Religious heads work to build trust, maintain harmony

The audience at the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP) on Jan 19, 2016.
The audience at the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme (SRP) on Jan 19, 2016. ST PHOTO: LIM SIN THAI

Just two hours after the Jakarta blasts, about 30 religious and community leaders of the Braddell Heights' Inter-Racial and Religious Confidence Circle received information about what was happening on the ground there.

They were also asked by the authorities to look out for reactions in their communities.

Said Venerable You Guang, adviser to Puat Jit Buddhist Temple and a member of the circle: "Most times, the sentiments people express after such an attack are harmless. But if they take sides along racial or religious lines, we must intervene."

He was among religious leaders of all stripes interviewed yesterday who agreed with Home Affairs Minister K. Shanmugam that they can help Singaporeansbetter understand terrorist ideology and ensure Singapore remains united.

One way, said Sikh Advisory Board chairman Jarmal Singh, is to help people see the actions of one misguided individual do not represent the entire community or faith.

Master Lee Zhi Wang, president of the Singapore Taoist Mission, added that given the credibility and influence of religious leaders in their community, they need to be proactive in preventing conflict between their group and others.

He suggested telling followers not to be over-sensitive and be conscious not to discriminate against other groups, he added.

Ven You Guang said leaders should also urge their followers not to speculate or put blame on any community.

Many religious leaders like Reverend Gabriel Liew of Kampong Kapor Methodist Church also agreed with Mr Shanmugam that any spread of Islamophobia is a threat to Singapore's peace.

"Ignorance breeds fear - fear of people we do not know," he added.

Countering such ignorance requires understanding and empathy which comes from personal friendships with Muslims, he said.

Ms Murshida Mohd Kadir, acting assistant head of the Muslim Converts' Association of Singapore, said that with the attacks in Indonesia and arrests of ISIS suspects in Malaysia, it was timely to state publicly that most Singapore Muslims reject the ideology of violence and extremism.

"Many of us feel more has to be done for non-Muslims to understand that we are not violent people, we are for religious harmony."

She also feels it is a good time for an interfaith dialogue and more exposure to what Islam stands for.

The comments by these religious leaders were in response to a lecture by visiting professor Julius Lipner of the Studies in Inter-Religious Relations in Plural Societies Programme at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.

Dr Lipner, an expert on interreligious understanding, had called for deeper and more sustained dialogue between people of each faith, between different religious groups, and with those with no religion.

This will help expand the common space for all Singaporeans.

Such dialogues need to be inclusive and tolerant, with a readiness to change one's views when given new insights about the values, rights and responsibilities that constitute social well-being for all who share the public space in a liberal, secular democracy, he said.

Otherwise, he added: "There is no prospect of arriving at even a semblance of viable public order and a common good."

Lim Yan Liang

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 20, 2016, with the headline 'Religious heads work to build trust, maintain harmony'. Print Edition | Subscribe