Global trends can hit religious harmony in Singapore: Shanmugam

Participants at the symposium yesterday included (from left) former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa; Ambassador Barry Desker, roundtable moderator and distinguished fellow at RSIS; Professor Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the Univ
Participants at the symposium yesterday included (from left) former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa; Ambassador Barry Desker, roundtable moderator and distinguished fellow at RSIS; Professor Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the University of Notre Dame's Keough School of Global Affairs; and former Australian foreign minister Bob Carr, professor in international relations at the University of Technology Sydney. ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN
Participants at the symposium yesterday included (from left) former Indonesian foreign minister Marty Natalegawa; Ambassador Barry Desker, roundtable moderator and distinguished fellow at RSIS; Professor Scott Appleby, Marilyn Keough Dean of the Univ
Noting that Singapore's system of elections means majoritarianism could take hold, Mr Shanmugam stressed that whoever forms the government must stay committed to protecting the minorities and not engage in racial politics.ST PHOTOS: NG SOR LUAN

He points to anti-Islamic sentiment in West, extremism in region

When US President Donald Trump put a temporary travel ban on citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries, he "validated the feelings" of a significant segment of his voters, Home Affairs and Law Minister K. Shanmugam said yesterday.

Such anti-Islamic sentiments are also sweeping through other parts of the Western world, gaining significant support from the far right in countries such as France, the Netherlands and Germany, he noted.

This global trend, and recent regional events, can disrupt Singa- pore's racial and religious harmony, he told a conference held by the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies and attended by religious leaders, students and academics.

Mr Shanmugam put the anti-Islamic feelings down to the perception among host populations that minority communities and immigrants have been exploiting the systems and hard-working citizens.

Also, "that law and order have gone down, that welfare systems are being abused and that their rice bowls are threatened. In fact, that their entire way of life, culture, conventions are all being threatened".

"Politicians who advocate tolerance are seen as out of touch and weak - therefore (there is) a fascination with leaders who promise strength," he said.

Two former foreign ministers commented on the election of President Donald Trump and his move to ban refugees and temporarily bar visitors from several Muslim-majority countries. 

REVOLUTIONARY PRESIDENCY 

America has in its foreign policy attempted to promote human rights and democracy. It has failed in many cases, but this was an America that was possible to admire. This is a revolutionary presidency that has elevated a man different in temperament from anyone who has held the highest elected office in the United States since 1945... This is one of those huge shifts in politics that occurs very, very rarely. So, it is a revolutionary change. 

FORMER AUSTRALIAN FOREIGN MINISTER BOB CARR

DOING MORE HARM THAN GOOD 

This is the classic case of a solution looking for a problem. Unfortunately, this sense of ‘we must do something’ is quickly done, without proper analysis on the nature of the problem. I honestly believe that this policy is doing more harm than good because it helps the narrative of those who wish to portray the United States in a certain way, as being Islamophobic. And in my view, it has probably created a greater threat to the United States... At the same time, I wish to acknowledge the fact that this policy has not been met without any resistance in the United States. Hopefully, this kind of reaction is also appreciated by Islamic communities. 

FORMER INDONESIAN FOREIGN MINISTER MARTY NATALEGAWA

He cited examples of the pushback, like the ban against women wearing burkinis at some French beaches. "So leaders are now saying to immigrants, 'Behave normally or go away'," he added.

But there is a serious risk that this reaction to popular sentiments, if taken too far, will legitimise Islamophobia, he said. "It is not good for the world. It strengthens extremists on both sides and helps them feed off each other."

Singapore has so far avoided getting into this vicious circle, he said, through an approach centred on three core principles - equality, accepting diversity and keeping a common space for interactions.

These are reflected in such government policies as requiring a mix of races in public housing, standard uniforms for students, and tough laws on racial and religious remarks.

While "well-meaning, highly educated" Singaporeans have questioned the need for such policies, Mr Shanmugam said the measures are "good for society as a whole".

He also noted that Singapore's system of elections means majoritarianism could take hold.

He stressed that whoever forms the government must stay committed to protecting the minorities and not engage in racial politics.

"We need the majority of the Chinese to support this," he added.

Mr Shanmugam also spoke about rising religious extremism in the region, citing demonstrations in Indonesia, and the Mufti of Pahang state in Malaysia who branded those opposing Islamic laws as infidels.

"If these trends continue in the region, and if racial and religious rhetoric increases, that can impact Singapore quite severely," he said.

"If all sides push aggressively, then the centre will collapse," he added. "In Singapore, the Government tries very hard to keep as large a common space as possible."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2017, with the headline 'Global trends can hit religious harmony in S'pore: Shanmugam'. Print Edition | Subscribe