Government looking at new steps to protect social harmony: Shanmugam

Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam at the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP) on Jan 19, 2016.
Home Affairs and Law Minister K Shanmugam at the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP) on Jan 19, 2016. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Changes will take place this year to deal with acts that sow discord between races, faiths

Singaporeans can expect new policies to tackle acts that denigrate other races or religions, preach intolerance, or sow religious discord.

The impending changes will take place this year to protect secular Singapore's racial and religious harmony, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

"The Government has got to come forward, mobilise the community in a very substantive way so that the message gets understood," he added.

 
 
 
 

Mr Shanmugam made the point at the opening of a conference on expanding common space for people of various faiths, held by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS).

In a 40-minute speech, he explained in detail how South-east Asia had become fertile ground for terrorism owing to the mixing of religion and politics that has, in turn, fuelled sectarian tensions.

The rise of militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria has also led to much violence, as well as intolerance online.

These developments threaten peace in Singapore and have given rise to four types of threats that confront the country.

They are: a terror attack, the radicalisation of a part of the Muslim population, some Singapore Muslims growing more distant from the rest of society, and Islamophobia - or intolerance towards Muslims.

Mr Shanmugam said it was worrying that some younger Muslims believe they should not wish Christians Merry Christmas, or Hindus Happy Deepavali, as such greetings contradict their faith.

If such sentiments become widespread, there will be serious long-term implications. This is why foreign preachers with such views are sometimes disallowed from entering Singapore to prevent them from building up a following here.

"The Government will not interfere in doctrinal matters within each religion, but the Government has to step in to protect our racial, religious harmony," he said.

Also worrying is the threat of Islamophobia, he added.

Hate crimes against Muslims have risen in Western cities such as London and Paris. Singapore is not immune, and Mr Shanmugam cited two cases.

Last September, a Malay woman walking to a bus stop heard a man of another race utter "suicide bomber" at her.

In November, a week after the Paris attacks, the words "Islam murderers" were found scribbled at a bus stop in Bukit Panjang and on a toilet seat in Jurong Point mall.

While such acts are few and far between, they put Singapore's harmonious society at risk, he said.

"How our non-Muslims treat our Muslim brothers and sisters will decide what type of society we are. If we behave with suspicion and negativity, then our Muslim population will feel isolated.

"It is important that we ensure Muslims in Singapore enjoy good opportunities, that there is no discrimination in schools, in jobs, in society as a whole," he added.

"Islamophobia will tear our society apart. We have to guard against it. It is completely unacceptable."

He noted that various religions in Singapore have taken steps to preserve the common space.

Muslim leaders, for example, have identified principles to guide the community to preserve and protect its moderate way of life.

But as extremism and exclusivity grow in the region, both the Government and people must make a greater collective effort to safeguard harmony, Mr Shanmugam said.

Specifically, it needs religious leaders to counter ISIS ideology, community leaders to help unite Singaporeans, and the Government to stay vigilant against all attempts to spark divisions.

"The ultimate aim of terrorism is to create sharp and violent divisions between 'us' and 'them'. If we remain resolutely 'us', one united people, regardless of race, language or religion, no force can divide us, and terrorism will be defeated," he said.

Today, Catholic Archbishop William Goh and Mufti Fatris Bakaram will address the conference, which is organised under RSIS' Studies in Inter-religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Govt looking at new steps to protect social harmony'. Print Edition | Subscribe