Singapore's progress in the last 50 years would have been unthinkable without the country's major communities actively accepting each other, Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam said yesterday.
Neither would it have been possible without each taking pride not only in its own culture and religion, but also in Singapore's multi-ethnic and multi-religious identity. "We must build on this foundation in our next 50 years, and develop an even deeper national identity," he said.
Mr Tharman, who is also Finance Minister, was speaking at a dinner organised by Malay daily Berita Harian to present its 17th annual Achiever of the Year award.
Speaking in Malay at the tail end of his 15-minute address, he cited a saying that means "as the padi ripens, it bends lower".
He said: "We must always remember that our work is never done. But we have one big advantage, in the unity, and the special Singapore spirit that we have developed in our first 50 years.
"It gives us confidence in our future. But we must do more."
Mr Tharman also cited the globalisation of sectarian and religious conflicts - including that of militant group Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) - as one of today's defining challenges that underscore the need to deepen religious harmony.
Singapore and its neighbours have been susceptible. ISIS has attracted 30,000 foreign fighters to territories it controls in Syria and Iraq, including about 1,000 from South-east Asia.
"But ethnic and religious harmony is for Singapore not just a defensive issue," he stressed. "It is at its heart an ideal and cherished vision for our nation."
Hence, Singaporeans need to deepen their understanding of various cultures, heritages and religions in the country, he said, and "weave tighter relationships with each other" from a young age.
The award, which recognises Malay/Muslim individuals in various fields for their achievements, went to Mr Mohammad Alami Musa, who helmed the Islamic Religious Council of Singapore (Muis) from 2003 to 2013.
Mr Alami had led Muis through an "extremely challenging decade" in the wake of the Sept 11, 2001 terror attacks on the United States and the Jemaah Islamiah arrests in Singapore, said Mr Tharman.
He introduced several programmes to strengthen the nation's resilience, including formulating the Singapore Muslim Identity project that see no conflict in Muslim Singaporeans being true to their faith and loyal to the country.
He also continues to contribute to Singapore as an educator and researcher, the minister added. Mr Alami is now head of studies in inter-religious relations in plural societies at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies.
In his acceptance speech, Mr Alami said he was moved when Mr Tharman, asked in a recent interview what was Singapore's biggest success, said: social harmony.
Mr Alami believes the Muslim community is a decisive factor in making Singapore what it is today because - like the other communities - it has contributed significantly to social harmony.
Three community icons received the Pioneer Generation Achiever Award - former mufti Syed Isa Semait, language and culture expert Muhammad Ariff Ahmad and renowned batik artist Sarkasi Said.
Two former madrasah students who will study medicine at National University of Singapore received Young Achiever of the Year awards.
Mr Alami said that at a time when many Muslim communities worldwide face challenges of integration and embracing modernity and religious diversity, Singapore Muslims can share their best practices with other Muslim communities. "We have done so in little ways. More can be done," he said, adding: "Sharing will make the community stronger."