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Gurmit Singh: Moral values among religions are similar

The Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) president Gurmit Singh on the group's role in promoting religious harmony. - ST PHOTO: T. KUMAR
The Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) president Gurmit Singh on the group's role in promoting religious harmony. - ST PHOTO: T. KUMAR

The Inter-Religious Organisation (IRO) turned 66 on Wednesday. In 2012, it moved into its first permanent HQ in Palmer Road, nestled between a Chinese temple and a mosque. IRO president Gurmit Singh, a Sikh, tells Lim Yan Liang about the group's role in promoting religious harmony. 

Q: Why is there a need for greater awareness about IRO? Extremism today seems not just an abstract concept, but is here in our own backyard, with organisations like the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria aiming their crosshairs at South-east Asia?

To defeat extremism, we need to educate people. This means bringing about awareness of the fundamental beliefs of each religion. We do this through lectures, inter-faith dialogues and exhibitions.

These outreach programmes aim to educate Singaporeans of different faiths on the teachings of different religions.

If you attend some of our sharing sessions, you will realise that the moral values found in the 10 religions are extremely similar.

Q: One way some extremist organisations have amplified their voice is through the Internet.  How has IRO entered this space to create its own voice?

When you go online, you get a lot of nonsense. People put up all kinds of stuff. 

It's up to the individual to want to find out more about each religion. Which means, if people know about the existence of IRO, they can come here and verify things, instead of taking what they read on the Internet lock, stock and barrel. 

Q: So not so much by using the online space but trying to connect people with experts?

Yes, because words online can be interpreted in different ways. But when you speak, and let's say you have a different perspective, I can immediately explain things to you. Whereas with words, any individual can interpret it in 101 ways.

Q: Can you share an example of interfaith collaboration with the help of IRO?

In collaboration with Singapore Buddhist Lodge (SBL), IRO organised a large-scale Ramadan charity project.

In 2013 and 2014, it was done for the benefit of the Muslim community and involved a donation of $69,000 and 20 tonnes of rice by SBL and it was for all 69 mosques in Singapore.

This was proposed by one of the IRO council members who's also the chairman of SBL: Mr Lee Bock Guan. So he worked with the Muslim council members, and working hand-in-hand with the rest of the IRO council there was rice distribution, and it was spearheaded by one of our Muslim council members, Imam Syed Hassan Alatas, head of the Ba'alwi mosque.

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Q: How did you first get involved in IRO?

I was introduced to IRO by my father, Dr Mehervan Singh, one of the founder members of IRO.

Members would take turns volunteering their homes and places of worship and the meetings would be held there.

Once, the former Catholic Archbishop Michael Olcomendy arrived early at my home for one of these meetings, and my father tasked me to look after him as a guest.

Being young and impressionable, I asked the Archbishop what he thought about a chain of natural disasters that was happening to the region: If God is fair, why is he punishing people and taking innocent lives?

He told me, God is trying to tell us that you guys are not supposed to kill each other: Only I give life, and I take away life. So now I'm going to take away some of your lives.

It was such a simple, layman's way of putting it across. I found it fantastic, just having a different way of looking at things.

So I had the good fortune of being exposed to this multifaith environment from a young age.

Q: What did you hope to achieve when you first joined IRO?

I became a member when I was 19 years old, which was when I first started teaching in school. I decided that I was going to be very open-minded, that I would learn to accept people's different perspectives on religion.

If it was about my own religion, I would explain to them what I knew.

It's important because how many places are like Singapore, where we live so close together? So we need understanding and racial harmony.

There have been times when people misunderstood. But as humans, we have a choice in how we voice it out.
I can bang the table and say you are wrong, but who am I to say that? I am not practising that religion.
- Gurmit Singh

Q: Were there any occasions that showed you why we need religious harmony in Singapore?

The 1964 racial riots. I was in Secondary 2 then, and my father, being in IRO, had the permit to go out during the curfew to mediate between the groups.

I would hear about people getting killed and so I would pray for his safety. By God's grace, he got home every evening.

But that really made an impact on me: that we need to have some form of harmony or Singapore would suffer.

Q: IRO members represent 10 different faiths. Is there the occasional disagreement when you have religious discussions? What are some ground rules?

First, whoever comes to these sessions must come with an open mind.

There can be disagreements, but then the person who is running the dialogue will mediate.

Let's say religion X's representative is conducting the dialogue session. When an alternative view is brought up, the representative will say, "Okay, that's how you feel. According to my religion, this is what we interpret it as."

There have been times when people misunderstood. But as humans, we have a choice in how we voice it out.

I can bang the table and say you are wrong, but who am I to say that? I am not practising that religion. So if I'm willing to listen, if I want to make myself more aware, I can find a place where the two perspectives meet and get rid of the misunderstanding in my mind.

At least you go away with greater awareness, and not just with your own interpretation.

Q: We see IRO at national ceremonies, and the consecration of memorials, including the recent marker to remember Konfrontasi victims. But the average Singaporean doesn't seem to know much about its work.

There was a time when IRO used to work unobtrusively. Now, there is a greater need to make people aware of the need for peace and religious harmony.

Last year, we distributed our inaugural interfaith journal, which is a diary of events we have planned for the year. We're doing it again this year.

IRO also organised 12 lectures last year, when in the past it was two to three a year. We intend to keep up this momentum.

We're also planning an exhibition looking back on IRO's activities since 1949. It will be a year-long affair - a mobile, travelling exhibition.

Q: Is there a fear that IRO, which is older than Singapore itself, is losing its relevance?

I don't think there was ever a fear that we are losing relevance. We've not had anyone coming in to say that they don't agree with what IRO does.

But now we need to nurture the next generation of IRO leaders, and we've been encouraging the 10 religious members in the council to encourage their flocks to participate.

It's like disseminating information: The 10 send it back to their fold, which then send it down to their followers.

Q: But with the growing population, is there a sense that there's not only less physical space but also less religious space?

This is why it's critical for the next generation of religious leaders to continue to have close bonds with each other, so that this interfaith spirit - patience, goodwill, fellowship - can be kept alive, so that long-term religious harmony can be attained in our country. It's for the younger generation to do so.

We're working on it now: We have young persons coming in, we have introduced younger members into IRO.

It's about always bringing in the next generation. Only then can we sustain our peace and harmony.

Q: In 2006, the idea was mooted that Singapore could become an interfaith hub, where different religious groups can iron out their differences and reach common ground. But momentum seems to have tapered off. Is it still possible?

It might have tapered off, but we cannot stop just because there is no rah-rah about it.

When I went for a holiday to the Maldives some years back, somebody thought I was from India - maybe because of the turban and beard.

I said "I'm actually from Singapore", and he said he knew about IRO - and I never mentioned to him that I'm in IRO.

He had heard that we are able to get along so well, and asked me: "How do you all do it?"

My answer to him was that we work at it.

No doubt, there's a lull in things, but you still work at it.

For example, IRO has had sharing sessions where schools invite us and we put together a panel of religious people from the different faiths, and they do sharing with the students.

We've come a long way from just tolerance to acceptance, but there is no end point.

yanliang@sph.com.sg