more than 4,000 children, and more than 1.5 million people displaced.
8. Many around the world, including in Singapore, have been looking at what is happening - and mourning, grieving. Many, also, of course, very personally affected.
9. The scale of the suffering, children, innocents, dying - it is very difficult to accept.
10. When the 7 October attacks happened, Jews around the world were shocked at the brutal terrorist attack. And many of us around the world, including Singapore, shared in their pain.
11. At the same time, many Israelis and Jews also recognised and said that the response - Israel’s right to self-defence - must be proportionate and in accordance with international law.
12. And witnessing the suffering in Gaza now, we grieve for the Palestinians who are suffering.
13. Every innocent life lost, every civilian killed, is a tragedy.
14. Singapore’s positions and views were made clear.
15. Most recently, in Parliament, two days ago, and at the United Nations on 27 October, where we voted in favour of a Resolution that called for humanitarian assistance and a humanitarian truce.
16. We demanded that all civilian lives must be protected, called for the urgent delivery of unhindered access of humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza. We reaffirmed our call for a two-state solution for there to be peace.
17. And we had an explanation to our vote, because the resolution did not state that the attacks on 7 October in Israel were wrong, terrorism; and Israel has a right to self-defence - we mentioned that as well.
18. In Parliament, I am particularly glad that all three parties agreed on a common position, though some of them had meandered before the parliamentary session. In Parliament, we were united that the 7 October attacks were terrorist attacks, unacceptable, inexcusable, and we also talked about Gaza in the way that I have described.
19. Events in Palestine are a political conflict, and the fact is, there are actors on all sides who are misusing religion for their particular political aim. For us in Singapore, the focus has to be to ensure and maintain harmony and peace in our community.
20. Given that religion is being invoked by many around the world, in this region, religious leaders, and the IRO, have a role and important duty to guide our communities.
21. We have seen how this issue around the world and in our region has caused tensions. For example, between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Jews and non-Jews, communities turned against each other.
22. In France, there have been more than one thousand anti-Semitic acts reported since 7 October.
23. And in Australia, there are reports of a tenfold increase in anti-Muslim sentiment since the start of the war.
24. We have also seen how rhetoric by religious leaders can inflame, rather than reduce tensions.
25. We can be thankful that in Singapore the situation has been quite different so far. It is not by accident. A lot of it is by design over the years.
26. One of the key reasons for this is also our Religious Leaders who have given guidance.
27. The Mufti has given guidance, for example, on how to pray for those who are suffering, on contributing to humanitarian efforts, and the importance of checking the information we see for accuracy.
28. And just one week after the war had started, Chief Rabbi Mordechai Abergel and Mufti Dr Nazirudin shared letters with each other, affirming the longstanding trust, confidence, and friendship between Jews and Muslims in Singapore, and making a common plea for the lives of the many thousands of Israelis and Palestinians caught in the conflict.
29. These are very constructive positions, and it is difficult to see how many countries this would have been possible in.
30. Communities are finding themselves divided along racial and religious lines. In Singapore, we express solidarity and unity in our shared humanity. Religion does not need to divide us; it should help to bring us together.
31. The inter-religious harmony we have is quite unique and remarkable, particularly again, as we look outside.
32. A Pew survey in 2022 found that a majority of Singaporean adults who are religious, are very tolerant and accepting of other faiths. People in the region say, that if you’re not a Muslim, it is difficult to be of that country’s nationality - in Malaysia or Indonesia; or if you are not a Buddhist, it is difficult for you to be accepted as a Thai, and so on. But in Singapore, people say, that it does not matter what religion you are, you can be a Singaporean. I think that religious diversity and acceptance and tolerance, and celebration of our diversity makes Singapore a better place to live in.
33. What we have today did not happen by chance.
34. Generations of leaders in Government, religion, and community, like many of you here have put in hard work, deliberate effort, to foster and nurture the religious harmony we enjoy today.
35. There have been some comments made recently - that religious leaders should not be involved in giving guidance or advice on this issue.
36. I am at a loss to understand why some think this. This is not how we have the peace and harmony that we have today in Singapore.
37. After 9/11, the then-Mufti spoke. He condemned the terrorist attacks and emphasised that suicide bombings were against teachings of Islam.
38. In 2014, in response to the escalation of violence in Gaza, and the ISIS takeover of parts of Iraq, at that time, the Archbishop of the Catholic Church in Singapore issued guidance on how to pray for the victims and for the region as a whole. And on humanitarian financial aid.
39. These are just two examples.
40. I did a quick check - past 5 years, just looking at the National Council of Churches, and MUIS, religious guidance or statements have been issued on more than 10 issues, relating to national or international developments, including on managing COVID in Singapore, the Easter Sunday bombings in Sri Lanka in 2019, and the Christchurch attacks in 2019.
41. So, it is quite usual - indeed important - for religious leaders to weigh in on matters that concern people in their communities.
42. We draw a line between religion and politics. But it is important that religious leaders give guidance to their communities on prayer, on assisting, on how they can help others in distress.
43. This has always been the practice in Singapore. We work together, to foster acceptance, peace, common humanity, across religions.
44. And we all have an important role to play, in speaking wisdom, counselling tolerance, and building peace, especially when we see not so good things happening in many parts of the world.
45. What we have in Singapore today is precious and we all have a role to try to keep it that way.
Documentary: Technologies of the Soul
46. Similarly, the documentary being screened today, showcases the richness of Singapore’s religious landscape. It also speaks to the many common threads across all our faiths. So for anyone who has tried to study the different religions, what will immediately strike you is how much they share in common. The continuing importance of our faiths in a rapidly changing society, the opportunities and challenges that we face, as tradition interacts with technology.
47. Thank you to Professor McGonigle for producing this documentary.
48. And thank you, IRO, for arranging this screening and gathering, and for your firm commitment to religious harmony in Singapore.
49. I wish all of you a pleasant evening.