Engage in dialogue to sustain inter-faith harmony

Former foreign minister George Yeo (in green shirt) and religious representatives gathered at Bedok Reservoir for a prayer session in 2011. Inter-religious dialogue is not exclusively for the religious elite, says the writer. Dialogue in its simple f
Former foreign minister George Yeo (in green shirt) and religious representatives gathered at Bedok Reservoir for a prayer session in 2011. Inter-religious dialogue is not exclusively for the religious elite, says the writer. Dialogue in its simple form spurs people to engage in informal talk to learn about other religions.ST FILE PHOTO

The Pew Research Centre's latest study found that Singapore is the most religiously diverse country in the world. It topped the list of 232 countries involved in the study.

The study, released early last month, looks at the percentage of each country's population that belongs to eight major religious groups. The closer a country comes to having an even distribution of the various religions in its population, the higher will be its religious diversity index. The eight groups or religions are Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, folk religions, "other religions" and the religiously unaffiliated.

Following the report, an article appeared on April 4 in The Atlantic (www.theatlantic.com) that suggested there was an inverse relationship between religious diversity and religious hostility. It concluded that spiritual consensus that characterises homogeneous societies is not the key to peace. Instead, the countries that have high levels of religious violence are primarily countries dominated by a single faith. It may not be true everywhere, but religious plurality does appear to be compatible with peaceful societies.

Singapore is one such country that validates this outcome. Its very high religious diversity does not give rise to conflict. Observers, especially critical ones, usually cite the dominant role of the state as the most significant reason the diverse religious groups live together peacefully. But is this true? And is the religious harmony that Singapore enjoys today sustainable as the country enters the era of the "new normal", where a central authority assumes a lesser role in people's lives?

The sustainability of inter-religious harmony

SINGAPORE has generally enjoyed healthy inter-religious relations in the five decades since independence.

But this does not mean there were no inter-religious tensions. There have been cases of over-zealous missionary activities and aggressive proselytisation. There have even been fundamentalist as well as extremist groups that corruptly used religion as a political tool, and postings over social media that affected inter-religious relations.

The state responded decisively to these situations by invoking its powers under the relevant Acts. The legal framework was further strengthened through the Maintenance of Religious Harmony Act in 1990. It was designed to keep religion out of politics and deal with individuals who disrupt religious harmony through radical or extremist means. The Government has made no apology for its tough stand as it sees the survival of Singapore to be closely intertwined with social peace.

Nevertheless, the approach has evolved over time with the realisation that religious-based ideas and actions cannot be hemmed in by tough laws and coercive rhetoric. Genuine inter-religious understanding cannot be engendered by top-down approaches either.

After the Sept 11, 2001 attacks in the United States, there has also been a conscious effort to involve the religious communities in confidence-building measures. These include the Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle project and the introduction of the Declaration of Religious Harmony.

The latter relied on moral suasion to get religious leaders to exercise moderation and sensitivity in dealing with the "religious other". The Community Engagement Programme is the latest initiative. It is designed as a grassroots and civic society project to build social capital and social resilience.

All these top-down initiatives have borne fruit. However, inter- religious harmony will be sustainable in future only if people take ownership of the current situation and jealously guard it from being disrupted.

Religious harmony - the people's agenda

RUDYARD Kipling's famous line "East is East and West is West, and never the twain shall meet" might have been true in the 19th century. But today, north and south have joined east and west in an inter-connected, globalised world characterised by unprecedented religious diversity.

Singapore could not have imagined, five decades ago, that it would be rated the most religiously diverse society in the world. With its location at the crossroads between East and West, as well as its openness to the outside world, it has become home to a very wide spectrum of religious beliefs, orientations and practices. The question is whether Singaporeans have the necessary outlook and skills to positively manage this unprecedented level of religious diversity.

Given the dearth of comparative religious studies, the near absence of inter-religious training and the marginality of inter-religious content in the education syllabus, Singaporeans may not have the capacity to connect with those of other religions. Consequently, they may not go beyond polite toleration.

Two factors will decide the state of inter-religious relations. One is the breadth and depth of inter-faith engagements. The other is the extent and quality of inter-religious dialogue. Singapore has done well for the first factor but it can do a lot more regarding the second. The long-term sustainability of inter-religious harmony is determined by the extent to which Singaporeans treat those of other religions with respect and understanding.

Inter-religious dialogue is not exclusively for the religious elite. Dialogue in its simple form encourages ordinary folk to engage in informal conversations in order to learn about other religions. People can better understand other religions by identifying the common characteristics that bind all religions together. This involves learning about other religions, not to be like them, but rather to enrich one's own spirituality and rediscover one's own religious traditions in the process.

The great pioneer of the modern discipline of the history of religion, Friedrich Max Muller, famously wrote that "he who knows one religion knows none". This may sound extreme, but the relevant message is that by engaging in dialogue, it is possible to develop an appreciation of other religions while learning more about your own. This will anchor inter- religious harmony in Singapore to knowledge and in that way make it sustainable over time.


The writer is head of studies in inter-religious relations in plural societies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University.